Not too far from the Steamboat Ditch Trail, east of Reno, Nevada, is a remnant of the U.S. Postal Service’s history. It’s a concrete slab in the shape of an arrow critical to the cross-country delivery of mail for the U.S. Air Mail Service in the 1920s and ‘30s.
There were no good aviation charts in those days, so pilots had to eyeball their way across the country using landmarks. This meant that flying in bad weather was difficult, and night flying was just about impossible.
As part of the effort to help pilots successfully navigate the route between New York and San Francisco, the arrows and an accompanying tower equipped with a gas-powered beacon were installed at roughly three to 10-mile apart across the country.
At first, I planned to go by myself, but my friend Kay insisted on coming along. Her reasoning was solid, asking, “What if something happened and you got hurt?”
Debate over – she won.
The hike follows a foot trail up to the Hole-in-the-Wall tunnel, then around the pre-tunnel ditch route and uphill to the arrow. The arrow’s located on top of a hill that overlooks the Truckee River some 400 feet below.
As we walked up to the tunnel, we saw a group of Asian women, using a selfie-stick to take a photograph of themselves in front of the tunnel’s entrance. They were from Reno and obviously not very interested in chatting with us.
However, following their departure, a lone bicyclist came rolling up. He hopped off his bike and came down in the ditch, where we were and immediately struck up a conversation with Kay and I.
He introduced himself as Frank Luchetti. We soon learned too our amazement he’s the father of one our favorite veterinarians, Tony of Baring Veterinary Hospital.
After parting company, we should have made an abrupt left and hiked up the steep trail over the tunnel. Though very steep, it would have been the shortest way to the hill-top where we believed the arrow to be located.
Instead, Kay and I continued along the tail to where it forks, staying to the right. This proved to be the long way around, but I’m glad we took this route as it provided us with a view of the valley we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
About a hundred yards below the summit of out target hill, we stopped to have lunch. There was very gentle breeze to off-set the warmth of the day.
Once back on trail, we slowly worked our way along what by then was nothing more than a goat path. It wound its way near the edge of a bluff overlooking the Truckee River, some couple hundred feet below, before turning sharply in and up the steep hill-side.
Kay saw the tip of the arrow jutting from the ground first, as she made it to near-level ground. We knew then — though not the first to find the site — we had made it.
Admittedly, I thought of explorers like Francisco Garcés, Jed Smith, Peter Ogden and Joe Walker, who wandered the wild expanses of the Nevada Territory. They were some stout hombres.
Then I couldn’t help but think how double-tough the men were who built the arrow that Kay and I were standing next too. Think about it – they had to get the concrete and water to the location, clear the area, built the arrow’s form, pour it and then maintain it.
Today, the arrow’s cracked in some places, and disjointed from the shifting of the hillside over the last 90-years or so, but it is there — all 70-feet of it. I think it should be included in the National Registry of Historic Places.
There are two more arrows to be found in Washoe County along the same route, one by Derby Dam and the other near Tracy Clark. As soon as I’m sufficiently recovered from this trek, and before the weather turns too hot, I plan to go photograph those sites too.