Steve Fossett Searchers Encounter Desolate, Wide Spaces

From outside Nevada, it's hard to fully appreciate just how expansive, how desolate the truly wide open spaces of the state can be.

Against that vast emptiness, the search for aviator-adventurer Steve Fossett and his single-engine plane is a search for a needle in a whole county full of hay stacks.

Superimposed on a U.S. map, Nevada's 110,000 square miles would stretch from New York City west to Pittsburgh and south to Myrtle Beach, S.C. — but with hardly any of the people.

While Nevada's population has been the fastest growing in the nation for most of the last three decades, it averaged just 18 people per square mile in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to a national average of 80 people per square mile and 1,134 in New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state.

Even that doesn't tell the whole story. Some 2.3 million of Nevada's nearly 2.6 million residents live in just the two counties that include Las Vegas and Reno. Across the rest of Nevada, the average is fewer than three people per square mile, with many of them concentrated in a few small towns.

"There's just very, very few human beings out there," said Guy Rocha, Nevada's state archivist.

So much of the state is so desolate that the Nevada Commission on Tourism urges visitors to carry plenty of water and gasoline when traveling to many of the destinations it lists. Cell phone coverage is spotty, and often nonexistent.

The area of western Nevada where the search for Fossett is concentrated is considered one of the state's most barren, relatively unchanged in more than a century.

"I don't think the general public watching on TV really has too much of an idea of just how rugged and remote this area is," Rocha said.

The severe landscape in the overwhelming majority of the nation's seventh-largest state Nevada is far different from the travel brochure scenes showing the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip or the forested ski resorts ringing Lake Tahoe.

High desert stretching for miles is broken up by mostly barren, craggy mountain ranges rising 8,000 to 11,000 feet. The state has 300 distinct, named mountain ranges and few roads outside its main cities and towns.

Rural Nevada is dotted with gold and silver mines, many abandoned a century ago. Irrigation allows limited farming and livestock grazing in some of the valleys, mostly on territory administered by the state's largest landholder — the federal government.

One leg of the California Trail, used by 19th century pioneer wagon trains, passes through the Fossett search area, but few immigrants dared to brave it. One party of pioneers who made it through in 1853 threatened to lynch their leader because of the deprivations they endured along the way.

"The route was described as 'strewn with wreckage of prairie schooners (covered wagons), oxen yoke and bleached animal bones,"' reads one historical marker.

Today, the most traveled part of the region is along the eastern edge of the search area bordering Walker Lake, where Highway 95 connects Reno to Las Vegas some 450 miles south.