|Saturday, September 1,
Welcome to yet another installment of News from the Road, written from motels across America. If you're new to the list, welcome. If not, welcome back. If you don't know why you're now on the list, my mother probably asked me to add you...
This week I'll be tying up loose ends from past trips. The journey begins with the second half of the Oregon Trail, from Casper, Wyoming to Oregon City, Oregon. Then I finish the two long US Routes I started earlier this year: US 20 between Idaho Falls and Newport, Oregon, and US 6 between Denver and Bishop, California.
Since at least 90% of you weren't on the E-mail list when I began the Oregon Trail trip in the spring of 1998, here's what you missed. (If you saw it back then, just hit Delete and know that you're special.) Watch for a Day 1 update coming soon...
Monday, May 4, 1998: 150 years ago, those taking the Oregon Trail would sail from St. Louis up the Missouri River to Independence, MO, then keep the local merchants and blacksmiths busy equipping them for the five-month trek across the Great Plains and Rockies to Oregon or California. I settled for a full tank of gas and the Hardee's drive-through window.
My journey began at the National Frontier Trails Center, which commemorates the Oregon, California and Santa Fe Trails. (In fact, the Santa Fe Trail passed within feet of the building.) Inside, exhibits quote extensively from the diaries of 19th-century travelers to illustrate life on the road, 1840s-style. Nowadays, wrong directions cost the traveler, at most, a couple of hours. The Donner Party wasn't so lucky. Still, 90% of the estimated 250,000 emigrants who followed the Trail reached their destinations alive and without resorting to cannibalism.
From the Museum, I drove back to the bluffs overlooking (from a distance) the Missouri River landing where Oregon-bound migrants came ashore. The "official" start of the Trail is several miles ahead, at the southwest corner of Independence's Courthouse Square. (A statue in front of the courthouse honors local boy Harry Truman.) The log structure which served as Independence's first courthouse still sits several blocks south of the Square. From here I had a choice: try to follow the meanderings of the long-buried Trail through city streets, or cheat and hop right to the next cluster of Trail-related buildings, ten miles away in Westport (on the south side of Kansas City). The prospect of navigating unfamiliar, often one-way streets made this an easy call -- I cheated.
In fact, agriculture and other development has rendered the Trail virtually invisible across Kansas and the first half of Nebraska, so after looking around Westport, I cheated big-time by hopping the Interstate to Topeka, where I spent the night.
Tuesday, May 5, 1998: Today's drive started slow and finished fast. I was awake before 6:00 (ugh), hit the road by 7:30, headed northwest from Topeka in search of the Oregon Trail. I found it just outside the town of St. Mary's, from which the gravel "Oregon Trail Road," the graded path of the historic trail, meanders for 12 miles. A small graveyard along the way houses the mortal remains of Pottawattomie Indian chief Louis Vieux [which was vandalized later in the year, but restored thanks largely to contributions from Trail buffs]; a bit later on came the first of many emigrant graves.
Alcove Spring, the next major stop, was a quintessential Oregon Trail stop, five miles down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A short, well-marked descent leads to the spring, which flows off the lip of a 10' high cliff just as it did in the 1840s. Nearby boulders still bear the inscriptions of emigrants who rested here over 150 years ago; in fact, the original, still-legible "Alcove Spring" inscription was carved by a member of the Donner Party in 1846.
Just south of the Nebraska border, I saw the Hollenberg Ranch (1857), the only surviving Pony Express station which has never been renovated or moved. (Not surprisingly, it looks like an old log building.) My first exposure to industrial-sized trail ruts came at Nebraska's Rock Creek Station Historical Park, where wagons descending a hill gouged a path which, even after a century of revegetation, remains several feet below the surrounding ground. Next came the grave of George Winslow, a cholera victim buried where he fell in 1849.
And then it was time to leave the dirt roads for some serious motoring. Across central Nebraska, the Trail follows the south bank of the Platte River. Unfortunately, all modern roads follow the north bank. I could either zigzag along section lines for 200 miles, mostly on dirt and gravel, or take advantage of I-80's generous 75 MPH speed limit to hit the highlights. Easy choice...especially as it was already 2 PM and I had 300 miles yet to cover. On the way to I-80 I found a wonderful artifact of old-time motoring: a large tablet placed in 1915 to mark the junction of the Trail with the Winnipeg-to- Galveston "Midland Road," much of which is now US 81.
I made four detours on the way west: another pioneer grave south of Denman, Fort Kearny State Park (not officially open for the season, but the grounds were walkable), Fort McPherson National Cemetery (all that remains of another old fort), and the O'Fallon's Bluff trail ruts, next to which the Nebraska highway department thoughtfully placed an Interstate rest area. Spent the night in Ogallala, near the Trail landmark of California Hill.
Wednesday, May 6, 1998: Started the day by following the trail of emigrant wagons up western Nebraska's California Hill -- a trail which widened to a chasm where those same wagons struggled down Windlass Hill to Ash Hollow. Helped by erosion, some of the ruts were 6' wide by 6' deep.
Then came a series of sandstone sculptures familiar to all Oregon Trail travelers: Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock (original Indian name: "Elk Penis"), and Scotts Bluff, where the National Park Service has built a road to the summit which offers a wonderful panorama of the surrounding landscape. The accompanying museum houses a large collection of paintings by William Henry Jackson, who photographed the Old West in the 1860s and 1870s, then painted it fifty years later. Jackson died, age 99, in 1942: one of the very few Civil War veterans to witness World War II.
Some of Jackson's fellow migrants never made it to Scotts Bluff -- including Rebecca Winters, a Mormon from upstate New York who died in 1852, en route to Utah. Her grieving husband marked her grave with a wagon tire, which provided just enough warning to railroad surveyors that they routed the main line a few feet away. By 1995, the steady stream of Oregon and Mormon Trail visitors searching for Winters' grave had become a safety hazard, so with the consent of numerous descendants (she was Mormon, after all) she was disinterred and reburied a safe distance away, the wagon tire still marking her grave. Among those attending the reburial: her 16-year-old great-great-great-great granddaughter, also named Rebecca Winters.
Then came Wyoming's Fort Laramie, which flourished from the 1840s until 1890. "Old Bedlam," its quarters for bachelor officers (1849), is reportedly the oldest building in Wyoming. About half the buildings still survive. Despite the popular image of the Western fort, Ft. Laramie never had an exterior wall or fence to repel Indians.
Register Cliff and Deep Rut Hill, two of the most tangible signs of the great migration west, lie two miles apart near the town of Guernsey. At Register Cliff, thousands of migrants and at least an equal number of modern visitors have carved their names into the soft rock. Nineteen-year-old Alva Unthank carved his name here in June, 1850; a week later he was buried next to the trail near Glenrock, a victim of cholera or dysentery. (Lesson to modern travelers: don't drink water into which hundreds of cattle or buffalo have recently excreted.) Two guesses what can be found at Deep Rut Hill, where the steep terrain and soft sandstone forced thousands of emigrant wagons over the same narrow strip of rock.
I had hoped to reach Independence Rock, an hour southwest of Casper, before turning back, but the various trail hikes and short detours to emigrant graves delayed my arrival in Casper until almost 6:30. So I'll resume the Oregon Trail from here another time...
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