Wandering the West
May 26, 2009
The Oregon Trail was the way west for millions of Americans seeking new lives in the Promised Land they’d heard and dreamed about. They formed into wagon trains, threw all their possessions on board, from pump organs to impossibly heavy iron cook stoves, and hooked up a yoke of oxen to pull everything west, over the Rockies and across to Oregon or points between like Montana and Utah. Since I drive back to the Midwest a lot for family visits, I’ve veered off the road most traveled (I-80) onto the little forgotten two-lane roads where remnants of that historic migration are still visible in the earth.
With some nosing around you can find them too. If you have kids who play the video game "Oregon Trail," it’s especially fun. The trail just kissed the Utah border but then veered north to Idaho.
The closest and maybe the most interesting stop near Park City is Fort Bridger, Wyo., just past Evanston on I-80. This is where those on the trail could stop and rest a few days, resupply at mountain man Jim Bridger’s trading post, exchange trail-condition reports and move on, turning left to Utah or right to Idaho and Oregon. Fort Bridger is alive in summer with reenactors, several open buildings dating from the later frontier-army era and, if you’re there over Labor Day, a full encampment of mountain men and women with their teepees pitched. The kids will love it.
Backtracking farther east, head for Green River, Wyo., to see Church Rock over the Green River, a famed and often-painted scene from the trail. There’s a historic site on the river itself, where John Wesley Powell launched his two river trips down the unexplored Green and Colorado rivers through Utah and the Grand Canyon.
Keep moving northeasterly on the two-lane road and you’ll crest the Rocky Mountains at South Pass. You’ll have to stop and read the sign to tell you’ve reached the Continental Divide. The terrain is so gentle here it’ll feel like you’ve just walked from one side of Park Meadows to the other. There’s a ghost town here, Atlantic City, where occasionally someone opens a store for the summer Oregon Trail traffic. Get out, take a walk, and imagine the joy most travelers must have felt knowing they were really over the top and rolling on down to the Oregon County.
The names along the trail tell stories. Just past Muddy Gap you’ll see Devil’s Gap, and just beyond that a rounded rock, maybe a mile across, plopped down in a flat valley. Pioneers called it Independence Rock and carved their names, dates and their dreams into it. The names are still there today. You can run your fingers through the indentations and wonder, "Did you get to Oregon? Did you find your dream? Does your family still live and thrive there because of your courage and sacrifice?" I could spend hours on the rock — except for the mosquitoes.
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I am heading to my South Dakota roots, so I’m not interested in the long southern diversion to Nebraska. Following the trail as long as I can before it drops along the Platte, I stop at Fort Laramie, almost frozen in time. It’s the kind of fort I imagine Kevin Costner riding out from to engage the Indians in "Dances with Wolves." Most buildings are intact and open. If Fort Bridger represents a rough-hewn frontier fort, Fort Laramie shows a frontier fort that had lots of money and manpower to build a military city on the plains.
And if you ever find yourself in eastern Wyoming, search out tiny Guernsey, Wyo. Here is the telling sign of all of the great westward migrations. There’s Register Cliff, again scratched with pioneer graffiti names and dates, destinations and passengers, hopes and dreams. But move a few miles down the gravel road and look at the ground. Wagons worked up a short hill of stone here. All those wagons west came right through this stone gap and each wagon wheel gained traction by rubbing against the stone. The ruts are deep. At the start of the upgrade, the first few inches are ground off. The ruts get deeper the higher you go until, at the top, you’re walking in a wagon rut cut from stone three or four feet deep.
Maybe a fraction of an inch of that rut was ground by your forebears, or mine. It’s a powerful place.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.