Return to the Oregon Trail

This time, I came prepared. I’m driving my Jeep Wrangler. And I have bug spray.

The Oregon Trail climbs up toward Rocky Ridge

I’m in central Wyoming, a place you can spend days without seeing another human being. I was also here last year exploring the Oregon Trail (read about it here), but I had to skip two remote trail sites. Buckets of rain made roads impassable to Rocky Ridge (considered the most difficult obstacle in the entire 2000-mile journey over the Oregon Trail) and Parting of the Ways (where the California and Oregon Trails split). Today, I’m back with my Jeep and traveling the roads my family SUV dared not tread last year.

It’s Saturday morning. Some sprinkles the night before made roads soft but not muddy. As expected, my Jeep has no issues on the sketchy “road” that leads to the bottom of Rocky Ridge.

Patchy clouds pepper the enormous morning sky and rain grays the featureless hills to my west. Wyoming’s relentless wind rustles the sagebrush and grass. I park my Jeep overlooking a mile long draw that drops a couple hundred feet down to the Sweetwater River.

Fifty feet away, a stone monument roughly six feet square stands alone among the sage. Placed here by the Mormon Church, it commemorates those brave (or naive?) souls who met their fate along this stretch of the Oregon Trail, considered the most difficult section of the 2,000 miles between Independence, Missouri, and the Willamette Valley. I cinch my pack tight and start walking in their hallowed footsteps, continuing up the ridge to the west.

A polite sign (so surely installed by Mormons) next to the trail ruts asks that no motor vehicle continue beyond this point. Who can disobey such civility? Not I. Besides, I’m here to experience what the pioneers experienced. Let’s forget the fact my feet aren’t achy and blistered from walking hundreds of miles the past few months, or that I’m not haunted by the stinging uncertainty of whether I’ll actually survive the day, or that my few worldly possessions aren’t packed in a rickety wagon. I tell myself that except for those minor details, I’m experiencing exactly what they did.

The trail is easy at first. It curves to the south around this broad ridge, climbing steadily but not steeply. The sand slowly gives way to gravel, then some pebbles, then some rocks and stone. Suddenly, the trail drops forty feet. This must have tested every wagon’s brakes and the mettle of its driver. As quickly as it drops, the trail starts climbing again, twisting north around a tight curve, and then drops into another draw, only to make me trudge up a steep ridge again.

Finally, the trail swings west and dumps me at the top of a high plateau. Low, treeless hills ripple in every direction around me. Gangs of frolicking antelope chase one another, keeping a safe distance but not paying too much attention to me. A stiff breeze carries whispers of the past as I realize I’m probably the only human being for dozens of miles. This openness, remoteness, wildness of the West is what I hoped to experience. My eyes see nothing to suggest that it is 2021. It might as well be 1840.

The trail is rocky on the plateau. The steep climbs are behind me, but the route is hardly flat. It undulates up and down over terrain that from the air probably resembles a washboard. In a landscape as expansive and remote as this, a short distance can feel like an expanse. So after what felt like 700 miles, but was probably more like a half mile, I quite literally stumbled upon the obstacle that shook the pioneers’ wagons to pieces and what gave Rocky Ridge its name.

Rows upon rows of thin rocks, stacked like shingles on a house or scales on a fish, poke through the ground. Driving a wagon over these rocks had to have been just as easy and enjoyable as driving it up concrete stairs. Pushing or pulling a handcart must have been downright impossible. Then I consider the Mormon party that did it in a blizzard.

On the most part, we don’t do difficult things in our current time. At least not in comparison to our ancestors. When we want to move across the country, we call Two Guys and a Truck and spend a few days driving an interstate highway. When our pantries run low, we stop by Super Target on our way home from work. In the frigid throws of winter, we turn up the thermostat without a second thought.

There’s no doubt this is progress. Yet while we’ve certainly gained convenience and safety, I wonder if we’ve lost much more than just danger and hardship. Do most of us truly appreciate the tools that make our lives better than those of the generations before us? I wonder if I even do. It’s two miles back to my Jeep; plenty of time to ponder the current state of our society.

About forty miles west of Rocky Ridge is the Parting of the Ways. This was several days’ journey for the Oregon Trail pioneers but just a couple of hours for me over some rough back roads, including several miles of original trail. Getting here is still a challenge, even in 2021.

Parting of the Ways sign

The year before, I thought a rainstorm prevented me from attempting the drive to this place. Considering what I encounter this year in my Jeep, I’m now convinced the road itself would have been too much of a challenge for the family SUV. Deep washes and ruts, large boulders, and sandy bogs hardly test my Wrangler, but the same would not be said of my Nissan Armada.

Here at Parting of the Ways, a set of ruts through sagebrush fork into two. To the left, curving to the southwest and disappearing into the distance over a low ridge, a set of ruts eventually led to Salt Lake City and then ultimately to California. Straight ahead, another set fading into the horizon carried thousands of travelers to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. One would think such a major junction would be located near a settlement, or a pioneer fort, or some other kind of frontier civilization. Instead, the Parting of the Ways lies in a sagebrush desert at the western foot of Wyoming’s imposing Wind River mountains, even today dozens of miles from any human habitation. The isolation is absolute and the silence so complete I can hear my pulse in my ears. The powerful scent of sage reminds me there is somehow a lot of life in all this desolation.

Parting of the Ways. To the left, Utah. Straight, to Oregon.

For a history buff, especially one of western history, this is a powerful place. I stand in the desert for five minutes soaking in this moment before checking out a stone marker about three feet tall at the fork in the ruts. My research hasn’t indicated whether it’s original, but it acts the part: leaning to the south as if age has diminished its stature and stability. At this spot, travelers would leave notes filled with news and gossip for others behind them. I imagine mile long wagon trains stopped here, slowly splitting into separate groups based on their destination. I see crowds of old friends and new friends shaking hands and offering hugs, doubting they’d ever cross paths again. It’s flat enough out here, that once parted and underway again they’d be visible for hours before they faded into each other’s horizon.

The day seems like it’s quickly rushing into history itself. I still have one more stop to make, and I backtrack to the summit of South Pass. This windswept, pancake flat crossing of the continental divide is an exotic feature of the Rocky Mountains, and its easy approaches and low elevation allowed for the rapid westward expansion of the United States. Just to the west of its summit lies aptly named Pacific Springs. Like most sites in this area of the Oregon Trail, you’ll need something other than a passenger car to get to South Pass, and definitely a vehicle with high clearance to get to Pacific Springs.

Old cabin at Pacific Springs

It was once a stop on the Pony Express and it served as an unofficial post office for the Oregon Trail. Travelers could send letters back to loved ones for fifty cents. Today, the remains of four ghostly buildings stand here on publicly accessible land. The actual springs are on marshy private property just north of the structures. The barbed wire fence keeps humans away from the springs, and I consider how little it must do to stop mosquitos from swarming the humans. Because of my travails with the little devils last year, I have cans of bug spray with me now. My luck usually dictates that I only need an item when I don’t have it, and sure enough, mosquitos have been strangely absent the entire weekend. I spend almost an hour in this swampy valley and never even once encounter a mosquito.

Inside some old stables at Pacific Springs

Visiting Pacific Springs marked the end of my explorations of the Oregon Trail in this part of Wyoming. The day wound down as I drove east from South Pass through the emptiness of central Wyoming, a storm blowing in from the north my only companion.

A few buildings remain at Pacific Springs

On my way home, I have to stop by to see an old friend. A very, very old friend. I drive a few miles out of my way to visit the gravesite of Frederick Fulkerson, who died along the Trail in 1847. I’m not sure when or if I will ever be back, so I want to pay my final respects. I stopped here on last year’s Oregon Trail trip and I spent quite a bit of time researching him for that blog. His story had a lasting impact on my perspective of the past. Preserving sites like Frederick’s grave, which for 150 years lay anonymous, is how we ensure their memory lives on. It’s how we remember where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced as a people.

The rain pounds my Jeep on the way to Frederick’s grave. But the torrent begins to wane as I turn off the highway to the forlorn county road that leads to the grave site. My tires splash through the many potholes brimming with rain water. By the time I stop next to Frederick, there’s not a single drop on my windshield. Clouds rise in the orange sky to the east. The petrichor air is crisp and fills my lungs as my shoes squish through the mud. Rain renews life, brings freshness to the earth…and I’m standing next to a 180 year old grave.

What Frederick considered the future is what I consider history. The years may divide us, but not much else. He never intended to make history. He didn’t live as if his daily routine would someday be part of an epic legacy. Without a doubt, he never considered that he would be mentioned in a writer’s internet blog. He was just a guy like me, with hope inspired by yesterday and fear forged by an unknown tomorrow. The folks who died on Rocky Ridge and the friends who said goodbye at Parting of the Ways never once thought of themselves as historical.

Wyoming sunset along the Oregon Trail

Some define history as stale words in dusty books. It’s much more personal than that. Our present is already tomorrow’s past. This very moment on this chilly Wyoming plain, or even as you’re reading this blog–this moment is history. The past, the present, and the future—they’re all the same.

I lean on the cold wet railing around Frederick’s grave and take a deep breath. I intended to spend the weekend learning about the past. I’ve learned more about the present instead.

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