Friday, August 23, 2013

Oregon Trail

Chimney Rock
From Lander we drove east across Wyoming and into western Nebraska. This is a very interesting region for Oregon Trail history. Most of the Oregon Trail is now on farmland and plowed under, or has a highway built over it, or has been naturally eroded away.  We headed to the part of the country where there is a concentration of trail preservation.  I'll describe our visit in the area from east to west as the pioneers would have traveled.

The pioneers spent 6 to 8 weeks crossing the great plains before getting to this area. Many described it is boring (they should be so lucky) and mentally difficult because of the monotony of the flat grasslands. Finally, they saw something sticking up on the horizon.  Chimney Rock was a very welcome sight to them as it was an indication that they were nearing the end of the plains.  If they only knew the rough country ahead. The state of Nebraska has a nice visitor center here with a great view from the same angle the pioneers would have.

Mitchell Pass
Mitchell Pass
About 20 miles to the northwest of Chimney Rock (at modern day Gering, NE) they came to Scotts Bluff. This is the name of the collective rock formations that spread for several miles. Originally the trail went south of the bluffs and across the Wildcat Hills at Robidoux Pass (pronounced roo-bi-doo).  Eventually the Army assisted in making a passable trail, called Mitchell Pass, through the center of Scotts Bluff cutting off miles, time and hardship. The north end of Scotts Bluff around Mitchell Pass is now protected by the National Park Service as a National Monument. They have protected the trail through Mitchell Pass so you can see and walk on part of the trail. It was really neat to walk on the trail and see how they worked their way through the terrain.
Mitchell Pass - left of the present day
walking path where the marker stake is

Multi-lane ruts near Robidoux Pass
It is estimated that over 500,000 pioneers traveled the trail. I haven't seen an estimate of the number of wagons but it was certainly significant. When they could, they would fan out rather than going single file to try to minimize how strung out their train was while eating less dust from a close wagon directly ahead. The picture to the right is of a place near Robidoux Pass just south of Gering Nebraska where you can see several lanes cut into the top of the hill. Also in the picture is a pioneer grave site that has a fence around it to protect it from the grazing cattle. I enjoyed walking around the field through the ruts (dodging cattle) trying to imagine the passing of a long string of wagons, cattle, some people walking and some riding.

Robidoux Trading Post
A few miles away is a reconstructed trading post on the site of Robidoux Trading post.  One of the first on the trail.

Cavalry barracks
The next stop that the pioneers had to look forward to was Fort Laramie another 65 miles to the northwest.  Originally owned and operated by a fur trading company it was later purchased by the Army and converted to an Army fort with the purpose of protecting the pioneers and negotiating with the Indians. The fort was operated until 1890 when it was deemed no longer needed and was sold at public auction.  Many of the buildings were dismantled but others were just left. The remaining buildings slowly fell into disrepair until eventually the National Park Service took over in 1937. They evaluated each building and those that were considered 80 percent sound were restored. The remaining buildings have just been maintained so they don't deteriorate any further.
Barracks lower floor mess hall
Eleven buildings have been restored and furnished. They did a great job and we spent two hours walking around enjoying their work.

Barracks upper floor sleeping quarters
Another 15 or 20 miles along, near present day Guernsey Wyoming (about 60 miles from the Nebraska border), is a National Historic Landmark where the trail is easily seen. In this location the trail climbed over a sandstone bluff along the Platte River and after thousands of wagons had done this over the years they gradually dug deep into the stone.  These are some of the most prominent trail ruts still remaining 150 years after the trail stopped being used.
Ruts near Guernsey WY
Ruts near Guernsey WY
Just a few miles from the ruts near Guernsey is Register Cliff. This is a sandstone cliff along the Platte River where thousands of pioneers etched their names into the stone. Many of the etchings have eroded from the soft stone but hundreds still remain. We had a little stroke of bad luck here as they had a big section of the cliff fenced off while they did some maintenance on the path. We did see some of them so all was not lost.

Register Cliff etching
Earlier in the week when we went to South Pass City in west central Wyoming, we were near a very important part of the trail because South Pass was where the trail went through the Rockies.  There are supposedly some trail ruts there but they are off the beaten path and no one could tell us where to find them so we finally gave up trying.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

South Pass City

The first leg of our trip from West Yellowstone to Denver took us east into Yellowstone, then south down to and across the north side of the Grand Tetons park and out the entrance at Moran Junction. From this point to Dubois was a pretty, mountainous drive including a climb over Togwotee Pass at 9,658 feet. East of Dubois into the Wind River Indian Reservation was very pretty with red rock canyons much like you see in northern Arizona. From around Crowheart down to Lander was a dry, desolate, open land of rolling hills with mountains in the distance. We stayed at a campground on the edge of Lander so that we could see some sights in the area the next day.  One more note, we made 4 Continental Divide crossings on this one day which is a record for us.

Carissa Mine
The next day's site seeing started with us heading south from Lander to South Pass City, passing through Atlantic City on the way. These were gold rush towns of the 1860s. Atlantic City isn't set up to tour buildings or sites so we didn't stop. There are still a few people that live in each of these tiny towns. 
South Pass City street - west to east
We got lucky at South Pass City and arrived right when they were opening the first tours of the restored Carissa Mine and Mill. This mine was the reason that South Pass City existed. They have pretty much rebuilt the buildings to replicate what was here during the boom days.

South Pass City from east to west
After touring the mine and mill we headed into town where they have about 20 restored buildings and a lot of empty lots with signs indicating what establishment used to be there. Most of the buildings had fallen into disrepair but have been restored to very good replications of what they were. 
Home and office of First Woman
Justice in the world!
The most impressive building, which looked like someone must have been keeping it maintained, was the South Pass Hotel and Restaurant. You are allowed to walk all throughout the building on the old, squeaky, uneven, plank floors and look in all the rooms which have period furniture and other artifacts. The actual front desk and kitchen were really neat. The next best one is the Saloon and card room in the next building.  The saloon bar and furnishings look exactly like a photograph that they have for you to look at and compare.  Link to the South Pass City website:

Sacajawea headstone center, left
memorial to her son Baptiste (Pomp),
right adopted son Brazil
We next headed back to Lander for a quick lunch at home and then back tracked a few miles of the previous day's trip to Fort Washakie on the Indian Reservation. The attraction here is the Sacajawea Cemetery.  There is much mystery and conflicting beliefs on what became of Sacajawea after the completion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Shoshone (her native tribe) belief based on their oral history is that she eventually came to Fort Washakie, because that is where her adopted son was living, and that is where she died in 1884. She supposedly helped translate and negotiate the founding of this reservation.

Statue of Sacajawea on shore of Pacific
Ocean holding a Sand Dollar which she
brought with her and gave to Chief Washakie

Shoshone Indian Cemetery - it is so
colorful with flowers (plastic),
painted crosses, etc
Informational plaques in the cemetery don't even agree on whether she is actually buried in the cemetery or if she was buried up in the Wind River mountains off in the distance. The hardest thing for me to believe about this version of the story is if she really died in 1884 she would have been 95 years old based on the Lewis and Clark Expedition writings indicating she was 16 in 1805.  It doesn't really matter, it is still fun stuff. One thing that is consistently stated is this was her homeland, so that is cool enough for a visit.

If you're interested in the Sacajawea controversy, here is an interesting link I just found:

Friday, August 16, 2013

A salute to Rangers

Our stay here in West Yellowstone ends tomorrow when we start our trip back to Denver for the birth of our first grandchild. Our three month stay here has been nothing short of fantastic.  The scenery has been well documented but I haven't said enough about the people (not the tourists, the residents).

We love West Yellowstone.  All of the people are really nice and friendly.  We have met countless full-time RVers like us.  Many come back year after year to work seasonal jobs in town and in the park. These seasonal people are essential to the experience in town and the park. Hats off to them for tolerating tourists. The ultimate nod goes to the hearty people that stay year-round to maintain and prepare the town for another summer's onslaught of tourists. They have made it a great little town and deserve a hearty salute.

But the real heroes are the Park Rangers and all of the park employees. I'm talking both the National Park Service and the National Forest Service. There is a big difference in the responsibilities of the two agencies but they share a common purpose and that is to ensure a great experience for all to enjoy our national parks and forests. We've seen first hand (especially Ann working in the Hebgen Lake National Forest Service office) the life and efforts of the extraordinary people that work for the Forest Service. They are outdoors people through and through. Most spend their days out in the forest performing various tasks that protect the forest and wildlife and maintain the services for the public to enjoy. They come back each evening exhausted and dirty but with a huge smile on their faces. Some stay out for days at a time working and camping in remote areas. We have never met more salt of the earth, genuinely nice, friendly, helpful people. We are truly blessed to have met them.

The National Park Rangers and employees may not spend so much time roughing it in the forest but their task is also daunting, protecting the parks from tourists (yes, I worded that properly) while making the experience of the tourists the best that it can be. These, too, are remarkable people. Keeping a smile on while trying to control over a million tourists a season takes a very special person.  Salute!

As you visit our National Parks and Forests, if you meet a Ranger or employee please give them a hearty thank you for what they do. This will be a new habit of mine from here on out. No more taking it for granted.