After driving some 3800 miles, we arrived at the end of the Oregon Trail, located in The Dalles, OR. The emigrants were headed to Oregon City and the Willamette valley, another hundred miles farther on. But the official end-of-trail marker is here because for the last hundred miles there is no trail.
Marker erected in The Dalles, OR, by Ezra Meeker who retraced the trail in 1906
The emigrants had a choice to make in The Dalles. They had to get over the Cascades, which at times run right down to the river, so they could not follow along the banks. One choice was to load their wagons onto a raft and float down the river. Unfortunately, they often had to leave their oxen behind ... animals they needed to work their farms in the Willamette valley. But with or without the oxen, the river was pretty wild in the 1840s, before all the dams were built, and a lot of the rafts hung up on the rapids and were broken apart. The river route was a dangerous choice.
View today of the Columbia from The Dalles
The alternative was the Barlow Road, constructed in 1846 by Sam Barlow and some 40-odd men, which skirted around Mount Hood. But this route also proved a rough ride. It took an extra week or ten days and involved a steep and exhausting climb for the already exhausted people and animals.
Brave the Columbia, or trek around Mt. Hood?
We ourselves couldn't make that choice. There's no way to get our car down the river, and we were told that while some of the old Barlow Road still exists, it's pretty rough, even for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Still, we couldn't help but wonder, traveling all this way in a modern four-door sedan, how the emigrants did it. By most estimates, some 30,000 people died on the trail, mostly from cholera and other diseases, others from accidents and a few by Indian attack. But most of them made it -- some 500,000 of them during the 1840s and '50s, all in search of a new life in Oregon, California or Utah.
Two modern-day pioneers
It was a tough journey -- for them, not for us. But they were up to the challenge. And it made us wonder if we modern Americans are prepared for the challenges we face, which sometimes seem intractable and unsolvable, but which, let's face it, are less daunting than what our forebearers faced on the Oregon Trail.
By the time the emigrants had reached what is now present-day Oregon, they were plenty trail weary. So were we. There are about 350 miles left to go. For them it was a couple of weeks. For us, four more days. Then we'll be off the trail -- continuing up to Seattle to see family and friends.
Farewell Bend on the Snake River
The pioneers said goodbye to the Snake River at Farewell Bend to travel, as the sign says, overland to the Columbia River. They only had a few narrow valleys to ease their way, along the Burnt River, the Powder River, the Grande Ronde River.
Sign at Farewell Bend
But none of these proved much help when they had to climb over the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We stopped at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center which sits atop on Flagstaff hill, outside Baker City, OR.
The view from Flagstaff hill ... there are old wagon ruts on the hillside
We stopped again at Hilgard Junction State Park where many of the emigrants made camp along the Grande Ronde. But first they had to get down this hill, one of the many dangerous descents in the Blues.
Emigrants unhitched their oxen and used ropes to lower their wagons down this hill
We met David and Vicki, a retired couple volunteering to take care of Hilgard for the month of June. David moved to Oregon from New York 12 years ago, and now he and Vicki, from South Dakota, live fulltime in their RV. They summer in eastern Oregon and winter on the coast.
David and Vicki sell wood for $5 by the cart-full to Hilgard campers
They seem to like this lifestyle. But I'm a little trail weary. So I don't know if I would. Would you?
I'd never in my life been to Idaho until four days ago when we followed the old Oregon Trail, crossing over from Wyoming north of Bear Lake, to Montpelier and Soda Springs. According to most reports from the trail, the emigrants were thrilled to be done with the rough and boring landscape of Nebraska and Wyoming, and welcomed the smoother terrain of the Snake River valley.
Furthermore, after leaving the cholera-ridden Platte River and gasping across the dry high prairie, they were glad to see fresh water in the Snake River, its tributaries, and the fresh springs that bubbled out of the ground.
We stopped at Hooper Springs, outside of Soda Springs, ID.
Potable, but not so great
We were allowed to sample the water. There were a few bubbles, and it tasted faintly of minerals. Not the best, in our opinion, but to the pioneers it was manna from heaven.
Are they crazy?
A little farther on, in Lava Hot Springs, there's the cold, clear Portneuf River, which draws a lot of visitors to this day, many from Salt Lake City which is only two hours away. Some people raft the river.
Looking down on the hot baths
B and I just took advantage of the hot springs. There are four different pools. The water temperature ranges from 105 to 115 degrees.
View across the lava beds
After Lava Hot Springs we angled north to see Crater of the Moon National Monument. Most of the emigrants kept to the south, along the Snake River. But others followed the Goodale cutoff which skirted the northern edge of the lava beds and rejoined the main trail south of present-day Boise.
The lava beds themselves were almost impassable for the wagons.
They'd be impassable for modern hikers as well, but for the paths that cut through the beds and lead up the hills and down into the lava caves.
Looking from the bottom
We stopped at Bruneau Dunes State Park. The dunes were actually not on the path of the pioneers. But we wanted to see them.
Looking down at our car from the top
Then it was a night in Boise, which got its name from the old mountain men of the early 1800s. Set in the high desert area, the tree lined valley was an oasis dominated by cottonwood trees. They called it la riviere boisee, which means "the wooded river."
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So anyway . . . when you follow the Oregon Trail you spend a lot of time and effort looking for the old wagon ruts. Usually they are hard to spot and not so obvious. You're searching for eroded and grown-over swales that look to the untrained eye like any other uneven landscape.
But sometimes, as in Guernsey, NE, they are much more obvious.
You also look for landmarks that were noted time and again by the pioneers, such as Independence Rock in Wyoming. It got its name from the pioneers who needed to get this far by Independence Day in order to assure that they could make it over the California or Oregon mountains before the snows fell.
Below is a closeup of the rock, which many emigrants climbed to view the landscape and sometimes carve their initials. Actually, visitors are still allowed to climb up the rock today. We thought about making the ascent, but decided at our age that discretion was the better part of valor.
Not too long after Independence Rock comes South Pass, the long shallow rise over the Continental Divide, at 7550 feet above sea level. Here is the view from South Pass, looking east from where the emigrants came.
Here is the view going west, where they were going.
And here is the view to the north -- the Wind River peaks that the pioneers were avoiding.
After traveling down the west side of the Divide, and turning south, we came to Fort Bridger, named after Jim Bridger, a fur trapper who opened a trading post here in 1843. The Fort Bridger State Historic Site has built a replica of his post, which was later, in 1858, turned into a military fort.
Below is a replica of his store. It served the emigrants who, Bridger said, "In coming out were generally well supplied with money but by the time they get here are in need of all kinds of supplies, horses provisions, smithwork, etc." After the emigrants left Fort Bridger they all split up -- the Mormons heading south to Salt Lake, the miners southwest to California, the farmers northwest to Oregon.
Meanwhile, we're still picturing those wagon ruts, carved into the stone so many years ago.
A quick housekeeping note. I've been informed that Google no longer supports "Networked Blogs". So if you've been following this blog with that Google network, and want to continue following, you'll have to sign up through the regular Follow channel (see the right-hand column).
Also, don't forget, at the very bottom of this page I offer links to a number of retirement resources, including the Center for Retirement Research, The New Old Age, the Stanford Center on Longevity, and many more.
Anyway . . . back to the Oregon Trail. After the pioneers had traveled over the prairie for 30 or 40 days, they started looking for signposts that signaled they were making progress. We'd traveled a little more than 500 miles when we saw the first of them: Courthouse rock, along with its smaller companion Jailhouse rock.
A little farther down the road came the even more recognizable Chimney rock.
And then Scott's Bluff, below on the right. Mitchell Pass runs through Scott's Bluff and South Bluff, on the left.
We were able to drive up to the top of Scott's Bluff and walk around the summit. Just stay on the path, we were told, and watch out for rattlesnakes. We saw no rattlesnakes, but got a great view of Mitchell Pass from on high.
After passing Scott's Bluff we soon crossed the line into Wyoming, where we were booked into Fort Laramie Bed & Breakfast.
Little did we know that the Fort Laramie B&B is actually a 10,000-acre cattle ranch. We could have stayed in the teepee if we'd wanted . . .
But instead we chose the main building, with the bedroom in the back.
We experienced our first rainy day of the trip, and we sat around and read our books. After it cleared up the proprietor took us on a tour, explaining that around these parts a 10,000-acre ranch isn't really that big. You need at least 15,000 acres to run enough cattle to support a family.
Then the next day, as we looked at the view out our front door, we realized we needed to continue heading west . . .
The Oregon Trail, we learned, was never one single trail leading across the plains and mountains. Instead, it consisted of a network of trails leaving from various places along the Mississippi. The trails then converged on the Platte River near Kearney, NE. Then, after following what became known as the Great Platte River Road for several hundred miles, some emigrants turned southwest to California while others continued northwest to Oregon. Starting in 1847 groups of Mormons also joined the trail, traveling up along the Platte River until they diverged south to Salt Lake.
The earliest pioneers left from Independence, MO, as we did, and followed the Kansas River valley to the Blue River, and then up to the Platte.
A few days out, the emigrants ran across Alcove Spring, located in northeastern Kansas. We found Alcove Springs the first day, tucked well off the main highway. Today it is still a nice, shady area with water flowing over the rocks -- "as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice," according to Edwin Bryant who was there in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party. The water was high in the Blue River that year, which delayed their crossing, and was one of the reasons the Donner party fell behind schedule and got caught in the early winter snows of the Sierra Nevada.
At Alcove Springs there is a monument to Sarah Keyes, a member of the Donner party who expired from tuberculosis here in Kansas, long before the party was stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Originally there were 87 members of the Donner party. Only 48 survived to reach California, many of them that winter of 1847 resorting to cannibalism to avoid starvation. This monument reads: "God in his love and charity, has called in this beautiful valley, a pioneer mother."
But all that was far in the future for the Donner party for, as you can see, when you're in Alcove Springs, you still have a long way to go.
The Pony Express shared the trail with the emigrants for its short-lived life. For all of its lore and legend, the Pony Express ran only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. We saw this statue in Marysville, KS, commemorating those trailblazers who carried messages between the Pacific and Atlantic in a then-record time of ten days. The Pony Express closed down in 1861 after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
Next stop for us was Rock Creek Crossing, over the border in Nebraska, where we saw true ruts from the Oregon trail. It turns out that the small creeks were sometimes harder for the pioneers to cross than the major rivers, because the banks were too steep for the wagons. The emigrants either had to lower the wagons with ropes, or else cut away the banks to make a more gradual incline. Eventually, enterprising settlers built bridges over the creeks and charged a toll to cross. This bridge is not original, but the trail is -- although it's been worn down considerably more over the years.
We finally reached the Platte River, a waterway that the emigrants would follow all the way from Fort Kearney to Wyoming.
Fort Kearney was built on the Platte in 1848 to serve as a way station for the settlers. The very next year, 1849, more than 4,000 wagons stopped by on their way to find gold in California.
Fort Kearney also later served as a station for the Pony Express, and still later was there to protect workers building the Union Pacific railroad. But after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon Trail fell into disuse, and the fort was discontinued as a military outpost in 1871. There are no original buildings left at Fort Kearney, but a stockade and several buildings have been reconstructed.
And now we leave Fort Kearney, heading off along the Great Platte River Road toward Wyoming . . . .
Independence, MO, was the first and most famous departure point for westward expansion in the 1800s. First came the Santa Fe Trail, starting in 1821, which soon turned into a significant trading route between the U. S. and newly independent Mexico. Independence became a thriving, sophisticated place, and it was not uncommon, we were told, to hear English, Spanish, French and even German spoken in the streets of town.
Then came the Oregon and California trails, starting in the early 1840s. Settlers from the East and all around the Midwest would arrive by boat on the Missouri river. They then climbed up a three mile bluff into town, dragging whatever equipment and provisions they had with them. Most of the settlers, however, traveled light and outfitted themselves in Independence, as there were plenty of people ready to provide them with wagons, mules, oxen, food and clothes.
This is a typical wagon used by the settlers.
But this is the wagon we're using to make the trip.
In the 1840s the traditional departure point for both the Oregon and California trails was the courthouse in Independence. Later on, people bypassed Independence and traveled farther upriver to leave from St. Joseph, MO, or Council Bluffs, IA. This is what the Independence courthouse looks like today. The center portion of the building is original, from the 1830s, although of course it's been renovated and added onto several times in the past 180+ years.
And this is what it looked like in the 1840s, according to a painting at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence. You can see that the basic central portion of the building is the same.
Here's the marker outside the west side of the courthouse.
Of course, Independence, MO, is famous for one other thing, as the hometown of Harry S Truman. There was one connection Truman had with the pioneers. When he married Bess Wallace in 1919, he moved into her house, built by her grandfather who made his money selling equipment to the west-bound settlers. They moved back into that same house after the presidency and lived there the rest of their lives.
So anyway, we left Independence and traveled northwest through Kansas, looking for old signs that our forebearers had been through here. We found this off Route 99 in North Central Kansas . . .
We didn't see them either. But no fear, a little ways down the road I ran into a true pioneer woman.
There's lots going on this week on the web from our demographic colleagues. Maybe these items aren't edgy or hip. But they are reasonable and relevant. So let's check in with some of the best, covering a number of topics.
Community service . . .
Sue Loncaric of Sizzling Toward Sixty reminds us that thriving isn't just about what we do for ourselves but also how we treat others. Studies show that giving back or being generous and showing kindness can offer health benefits as well as make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. She reports that it's National Volunteers Weekin Australia, with its theme of "Give a little, Change a lot," and that leads her to discuss the benefits of volunteering.
Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting spent one day a week for the past several weeks fulfilling her civic duty. She served on a grand jury and summarizes the experience in her latest post Doing My Civic Duty -- Part 2.
Health . . .
Rebecca Olkowski on BabyBoomster.cominterviews Daniel Chang, MD, a cataract and refractive surgeon and vision correction specialist. He gives her the goods on having cataract surgery, and offers a few facts that every Baby Boomer should know.
Rita R. Robison on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guidecalls out the Trump administration for thwarting efforts to get information to consumers about food. Updates to nutrition labels are threatened to be delayed and mandatory labels for genetically modified food will be weakened.
Reminiscing . . .
Laura Lee Carter in The Redemptive Power of Love says she woke up to catch the end of the royal wedding of Harry & Meghan, just in time to witness what was for her the best part -- the part that reminded her of her own bliss after finally meeting her true love at age 49.
Prize for Sightings Over Sixty
Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365 takes it upon herself to answer 30 questions worth asking yourself. Questions like: What trip have you taken that has had a huge impact on you? What is your most underappreciated gift? Under what circumstances are you willing to lie?
As for me? I've arrived in Independence, MO, just in time to attend the 175th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Oregon Trail, on a trip that I hope will have a lasting impact on me. And -- no lie -- I just found out that this blog won another award. The honor comes from Mason Finance and names Sightings Over Sixty as one of the Top Ten retirement blogs of 2018.
I set myself up for a problem. I made a plan to drive 3,000 miles from my home outside of Philadelphia to Seattle, WA. Then I remembered: I hate to drive!
As I've related in a number of posts, including What Me Worry? I believe the biggest threat to our everyday health and safety is not high fat or cholesterol, not a lack of exercise, not the prospect of Iran or North Korea developing a nuclear bomb. It's the danger posed to each and every one of us when we innocently climb into our cars and drive out onto the road.
I'm used to making long trips up and down the East Coast on I95, which is the Wild West of interstates. People speed, tailgate, pass on the right, change lanes without signaling -- and they do it all in heavy traffic and possibly talking on the phone. It's not unusual to see a line of six or eight cars in the left-hand lane, all going 70 or 75 mph, and all about five feet apart. They're just asking for trouble, aren't they?
Well, after diving a little over 700 miles through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, I can report that Midwest drivers are a little more courteous. And perhaps a little smarter. They don't speed as much, don't tailgate as much. They're simply not as aggressive.
Except for the trucks. And it's not just the semis that barrel downhill at 80 mph, it's the pickups as well. Any number of times I've looked in my rear-view mirror to see the grille of a pickup looming up behind me, only a few feet from the back of my car, before it swerves out to the left to pass me by.
Also, the traffic mix is a little different. In the Midwest at least half of the traffic consists of trucks, of one sort or another. Most of the rest are SUVs of one sort or another.
I feel a little out of place in my Honda sedan. But then I pass the big Exxon and Shell signs posting gas at 3.09 a gallon, and I'm glad I'm getting 30 miles per gallon ... actually, better than that on the highway. (It also helps that I don't go 70 or 75 mph, which eats up gas at a faster rate.)
Ford, with its impeccable timing, just announced that it will no longer produce passenger sedans in this country -- with the exception of the budget car Focus and the muscle car Mustang -- preferring to concentrate its efforts on "better selling" trucks and SUVs. Of course, Ford is probably right in projecting high SUV sales when gas is selling at $2.00 or 2.50 a gallon. But what about when gas is $3.00 or $3.50 a gallon, or possibly more?
I myself have always resisted the siren call of the SUV. I don't think they're any safer than a solid IIHS five-star- ratedpassenger car, and even the new, smaller ones use up more gasoline. And if you're worried about global warming (as I am) you don't want to use up more gasoline.
I am one of those in favor of raising the gasoline tax, which has been set at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. Accounting for inflation, that tax is about half of what it was 25 years ago.
I saw former PA Governor Ed Rendell (Dem.) and former U. S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (Rep.) on TV the other day, pushing for a higher gas tax to fund improvements in our infrastructure. I think it's a good idea. It might help us repave some roads, rebuild a few bridges, and modernize airports and other public transportation. And it might just help save the planet too.
I first became interested in the Oregon Trail about 15 years ago when I wrote some materials for a children's project at work. The unit was on great American rivers, and the section I was involved with focused on the Columbia River. We covered the geography, the geology and the environment; but the majority of interest seemed to be on the history surrounding the river, beginning with the Native Americans, then following with Lewis & Clark and the great migration of Americans that started in the 1830s and continued on until . . . well, today.
I remember reading about Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, who crossed the mountains in 1836 along what was to become the Oregon Trail. Narcissa was one of the first women of European descent to settle in the Northwest. She gave birth to a daughter, who unfortunately drowned at age two in the Walla Walla River.
The Whitman couple built a mission that became a major stopping off point on the Oregon Trail, but they met a tragic end in 1847 when they were blamed for a measles outbreak that killed several hundred Cayuse Indians. The Indians attacked the mission and killed 13 people, including Marcus and Narcissa. The massacre led to the Cayuse War which only ended after several Cayuse were tried and hanged for murder and the tribes were defeated by the American military.
I also (I must confess) recall playing The Oregon Trail video game, which was a favorite in our house in the 1990s. But that's a different story.
Anyway, I came up with an idea for a trip about a month or so ago. I read a book called The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck, who followed the original Oregon Trail by mule-drawn wagon a few years ago.
The three-year lease on my car is up in June. I'd signed up for 15,000 miles per year, and so by now should be up close to 45,000 miles. But I've only driven about 34,000 miles. My idea? Drive from the East Coast to Seattle, following in the footsteps, as much as practicable, of Rinker Buck and those early American pioneers (and The Oregon Trail video game).
Then, after taking about a month to go 3000+ miles by land, I'll turn in my leased car in Seattle and fly home. I'll pick up my new car -- and still get credit for some unused miles, which means I'll pay for a new lease at the 10,000 mile rate, but have an allowance of about 12,500 miles, which I figure is about how many miles I'll be driving in the next three years.
When I mentioned this scheme to B, she looked at me askance and said, "So you're going to take a month and spend -- what is this going to cost, probably $6,000 or $7,000? -- just to use up a few extra miles on your car?"
I thought about that for a moment. "Well . . . yeah," I finally said, "I guess that's kind of ass backwards." I paused, then brightened. "But it's cheaper than vacationing in Europe or Hawaii. Will you come with me?"
"Sure," she said, "It'll be fun. Can we make a few side trips to see a national park or stay on a ranch along the way?"
"Absolutely," said I, "as long as it doesn't involve too much extra driving. I'm sure we'll be sick of driving before this is all over."
B has also been wanting to go visit her grandson in Charleston, SC, who just started walking last week. So the plan is: She'll fly to to Charleston for a few days, while I make the drive to Independence, MO, where the Oregon Trail begins. I'll pick her up at the Kansas City airport and we'll begin our trip.
Wish us luck. I hope we'll see a bit of the country that we've never seen before. (I've been to Portland and Seattle, but never to Nebraska, Wyoming or Idaho.) And I trust B and I will still be on speaking terms after having spent a month on the road together. At least, I'm sure, we'll fare better than Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.
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