Saturday, June 20, 2009

One Road Leads To Another

The road has taken me to Casper Wyoming and, at the risk of offending anyone attached to the place, it is far from my favorite.

Casper, incorporated in 1889 here on the banks of the Platte River, was an important place in the rush west. It is point of convergence of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trail as well as some other lesser known ones, and an important part of the short lived Pony Express. It is said now, only half jokingly, that Casper has a lot of gas--the natural kind. It is known to the locals as an “abundance of natural resources.” Casper County now numbers 70,000 and is the energy hub for the Rocky Mountains.

It is, to my eyes, a hard scrabble place. Rough in a way not like other parts of the state. While it is mountainous it has a flat look, rolling to an altitude of about 5300 feet with peaks nearby of 7,000 feet. It snows but it gives the impression of an arid place. It is warmer here now than in Cheyenne, the larger capital city, but that is a meteorological anomaly which will not last.

What the weather has done is send every man woman and child out on this sunny Sunday to play with their toys. They have many and only a short time to enjoy them. The roads are clogged with huge pickup trucks trailing boats and ATVs on the oddest of trailers and all the motorcycles you would ever want to see. They are all traveling faster than the speed limit of course which makes the amateurs all the more obvious. After inspecting some wagon ruts and renewing my acquaintance with Fort Laramie I have quit for the day in the hope that they will all go back to work tomorrow, that the rain will not return in full force as forecast, that things will be quieter and perhaps more pleasant. I will move on to more pastoral places although I am sure they will be after Rawlings and Rock Springs and the rest of the mining regions to the south and west.

The Lincoln Highway now is two days of Interstate boredom where the road bed was usurped. I head north on U.S.30 again which is now a part of the history of the immigrant roads west. It is interesting in its way for the early artifacts left behind and the places it passes through. The trails split here, the Oregon Trail being the primary follower of this route. Along the way there are a number of Mormon settlements. After settling in Salt Lake, Joseph Smith sent missionaries even in the earliest days to what is now Idaho and Nevada. The town of Montpelier Idaho was so named because it was his home town in Vermont .

Nearby, there is Paris, in Bear Lake County, the home of a large and very old Mormon Tabernacle. It’s size is quite out of proportion to that of the town, but such edifices seem to have been a hallmark of the early missionaries.. Bear County is also home to the vast Bear Lake, tucked into the very south east corner of Idaho. At this time of year appears as if it has yet to be discovered. There is a small state park which sits on the edge and a day area on the other side of it near Paris. The ranger tells me that they are both busy places in the summer, mostly people from Utah who come for the day to use the expanse of beach, fish, water ski, and run their jet skis in random patterns around the lake. It is a peaceful place now. The sun even comes out to greet me and an evening outside is a welcome diversion. There are two other campers here, the vanguard of a larger group who have reserved all 22 spaces providing electricity for RVs. It is some sort of office gathering according to a woman in the advance party, a fan of San Diego, that trades stories with me in the fading light.

If I had known that I would have found the migration of the western settlers across the continent so interesting, I might have paid better attention in my history classes. There are a number of well preserved wagon trails, a place known as “Registry Rock” where the new, Oregon bound settles chipped their names. It became a favorite rest stop. There are markers to record the skirmishes with the Shoshoni Indians who got very tired of watching an endless parade of oxen powered wagons moving through the Snake River valley showing little or no respect for the Bison herds by killing more of them than they could eat and generally treating the Indians as if they were just in the way.

For many years the presence of the American Fur Trading Company in the area had done much to keep the Indians and the travelers peaceful, but it pulled out in 1850, leaving the Indians without a market for pelts and more angry with the whites than before. The wagon trains knew that if they were to have trouble with the Indians it would be here on this relatively flat part of the trail. It is a fiction however, that these “Wagon Trains” set out on lonely, singular journeys. Much of the time the trail was host to five or six trains at once within twenty miles of each other as they made their way to their new home. This is not to suggest the trail was an easy one. Most days started at four AM in order to be on the trail by eight. They would travel three miles on a bad day, twenty on a good one. They would stop when the light gave out and do it all again the next day, day after day after day. Often they would stop long enough to excavate a new, safer route for themselves and those that followed. The Indians did not understand the migration or why they needed to “desecrate the land.”

While there were skirmishes and men and women from the trains were killed, they were due more to arrogance, misunderstanding, and horse stealing. More people died of exhaustion, starvation, and bad weather than Indian attacks on this road west. Generally relations with the indigenous people were reasonable along the route and they were often hired to show the travelers the best places to ford streams and the very large rivers such as the Platte and Snake and later the Colombia.

Massacre Rocks State Park, just west of Pocatello Idaho purports to be the site of a a battle true to it’s’ name. Six “emigrants” as they are fond of calling them on the historical markers, died there from two separate wagon trains traveling very close together. They died in pursuit of the Indians who were more intent on stealing horses than hurting anyone.

I am at rest in the Snake River Valley now, which is more interesting for its archeology than the wagon highway established along its’ banks. The State Park is at a site where Bonneville Lake, due to flooding, broke free from a natural dam releasing the water that then covered most of northern Idaho and all of Nevada down toward the cliffs here and sent a waterfall over them equal to the amount of water held in all the Great Lakes. For many years its flow was greater than the Amazon River. It happened about 13,000 years ago when this was also an active volcanic area. The results are quite impressive and the falls that were created lasted for a hundred years. The erosion in the rock it caused can be easily seen. It is hard to imagine how big Bonneville Lake must have been before it gave up that astonishing amount of water. The results here were impressive . The gorge is wide and deep and the huge boulders that were ripped loose and moved hundreds of miles with the water are smoothed, not by wind and sand, but by the tumbling action during the journey to this place where they remain today.

For me, it is onward, with home coming in another two weeks. The route will be through Nevada and eastern California, and a Ghost town or two. The log says La Coachasita and I have passed the 8500 mile mark on this latest meandering search for new sights and sounds. They have been agreeable if wet miles so far. Wet is the story of this spring, so we are not unique.

I have made the turn for home now, and while I do not yet feel its pull, I can sense that it is not far over the horizon.


  1. "The Indians did not understand the migration"....and I hope that is pointed out to schoolchildren nowadays, as it was not when I was young. The Indians were usually portrayed as the "bad guys". Not to mention in movies and TV, too. I admire the settlers who had the grit to make the journey west, and at the same time I feel bad for the native peoples who were displaced.

    We once visited a relative in Gillette, Wyoming, and I thought it the most awful area.....I would never have wanted to live there. Flat, brown, very little you described it, an "arid" place.

    Continued safe travels to you. You and La Coachasita are really racking up the miles.

  2. Having just crossed the Snake River - WOW...I had no idea previously. And I didn't realize until recently how much water once covered not only that area but Wyoming as well.

    Wyoming is arid and sparse in some parts but I do like it. I see it as part of the old west as well as still having a bit of drama in its wind and wildness.

    Happy Trails as you make your way home.

  3. Ann--
    Wyoming has some charmespecially in the north west, but the "roughnecks" in the oil and gas feilds find it a daunting place in the winter. The is a lot of "empty" there...but as I said in the post, there are those who like it and that is fine with me!

  4. I have been to Wyoming only once; drove up to Cheyenne while on a business trip to Denver, just to say I had "been to Wyoming" (but just barely) -- I agree with you, all the beautiful scenery is obviously in the western part of the state.

    You mentioned the Platte River in Casper. I learned to drive at the other end of the Platte River, in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Maybe I will write a post about it one day.

    "The Indians did not understand the migration" (they hadn't heard of California, I guess) "and the need to desecrate the land"...the last part tugged at my heartstrings.

    Didn't Evel Knievel jump across the Snake River one time on a motorcycle? Or attempt to?

  5. It hasn't dried out since you left the Midwest, Reamus, so you got out at a good time. Now we're looking at about 10 days of temperatures around 90, and humidity around 200.

    Shouldn't be long before you cross the point at which the gravitational field of California is stronger than the open road's, and your miles-per-day picks up considerably.

    What a trip!