Day Three ~ The High Plains
Wind whistled across the high desert. The sun shone warm on her back, not a cloud in the sky. Nights had been cold, though, everything white with frost in the mornings. The acrid smell of sage clutched her nose. She’d been tasting it for days. The scrubby plants dotted the landscape, along with other low, tangled brush, a spare coat of dry grass like a mangy dog’s hair.
—A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 116.
Wedns Aug 4 Traveled 8 miles. Came to Soda Springs. laid by the rest of the day. Here is quite a curiosity. The water boils right up out of high rocks in some places and it boils out of the level ground quite . . . high. The water is not so strong but what a person can drink it very well.
—The diary of Martha S. Read, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 236.
July 6th We traveled 18 miles through the Pass;; The ascent and descent is very gradual it being impossible to exactly determine where the culminating point is. . . . The next stream we passed was a small one called Pacific Creek The water here runs West while every other stream we have passed runs either (East) or South
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 82.
August 1st Sunday To day we left the waters that flow into the Atlantic and proceed to those of the Pacific We let our cattle feed till about noon and then started on, for the South pass 10 miles distant – It ill comports with the ideas we had formed of a pass through the rocky Mountains, being merely a vast level sandy plain sloping a little each way from the summit and a few hills for we could not call them mountains on each side. Some few snowy peaks in the distance, and this is the South pass through the Rocky mountains
—The diary of Cecelia Adams & Parthenia Blank, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 278.
As we continued our journey to Kansas City, retracing the footsteps of our ancestors over the Oregon Trail, I kept picturing Martha, subject of my new book A Place of Her Own, walking this rugged track in 1850 with her husband Garrett Maupin, all their worldly goods packed in an ox-drawn covered wagon. My great-great-grandparents. What hardy souls they were.
Leaving Fort Hall, my daughter, granddaughter, and I struck out eastward toward Soda Springs, where pioneers marveled at natural fountains of soda they could drink like a soda back home. My granddaughter Calliope was determined to buy a soda in the town of Soda Springs. Checking the label she found that the soda came right out of—well, Mexico. But she insisted it was delicious anyway.
Weather had turned cooler today, thankfully, perhaps because we’d moved into higher elevations, or the overall weather patterns had changed. We could enjoy getting out and walking around.
We soon crossed the modern border into Wyoming somewhere near the Oregon Trail with another looming ridge in the near distance. The range extended on either side of the road and looked too wide to go around. We would have to go over.
I couldn’t help thinking how the hearts of those pioneer travelers must have sunk, seeing ridges like this ahead of them and wondering what manner of mountains they were coming into now. As we followed the highway into this ridge, the road rose before us and we could hear the subtle change in the laden car’s engine. Imagine taking this step by step, one foot in front of the other, the oxen tugging that laden wagon up a slope with no smooth highway, only a rutted track.
Of course, they were coming the other way. They faced this mountain from the other side. Our uphill slope was their downhill grade. But downhill isn’t so easy either. While there isn’t the tug of hauling weight upward, a decline can be treacherous. A heavy wagon pushing down on you. Rocks in the path ready to trip a person or flip a wagon. Truckers today understand the danger of a runaway vehicle on a steep descent. A runaway wagon could happen too. Mountains, beautiful as they are, must have always evoked dread.
We left the Oregon Trail somewhere in western Wyoming. The main highways in Wyoming veer from that track, and we had limited time. We had a long drive ahead before we reached our day’s destination, and my daughter had meetings scheduled the morning after our scheduled arrival in the Kansas City area at the end of Day 5. We needed to take the fast route across Wyoming. And I do mean fast. Much of Interstate 80 is posted at 80 mph. That does make the miles slip by.
Again I thought of the pioneers who faced other kinds of time constraints. They had to get across the last mountain before winter snows came. They may have had some flexibility of days, but they didn’t dare delay too long.
Years ago when my kids were young our family had taken the more northerly zigzagged route across Wyoming on a road trip with a travel trailer—our version of a covered wagon—and we did our best to follow the Oregon Trail all the way. I well remember the surprising topography of South Pass where the trail crossed the Continental Divide which separates the waters that flow to the Pacific from waters that flow ultimately to the Atlantic. It doesn’t appear mountainous at all. It’s just a slight rise in ground in the midst of a dry plain, dotted with sagebrush and other scrub. Such luck for all who passed that way in the early days that they found this easy crossing through the otherwise craggy mountain range of the Rockies.
Our crossing of the Continental Divide on Interstate 80 wasn’t much more noticeable. We saw a lot of country like the above, wide flat stretches of sagebrush and dry tufts of grass with multicolored bluffs rising here and there. Barren but beautiful. I liked the soft reds in the bluff above, which I shot while the car surged forward.
And this formation near Green River, Wyoming, was interesting with its strawberry tint in layer-cake slices. I think I was beginning to get hungry.
After two nights of drive-through fast-food dinners gulped down in the air-conditioned car because it was too hot to leave the dog, we decided this evening we would have a sit-down dinner in a restaurant. The weather had remained pleasant all day. The dinner couldn’t be anything fancy. We were still far from our motel in Laramie and needed something quick. But quick wasn’t in the cards that evening. Food took a long time to reach our table. My daughter, who did the driving, bolted hers down. My granddaughter and I got to-go boxes. And off we went again. So much for a relaxing dinner.
Dark fell much too fast, and it was 10 o’clock by the time we rolled in. I thought about Martha and other emigrants who made those night runs across the desert when the weather became too unmercifully hot to travel in the day. Ours was just a little miscalculation of the time this portion of the drive would take, a late start due to loss of sleep from parties next door, and slow dinner service.
One thing. We slept well this night.
[The wagon photo at the top was taken at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center at Baker, Oregon.]
NEXT: Scott’s Bluff, famous landmark of the trail