Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rolling On

View near South Pass

Lander Cut-off road.
photos from the web

For many years my husband drove an 18 wheeler across the country. He owned his truck and leased it to a company which hauled heavy equipment. After our children were on their own, I sometimes went with him. I would pack changes of clothes and sufficient books to be gone about 2 weeks, arrange for the care of my cats, make up the truck's bunk with clean sheets, and we would head for the first loading point. Most of our route was on interstate highways; we ate, showered, and parked to sleep at "truck stops." With one load delivered, J. would phone the nearest of the company terminals to learn what loads and destinations would next be available. In the course of nearly 20 years we saw a great deal of the US. We both have an interest in history and made a point of learning something of the regions we passed through. Neither of us care to be in a city and prefered the open spaces of the midwest---long stretches of nearly flat roads, running past acres of crop land and feed lots.

I have ridden across Nebraska during every season of the year. It is a long haul, miles and miles of rolling grassland. Always my thoughts would turn to those decades during the 1800's when the westward migration was at peak. I considered those monotonous miles--day after day of heat and dust, creaking wagon wheels, balky livestock. No truckstops with air-conditioned dining rooms and a menu of food and drink, no hot showers. For that matter, no repair fascilities in the event of a break down.
Having made our own westward move 11 years ago, we now live where settlement and road building are a fairly recent history. Here, when a journey is contemplated we don't figure in terms of miles--we ask how many hours it will take to drive there in decent weather. It is impossible to travel far in any direction without traversing a mountain pass or two. From North Platte, Nebraska the terrain climbs steadily toward the eastern border of Wyoming, grassland gradually giving way to the sagebrush of high desert. We live at an elevation slightly over a mile high in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains.
On Thursday, J. announced about noon that he had a buyer for one of his motor homes. The buyer lives near Salt Lake City, Utah and wondered if it would be possible for J. to meet him at a halfway point. I was drafted to follow in our car. My job for many years involved driving to and from a vehicle auction as well as the pick up and delivery of customer's cars for the body shop and auto sales where I worked. I take the responsibility of driving seriously, reminding myself to be alert and attentive, never completely at ease. For the past few years I have done very little distance driving and wasn't really enthused at the prospect of a 140 mile drive.

We headed over South Pass. Within 20 miles, the twisting road climbs more than 2000 feet until the terrain levels out at the Continental Divide. This is the area where the emmigrant trails--the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Lander Cut-off and the Parting of the Ways converge. For miles the rutted wagon tracks are still visible, carved into the dry and dusty ground. It is not settled country, even today. Standing in those ruts, hearing the sound of the ceaseless wind, watching bleached grass bend and sway, it is easy to conjure a convoy of wagons, handcarts, oxen, appearing in the shimmering heat of the horizon. Easy to imagine calloused and dirty bare feet, garments stiff with sweat, to imagine eyes strained with squinting into the brilliance of blue sky sunlight. I can empathize with those women who by this point in the journey were having second thoughts, remembering with painful longing a snug farmhouse with tidy kitchen, small bedrooms tucked beneath the eaves, a fenced garden, clean laundry on a clothesline, a rocking chair. Is it presumption to guess how they may have felt knowing that there could now be no turning back and that there were many miles of rough travel still to be faced?
When our meeting with the family buying the motor home was concluded and the transaction "signed, sealed and delivered", J. and I went into the Little America restaurant. We drank iced tea from glasses that clinked with ice, ate a delicious meal of steak, mashed potato, green beans. We made use of the clean restrooms before getting into the Toyota for the return trip. We turned on the A/C, slipped a CD of Celtic music into the player. Across the return miles of open country we watched small groups of antelope browsing through the sagebrush, the slender, nearly new fawns trotting to keep up. A bald eagle cruised low ahead of us, swerving to land with talons outstretched toward some small prey.
We drove back down South Pass into Red Canyon as the sun flamed and ebbed in the west. It was not quite full dark when we walked into our house; the round trip had taken about 7 hours.
As I type these words the afternoon wind has begun. Dark clouds are gathered in the southwest. There has been no shower here, but stepping onto the front porch I encounter the smell of rain-wet sage blown on the wind. I have been in the west for 11 years and still that scent seems new to my senses. Eleven years--and still a New England dooryard and a side hill garden speak to me.


  1. I really enjoyed this.Thanks for sharing, I felt like I was there!

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm thinking I'll do a few more posts on local history.

  3. I absolutely LOVED this. I read a book about children on the Oregon Trail a couple of years ago - out of an entire family only 2? survived, I think. I have Frank McLynn's 'Wagons West' in my pile of books to read too . . .

    We travelled 240 miles or so coming back from Sheffield today and obviously a similar journey up there on Sunday. Fortunately two of us so we could share the driving. It's good to be home . . .

  4. The tragedies that befell those pioneers don't bear thinking about--they started with such bright hopes and dreams--or at least the men did. I know I would have been dragging my feet.
    I have a story or two brewing--I suspect I have a dubious gift for embroidering a bit of fact with a good deal of fancy.

  5. What a fascinating post and beautifully written, it has made me want to see this part of America, although I've been many times to the US I've only really seen New England apart from one trip down to Washington DC and Virginia. There is so much wonderful scenery and history in other areas though. Must ask BB what the book was that she read. The pioneer women must have been strong both mentally and physically to undertake and survive these journeys and then set up home in a new land with few of the amenities that they left behind. I'd love to read more about them.