Thursday, August 25, 2011

Traces Of The Trail

Recently, my lovely wife reminded me that she had requested the second week of August off for her vacation.  She further stated that she wanted to “get out of town” and asked if I might plan a trip.  Planning a trip that gets us out of town is not much of a challenge; our weekly venture to the grocery store meets that requirement.  I wisely assumed that a trip to the grocery store wouldn’t do, so I began planning a road trip to eastern Oregon, the land of summer sunshine.

If you have never been to eastern Oregon, be sure to add this destination to your bucket list.  The possibilities of things to see and do are nearly endless.  As I pondered my options, I remembered a book on the Oregon Trail I had purchased several years ago.  Despite numerous trips to the eastside, I had never taken the  time to visit many of the areas through which the trail passed.  So armed with a map and a copy of Traveling The Oregon Trail, we headed east in search of the ruts left by the emigrant's wagon wheels.

What became known as the Oregon Trial was actually a series of trails that served as the primary westward migration route between 1840 and 1860.  Most of the emigrants traveling the tail began their journey in Independence, Missouri and ended 1240 miles later in the Willamette valley of present day Oregon.  The emigrants fled the Missouri River valley in search of free land and a better life.  Apparently the economy was less than robust between 1837  and 1841.

Preparation for the journey required the emigrants to sell all that they owned, purchase of a wagon, live stock, and necessary supplies for a seven month journey.  The wagon of choice is shown below, the prairie schooner.  Unlike it’s  larger cousin the conestoga, the prairie schooners were only four feet wide and ranged in length between twelve and eighteen feet.  This left little room for nonessential item like books, furniture, or family heirlooms.  Maybe this was just as well because those who brought such items often dumped them along the trail in order to lighten the wagon.

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Prairie schooner , Oregon Trails Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon

Despite what you may have seen in the movies, the majority of the people actually walked the entire trip.  The primary objective was to keep the wagons as light as possible thus preserving the strength of the wagon teams.  Unlike trips made today, the entire journey was undertaken without consideration of personal comfort.  

Each mile of the journey presented challenges as they attempted to traverse an average of twenty miles per day.  The first significant test of endurance came as they departed the the great plains and ascend the Rocky Mountains.  As they approached the continental divide, grass and water for live stock became scarce.  The buffalo that they served as a source of fresh meat while crossing the great plains of Kansas and Nebraska were also gone.  From here on out, the daily goal was simply to survive.

With the Rocky Mountains behind them, the semi arid deserts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon lay ahead.  If you have never been to the intermountain west, you might be surprised to learn how hot and dry the countryside can be.  The day time temperatures in the summer months are frequently in the nineties while the nights dip into the low forties.  It’s clearly a land of extremes.

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The Oregon Trail near Baker City, Oregon with the Blue Mountains in the distance

In addition to being hot and dry, the soil when disturbed quickly turns to dust.  One emigrant described the conditions as follows:  “Everlasting dust….  makes simple breathing a chore…… as long as I live, shall I ever be rid of this cough?”

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The Oregon Trail near Baker City, Oregon with the Blue Mountains in the distance

Death was a constant companion along the trail.  The trail side was litter with the carcass of live stock that succumbed to the lack of water and grass upon which to graze.  As for the emigrants, the most frequent causes of death were accidental injury and disease.  Cholera was easily spread as both humans and live stock shared the same limited sources of water along the trail.


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No, I did not find the bones of a emigrant.  This is the remains of a mule dear that recently died along the trail

Today  if you travel west from LaGrande to Pendleton, Oregon, the drive on a summer day might take an hour depending upon who is driving.  The same trip for the emigrants took ten or more days because it required crossing the Blue Mountains.  The majority of those taking this route arrived in late August or early September and found the forested mountains paradise like.  The area abounded in wild game, berries, and other edible wild plants which were a welcomed addition to the daily rations.

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The Blue Mountains crossing west of Pendleton, Oregon

The emigrants were enthralled by the towering conifer trees and the brisk mountain air which was a refreshing change from the hot desert they had endured all summer.  The forests of the Blues through which the emigrants passed were considerably less dense; the suppression of wildfire fire over the past 100 years has altered the landscape.  Despite this alteration, the area is still incredibly beautiful.

Descending the Blue Mountains and heading west, the trail passed through present day Pendleton.  One additional stretch of semi arid land laid ahead before reaching the Columbia River.  The view below is looking north into Squaw Creek just east of Pendleton.

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In the end, we didn’t find the spectacular ruts left by thousands of wagon wheels as promised by our guide book.  One hundred and fifty years coupled with modern development have obscured much of the trail.  At best, we found only traces of the trail but each stop we made offered an incredible story of sacrifice,determination, and survival.

Make a trip and experience the journey for yourself.