Calves in the grassy draws, the early morning sun slanted crosswise across the Nebraska sandhills layering contrasting swaths of light and shadow over a protuberant and gullied terrain. One and a half centuries ago a man named T. Parker traveled this same route and saw these selfsame hills and valleys and felt the warmth of the same morning sun and carved his mark on a naked bluff a hundred miles from here, and his presence somehow lingers if not on this hallowed trail then in my mind, a stranger but an invited guest nonetheless. Sojourners together on the western road.
I think of him often as we stand beside the road photographing an old wooden windmill and listening to the sweet fluted notes of a western meadowlark, or staring up a deeply-eroded gulch where wagons were once lowered from the heights by ropes and prayers. He was no relation but a name found decades ago inscribed on Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyo. The shock of that encounter lingers to this bright day as together we at last come to the landmarks that captivated a fledgling nation.
Windlass Hill is the first such mark, contoured in the early sun and painted with wildflowers and sagebrush. We strip the silvery leaves from the plant and inhale deeply its pungent aroma and stride toward the crest, the trail nearly vertical as if designed to prove its perpendicularity. Coming down in a fully-loaded wagon must have been death-defying, but the base was reward enough in rich meadows and cool springs, the most famous of which is Ash Hollow a few miles downstream. It’s here that any questions of where the west begins are answered in the incontrovertible presence of yucca, Rocky Mountain juniper, black-billed magpie and two-tailed swallowtail. The east is behind us.
The hill and springs were merely obstacle and replenishment. The real landmarks are yet to come, those that dominated horizons and imagination and earned the recognition that eastern humidity and the prairie itself were departing, that a new land was hoving into view. The North Platte below Ash Hollow might be a ribbon of clear blue water with the air above speckled with terns and swallows of every kind, but the green blush of vegetation dries up rapidly as the gently rounded knolls erode into rocky bluffs and the river lies naked beneath a blazing sky. Portions of it are now forested with Russian olives, an unknown species when T. Parker rolled through.
Neither were the signs marking today’s westward trail, of course: “Merrill County—livestock friendly,” read one, leading us to question whether the cows and horses were personable or if the county itself welcomed domesticated stock in preference to, say, the unwashed masses of humanity, like birders; another said “Mitchell’s—Guns, Ammo, Crafts.”
“Must be married,” Jim said grimly.
And then there were the signs that became a ubiquitous presence wherever we stopped: “Warning: Rattlesnakes common in this area.” We laughed at them for the government’s penchant for stating the obvious. We warned each other in grave overtones whenever we stepped from the vehicle, as if snakebite were a certainty. We ridiculed the political correctness that made such signs necessary as a hedge however slight against base and frivolous lawsuits. We laughed across Nebraska and halfway through Wyoming to Independence Rock, where Chod had a very close encounter with a prairie rattler. After a sobering moment where we almost got serious, Jim and I cracked up and asked him if he’d bothered to read the damn signs.
“There aren’t any here!” Chod snapped peevishly. And, indeed there weren’t. Go figure.
The Courthouse and Jail were the first real geologic wonders of the trail, massive rock fortifications jutting from the sandy plains in an impressive array nevertheless all out of sorts with impressions left on today’s travelers. Many emigrants wrote that the stretch between the rocks and Scotts Bluff were the most scenic in the world. I watched for them long before they came into sight and then had to agree with Jim’s assessment: “This must be one of the least photogenic rocks in the world.”
In all fairness they looked better from the south, but a vast prairie dog colony filled with burrowing owls created a living foreground every bit as good as the vista. A dusty backroad took us over the rocky spine of the Wildcat Hills and descended into the Platte valley where we found a vast shimmering playa filled with shorebirds and waterfowl. In the distance the thin spire of Chimney Rock raked the sky.
It was yet miles off but still riveting, an inverted funnel with a broad whitened base and a thin conical shaft rising 120 feet. No other landmark on the Oregon Trail so captured the wonder and awe of the emigrants, and for today’s expectant travelers it is no different. My first view of the obelisk was set to the music of screeching yellow-headed blackbirds, piping avocets and a chorus of frogs that wove a wild and primitive soundtrack into my consciousness.
Scott’s Bluff, a few miles farther, was even more stunning. Today’s highway wends through majestic Mitchell’s Pass even as the original trail did, flanked by Eagle Rock and Sentinel Rock as if gateways to Wyoming. Indeed, atop the bluff one can see the faint blue triangular outline of Laramie Peak—the Rocky Mountains at last.
We were at the summit taking photographs when a park ranger approached Chod. He was hunched over a cactus with his lens a few inches from a scarlet blossom and glanced up as a shadow fell over him. The ranger was slim and fit and garbed in an exquisitely starched uniform.
“That’s a prickly pear,” he announced, enunciating each word slowly as if Chod were an idiot. The temperature on the crest plunged a good 30 degrees.
“I lead prairie tours,” Chod said icily. “I know what this is.”
The ranger disappeared without further ado.
Jim and I looked at each other and then at Chod. He was clearly irritated.
“That’s a prickly pear,” I said.
“Oh, shut up.”
(To be continued)