OREGON CITY, Ore. — The grass-covered slope of Windlass Hill rises from the empty vastness of the Nebraska prairie, still branded by the tracks carved as the pioneers inched their covered wagons down the incline. The ruts are so deep they have survived a century and a half of wind, rain and snow. This hill was among the first of countless obstacles that challenged the thousands of pioneers headed west on the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail.
Happily, much of the majestic landscape through which the now-legendary wagon trains once passed also has survived, little changed by the years. This, I think, was the biggest surprise in a week-long drive I made in early May tracing the route of the famed trail from its beginning at Independence, Mo., to its terminus at little Oregon City in the Willamette River Valley of Oregon.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first major wagon train to make the long and difficult journey in quest of a new life at the end of the trail. Many Americans are expected to follow in those footsteps this summer.
I grew up in a Nebraska farm town on the trail, and the rich lore of these pioneers--the wagons ringed around the campfire at night--has intrigued me over the years. I was more than eager to get on the road.
To cover the route in a week, I spent many long hours behind the wheel, but I found the drive constantly exhilarating. The ever-changing scenery--from rolling green prairie, to high sun-baked desert country, to misty snow-clad mountains--reached the spectacular often enough to keep my spirits soaring.
And every mile was full of the romance of the Old West. I saw a buffalo or two, shopped for Native American souvenirs at a Shoshone/Bannock reservation, toured Pony Express stations and cavalry forts, spotted cowboys on horseback rounding up a herd, examined at least a dozen old prairie schooners, soaked in an outdoor hot spring, ate lunch in a ghost town saloon and braked for tumbleweeds tumbling across the highway.
But it was the old Oregon Trail itself, guiding my way, that absorbed most of my attention. Much of the trail has disappeared beneath pavement or the plow, but many easily accessible segments--with the ruts still quite visible--have been preserved in local, state and federal parklands along the way. The National Park Service has identified the official route, and in 1978 Congress designated it a National Historic Trail. No road precisely follows the path, but each of the six states along the way (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon) distributes a free guide to the highways and back roads that most closely approximate the original route.
The story of the Oregon Trail is told at more rest stops, historic sites and roadside markers than I had the time or, really, the inclination to take in--although I figure I must have pulled off the highway at least 50 times for anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour or more to learn about yet another exciting episode in the tale. But there are three important Oregon Trail museums along the way that do the best job of summing up, and I found the hour or more spent in each very rewarding.
The National Frontier Trails Center in Independence explores the factors that persuaded so many pioneers to embark on the arduous journey, and the National End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City nicely details the relatively pleasant welcome they got on arrival five months later in Oregon. I considered the two facilities the unofficial start and end of my drive.
In eastern Oregon, the imaginative new Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, stunningly perched atop Flagstaff Hill near Baker City, re-creates wagon train life with life-size tableaux of a day on the trail and night around the campfire. Birds chirp, oxen bellow, a wagon master shouts orders and a mother cries at the grave of a child to be left in the solitude of the empty prairie.
And yet, for all my interest in the historical aspects, I was repeatedly drawn to the everyday scenes of today along the trail. In spring, the pastures were full of newborn calves romping alongside their mothers. More ominous, from their point of view anyway, were the massive feed lots fencing literally hundreds of beef cattle ready for market. Outside Kearney, Neb., the penned animals so thoroughly blanketed one hill that it seemed to quiver like Jell-O as they shuffled about. I could smell them from a mile away. What a stink!
To my eye, the grain elevators soaring above almost every small town on the prairie resembled castles in Spain under the shimmering sun. And then there were the people I met and talked with along the way, who added yet another dimension to my journey.