Saturday, June 23, 2018

No News Is Good News

     When we were on vacation traveling the Oregon Trail, my wife and I found that we didn't seem to have much access to the news -- and we weren't particularly interested anyway. Somehow, the facts from 175 years ago seemed more relevant than the gossip and chatter that passes as news these days.

     At home, we get the weekend editions of the New York Times. I occasionally read the local paper and The Wall Street Journal. We subscribe to a couple of magazines. Then I find that the TV is invariably on, for at least a little while almost every day, and we're not even aware that we're listening to Fox News dig up some dirt on the Democrats, or someone on MSNBC getting apoplectic over an outrage they think they've heard from the Republicans.

     Then there's the internet. Yahoo and both remind me of the old supermarket tabloids. And most other so-called news sites -- from vox to huffington to whatever -- are dishing out nothing but opinions, one more outlandish than the other. And of course we all know about opinions . . . everyone (ahem) has one.

     On vacation we were spared almost all of the blathering that passes for news these days. Yes, we heard about the volcano in Hawaii. But mostly, the only thing we checked was the weather. I hate to admit it, but it was very refreshing.

     But just to make sure I didn't miss anything important, when I got home I spent a few minutes catching up on the last few weeks. There was . . .

     A celebrity wedding in England. A New York attorney ranting in a coffee shop. Some teachers on strike. More back and forth between Mueller and Trump. Roseanne making a racist joke. Elon Musk tweeting something about Tesla. A chef/TV star committing suicide. Bill Clinton and James Paterson collaborating on a political thriller.

     And, as long-advertised, Trump actually met with Kim Jung Un . . . although did anything come of it?

     Did I miss anything else? And (though I feel bad for Anthony Bourdain) does any of it really matter?

     How about you . . . have you found yourself getting sucked into the news more and more in the last couple of years, and then thinking perhaps you've wasted a lot of time and emotional energy on things that don't really matter? Do you think the news has improved your life, or made you more knowledgeable? Or have you tuned out, or consciously gone on a news diet because you've decided too much modern-day news is simply not good for you?

     I'm of two minds. I've certainly enjoyed my news hiatus. But then I wonder, was I shirking my responsibility as a citizen and voter? Is sticking your head in the sand the best way to approach the modern political scene, no matter how nasty it has become?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

End of the Journey

     After driving some 3800 miles, we arrived at the end of the Oregon Trail, located in The Dalles, OR. The emigrants were headed to Oregon City and the Willamette valley, another hundred miles farther on. But the official end-of-trail marker is here because for the last hundred miles there is no trail.

Marker erected in The Dalles, OR, by Ezra Meeker who retraced the trail in 1906

     The emigrants had a choice to make in The Dalles. They had to get over the Cascades, which at times run right down to the river, so they could not follow along the banks. One choice was to load their wagons onto a raft and float down the river. Unfortunately, they often had to leave their oxen behind ... animals they needed to work their farms in the Willamette valley. But with or without the oxen, the river was pretty wild in the 1840s, before all the dams were built, and a lot of the rafts hung up on the rapids and were broken apart. The river route was a dangerous choice.

View today of the Columbia from The Dalles

     The alternative was the Barlow Road, constructed in 1846 by Sam Barlow and some 40-odd men, which skirted around Mount Hood. But this route also proved a rough ride. It took an extra week or ten days and involved a steep and exhausting climb for the already exhausted people and animals.

Brave the Columbia, or trek around Mt. Hood?

     We ourselves couldn't make that choice. There's no way to get our car down the river, and we were told that while some of the old Barlow Road still exists, it's pretty rough, even for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

     Still, we couldn't help but wonder, traveling all this way in a modern four-door sedan, how the emigrants did it. By most estimates, some 30,000 people died on the trail, mostly from cholera and other diseases, others from accidents and a few by Indian attack. But most of them made it -- some 500,000 of them during the 1840s and '50s, all in search of a new life in Oregon, California or Utah.

Two modern-day pioneers
     It was a tough journey -- for them, not for us. But they were up to the challenge. And it made us wonder if we modern Americans are prepared for the challenges we face, which sometimes seem intractable and unsolvable, but which, let's face it, are less daunting than what our forebearers faced on the Oregon Trail.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Trail Weary

     By the time the emigrants had reached what is now present-day Oregon, they were plenty trail weary. So were we. There are about 350 miles left to go. For them it was a couple of weeks. For us, four more days. Then we'll be off the trail -- continuing up to Seattle to see family and friends.

Farewell Bend on the Snake River

     The pioneers said goodbye to the Snake River at Farewell Bend to travel, as the sign says, overland to the Columbia River. They only had a few narrow valleys to ease their way, along the Burnt River, the Powder River, the Grande Ronde River.

Sign at Farewell Bend

     But none of these proved much help when they had to climb over the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We stopped at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center which sits atop on Flagstaff hill, outside Baker City, OR.

The view from Flagstaff hill ... where old wagon ruts scar the hillside

     We stopped again at Hilgard Junction State Park where many of the emigrants made camp along the Grande Ronde. But first they had to get down this hill, one of the many dangerous descents in the Blues.
Emigrants unhitched their oxen and used ropes to lower their wagons down this hill

     We met David and Vicki, a retired couple volunteering to take care of Hilgard for the month of June. David moved to Oregon from New York 12 years ago, and now he and Vicki, from South Dakota, live fulltime in their RV. They summer in eastern Oregon and winter on the coast. 

David and Vicki sell wood for $5 by the cart-full to Hilgard campers

     They seem to like this lifestyle. But I'm a little trail weary. So I don't know if I would. Would you?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hot Springs, Lava Beds and Sand Dunes

     I'd never in my life been to Idaho until four days ago when we followed the old Oregon Trail, crossing over from Wyoming north of Bear Lake, to Montpelier and Soda Springs. According to most reports from the trail, the emigrants were thrilled to be done with the rough and boring landscape of Nebraska and Wyoming, and welcomed the smoother terrain of the Snake River valley.

     Furthermore, after leaving the cholera-ridden Platte River and gasping across the dry high prairie, they were glad to see fresh water in the Snake River, its tributaries, and the fresh springs that bubbled out of the ground.

Hooper Spring

     We stopped at Hooper Springs, outside of Soda Springs, ID.

Potable, but not so great

     We were allowed to sample the water. There were a few bubbles, and it tasted faintly of minerals. Not the best, in our opinion, but to the pioneers it was manna from heaven.

Are they crazy?

     A little farther on, in Lava Hot Springs, there's the cold, clear Portneuf River, which draws a lot of visitors to this day, many from Salt Lake City which is only two hours away. Some people raft the river.

Looking down on the hot baths

     B and I just took advantage of the hot springs. There are four different pools. The water temperature ranges from 105 to 115 degrees.

View across the lava beds

     After Lava Hot Springs we angled north to see Crater of the Moon National Monument. Most of the emigrants kept to the south, along the Snake River. But others followed the Goodale cutoff which skirted the northern edge of the lava beds and rejoined the main trail south of present-day Boise.

Rough going

     The lava beds themselves were almost impassable for the wagons.

Indian cave

     They'd be impassable for modern hikers as well, but for the paths that cut through the beds and lead up the hills and down into the lava caves.

Looking from the bottom

     We stopped at Bruneau Dunes State Park. The dunes were actually not on the path of the pioneers. But we wanted to see them.

Looking down at our car from the top

     Then it was a night in Boise, which got its name from the old mountain men of the early 1800s. Set in the high desert area, the tree lined valley was an oasis dominated by cottonwood trees. They called it la riviere boisee, which means "the wooded river."

Boise River runs through the city

     And now . . . it's on to Oregon!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Rocks and Ruts, Ridges and Bridges

     Again, for those who were dropped by "Networked Blogs" as followers to this blog, you can still follow by scrolling down to Follow in the right-hand column if this page and clicking on "Follow" or you can follow through your own email by submitting your address.

     So anyway . . .  when you follow the Oregon Trail you spend a lot of time and effort looking for the old wagon ruts. Usually they are hard to spot and not so obvious. You're searching for eroded and grown-over swales that look to the untrained eye like any other uneven landscape.

     But sometimes, as in Guernsey, NE, they are much more obvious.

     You also look for landmarks that were noted time and again by the pioneers, such as Independence Rock in Wyoming. It got its name from the pioneers who needed to get this far by Independence Day in order to assure that they could make it over the California or Oregon mountains before the snows fell.

     Below is a closeup of the rock, which many emigrants climbed to view the landscape and sometimes carve their initials. Actually, visitors are still allowed to climb up the rock today. We thought about making the ascent, but decided at our age that discretion was the better part of valor.

     Not too long after Independence Rock comes South Pass, the long shallow rise over the Continental Divide, at 7550 feet above sea level. Here is the view from South Pass, looking east from where the emigrants came.

     Here is the view going west, where they were going.

     And here is the view to the north -- the Wind River peaks that the pioneers were avoiding.

     After traveling down the west side of the Divide, and turning south, we came to Fort Bridger, named after Jim Bridger, a fur trapper who opened a trading post here in 1843. The Fort Bridger State Historic Site has built a replica of his post, which was later, in 1858, turned into a military fort.

     Below is a replica of his store. It served the emigrants who, Bridger said, "In coming out were generally well supplied with money but by the time they get here are in need of all kinds of supplies, horses provisions, smithwork, etc." After the emigrants left Fort Bridger they all split up -- the Mormons heading south to Salt Lake, the miners southwest to California, the farmers northwest to Oregon.

     Meanwhile, we're still picturing those wagon ruts, carved into the stone so many years ago.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Three Signposts

     A quick housekeeping note. I've been informed that Google no longer supports "Networked Blogs". So if you've been following this blog with that Google network, and want to continue following, you'll have to sign up through the regular Follow channel (see the right-hand column).

     Also, don't forget, at the very bottom of this page I offer links to a number of retirement resources, including the Center for Retirement Research, The New Old Age, the Stanford Center on Longevity, and many more.

     Anyway . . . back to the Oregon Trail. After the pioneers had traveled over the prairie for 30 or 40 days, they started looking for signposts that signaled they were making progress. We'd traveled a little more than 500 miles when we saw the first of them: Courthouse rock, along with its smaller companion Jailhouse rock.

     A little farther down the road came the even more recognizable Chimney rock.

     And then Scott's Bluff, below on the right. Mitchell Pass runs through Scott's Bluff and South Bluff, on the left.

     We were able to drive up to the top of Scott's Bluff and walk around the summit. Just stay on the path, we were told, and watch out for rattlesnakes. We saw no rattlesnakes, but got a great view of Mitchell Pass from on high.

      After passing Scott's Bluff we soon crossed the line into Wyoming, where we were booked into Fort Laramie Bed & Breakfast.

      Little did we know that the Fort Laramie B&B is actually a 10,000-acre cattle ranch. We could have stayed in the teepee if we'd wanted . . .

     But instead we chose the main building, with the bedroom in the back.

    We experienced our first rainy day of the trip, and we sat around and read our books. After it cleared up the proprietor took us on a tour, explaining that around these parts a 10,000-acre ranch isn't really that big. You need at least 15,000 acres to run enough cattle to support a family.

    Then the next day, as we looked at the view out our front door, we realized we needed to continue heading west . . .

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Following the Rivers

     The Oregon Trail, we learned, was never one single trail leading across the plains and mountains. Instead, it consisted of a network of trails leaving from various places along the Mississippi. The trails then converged on the Platte River near Kearney, NE. Then, after following what became known as the Great Platte River Road for several hundred miles, some emigrants turned southwest to California while others continued northwest to Oregon. Starting in 1847 groups of Mormons also joined the trail, traveling up along the Platte River until they diverged south to Salt Lake.

     The earliest pioneers left from Independence, MO, as we did, and followed the Kansas River valley to the Blue River, and then up to the Platte.

     A few days out, the emigrants ran across Alcove Spring, located in northeastern Kansas. We found Alcove Springs the first day, tucked well off the main highway. Today it is still a nice, shady area with water flowing over the rocks -- "as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice," according to Edwin Bryant who was there in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party. The water was high in the Blue River that year, which delayed their crossing, and was one of the reasons the Donner party fell behind schedule and got caught in the early winter snows of the Sierra Nevada.

     At Alcove Springs there is a monument to Sarah Keyes, a member of the Donner party who expired from tuberculosis here in Kansas, long before the party was stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Originally there were 87 members of the Donner party. Only 48 survived to reach California, many of them that winter of 1847 resorting to cannibalism to avoid starvation. This monument reads: "God in his love and charity, has called in this beautiful valley, a pioneer mother."

     But all that was far in the future for the Donner party for, as you can see, when you're in Alcove Springs, you still have a long way to go.

     The Pony Express shared the trail with the emigrants for its short-lived life. For all of its lore and legend, the Pony Express ran only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. We saw this statue in Marysville, KS, commemorating those trailblazers who carried messages between the Pacific and Atlantic in a then-record time of ten days. The Pony Express closed down in 1861 after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.

     Next stop for us was Rock Creek Crossing, over the border in Nebraska, where we saw true ruts from the Oregon trail. It turns out that the small creeks were sometimes harder for the pioneers to cross than the major rivers, because the banks were too steep for the wagons. The emigrants either had to lower the wagons with ropes, or else cut away the banks to make a more gradual incline. Eventually, enterprising settlers built bridges over the creeks and charged a toll to cross. This bridge is not original, but the trail is -- although it's been worn down considerably more over the years.

     We finally reached the Platte River, a waterway that the emigrants would follow all the way from Fort Kearney to Wyoming.

     Fort Kearney was built on the Platte in 1848 to serve as a way station for the settlers. The very next year, 1849, more than 4,000 wagons stopped by on their way to find gold in California.

     Fort Kearney also later served as a station for the Pony Express, and still later was there to protect workers building the Union Pacific railroad. But after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon Trail fell into disuse, and the fort was discontinued as a military outpost in 1871. There are no original buildings left at Fort Kearney, but a stockade and several buildings have been reconstructed.

     And now we leave Fort Kearney, heading off along the Great Platte River Road toward Wyoming . . . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Setting Out from Independence

     Independence, MO, was the first and most famous departure point for westward expansion in the 1800s. First came the Santa Fe Trail, starting in 1821, which soon turned into a significant trading route between the U. S. and newly independent Mexico. Independence became a thriving, sophisticated place, and it was not uncommon, we were told, to hear English, Spanish, French and even German spoken in the streets of town.

     Then came the Oregon and California trails, starting in the early 1840s. Settlers from the East and all around the Midwest would arrive by boat on the Missouri river. They then climbed up a three mile bluff into town, dragging whatever equipment and provisions they had with them. Most of the settlers, however, traveled light and outfitted themselves in Independence, as there were plenty of people ready to provide them with wagons, mules, oxen, food and clothes.

     This is a typical wagon used by the settlers.

     But this is the wagon we're using to make the trip.

     In the 1840s the traditional departure point for both the Oregon and California trails was the courthouse in Independence. Later on, people bypassed Independence and traveled farther upriver to leave from St. Joseph, MO, or Council Bluffs, IA. This is what the Independence courthouse looks like today. The center portion of the building is original, from the 1830s, although of course it's been renovated and added onto several times in the past 180+ years.

     And this is what it looked like in the 1840s, according to a painting at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence. You can see that the basic central portion of the building is the same.

     Here's the marker outside the west side of the courthouse.

     Of course, Independence, MO, is famous for one other thing, as the hometown of Harry S Truman. There was one connection Truman had with the pioneers. When he married Bess Wallace in 1919, he moved into her house, built by her grandfather who made his money selling equipment to the west-bound settlers. They moved back into that same house after the presidency and lived there the rest of their lives.

     So anyway, we left Independence and traveled northwest through Kansas, looking for old signs that our forebearers had been through here. We found this off Route 99 in North Central Kansas . . .

     We couldn't see them either. But no fear, a little ways down the road I ran into a true pioneer woman.