following the trail

tensleep
Highway 16 in the Cloud Peak Wilderness

Point at Genesis all you like, but I don’t believe God created Wyoming for humans to live in. It is marvelous handiwork nonetheless! Aesthetically, from the comfort of a car with a full tank of gas, especially if it has heated seats and a good sound system, there’s no better road trip than across Highway 16 on the Cloud Peak Highway and through the Wind River Range.

Oregon Trail
the Oregon Trail just south of Casper, WY

The actual Oregon Trail is somewhat south of that route, through a broad river valley created by the North Platte and the Sweetwater, crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. It’s an ancient Native American route between east and west, created by water, as all the best routes are, and it’s certainly more practical than the route Lewis and Clark took in the early 19th century!

southpasscity
South Pass City on 3 April 2016

Willow Creek is the the little stream that feeds the Gold Rush town of South Pass City. If this creek started six miles further west, that water would end up in the Colorado River heading southwest to grow lettuce in the Imperial Valley and water lawns in Los Angeles. If it were further north, it would eventually join the Columbia River and flow past Portland to the Pacific.

Willow Creek in South Pass City
Willow Creek in South Pass City

Instead, it joins the Sweetwater River, and then the North Platte at Alcova, WY, the Platte itself at Brady, NE, the Missouri at Nebraska City, the Mississippi at St. Louis, and then flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting by the side of the creek this weekend, I imagined I could feel the gravitational pull towards the east and the south. This water is urging me to New Orleans, and I have to fight to imagine heading up and over the Continental Divide out to the West.

When I paddled through the Chain of Rocks six years ago, a real but vanishingly small percentage of the water I was flowing with came from Willow Creek in South Pass City.

That is a miraculous thing.

Willow Creek downstream flow
Willow Creek downstream flow

The scale of Wyoming is not human scale. England, that green and pleasant land, is human scale. Even Vermont is human scale, by comparison with Wyoming. Vermont is brutal in winter, certainly you can die of exposure or whatever, but there’s a sense that you as an individual human being can somehow find shelter, build a little nest in a ravine somewhere to protect yourself from the wind and snow and wild beasts. I do not feel that way in Wyoming. It is quite clear that I could die out here very easily. It is very beautiful, but it is not a green and pleasant land.

near Atlantic City, WY
near Atlantic City, WY

Perhaps when the buffalo were here, it felt different? Then there was a plentiful source of food, clothing, and even shelter just from that one animal, and small bands of humans could survive and even thrive by living on the wealth that the buffalo created for them.

But now the buffalo are gone. And the overriding feeling I am left with as an individual traveling alone in this landscape is exposure and vulnerability. Those feelings lead to awe, I have to say, when I think of a half million immigrants struggling across this landscape in wagons and handcarts. There’s something both terrible and thrilling about the ferocious fragility of human ambition: what were the desperate dreams of the people who embarked on this journey, what was so unbearableĀ about the places and the situations they were escaping from?

The Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY
the Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY

no place dedicated to solitude

from Chief Seattle’s 1855 speech:

1. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God lest you forget.
2. The red man could never comprehend nor remember it.
3. Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,
4. the dreams of our old men, given to them in the solemn hours of the night by the great spirit and the visions of our leaders, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
5. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; they wander far away beyond the stars and are soon forgotten and never return.
6. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being.
7. They always love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them.
8. We will ponder your proposition, and when we decide we will tell you.
9. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves where we have buried our ancestors, and our friends, and our children.
10. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
11. Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the lives of my people.
12. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among the white man shall have become a myth these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe;
13. and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the fields, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
14. At night when the streets of your cities and villages will be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
15. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not powerless.
16. Dead — did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.