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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 unbearable about the places and the situations they were escaping from?