The sun is low over Wyoming's South Pass, pinkening the western sky that called thousands of pioneers over this 20-mile basin between high, grassy slopes. It's beautiful and historic, and the aroma of sage pings feelings of adventure.
But my family and I are tired and hungry. We haven't seen a gas station for hours, and the nearest city is another 80 miles away. I haven't had cell service since a wildfire near Casper forced us to re-route onto dirt roads that run alongside wagon wheel ruts that formed in the ground more than 150 years ago.
Most of you know it as the Mormon Pioneer Trail. But the images and place names — Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Soda Springs — take me right back to the green glow of an Apple II and a video game that supposedly defines my generation.
Those of us in the so-called Oregon Trail Generation (born late 1970s to early 1980s) may remember well from our elementary-school computers the educational game that simulated a monthslong trek from Independence, Mo., to the Willamette Valley of Oregon — and killed us off when we made poor decisions. Allow your family to travel too long without rest or adequate rations, and little Jebediah will succumb to typhoid. Travel too slowly, and winter in Idaho will pick off your relatives one by one. Ford your wagon through a too-deep river to save the cost of a ferry, and you might end up with a pixelated tombstone and a chance to write your own epitaph (which was awesome).
Many people my age can remember when The Oregon Trail video game seemed truly pioneering. We soon watched the world shrink by orders of magnitude as the internet swept into our teenage years and early adulthood.
Folks in the mid-1800s probably felt the world getting smaller, too.
My family and I join them in our comfortable, 21st-century way, traveling from Nebraska to the South Pass, during the same time of year many emigrants would have been in these places.
Check out some of the highlights below the map.
Courthouse & Jail Rock and Chimney Rock
The first 600 miles or so of the Oregon Trail, from Missouri through most of Nebraska, was relatively smooth going along flat river valleys. So when emigrants saw these rock formations towering over the horizon, they maybe got their first clues of the terrain they were getting into. I imagine them gawking and saying: "Wow. It all starts here."
So we started there.
The two sites are only about 20 miles apart — a full day's travel in a wagon, but a short drive for us. Courthouse & Jailhouse Rock is to the east and the solitary sandstone walls "stand in all their loneliness, like huge monuments," wrote Lt. J. Henry Carleton in 1845 as he escorted travelers through the plains. There is a pullout with an interpretive sign.
A more elaborate exhibit awaits at Chimney Rock, the most renowned landmark of the westward migration of the mid-1800s. A museum depicts life on the trail — including a wagon-packing simulator to show the competing priorities of weight and efficiency. Museum admission is $3 per adult.
Scotts Bluff has probably the finest hiking on this segment of the Oregon Trail. The park has five trails of varying lengths around the large rock bluffs that formed Mitchell Pass, a shortcut passageway that pioneers began using in 1851. The rocky overlooks make for scenic hiking with great views of western Nebraska (prettier than you think), and lots of wildflowers when I visited in late June.
A visitor center has a museum, interpretive trail and ranger programs. Monument admission is $5 per vehicle.
Fort Laramie opened as a fur-trading post in the 1830s and later became an Army post. As emigrants passed through and tepee encampments gathered around the fort, it became a busy point of commerce on the trail. It eventually was a base for large military campaigns against local tribes as more and more emigrants pushed into their territories.
Today the National Park Service has restored and furnished several buildings with nifty antiques. "Old Bedlam," the bachelor officers' quarters and the oldest documented building in Wyoming, was my favorite, with its messy display of frontier fun; booze and cards sit on a table, and a banjo is propped against a wall. Historical demonstrations and other ranger programs take place daily in summer. Admission is free.
The westward expansion is a fraught topic for me.
As a traveler who loves the West, I can feel my eyes getting shiny at tales of pioneers who persevered into the wild unknowns of this beautiful land.
But as a human being with a brain, I also know this land was stolen.
Hagiographic depictions of pioneers make me queasy. They seem so tied to entitled, racist notions of manifest destiny. We need to be honest about history.
When the Chimney Rock visitor center video explains the U.S. military presence on the frontier with a claim that "Americans needed" a safe way to travel west, that is not honest — unless only white people count as "Americans" and their ambition for riches at the expense of hundreds of thousands of American Indians counts as a "need."
Art is not honest when it shows pioneers like Renaissance angels, with billowing fabrics and flowing hair and faces held high, while American Indians are shown lurking in shadows and bushes.
It is not honest to talk reverently about the hardships pioneers faced without also talking about the hardships they inflicted. Something is not good just because it is hard.
And still, the hard makes it fascinating. I probably wouldn't have made this trip in the 1840s. It would be too difficult. Too risky. I have to concede that much to the pioneers.
I feel this conflict most acutely at the Guernsey Ruts. The ruts are some of the most defined and visible wagon tracks and swales along the Oregon Trail. Some are 4 feet deep where teams of oxen dragged up wagons single file, the wheels grating into the crest of a steep rocky slope — a better path than the marshy ground below. The creaking, slogging, bumping difficulty of wagon travel is palpable here. Of all the sites we've visited, this is where I feel most connected to the pioneers' struggle.
And then: the interpretive sign.
"Wagon wheels cut solid rock, carving a memorial to Empire Builders," it reads.
Maybe, just maybe, that shouldn't be a point of pride.
Maybe it's time to see what was carved not as a memorial, but a scar.
The Real Oregon Trail
We had planned to take Wyoming Highway 220 into the west part of the state. But a few miles out of Casper, a wildfire blocked traffic. We, like the pioneers, were on a time crunch (though ours had to do with a pending conference call at work as opposed to likely death by hypothermia on a snowy mountain should our trek extend into winter).
So we followed the old pros onto dirt roads through wild Wyoming, following the exact tracks of the Oregon Trail.
We started at Bessemer Bend, where emigrants said goodbye to the Platte River and began a long stretch of rocky, waterless, often grassless terrain. Pioneers often found themselves passing through an alley of rotting carcasses of oxen that dropped in their tracks. Today local families picnic and fish alongside the river.
At Natrona County Road 319, the fun begins. The roadside is sprinkled with trail markers where distinct swales are visible, and pioneers made note of many landmarks as they worked their way through this wracking leg of the journey. The first is Avenue of Rocks, also known as Devil's Backbone — a strip of sharp stones running along a low ridge.
A few miles after that is Willow Springs — the first drinkable water after Bessemer Bend and a relief to emigrants and oxen. My family was attacked by deer flies the moment we got out to see the historical marker, and we fled this supposedly great resting spot yelping and flapping our arms.
The road ascends Prospect Hill, where pioneers saw the Wyoming landscape stretch to the mountains.
Independence Rock, Devil's Gate and Martin's Cove
Back on Wyoming 220, Independence Rock appears on the horizon, lending a sense of schedule to our journey. The big, tortoiselike formation became known as Independence Rock as trail wisdom held that a wagon party would need to arrive at the landmark by July 4 to reach the Willamette Valley before winter.
The state has developed a nice interpretive trail at this highway rest stop, and paths lead to a display of commemorative plaques and pioneer inscriptions on the rock.
To the west, the sky can be seen through a gap in a high rock wall north of the highway. This is Devil's Gate, an attractive hiking area and historic site. A short, paved overlook trail leads from a highway turnout; a 1-mile hike to Devil's Gate begins at the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center, less than a mile west of the overlook. This hike, with its graceful meadows and sparkling ponds, is magical to me. When I took my daughter a few years ago, friendly horses crossed a field to greet us with velvety nose nuzzles.
I haven't yet explored the visitor center, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Admission is free, and exhibits teach about the Mormon migration with a focus on the Martin Handcart Company, which lost many members in a blizzard at nearby Martin's Cove.
We arrive at South Pass not quite sure what we're looking at.
In pictures, this is a flat area next to a squat bluff. Apparently a lot of pioneers also passed over maybe the most important landmark on the Oregon Trail without seeing it.
The South Pass is a 20-mile-wide smooth spot over the Continental Divide, at the end of a gradual incline from Independence Rock. "It was the best path over America's spine and the controlling factor in how the big east-west trails across America were routed. "Some 500,000 pioneers crossed this point — farm families, gold diggers, Mormons, Pony Express riders.
"On all sides, I see multitudes of people, wagons, cattle and at all times throng the way," minister Franklin Langworthy wrote from the South Pass as he crossed in 1850. "The road, from morning 'til night, is crowded like Pearl Street or Broadway."
There probably were many who showed up, like me, with tired and hungry kids, not sure if they should have tried to make the trip. As my daughter pleads for "real supper" in the middle of nowhere after a day of road-trip junk food, I ask my husband, "Should we have just gone to the interstate at Rawlins? Or was our mistake two days ago when we decided to do this?"
Matching the pang of second guesses is the beauty of this lookout, where the last western light reflects on the Wind River Range and pronghorns squawk and chatter among the wildflowers behind us. It's our tiny version of the extreme and persistent tension of risk and reward on the Oregon Trail — the ultimate test of decisionmaking, where so many people chanced potentially crushing regrets, again and again, to reach a place that everyone wanted a piece of.