You have to hunt to find it, but this stone marker, set here a century ago, was set right here to memorialize a highway that for a couple of rowdy decades swept through this patch of ground. That road probably appeared at the top of hill behind the marker, then ran down the slope somewhere close to that dead tree and came right there where I'm standing, starting its push, roughly northwest, into Nebraska--the Oregon Trail.
The very first white folks to "do" the trail were the Whitmans, a couple of newlywed missionaries bound for eastern Washington. It was 1836. Mrs. Whitman's letters home were a marvel and got published in newspapers out east, sparking their own kind of romance in hearts and minds all over this nation.
With any luck at all, overland travelers in these kinds of big-wheeled buggies could make 15 to 20 miles a day or soon the trail, pulled along by loyal beasts of burden who had to be fed and watered and rested and usually created quite a herd. Crossing innumerable creeks took a far worse toll than anything inflicted by Native people. If you rubbed pitch int these things--and you were lucky--they could sometimes pass as rafts.
More often it wasn't the water that was the problem--it was the depth of the rugged gorges that simply had to be navigated.
Despite the dangers, the many trials on the trail, as many as 400,000 people moved west on the Oregon Trail, which eventually, as you can imagine, became "the Oregon Trail(s)" because pioneers were always on the look out for a better way, a faster way.
Hard as it is to believe, you can still see the Oregon Trail in a gallery of places out west because it's still there in the grass or, farther west, in the stone. Hard to imagine, but all traffic west had to move through the same path for maybe twenty years--all traffic, freighters and traders and gamblers and all kinds of fortune seekers. If you were going to northern California or Oregon, you went down this road.
Today, there are places where the trail gets babied, like here, at Nebraska's Rock Creek Station, where the man who owned the ground back then jerry-rigged a bridge--you can see one like it down there if you look close--and charged a toll for every last wagon that made its shaky way across. He did well, as you can imagine.
This piece of the Oregon Trail is well managed. Still, it's unimaginable to see a hundred thousand prairie schooners parading down this path and across a flimsy bridge, then up the hill and on west. People use the word interstate in jest when they're talking about the Oregon Trail, but it's really not an exaggeration or a metaphor. Today you have to hunt to find it. The Trail is way, way off the beaten path; but once upon a time it was an interstate.
Up on the other side of the bridge, the trail slopes up a long hill, where the ground is neither as sandy or rocky as it is on the east. Sad to say, it's almost impossible to shoot with a camera, but here it is, best I can do.
Along the horizon, you can just see the slightest v, a swail. At times, that ten-foot wide furrow is probably four or five feet deep, but today it's full of wildflowers and prairie grasses and barely visible. But it's there. Trust me. It's there, a path in the landscape that isn't going away.
The park--the state really--wants to keep it there, keep it visible, noticeable, a memorial. They want to hold it in reserve for your and my great-grandchildren to see and imagine a freeway, an interstate right here at a place so far off the beaten track that it took us a GPS to find it--and then some. They want to preserve what remains of the Oregon Trail.
The best way to keep it, they discovered--now get this--was and is to let it return to prairie. That heavy blanket of grasses thrown over the Oregon Trail right now is a quilt that's starting to turn with the seasons, but it's also the garb that'll best keep the trail whole.
There's just something about that that's fitting, isn't there? Nature itself will keep it best.