Note: Watch for the giveaway drawing later in this post.
At first I didn’t recognize the creatures that sped away from my car’s approach while retracing the Oregon Trail. My traveling companions were a female relative we'll call Julie, her two sons, and my young daughter.
Catch up on this epic road trip adventure:
- October covered the Whitman Mission and Union, Oregon. Read it.
- November took us to Baker City, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Three Island Crossing in Idaho, and Saratoga’s Hotel Wolfe. Read it.
|This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt.|
Traveling the Oregon Trail Backwards
Wyoming Prairie and Devil's Gate
Another deer that was not a deer leaped a fence and sped away from my car’s approach. What on earth were these strange creatures? I’d seen them for miles on end while crossing the prairie. Their tan bodies with cream underbellies would remind me of deer if their horns branched. They also ran faster than any deer I’d ever seen, reminding me of gazelles.
I frowned in puzzlement until a childhood song ran through my mind. Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.
|Image by Thomas Quine [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons|
"I bet they're antelope!"
Julie had been staring after a heard of the fleeing creatures, jumped at my sudden outburst. "Oh, of course!" She shook her head. "I guess you can tell we're not from around here."
"You think?" I smiled, ridiculously happy to know that the creatures I'd sung about as a child still run wild in America. I'd seen wild bison, known as "buffalo" to pioneers, in Yellowstone National Park and on other road trips, but had somehow missed seeing antelope.
Now that I have you humming "Home on the Range," here's a video that shows amazing glimpses of pioneer families and the homes they lived in.
|The "Devil's Gate" by Alfred Jacob Miller ca. 1858-60, a watercolor on paper, |
commissioned by William T. Walters, 1858-1860; Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum
Cut by the Sweetwater River on its way through the Rattlesnake Mountains, Devil's gate was visible from the highway for miles. Wanting to spend as long as possible at Independence Rock, we decided to skip hiking for a closer view of Devil's Gate. If you want to know the whole truth, the heat was more than we could tolerate, and the possibility of surprising a rattlesnake clenched the deal. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
The romanticized painting of Devil's Gate by Alfred Jacob Miller in the image above makes me want to go back and navigate the trail. If I do, it will be in milder weather.
While driving through waving grasslands with the sun beating down, I wondered how travelers on the Oregon Trail survived the heat, sometimes with unreliable sources of water. They had to be hardy souls.
Captain John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), with Kit Carson as his guide, led a company of half-starved men past Devil's Gate in 1844. They were headed westward, searching for the fabled Buenaventura River, believed to flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Fremont described Devil's Gate with these words: "The length of the passage is about 300 yards, and the width 35 yards. The walls of rock are verticle [sic], and about 400 feet in height; and the stream in the gate is almost entirely choked up by masses which have fallen from above."
Rockfall made the narrow gorge impassable for wagon trains but Devil's Gate intrigued emigrants and most took the opportunity to investigate it. They camped at its base, watched bighorn sheep scale the Sweetwater Rocks, climbed themselves, and carved their initials in the granite. Emigrant inscriptions are still visible in the stone today.
Some died here. More than 20 pioneer graves are thought to exist in the area, but only the gave of Frederick Fulkerson has been positively identified. Frederick died after swimming across the Platte River in order to guide frightened livestock across. Chilled and exhausted, he never recovered from the ordeal. Frederick was just eighteen at the time of his death. His is one of the oldest known emigrant graves in the nation.
View of Devil's Gate from Independence Rock; image courtesy of wyomingtalesandtrails.com.
Are you wondering, as I did, how Devil's Gate came by its ominous name? Different stories exist. The Shoshone and Arapaho told the story for centuries of a giant tusked monster that roamed here until Indian warriors killed it by shooting arrows from the passes and ravines. Enraged, the beast carved a hold in the mountain with its tusks and escaped. Could this legend have sprung from the tribal memory of a mastodon that once ranged here, carried forward through time?
Scientists once thought Native Americans weren't around at the time of the mastodons. However, the Manis Mastodon in Washington state changed their thinking when acheologists discovered a spear tip embedded in the rib bones.
Continuing the Journey
Seven miles to the east rose Independence Rock, a cherished landmark on the Oregon Trail. Exploring it stands as one of the most memorable events on the trip. I'll continue with that story next month on the 8th. See you then.