The mid 1800’s saw THOUSANDS of covered wagons following the Oregon Trail, their owners looking for a new life on a new coast. Near what is now Guernsey, Wyoming, the river forced wagons to head over sandstone rocks. The iron-shod wheels, the hooves of the oxen and horses, and even the feet of the travelers wore the rock down into impressive ruts. Some places the grooves are five feet deep!
The grasslands do sport some pretty flowers, and interesting birds, like this Eastern Kingbird.
Below you can see a family resting near Register Cliff, where hundreds of names were carved in the soft sandstone.
The signatures served as an important register of who had passed that way, and when.
We met a family who were searching for the inscription of one of their ancestors. The grandpa said he’d seen the family name, and an appropriate date, when he looked 25 years or so ago. They had four or more folks looking for it now, and couldn’t find it. There is a cyclone fence in front of the oldest signatures to protect them, but in the unguarded area lots of newer names and dates appear. It is somewhat interesting to me that current names and dates are considered graffiti, and really frowned upon, but when they did it in the 1860’s it was important documentation. A matter of time and perspective…
One of the photos below shows a drawing of a girl in a striped skirt. Is this a century and half year old selfie? Or was some young man documenting his beautiful love interest? Or just a bored young person seeking entertainment?
Thousands of Cliff Swallows have built nests in crevices on the cliff face. They fly in and out at tremendous speed, assumably in the right nest each time. Fascinating to watch, almost impossible to catch the flights with a camera!
An important part of our Oregon Trail exploration was to experience some “Pioneer Cooking”. Cooking over an open fire was to be a big part of it, and there were other interesting dishes we would try. One night we were at a place that didn’t allow fires. Bummer! We made cornbread from cornmeal ground in a mill built in the 1830’s. (Read about that mill here) To carry on the pioneer theme we baked the cornbread in a Dutch (Star) Oven. We later had corn meal mush for breakfast. Other pioneer food included Johnny Cakes and Flapjacks.
One evening we tried a fire, but the clouds were blowing in and the weather getting more ominous by the minute. The campground-supplied firewood was really a lot more like yard debris, but we got a fire going. We wrapped corn on the cob in foil and cooked it in the fire. And we did get to try “Campfire Bread on a Stick”. The idea is to roll the dough into a long “snake”, then wrap it around a good stick, and roast it over the fire. When it is nice and brown, you slide it off the stick, and fill the center void with butter and jam. We didn’t have time before the storm to find good sticks, so roasted our twisted bread on hot dog skewers. It worked really well, but we didn’t have a hollow center to fill with jam. (They tasted great with jam on the outside.)
I’d been to the city of Scotts Bluff long ago, but never to the actual bluffs. These served as an important waypoint on the Trail. A short drive will take your car (NOT your RV) up to the top of the bluffs, for some awesome views.
They claim the survey marker on top of one of the bluffs was put into the rock flush, and the weather has eroded the rock so much the marker stands over a foot above the rock face now. They didn’t say how long ago the marker was placed, and won’t let you climb the rocks to read it. It’s hard to believe the erosion could do so much, even if that was placed in the 50’s. If you saw it when it was flush with the rock surface, let me know!
Hiking trails lead across the tops of the bluffs, making for nice walks and super views!
We had a nice campsite with a view of Chimney Rock. Maybe one of the most famous landmarks along the trail, in the mid 1800’s one traveller commented that he doubted it would last more than another decade or two. If it has eroded like they claim Scotts Bluff has, it must have been staggeringly tall back then!
Sunset at Chimney Rock campground.
A picnic outside the wagon was very likely how the pioneers ate. So we did too.
We hiked a trail that takes you to the base of Chimney Rock, with a suitable plaque.
The Chimney Rock Cemetery is at the head of the trail, and has some heartbreaking old memorials, including some for children that only lived a few months. There are many markers from the 1800’s, but most of the big tombstones were from later. I don’t think they took materials to make tombstones in the wagons!
Courthouse Rock and Jailhouse Rock are other prominent landmarks. I did wonder what kind of folks these were, that named rocks for legal punishment systems. Were they running from the law?
Our own Wagon Train…
Last stop was Fort Laramie, in Wyoming. It never had a wall around it like you think of a frontier fort – it was more like a village. It was a trading post and resupply station for the wagon trains, and had a military presence to keep all the different cultures – Trappers, Traders, Emigrants, Indians and Solders – in the area peaceful.
We saw a few reconstructions of wagons, and it is amazing to think how small they are, when you think they carried all of a family’s worldly goods, plus food and supplies for a many month trip. Many Mormons used the first part of the Oregon Trail on their way to Utah, in search of land where they could live undisturbed. They often could not afford oxen, and pulled small two-wheeled carts like below – BY HAND. Amazing! Kevin and I didn’t get the wagon below very far.
Fort Laramie barracks were huge. The men lived in the upper floor, with long rows of beds along the walls. Offices and common spaces were below. It is said the soldiers spent much more time maintaining the fort than they did fighting. They referred to the fort as the “Government Workhouse”. Desertion rates were high; as much as 30 percent. Deserters were executed if caught, and since there was no civilization within hundreds of miles, they usually died if not caught. Wagon trains would not welcome deserting soldiers, because they would be legally liable as accomplices, and they certainly didn’t need extra mouths to feed along the trail.
“Old Bedlam”, the white building below, was called that referring to the rowdy bachelor officers housed there. It claims to be the oldest building in Wyoming.
Many of the old buildings are in ruins. The Captain’s quarters were in this beautiful white building. (Restored)
The original Guardhouse was used as a jail, designed for 40 prisoners, but often held more. I can’t imagine that many people in the tiny space. The prisoners had no furniture, heat or light. The Fort Surgeon complained about the unhealthy conditions in the old guardhouse, so a newer one was built in 1876.
Our last picture on our Oregon Trail trip…
On our trip home (Kevin and Becky to their home, we to our Lincoln campground), they had to stop for fuel. We said we’d keep going, since we had no more stops planned together. We would not get fuel until we got to York, where our fleet Diesel card showed the lowest price. We travelled by ourselves to York, and while our motorhome was taking on fuel, I was washing bugs off the windshield… and all of a sudden, the kids and grandkids appeared from behind our coach and said “Surprise! We brought Ice Cream!” We’d planned a special Ice Cream event that hadn’t happened. They knew I’d told them we’d stop in York, and used the “find friends” app on the phone to find us! So we had a fun Ice Cream Party in the truck stop! How cool is that??
Back in Lincoln
Back at our campsite, we were able to do some non-pioneer things, like swim in a nice pool, and cook some very contemporary S’mores over the campfire. Ours were made with Becky’s homemade Raspberry Flavored Marshmallows. Awesome stuff!
Over the miles, our poor Newmar Mudflap has gotten beat up. With it bent and filthy, I finally broke down and tried to repair it. Removing it let me see how ratty it really had gotten. I straightened it out (pretty well), and cleaned and polished it. It now is so shiny it might blind someone if they follow me too closely with headlights shining on it.
I will close with a public service announcement. When was the last time you changed your blinker fluid?? As you can see, this is “Max Strength,” and is good for about 8,000 blinks. Don’t neglect this important service item!
And Special Thanks to Katrina Emery:
Her guidebook was very helpful, and we look forward to exploring more of the trail with her guidance in the future.
You can check it out here. Do it!