When I wrote my book about John Bidwell in 2010, I had never seen the country he traversed on his journey from Missouri to California in 1841 (other than, of course, parts of California, where I live.) I got it all out of books. So I was delighted to finally have the opportunity to trace a part of the Oregon-California Trail and follow in the footsteps of the pioneers, if only for a little way.
I retired from my job as a librarian in April, and my husband retired in May. At last we weren’t limited to vacations of only a week or so! We planned a road trip to Wisconsin, where our son and his family live, with some time to see some of the sights along the way.
On our way home, after visiting Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, we headed south to pick up the Oregon Trail at Chimney Rock. Interstate-80 more or less follows the Platte River and the trail of the pioneers, so driving along I-80 took us to Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, Register Cliff and northwest along the Platte River to Caspar, Wyoming, where we (and the pioneers) finally turned southwest with the river to Independence Rock.
It was enormously useful and enjoyable to see at last what this western landscape looks like, and to get a sense of the distance, the weather, the hardships of the trail. In our car it only took a few hours to travel the distance that the Bidwell-Bartleson Party spent twelve days traveling. 70 miles an hour for us versus 18-20 miles a day for them. (That was very good time for ox-drawn wagons on the open prairie, and the maximum that ox teams could be expected to do.)
But when we got out of the car, felt the sun and the wind, and looked out over the long stretches of sand and gravel, sagebrush and grass, with the enormous blue sky overhead, we could get an inkling of what it felt like to slowly walk on, mile after mile, wondering and worrying just how far was it to California.