This happened a while ago. It was one of those warm and sunny late-autumn days that call out “Last chance?” and propel you to get outdoors right now, and go somewhere, anywhere.
We had chosen to drive beyond Lander and then southwest. We were going to find the spot where, 209 years earlier almost to the day, Robert Stuart and his fellow explorers had camped for the night after they finally reached the legendary “shorter trace to the south” across the Rockies. Now known as South Pass, what Stuart called a “handsome low gap” leads widely and gradually over the Continental Divide, accessible to wagons and therefore, much later, to hundreds of thousands of emigrants heading west.
It had not been easy to find. Returning to St. Louis from the Northwest, Stuart and his band of Astorian fur traders had a long and arduous journey, traveling on foot when they could not obtain horses. They endured periods of starvation, angry disagreements, unsettling encounters with natives, misdirections (intentional or otherwise), and perilous, unnecessary detours.
We’d learned about all this in detail from Across the Great Divide, the biography of Robert Stuart written by his descendant, author and chronicler of Wyoming history Layton McCartney, a former part-time resident of Dubois whom we got to know briefly after we moved here from New York City. We now live close enough to see the exact historic spot he had described, and we set out to find it.
Unlike Stuart and his fellows, we knew the way in general, having driven the highway from Lander to Farson many times. But we had never crossed any part of that familiar sage and sand plain on foot. Nor had we ever before paid any particular attention to the Oregon Buttes, the huge rocky formations that were a landmark to all those westward-bound pioneers who passed by along the Oregon and Mormon trails.
“Follow the Oregon Buttes Road 2.9 miles to the crossing of a small, dirt two-track road,” directed our little red guide book, Day Hiking the Wind River Range. “Park here and begin walking to the right (west).”
Simple enough instructions, it seems. They were certainly much clearer than the ambiguous directions in reports from earlier explorers and rough translations of communications from natives, which were all that Stuart and his crew of explorers had to aid their search for an easier passage back east. We had the little guidebook, the biography, a topo map, and a general feel for the area (but no GPS, lacking signal). Nonetheless, we were puzzled from the outset.
The dirt double-track that headed west from Oregon Buttes Road was actually 2.1 miles south of the highway, not 2.9 miles as the guidebook said. There was no such track at 2.9 miles. So we got out of the car at 2.1 miles and walked west, already uncertain (as Stuart and his party almost always were) whether we were going the right way.
To our right, we could easily see what Stuart called the “southern terminus of the mighty Wind River Range”—the same range that towers over Dubois.
After a few hundred yards, another track took off to the left. We chose that direction, partly because we saw RVs parked farther along the other track, to the right.
We were looking for trail markers, not campsites, and there were good signs off to the left—specifically, these concrete markers which seemed designed to point the way to the old pioneer trails.
Our guidebook promised an easy 1.5 mile hike, marked at the 0.7-mile point with a fenced area surrounding two stone markers erected to designate the actual pass and the Oregon Trail, and another commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, the first women on this trail, who came this way with their husbands in 1836.
We didn’t have pedometers, but we did have a general sense of how long it takes to hike ¾ of a mile on the flat. We passed through a gate in a barbed-wire fence, and we had seen the trail markers. But there was nothing like a monument to pioneer women.
However, looking at the map, we could easily identify our original goal: the eastern slope of a hill immediately northwest of present-day Pacific Springs. There, the Stuart party were forced to camp. As McCartney wrote, “the wind and snow hampered their progress” when, after a 15-mile hike, they could easily see the gap between the mountains just ahead.
We stopped to consult the map, still trying to decide where we were compared to where they must have been. Pacific Springs was clearly marked. The east-facing slope in question had to be the shallow one, distant but easily identifiable, off to our right and ahead.
It must have been disheartening beyond description for the men to reach that spot, finally to see the gap ahead, and not be able to attain it because of the Wyoming’s unpredictable autumn weather. In passing, it left a layer of snow on their blankets that vanished the next day. We recognize this weather pattern.
I took a picture, and we traveled on. But where were the legendary deep tracks of the Oregon Trail? We abandoned the track we had been following and walked overland across the sagebrush flats, in the general direction of that slope, heading toward a deep culvert on our side of the ridge.
And there, just up a rise, we found the fence, the two rough stone markers, and the unmistakable deep ruts of the original Oregon Trail. This is only one of many sets of deep wagon ruts in the area, we learned later, because of course not all of the 19th-century migrants followed exactly the same path westward across this desolate, flat country.
I hiked the deep ruts back toward our car, passing a fifth-wheeler and a pickup along the way. More recent off-road vehicles than covered wagons must have helped carve these grooves, I decided.
When the Stuart party crossed here, they took one last unfortunate detour. The path not chosen would have led them relatively straight northward to the Sweetwater River, and on toward the Missouri River and St. Louis. Unfortunately, near their camp they had discovered a fresh and easily identified trail left by Crow natives, whom they had reason to fear. So they turned south instead.
After taking time to climb one of the Oregon Buttes, which are much larger and more imposing than they appear from the modern highway, the men headed into the Red Desert. Layton McCartney depicted this as “four and a half million acres of rainbow colored badlands, towering buttes, high desert, and shifting, 10-foot-high sand dunes.”
This vast and forbidding terrain is basically a huge bowl created as the Continental Divide splits and then rejoins, noted on Wyoming maps as the Great Divide Basin. It has no outward-bound watersheds and is remarkably barren–nothing like the rolling, high plains the party had anticipated from the reports of other explorers.
“Stuart and his companions might have been in the Sahara Desert,” McCartney added. They wandered for many days without water, before finally turning northward to find a stream that led them to the Missouri, and civilization.
Having returned to our car after a pleasant jaunt on a lovely afternoon, we headed briefly in the direction of the Red Desert. The dirt road led bumpily downhill and quickly became impassable. We turned back toward the highway, going in the direction Stuart should have chosen.