Hello friends and family!
This (admittedly overdue) blog post really starts a few weeks ago in Elko, Nevada. I’d stopped off to gamble in a smoky casino and eat a pasty, the Cornish hand-pie beloved by coal miners, and then decided to visit a museum about the migrations of the mid-1800s that brought successive waves of settlement to the American West. The Oregon Trail was the superhighway of its time, while the California Trail was an offshoot popularized around the time of the gold rush. The Mormon Trail moved thousands of Mormons escaping religious persecution in Nebraska, ending up in their new Eden of Salt Lake City. Between the 1830s and the 1860s – when the railroad was built and negated the need for overland wagon travel – nearly 300,000 people walked across the continent along these trails. We’re talking 5000 miles on foot! We’re talking starvation, exhaustion, winter, cholera, dysentery, children getting crushed under wagon wheels, men killed in confrontation with (understandably upset) Indigenous people, men killed in spats over biscuits, and women giving birth to babies in the backs of wagons. I love how rich and recent American settler history is. Even the earliest white western migration happened only 200 years ago! In some arid places, you can still find wagon wheel ruts pitted in the earth.
As I drove east across the country I hewed pretty close to the trails. First I spent some time on the salt flats of Utah, a notoriously brutal stretch of early California-bound routes. Later travellers avoided the flats at all costs, for obvious reasons. They stretch out for miles and miles, a white expanse so bright in the sun that it hurts to open your eyes. It’s so flat you can see the curvature of the earth. At that time I was reading an account of the Donner Party, and their diaries detailed the suffering they endured in the salt flats as oxen went mad with thirst and the families walked all night, hiding from the sun by day. What meagre water they found was brackish and fouled. How heavy each ounce of one’s burden would feel! As migrants travelled west, they shed their possessions bit by bit until the trail was lined with discarded pots and pans, decaying oxen corpses, broken wagon wheels, once-treasured family heirlooms, and the graves of hastily buried men. Others stayed behind to scavenge and resell and repair the detritus – crafty men who saw a good business opportunity.
After the salt flats I crossed into southern Wyoming, where the interstate highway runs along the original Oregon Trail and Pony Express route. (Side note: did you know the Pony Express was only in operation for one year? The telegraph was invented and immediately negated the need for pony-based mailmen. Considering how large it looms in American mythology, I found that pretty funny!) Wyoming has a geography defined by scent: fifty percent of its land cover is sagebrush, and the warm scent of the sage carries far on the wind. The landscape is uniformly a pale green steppe covered in low-growing sage and dotted with huge packs of grazing antelopes. From the highway I passed by the engines of Wyoming’s economy: wind turbines, free-ranging cattle, strip mines, coal trains, and fortress-like chemical plants with steaming stacks. Pretty bleak. In the small coal towns I saw billboards for the Black Lung Association, men having 10am cigars in darkened bars, a pair of shoes made from the tanned skin of an outlaw bank robber lynched long ago. Super bleak. But there are so few people living in Wyoming that you’re more likely to see deer and antelope than you are to pass a house or a town. It’s not empty like the abandoned towns in the Rust Belt or the Deep South, where once-populous places have atrophied as people moved to big cities. It’s empty as in nobody ever settled here in the first place.
The waters of Wyoming are wild and lonely and cold, and mostly frozen at this time of year. Each time I drove across a bridge I thought of the migrants forced to float their wagons across rivers, wading their oxen neck-deep through running water, carrying their children on their shoulders so they wouldn’t be swept away. I crossed over the Green River and stood at the very point from which the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell embarked on his famous 1869 trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers – the first expedition to float the Grand Canyon. I followed the North Platte River south to Saratoga, home to the sizzling Hobo Hot Springs. Perhaps so named because they are free and open to the public 24 hours a day, or perhaps so named because when I was there I met drugged-out hobos panning for gold in the river, who then warmed their wasted bodies in the hot pools.
In the northeast corner of Wyoming stands the Devil’s Tower, a sloping stone monolith striated into vertical columns of rock that are apparently a rock climber’s dream. It is a very humbling place, and a sacred place as well. The local indigenous people tell origin stories likening the Tower to a tree stump that has been scored by the claw marks of a large bear. All throughout the surrounding forest brightly coloured prayer bundles hang from branches, left as offerings and blessings. At the base of the woods, the trees open into meadows where prairie dogs congregate in underground “towns,” recognizable by the mounded openings where dogs sit sentry. When approached they throw their little paws in their air and scream a warning, which is then echoed by other sentries until each dog is worked into a fearful frenzy and sits low in its hole, wagging its black-tipped tail and chirping in alarm. It’s a great joy to stroll through a dog town and feel like the monster in a fairy tale, a figure of great power – particularly after feeling so small and insignificant in the presence of the Tower.
Contrast the thrill of a prairie dog town to walking through a herd of bison, who could not care less about the presence of a human in their midst. I passed into South Dakota and camped in Badlands National Park, where prairie dogs skittered around my van and bison routinely grazed their way through the campground. They are such strange creatures: huge heads, heavy humps, narrow hips, and spindly little legs that seem unable to support such a bulk. How do they not topple forward? They’re a delight to watch as they play and wrestle and scratch their butts on fence posts for hours. Unfortunately, I was assaulted by winter weather so bad that I decided it was time to stop meandering and head home. I spent the next week driving through snowstorms, sleeping in casino parking lots, and torching my savings at the gas pump until I made it back to Canada.
I’m back! But I can’t sit still for long. I’m going to be moving to Prince Edward County for a while, so stay tuned for all the exciting details!