Those of us who live in Wyoming find long road trips to be undaunting, even familiar. Spending four hours driving from one part of the state to another isn’t unusual.
But every time I make a pilgrimage from east to west, I find myself thinking of the thousands of emigrants who spent days on end covering the same country I zip over at 70 mph; of the challenges they faced walking alongside covered wagons while I adjust my air conditioning by two degrees; and of the aspirations that fueled them while I enjoy the convenience of visiting my in-laws 300 miles away.
This summer marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Cross-country races are being planned in honor of this anniversary, but I think we should slow down to find its stories. After all, America’s pioneers didn’t cross the nation in a matter of days.
There’s reason to spend more time on one stretch of the trail to write about this anniversary. The Oregon-Mormon-California Trails and Pony Express all cross the Continental Divide in Wyoming’s Wind River Country. Were it not for South Pass — a wide and gently climbing route that allowed wagons to cross the Continental Divide, America would not stretch “from sea to shining sea.”
Cruise along U.S. Route 287 in Wyoming’s Fremont County to see the landmark of Split Rock, which, as a famous discernible landmark, acted as a beacon for the pioneers who crossed the prairie. Step in the ruts of the trail or pull a Mormon handcart just a short drive from Split Rock. Visit pioneer graves and spend time in the towns that America’s first wild road trip gave birth to, towns like South Pass City.
Scouts discovered gold near South Pass sometime after the great migration that opened up the area; 150 years ago this summer, South Pass City boomed to life as a result. Forty original buildings have been preserved in what is now South Pass City State Historic Site. Slow down your road trip to walk the interpretive trails, sip sarsaparillas and sample candy at the saloon and general store. You can even try your hand at gold panning.
Plan your road trip down America’s memory lane to coincide with Gold Rush Days, July 7-8. The annual celebration will be extravagant this year, including live music, fireworks, tours of the Carissa Gold Mine, and the old standby of blasting an anvil into the air. ♦