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RIVERTON, Wyoming (Reuters Life) - Somewhere on Route 28 to the southwest of this Wyoming town, a series of roadside plaques commemorates the early American settlers who passed this way on the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century.
One of the markers explains that, for all the hardships the settlers endured on their trek from St. Louis, Missouri, the going got even tougher after they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass in western Wyoming, as they struck out across the harsh expanses of the western desert.
Looking out over the treeless, seemingly infinite expanse of gray-green sagebrush, the plaque invites visitors to walk briefly away from the parking lot to understand a little of what the pioneers experienced.
"It may be hard to visualize the lives of these people, but a short walk into the landscape allows us insight into some of the problems they faced," the marker says.
The plaques, and others along Routes 28 and 191, help today's travelers understand the scale of the vast wilderness that is western Wyoming, a chunk of territory that can be viewed up close from a 400-mile road trip that runs northwest from Riverton, through Grand Teton National Park, to the ski resort of Jackson before heading south through the gritty oil town of Pinedale, and then east at the dusty crossroads of Farson to return 100 miles later to Riverton.
The route roughly circumnavigates the Wind River Range, a mountain chain that initially proved a barrier to early explorers seeking a way west.
For most of the journey north on Route 26, there are no museums, charming country towns or picnic areas, just tiny settlements and isolated farms scratching a living from the parched land amid an expanse of empty space that's hard to grasp for Europeans or city dwellers of the eastern U.S.
The Wind River peaks, for example, roughly parallel the south-bound leg of the trip at a distance of some 30 miles, across which there is nothing but rolling sagebrush and yellow-brown rangeland, sometimes punctuated by herds of grazing cattle but mostly just empty.
At the northern end of the trip, however, the drive through Grand Teton National Park zigzags through pine woods and over a pass, offering glimpses of the famous peaks across wide forested valleys. In mid September, about 15 miles of the road's highest section was under construction.
At Moran Junction north of Jackson, Route 26 turns south and runs alongside the major Grand Teton peaks that rise abruptly from the Snake River valley floor. In the sharp light of the high plains at around 7,000 feet, it's a scenic treat.
In Jackson, travelers wanting a respite from the endless plains and mountains can visit boutiques, restaurants, and stores.
Leaving Jackson, Route 191 winds south through the Holback River valley, crossing and recrossing the river beneath steep-sided, pine-clad mountains before leveling out after 30 miles or so to re-enter a familiar landscape of wide open plains, featureless except for the occasional gas-drilling rig, a reminder of the dependence of this sparsely populated state on the energy industry.
Drivers on their final eastward leg toward Lander and Riverton can see South Pass, the gap at the southern end of the Wind River Range that was first crossed by white men in 1812 and later by some 500,000 settlers en route to California, Utah and Oregon.
With the completion of the trans-continental railroad in the 1860s, South Pass ceased to be the main conduit for westbound settlers, but its name lives on in the form of South Pass City, an old gold mining village about two miles south of Route 28, still occupied by "about seven" people, according to the sign at its entrance.
The village embodies a rich history embedded in the wilderness that surrounds it, and which is honored by a stone marker along Route 191.
"To all pioneers who passed this way to win and hold the West," it says.