Wyoming road trip recalls U.S. pioneering history

Tue Sep 29, 2009 9:25am EDT
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By Jon Hurdle

RIVERTON, Wyoming, Sept 29 (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.   Continued...

<p>The Wind River Range towers over the high plains, viewed from Route 191 in western Wyoming, Sept. 26, 2009. REUTERS/Jon Hurdle</p>