On the Trail
This year it didn’t appear that I would have an opportunity to travel with the Overland Trail Wagon Train as it continued the journey begun last year that would take it from Laramie, Wyo., to Fort Bridger. But then I did not count on meeting my friend Tom McCutcheon of Rock Springs out on the trail, either.
The wagon train organized at Dad, once a mail stop on the wagon road from Baggs to Wamsutter, and now little more than a spot in the road. I was there for the beginning day ” and a rodeo kind of day it was, too! We had a couple of teams that had not had quite enough experience pulling the heavy wagons we use. One team bolted before fully hitched to Ben Kern’s chuckwagon. With no driver aboard, the team raced through the abandoned buildings at Dad, made a circle, and came to a stop tangled in a barbed wire fence.
The chuck box on the wagon went a’flying in the runaway, tearing off the back door/table, and there was other minimal damage to the wagon. Fortunately, although they were cut by the barbed wire, the Percherons were not severely injured. They also were in no condition to pull a wagon, so had to drop out of the wagon train before it even began.
Just minutes after that accident, and while I was pulling the damaged wagon out of its predicament (using the pickup), another green team jumped and bucked when hitched to a wagon. The driver held them and outriders quickly assisted, but knowing of trail conditions ahead, Ben would not let them go on the trip, either. That meant, before the wagon train even rolled from camp it downsized from eight wagons to six.
I shuttled the affected drivers to their vehicles, and headed home to write. I left Steve to outride for the wagon train and returned to the train when it neared Point of Rocks four days later, spent the afternoon in camp, picked him up, and came home. On Saturday, June 30, Steve and I returned to camp, this time beside the Green River north of the town of the same name. We knew Ben had plans to ford the Green on Sunday July 1. Steve would outride and I would take photos, then drive our pickup over to the next camp at Granger.
While in Green River, Ben had called to ask us to bring some supplies: batteries and ice. “Larry and I rode the river,” he told me.
“How is it?” I asked.
“Not bad, it’s about to my knees.”
I mistakenly thought that meant to his knees when he was standing up. Actually, it meant to his knees when he was on his horse. Out at camp the talk of the upcoming crossing dominated conversation. Quackgrass Sally has the smallest wagon, a light buckboard. By measuring from Ben’s horse, she knew it would be virtually underwater as she crossed the river.
“The water will come to the bottom of my seat,” she said. Because she hauls all of her gear: bedroll, clothes, electric fence for her horse, camera, etc. in the wagon, she obviously needed a way to get things across the river without a total soaking. We had a pickup and empty horse trailer, so quickly agreed to ferry any supplies to the next campsite. This was necessary for some of the other wagons, too.
Chuck Miller, who has a big team of Belgians, was harnessing them as we entered camp, and soon came over toward the river, riding one, with the other on a lead rope. The horse he wasn’t riding hadn’t experienced many rivers, so Chuck wanted to make a journey over and back without the wagon. As he neared the river, the horse pulled back. Larry Gomez, whom we call “Range Detective Tom Horn” because he has a Wyoming Range Detective badge, quickly saddled his horse and came back, wearing his moccasins, not wanting to soak his boots in the river.
With the saddle horse in front, Chuck’s team made the crossing, waited on the other side for four canoes to pass downstream, then came back over, where we watched and took photos. Another trip across and back, and Chuck felt confident his team would pull the wagon over without incident.
Pennsylvanians Ernie and Elaine Batdoft, with whom we have traveled before, said they wouldn’t ford the river, but would drive their wagon over on the nearby bridge and meet the train on the other side. As the day wound down, they made a decision to stick with the other wagons and ford in the morning.
I was across the river with my camera as the wagons rolled out of camp Sunday morning (July 1). With Gomez on his horse and Mike Manley driving his three mules in the lead wagon, the river crossing was underway and went off without a hitch as one wagon after another descended the steep bank of the Green, crossed, and came out dripping on the west bank.
Quackgrass’s buckboard acted almost like a raft, floating on the water as Homer placidly pulled it through the deep water. By the time she reached the west bank, Quackgrass was a whooping and a hollering, having a great time on her first big river fording experience.
Once across, we had a plan for me to meet the wagons with the pickup and trailer as Mike Manley needed some of his gear ” vet supplies and first aid materials ” on the wagon for the day’s journey.
I was in my designated post where the wagons would cross a highway, when my friend Tom McCutcheon drove up. I know Tom from our memberships in the Oregon-California Trails Association. We have more than once been out on the trail together. He lives in Rock Springs and knows the overland trails in southwestern Wyoming as well as anybody.
After a short visit, we had a deal. He would drive the pickup and trailer over to the next camp in Granger, and I would climb aboard the stagecoach with Ben for a day on the trail. Tom had a friend with him who could drive his own pickup to Granger.
So without warning, I grabbed my camera, water bottle, and hat, and climbed aboard the coach with Ben. It was a day like most others I’ve spent with Ben on the trail: hot, dusty, a slight breeze at times. But because I didn’t think I’d even have that much of a chance to ride with the wagons this year, it was especially great for me. I rode most of the way, and as I usually do, jumped off the coach when the wagons stopped for a lunch break and took off on foot, winding down a two-track road in the general direction of where I thought camp would be. When I came to a fork in the road and wasn’t sure which way to go, I took a guess and made the correct choice so eventually the wagons caught up to me and I was able to get back on the coach with Ben.
We rolled into Granger, took the time for some photographs at the South Bend Stage Station, which is still intact although the roof is beginning to sag, and then set camp. Steve and I left to drive on home, but the wagons were expected to continue another two days to arrive in Fort Bridger on July 3 and to participate in the parade there on July 4.
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Part 4 of a six-part series about basic water law in the United States, predominately in the western part of the country, and how it affects this finite resource. Water law can be traced back…