Sandstone memorials etched in Guernsey
I think I was born into this world a history buff and I’m sure my Mom has wondered if I am a throwback from some ancestor emigrant.
I can remember when I was a little girl I would wear off the stick-end of my stick horse on the gravel, galloping across an imaginary prairie trying to outrun an approaching thunderstorm. My bunk bed was either a stagecoach, when I was on the top bunk, or a covered wagon, when I sat on the bottom bed looking out from under one end, the sides covered with a sheet. Clothesline rope I “borrowed” from Dad’s garage was neatly tied to the door handle of my closet, stringing across the room and over the end-rails of my bed. These were the “driving lines” to my team of horses. Most times my little dog would ride beside me, snuggled on a pillow and I would point out the sights as we rumbled along the trail, dodging prairie dog holes and watching out for outlaws. More than once I had to holler at her for jumping out of the wagon while rubbing off the neckerchief I’d put over her nose to protect her from the sand storm … she was “left” several times out on the trail!
When I got old enough to own a car, I headed out to explore the trails I’d read and dreamed about. Over the last 30 plus years, I’ve carried mail along the Pony Express via horseback, galloping in the tracks of the 1860 XP riders. I’ve driven my little covered wagon up two-tracks of the Oregon, Cherokee, Bozeman and Overland Trails. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles and loved every one, whether hot and dusty or howling cold, it’s a dream come true for me. I think it’s as close as I can get to “feeling” history out on our Historic Western trails … my face covered in grit and my heart overflowing with wonder.
One outstanding spot I’ve traveled along the Oregon Trail, that will delight any history buff’s imagination, is near Guernsey, Wyo., on Highway 26. Registered as a National Historic Landmark, the Oregon Trail Ruts are a memorial of endurance. Located near town, sandstone rocks tell the story of the thousands of wagon trains that passed there, headed west, in the mid 1800s. Through a narrow passage at the crest of the hill, long gouges have been carved into the sandstone, some more than 4-feet deep. These are the results of the iron wagon-wheels wearing down the soft rock and from intentional cutting by the emigrants and later military travelers to help with the steep grade. Visitors can still see places where the wheel hubs rubbed against the walls of the ruts. Old spruce trees and sagebrush surround the areas around the sandstone outcroppings, giving a feel of what the site must have looked like a century ago. A wonderful paved visitors “trail” (handicap accessible) is open year round, with many interesting interpretive panels along the way telling stories of the military and the area.
A short drive east of the trail ruts is another outstanding site of the emigrant migration. Rising over 100-feet above the trail beside the North Platte River stands Register Cliff. It was often referred to as “Sand Point” in historic diaries, an overnight camp only a day’s travel from Fort Laramie. Here, inscribed into the sandstone sides of the cliff, from as early as the fur trapper era, are peoples’ names. Most of the more visible signatures you can see today were written during the 1840s and 1850s when the Oregon Trail was the main “avenue” of emigrant travel. Not only did most people sign their names and a date, many wrote the hometown where they had traveled from and even their age at the time.
It is a fascinating place that I encourage everyone to take time to see. Visitors can walk beside the cliff along paved walkways and one afternoon when I stopped there, it had just lightly rained. Magically the signatures carved into the soft stone had been highlighted from the moisture, which made them easier to read. One of my favorites (being a wagon train gal myself) is of an 1859 wagon masters’ signature. I wonder if he ever thought people, hundreds of years later, would mark his passage past this point along the trail and wonder about his adventure … or pretend on a bunk bed wagon that they too were headed to California or Oregon.