Several years ago, my daughter and I drove along the Santa Fe Trail. Now was the time to complete the trilogy by driving the California/Oregon Trails. The trails share a common western route, until the California Trail drops to the south and the Oregon Trail goes northwest.
Heading from Independence to Omaha did not seem to be heading west, but utilized an interstate highway. I swung west on I-80 and started seeing things.
Kearney, Nebraska, offers an archway museum that stretches over the highway. Interesting museum inside there, but I got there late and decided to take the tour on the way back. Continued driving to North Platte, where I discovered a 40-foot tall statue of a Native American, apparently put there to ward off tourists.
Early next morning, I took the scenic route along U.S. 26 from Ogallala to see Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff landmarks. This was a very scenic drive, one that I would take again. Amber waves of grain, rolling terrain, and very nice views along the North Platte River. The trails generally followed rivers, then U.S., then interstate highways.
The Trails take a northerly route through much of Wyoming. I took I-80 from Cheyenne to Fort Bridger near the southwest border of the state, before entering Utah. This was a fork in the road where travelers could get on the California Trail route that went south of the Great Salt Lake. The other main route of the California travelled north of the Lake from Soda Springs, Idaho.
More mountains to cross in Utah and the road swiftly fell to near sea level at Salt Lake City. Eastern Utah is beautiful and green, western Utah is the Great Salt Lake Desert. I can’t imagine the hardship of the pioneers traveling through this terrain. It is quite beautiful, though.
I-80 follows the California Trail through Nevada and is interspersed with road markers telling us where points of interest lie. My next research will be to learn more about these points and find out why they are memorable.
I drove past the exit to Bonneville Salt Flats, where land speed records are made, with one exceeding sound. I was setting a grueling pace by driving 300-800 miles a day. I can’t imagine walking 10-20 miles a day leading ox-driven wagons with little more than food to reach California and Oregon.
I stopped at a grocery store in Reno and had to choose between a one-pound bag of potato chips and a one-pound package of potato salad for my lunch. I went for the salad and ate in the car, with the AC running. I was not feeling the pain of our pioneer forefathers.
Shortly after crossing over into California… I was in a traffic logjam for Agricultural Inspection. They take their inspections seriously, with uniformed guards holding shotguns at the checkpoints. I had my trunk examined and probed, then answered additional questions before being allowed to pass. This part of I-80 was another mountainous area that wound down all the way to Sacramento, the terminus of the Trail. I touched by and continued to drive west for a day off in San Francisco.
About 60 miles west of San Francisco, I hit an epic traffic jam that forced me to skip the most beautiful city in America and re-route north through the Valley where temperatures exceed 100 degrees. This is the growing part of California, where water is consumed in almost desert conditions. I stopped at a stand, looking for cherries, but found none.
The next portion of the trip took me northwest to the coast. I drove through coastal mountains and past Clear Lake, hitting the coast at Fort Bragg. Turning north on Highway 1 takes you along breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and redwood forests. The southern coast of Oregon is even more spectacular, perhaps the best coastline in the U.S.A. After lunch in Coos Bay, the weather started to change into clouds and rain, so I headed east to Eugene and north on I-5 to Portland.
I was stationed in Portland during our Country’s Bicentennial and memories surfaced as I drove through. Mount St. Helens was mostly intact when I was here last, now it has a flat top. I found my way to Oregon City and began the Oregon Trail heading east on I-84 past Mount Hood and Mulholland Falls.
Idaho was somewhat interesting, as I took a long look at Boise as a permanent living area. Nice city, but somewhat remote, as is Cheyenne. (My daughter likes Omaha and wants to live there after she finishes school. It is hip and happening, so many young people live there.) The most interesting part of the trip is south of Pocatello and Soda Springs on U.S. 30, where the original trails split. The National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho, is one of the best museums I have visited.
I continued west to I-80 where I encountered a huge truck stop and bought some milk to drink. This is where the trails were completed for me. All I had to do now was drive back through Wyoming and Nebraska, see my old friends from college, my daughter in college, and then home. I traveled 4,500 miles in nine days.
Now, where’s my Santa-Cali-Gon T-shirt?