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Rediscovering the trail of tears.

Autumn is a superb time to explore the forested parts of this legendary route west, 150 years after the incredible pilgrimage it witnessed.

On a damp and drippy spring morning in eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains, I guided my pickup off Interstate-84 just west of La Grande, then turned onto a narrow, unmarked road. It ambled through a stand of up-and-coming ponderosa pines.

"Hey, this may be it!" I said to my wife Maurine as I stopped and looked beyond a barbed-wire fence and down a deserted two-rut road. Then I reached for my camera: For all I knew, we were looking at a surviving chunk of the famed Oregon Trail--the original, legendary route west to the "Land at Eden's Gate" negotiated by the pioneers at enormous expense between 1843 and 1860.

Like tens of thousands of "rut-nuts" who are auto-hopping, hiking, photographing, wagon-riding and otherwise rediscovering the Oregon Trail on its 150th birthday this year, we were looking to somehow relate with that epic migration.

For us, the forests along the Trail--then and now--are our personal "connectors" with that monumental event, along with a fine collection of journal entries we located in a book titled Powerful Rockey. Covering the Blue Mountains portion of the trail, the entries describe those pristine forests in surprising detail.

This fall is an ideal time to make your own pilgrimage: The two truly forested portions of the Trail--the section that traverses Oregon's Blue Mountains and the part that climbs the Cascades on Mt. Hood just east of Portland--are decked out in raucous yellows and brazen reds as cottonwoods, maples, and other eye-poppers stage their own 30-day autumn extravaganza.

Oregon, particularly, has gone the full nine yards in touting the Trail's anniversary: Some 43 interpretive stops tell an almost unbelievable story of sacrifice, danger, and deprivation along the final, mountain obstacles of the historic trek.

If you can arrange to drive westward along I-84, which closely follows the Trail, that direction will best help you pick up the pioneers' unfolding drama, a script written largely by menacing mountains, roaring rapids on the Columbia River, and an all-too-short summer season.

The saga of the Oregon Trail is indeed heart-thumping, as the just-published coffeetable book On the Oregon Trail vividly illustrates. Picture 2,000 miles of wilderness wagon ruts (mostly walked, not ridden) from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley and from southern Idaho to California, Utah, and other destinations. Visualize more than 250,000 pioneers striking out toward unknown outcomes during the next two decades.

Reflect for a moment on the death along the way of 10,000 of them, including many children, from Asian cholera, malnutrition, and other scourges, and their burial in hastily dug graves.

So played the drama as farmers, housewives, craftsmen, teachers, and would-be entrepreneurs steeled their nerve and gathered a few possessions for the adventure of their lives. They waited impatiently in Independence for the sprouting of the spring grass that would sustain their oxen and horses along the way. And then, finally departing, they prayed that they'd be out of Oregon's storm-track mountains before snow locked them in place, as befell the tragic Donner Party in California's Sierra Nevada.


Near Baker City, Oregon, a two-hour drive on I-84 west of Boise, Idaho, the plodding pioneers noted a solitary ponderosa pine in a barren valley. It stood visible to approaching wagon parties for miles--a beacon "respected by every traveler through this almost treeless country," as Medorem Crawford recorded in 1842 in her journal.

More than any other conifer, it represented the end of the plains and the beginning of the monumental forests of Oregon.

Alas, just a year later, explorer John C. Fremont sadly noted "a fine, tall pine stretched on the ground . . . felled by some inconsiderate emigrant axe"--and thus perhaps a harbinger of humankind's influence upon the land.

That tree is just a memory today, but nearby the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has created a superb Oregon Trail interpretive center complete with "living history" demonstrations and mini-treks along ruts left by the wagons a century and a half ago.

Baker City, therefore, is a fine place to gather this whole saga together as you begin your own ramble westward, with accommodations--franchised or B&B style--that would have bedazzled any pioneer.


As you head west from Baker City on I-84, which practically straddles the Oregon Trail, the bold, forested uplands of the Blue Mountains begin to embrace you. Conifers on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and harvested timberlands owned largely by Boise Cascade, begin floating onto the rising scene.

To the northeast, the cloud-scraping Wallowa Mountains, dominated by the Forest Service's heavily timbered, 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, grab the skyline.

Meanwhile, with the help of Powerful Rockey, you're matching mileposts, maps, and photos, and presently catching glimpses of the actual ruts of the Oregon Trail. Fascinatingly, they never cut across steep slopes, because of the wagon's high center of gravity. That said, don't be surprised to see wagon tracks going straight up the mountainsides.

Presently you're in the green and peaceful Grande Ronde Valley, plumb in the middle of all those mountains, perhaps headed for a night's sleep in La Grande (pop. 11,000).

What were the forests like in these parts back then?

"The whole mountain is densely covered with tall pine trees, with an undergrowth of service bushes and other shrubs. The grass has been lately consumed, and many of the trees blasted by the ravaging fire of the Indians," noted pioneer John Kirk Townsend in 1834. "These fires are yet smoldering, and the smoke from them effectively prevents our viewing the surrounding country."

Observed Captain Fremont nine years later, "The mountains were covered with good bunch grass, and the water of the streams was cold and pure; their bottoms were handsomely wooded with various kinds of trees. After a few miles we ceased to see any pines, and the timber consisted of various varieties of spruce, larch and balsam pine |fir~."

Interestingly, natural and Indian-set fires were apparently so common in the Blues that brush routinely burned, thus regularly clearing the understory of fuels and protecting the tall trees from crown-fire destruction. One finds no evidence in the journals that heavy brush (which is common today), was a problem to the covered wagons.


After a night in La Grande, you're probably sweeping westward on I-84, up the Grande Ronde canyon on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. You might suppose that the Oregon Trail would head right up that river canyon leading westward. But it was far too steep and rocky, so the wagons made their ascent over a hill southwest of town, entered heavy forests for the first time, and finally reached the river several miles upstream.

A must-stop is the Forest Service's fine new interpretive wayside called Blue Mountain Crossing (watch for signs 12 miles west of La Grande). Here, for the first time, you'll be able to see traces of the Oregon Trail deep in its sylvan setting, as you take a walking route right next to the ruts, which are being protected.

But you're looking backward in time, remember, so you'll have to imagine much taller trees than the second-growth ponderosas you'll see at Blue Mountain Crossing. And what trees they were:

"It took three looks to see the top," extolled Washington Smith Gillam in his 1844 journal.

Since late summer and early autumn are wildfire season, you could indeed see an "incident" or two (to use Forest Service jargon). And though the destruction of natural resources by fire is a major concern today, it certainly wasn't to Rev. Joseph Hanns back in 1852:

"The fire in the mountains last night was truly grand. It went to the tops of them, spreading far down their sides. It extended for several miles, burning all night, throwing out great streamers of red against the sky."

If you want some present-day perspective, you might ask a Forest Service representative about a bold new strategy, bannered "ecosystem management," to return today's heavily fueled, bug-ravaged forests to a condition approaching that found by the pioneers. Prescribed burning (meaning planned and hopefully controlled), the harvesting of bug-killed trees, planting new trees, and improved water quality are all on the agenda of a proposed $200-million restoration project in the Blue Mountains.


A couple of hours farther west--after you've descended famous Cabbage Hill (where many crashes occur yearly), passed Pendleton, and followed the mighty Columbia River for some 80 miles--turn south at The Dalles, get a detailed map of Mt. Hood National Forest, and head for Tygh Valley on Oregon highway 197.

Forget the freeway now; you're heading into the closest thing you'll find to the forests that were. Presently you'll be on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and this portion of it is loaded with surviving old-growth Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western redcedar and other timber (340,000 acres of it, according to the Forest Service). And recent-spruce budworm problems are far less serious here than are the major bug infestations in the Blues.

The famous Barlow Road, which begins just west of Tygh Valley about 35 miles south of the Columbia River, was a popular--and life-saving--alternative to floating Oregon Trail wagons down the Columbia and possibly losing everything in the surging rapids. This part of the Trail was, and still is in places, the pristine, tall-trees, cool-water wonderland about which the pioneers fantasized. On the eastern slope of the Cascades, ponderosas give way at higher elevations to larch, Englemann spruce, and grand fir, which join the Doug-fir and hemlock in a surprising diversity of upland conifers. And it's here that the vine maples, black cottonwoods, and other "color trees" seem to shout the same excitement the pioneers must have felt Back Then.

But the route was also forbidding. The Barlow Road, skirting the higher elevations of Mt. Hood at more than 4,000 feet, could trap the pioneers in a lethal early snowfall. And besides, Laurel Hill (near today's well-known Government Camp 50 miles east of Portland) was so steep that they had to lower their wagons down "upper chute" by wrapping ropes around trees.

Today you can reach Laurel Hill via auto and a short walk trekking through conifers that are often dripping with moisture from the Pacific just 150 miles to the west. Just as simply, you can visit the Pioneer Women's Grave, where respectful visitors have been adding rocks to a decades-old cairn.


If you have a high-clearance, preferably four-wheel-drive vehicle, you're in for the most remote, most pristine forest experience you can find along the entire Oregon Trail. The Barlow Road fold-out map shows you how to drive much of the original route through old-growth timber on an unimproved section that's more trail than road.

Six remote, quiet campgrounds operated by the Forest Service can be found right by the trail, part of a lineup of more than 75 on the recreation-heavy Mt. Hood National Forest.

For Maurine and me, this "rut-nut" business of spotting the actual wagon ruts, walking along them, even driving over authorized portions is an affirming process of sorts. We've experienced a certain bonding to the event that says, hey, this whole Oregon Trail thing really happened, much of right here in the trees.

Try it!


Your forest-oriented Oregon Trail experience this autumn, which takes place entirely within Oregon state, will be a lot richer if you...

Begin your trek, if you're westbound, at the outstanding Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon, operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Eastbound, visit Mt. Hood National Forest's Information Center just west of Welches near Government Camp. These are the two best orientation locations for the Oregon portion.

Splurge a little and purchase the magnificent coffee table pictorial, On the Oregon Trail by Jonathan Nicholas, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., Portland, Oregon 97210, $45. An outstanding overview presentation, it takes you from Independence, Missouri, right to the trail's terminus at Oregon City through spectacular photos and unusually perceptive copy.

Go "rut-hunting" in Oregon's Blue Mountains. Powerful Rockey: The Blue Mountains and the Oregon Trail by John W. Evans, Eastern Oregon State College, 1990, $22.95, contains the best collection of detailed maps and photos of this forested portion along Interstate I-84, plus fascinating journal entries describing the area.

Secure the fold-out map, The Barlow Road, produced by the Northwest Interpretive Association in cooperation with Mt. Hood National Forest, $2.00, for essential details on the remote, old-growth portion of your trip.

Herbert E. McLean has traveled extensively through the Blue Mountains, and has camped at historic sites along the Oregon Trail.
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Title Annotation:historical route
Author:McLean, Herbert
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Giving something back.
Next Article:A new way to see our city forests.

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