When I moved to Portland twenty years ago I thought the Oregon Trail was, well, in Oregon. I’m embarrassed that I was surprised to encounter historic aspects of the trail (and signs of Lewis and Clark) in almost every Western state we visited.
Fort Laramie in Wyoming is (according to the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, our roadtrip reference bible) one of the West’s most important forts. As a trading post in the 1840s it became a popular stop on the Oregon Trail, one-third of the way to the promised land and the first place to swap an ox in 300 miles. Today, it’s restored to appear the way it looked back in the day and “provides a glimpse of a bygone military era”. It was hot and peaceful when we visited and a pickup bluegrass band was playing old timey music in the shade of the porch of the “Old Bedlam” building, the bachelor officers’ quarters.
Nearby lies tangible and surprisingly moving evidence of the hardships of the Oregon Trail journey. The “ruts” is an area south of Guernsey where the landscape was so rough it forced the pioneers heading west to process in single file; the continual passing of their wagon wheels carved deep gouges into the soft earth and even solid stone. Even more personal is Register Cliff, where the emigrants scratched their names into the rock where they camped by the river, to recuperate and bury the ones they already lost before pressing on.
After all the history I craved American cheese and begged to spend the night at the Terry Bison Ranch in Cheyenne, which the brochure described as a place you’d want to live. “Find The Old West Here! A working guest ranch…singing cowboys…sunny lazy days at the fishing lake, stocked full of trophy-sized trout…saloon…herd of buffalo!” It is none of these things in any way, except for maybe the smelly buffalo. Pathetic, touristy, expensive and situated directly off the freeway noise, Ralph described it perfectly: “This is the kind of place that if we were driving by we’d say, ‘Look at those poor bastards down there.’” I can only surmise that Mr. Terry, twenty years ago, had a lofty idea about starting a guest ranch and now he’s either dead or has lost interest and lets his teenage daughter and her friend run it. Bison burgers in the restaurant seemed like a foolproof idea but they brought the wrong order twice before we gave up and went back to the DWR to eat ice cream and call it a Fail.