What drives our urge to visit locations of national wonders and history? Could it be seeking a reason for individual existence beyond love or being a character within the story of another’s life experience? Could these places link us to the creation of earth itself, the history of mankind and plant the DNA of our own existence, scattered wherever we touch?
I found myself sitting outside in view of the national monument at Scotts Bluff Nebraska in quiet moments of thought. What have I been getting from our travels to historic landmarks? The sheer size of the landscape is impressive. We all know you can’t take a picture that does a view justice. You must be here using all your senses to take it in. Something as little as hearing the patterns of blowing winds. Catching the stray smell of wet rock near a meadow of flowers. Looking as the view fades to a blurry tunnel on the horizon, miles beyond where you are standing. Finally leaning against a boulder millions of years old. Drinking a bottle of iced water, having lunch after an exhilarating climb to an elevated place or down into a valley at the center point of the experience.
Scientists believe earth was created about four billion years ago. The bible and geological processes explain the creation. It was finally determined that Yellowstone National Park sits upon a super volcano that has had a large-scale eruption at least three times. The volcano stays put as the earth above moves as part of plate tectonics. This super volcano has had a massive eruption on average about every 600,000 to 800,000 years. And could be 40,000 years past due to erupt. The geology of Scotts Bluff and beyond has been affected by Yellowstone as volcanic ash covered the landscape, just as it will do again. Over millions of years the landscape was twisted and turned by erosion as well. The geology of Scotts Bluff offers a view of the Wildcat Hills area that spans a time period between 33 and 22 million years to the present.
In what I call recent history, mankind migrated to this continent, probably from several different directions. During modern history between 1840 to 1860 half a million people traversed over the Oregon Trail using ancient monuments such as Scotts Bluff for trail markers along the way. This trail branches off to California and was also the highway used by Mormons traveling to Utah or gold seekers heading to Montana linked to the Bozeman Trail.
Then in 1963 simple me was born. And now I stand in the pathway of a tiny portion of human history, between points within bluffs through which families migrated. Up to 30,000 died on this pathway. If stretched out along the 2000 mile trail, there would be a grave every 352 feet. Someday, as it has always happened, this place will once again be covered by geological forces. The landscape will change and maybe thousands of years later someone will visit here. Nearly all those who died on this trail have no markers. I will remember them. Not by name but through shared experience. They and I are a link in the chain.
View from National Monument Visitor’s Center. There is no fee to see the park!
Photo on display in visitors center. Not sure what year it was taken but it was in color. There is a deep ravine in the trail which was common as thousands of wagons passed over it, rutting the pathway.
Robidoux RV Park – City of Gering Nebraska
At $23 a night with the weekly rate, Robidoux RV Park was a great find. All roads are paved and your spot has a concrete pad and patio. Full hookup utilities and some spots offer cable TV. Operated by the City of Gering which is a community next to Scottsbluff within view of the National Monument. An interesting comment is the City of Scottsbluff is spelled different than the monument (two words – Scotts Bluff). The city waters the lawn where campers have a thick carpet of grass with plenty of space between campers. Highways into the area, to include scenic US 26 Highway, are easy to navigate. We found plenty to do during the week to include eating at a couple local drive-ins and venturing out into the countryside. We also checked out the Riverside Park Campground but highly recommend Robidoux.
Day trip to Rebecca Winter’s Grave and Lake Minatare
On the way to Lake Minatare we stopped at a hard to find grave along the Oregon/Mormon Trail. You might know the Oregon Trail starts in Independence Missouri which is the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We Have toured the church and area several times as Independence is a suburb of Kansas City where we lived. Lots of history in Independence to include the Mormons starting off on the trail to Zion in Utah. Rebecca’s grave is outside Scotts Bluff near the transcontinental railway.
Lake Minatare is a state park. A local resident said it was worth the drive just to check out the inland lighthouse, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp. The lighthouse was built to give people hope during the great depression. The lake sits between what looks like sand bluffs. The beaches are huge along the lakeshore.
Drive to Robidoux Pass Through the Wildcat Hills and Trail Crossing
The title of this section sums up an interesting day spent in the truck, sometimes in four wheel drive, discovering less visited spots along the Oregon/California Trail. As wagon train after wagon train made it to Scotts Bluff each marked the occasion as a waypoint, knowing if they made it by July 4th they probably could make it over the Rocky Mountains before snow closed the passes. Just like those trails we hike today, sometimes they veer a little off course for better trail conditions. Pioneers traveled maybe 16 to 20 miles a day at this point in the trail. They avoided long detours when possible. The detours they did take, for example to an easier river crossing or between an opening in a mountain chain, would become the most established portions of the trail. Grazing land was hard to find at times. Mules and oxen were the preferred animals to tow trailers as they could live off prairie grass when horses had problems with it. Pioneers would move their livestock off the trail for a mile or more to find grazing land. Wagon trains might also select a spot well off the trail to avoid human waste and disease left behind by earlier travelers.
Louis and Clark forged the first trail (not the Oregon Trail) from the United States to the west coast but that trail was unusable by wagons. Fur traders had been using other trails, so did the buffalo and Native Americans which became parts of the Oregon trail. This route to the west was actually blazed beginning in Oregon, not Independence Missouri.
One could pass between the hills at Scotts Bluff or Robidoux Pass where the Robidoux family established a trading post, later moving it to another location. The military established a small fort in the area. Pioneers would continue on their way to larger Fort Laramie for repairs and resupply. They have been following the North Platte River.
An hour drive with the truck passed over land it would have taken the pioneers more than a day to travel. The roadways for us was sometimes gravel and sometimes thick dust that turns to mud just like it did for the pioneers. We drove through areas where I felt we were trespassing, but signs said just stay on the road through private lands. We never found a pioneer graveyard we were searching for but did find the intersection of the actual Oregon Trail and California Trail. This was mostly located in areas where cattle free-range even today.
Day Trip to Agate Fossil Beds
Sioux County Nebraska is comprised of 2100 square miles and contains just one town. Imagine all the water nearly gone, save for a few watering holes. Animals, in this case dinosaurs, naturally flocked to those remaining water holes. The National Monument at Agate Fossil Beds was one of those remaining water holes. Bones were preserved, having not been crushed by glacier activity during various ice ages. As an added benefit, the park tells the story and displays American Indian artifacts during an age of friendship between rancher James Cook and Chief Red Cloud of the Lakota (Sioux) Indian Tribe.
A treaty was signed, giving safe passage to settlers traveling the Oregon Trail. The peace pipe they smoked is here at the visitor’s center. Artifacts from Red Cloud and his wife are here. The sister of Chief Crazy Horse helped bury him after his death at Fort Robinson Nebraska. She had only one item left from him. It’s here at the visitors center. I’m not much for American Indian History but admit the darkened room full of information and artifacts was a great experience added to the fossil displays. We skipped the walking trail to a couple mounds where fossils had been found as the heat was horrendous. This is the site where “smaller” dinosaurs roamed. The larger ones most of us know are out in Montana and other states.
We are currently camped on the high plains of Kansas, having spent four nights in Ogallala Nebraska on the way here. We are heading towards Abilene Kansas to visit Dwight Eisenhower, then on to Kansas City by September 7th just after the last major camping holiday when spots are easier to get.
R.I.P – Sgt. Scott Boyum has died at the age of 54 from a long illness. We were co-workers. I’ll visit his grave along with Don Mansell’s when we return to Kansas City.