I am on State Highway 487 that runs from Medicine Bow almost to Casper. The serrated horizon of the Shirley Mountains is to the west. The rest of the world here is smooth, rolling land, classic Wyoming, with nothing growing taller than grass. Scanning the radio’s AM dial, I picked up five stations — three of them carrying Rush Limbaugh. I have never had this happen before, getting three stations all carrying the same, syndicated program. Obviously, Limbaugh is popular here, and in percentages he must do well. But the actual numbers can’t be that impressive. There are just not that many people in Wyoming. It’s our least populated state, with around 490,000 people. More people live in Denver, Colorado. This refreshing absence of the masses is evident on the highway map of Wyoming.
State maps always have blowups in the margin showing the biggest cities in greater detail. Wyoming’s map includes enlargements of Riverton and Green River. Together they total less than 19,000 people. Just beyond this highway’s only rest area, I was motioned to a stop by a flagman of the state transportation department. Mine was the only vehicle around, except for a brown UPS truck that had just stopped on the other side of the road. I watched as the driver swung from his truck, a package in hand, and walked over and gave it to the flagman. They had a brief “How ya doin'” exchange. Then he crossed the road and hopped back in his truck. Through his open door, he waved a goodbye to both of us and headed south toward Medicine Bow.
What I had just witnessed may have been all in a day’s work for a Pony Express rider in these parts — something like 130 years ago. But today? Obviously, the West hangs on to what it needs. Watching all this, with her ears perked up, Rusty seemed as curious as I was. It appeared our wait here would be a long one, so we got out so I could chat with the
flagman. “Sure, UPS brings stuff out here to us all the time,” he said — obviously, no big deal. The flagman’s name was Ken DeWitt, but the package was addressed to his boss, simply at Mile Post 45, Highway 487. Apparently, I’ve spent too much time in the big city. Who says Mile Post 45 is not a proper street address? Life on the open road never ceases to amaze me. It’s a whole subculture out here, to which we are not just witnesses, but participants.
Near Casper, I picked up Interstate 25 and headed east, paralleling the North Platte River and the old Oregon Trail. In the mid-1800s, more than 500,000 pioneers passed through this river valley on the trail that rightly bears the names “Oregon,” “California” and “Mormon.” Wherever their ultimate destination, they all headed for, and funneled through, South Pass — the prairie-like saddle that got them, their livestock and their wagons comfortably over the mountains. With the Continental Divide behind them, they took the separate trails for what are now the states of Oregon, Utah and California. Their life pursuits and desires were the same ones we all have today. Among their accomplishments, however, was the birth and building of the American West.
Five miles east of Glenrock, next to CR 27, is the grave of young Alvah Unthank. It’s on a barren slope of private land, near the North Platte River, off by itself, surrounded by prairie growth that is more gray than green. What drew me to the Unthank grave, I don’t know. Maybe it was because he was just a kid, not yet 20. In the spring of 1850, with family and friends, Alvah left from Newport, Wayne County, Indiana, bound for the gold fields of California. Only 19 years old, he was undoubtedly filled with the youthful anticipation of the unknown that lay ahead. On June 23, his party reached Register Cliff, near what is now Guernsey, Wyoming. There, on the smooth sandstone side of the cliff, he carefully carved his name and the date. It’s still there today. Many names were already carved in the rock, as this was common practice among the emigrants.
For some, it was a declaration to one and all that they had made the trek. Others hoped their signatures would tell family and friends, who were behind them on the trail, that they were OK and had gotten that far. Five days later, on June 28, Alvah’s party made camp here by the river. Alvah had suddenly taken ill with cholera. A friend wrote in his diary on June 29: “Lay by today to doctor and nurse Alvah. June 30: Getting worse, it’s quite helpless complaining now. July 1: Alvah is rapidly sinking. July 2: In the early morning hours, Alvah died. “Alvah lay calm, bore his suffering patiently and
uttered not a murmur or groan. Bid his father to be of good cheer. His child has paid the great debt to nature. Procured a neat stone.
Solomon Woody carved the inscription. At noon July 2, the solemn task of burial took place.” No one knows for sure, of course, but it’s estimated that 5,000 people died on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. Very few graves are marked. In fact, the pioneers normally obscured grave sites, lest animals or Indians violate them. Cholera was the big killer; accidents seemed to be second in line. These brave pioneers were really not prepared or equipped for this journey. Even what they were told about it before they left was sketchy, often blatantly false. But they came anyway, seeking a better life.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]