In A Covered Wagon
I’ve crossed the Great Plains more than once in my lifetime. I once enjoyed the luxury of determining which path best suited both my scenic preferences and my final destination. But imagine it’s the mid 1800s and your only course from Kansas City to Oregon is along the Platte River. You can’t cross it without risking great peril, even though in the twenty first century it trickles unimpressively. You must follow this route. When I follow the Platte across Interstate 80, I am delighted by trees and corn fields, and known scenery, and the greatest worry is where to stop to refuel.
In A Locomotive
The Union Pacific Railroad pounded spikes into the rails from Omaha westward and the reliance on wagons tapered. The builders of today’s railroad, and even those who laid out the interstate highway system, followed a similar path across the same terrain. Lying awake in the small town of Hanna, Wyoming, I listen to the whistles of trains following in the path of their ancestors, the diesel engines plowing past the places paved by their steam-powered predecessors.
I know it’s a bit of an alliteration, but in the silence of night, the repetitive clicking sound on the tracks and the waxing and waning of the engine’s advance hypnotized me. It takes me back to my studies of the American West and the way transportation changed this country. I wonder if those initial pioneers likewise listened to the sounds of the Platte at night wondering what life would be like when they reached the end of their trail.
In A Car
Today I’m following the Platte in the current century in my modern-day SUV (see 20,000 Miles from January 2019). I’m driving away from Hanna, again back on the route I took last year, but this time, I’m heading east. Back in the days of the pioneers and the covered wagons, heading east meant failure. It meant surrendering to the elements and the difficulties of the journey. Maybe I didn’t make it to Independence Rock by the Fourth of July. Perhaps I just discover the lack of courage in my own abilities. The Platte River and I won’t get to spend quality time together again for a while. Of course, I don’t realize I’m going to cross the Great Plains again next month, but that’s a different path, on a different trail, on a different interstate, following a different course of history.