August 20, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
Distance: 220 miles
Bridgeport, Nebraska has a high level of uranium in its tap water, so we were cautioned not to drink any; we were assured that it's fine to brush our teeth with it, so we did, and I will be checking the mirror for the next couple of nights to see if my teeth are glowing.
A few words about Bridgeport, before I continue. Although Main Street was only seven blocks long, it had two options for nearly everything. Want to take the lady out for a cheap meal? There's Subway. Fancy meal? There's the Mexican restaurant. There were two grocery stores, two funeral homes, two bars, and two gas stations; we stayed at one of the two hotels, and according to signs, there were two parks, one to the east and one to the west. (There was only one chiropractor, but I suppose not believing in that voodoo back-crackery represents the second option.) The local paper had an editorial about how to attract and keep new residents. Evidently, there is a theory in place, and it involves two of everything (and no more than that).
There was only one cafe in town, the Tarnished Halo, but that was all I needed to begin the day with a banana smoothie. Cookies were also on sale, and I bought one, eager to sample uranium-enriched chocolate chips, but they were actually made in Wisconsin. ("That cookie has traveled farther than we have," K. observed.)
You have reached Chimney Rock. Would you like to look around? Y / N
Chimney Rock was one of the most notable landmarks of the Oregon Trail. Some pioneers would travel a few miles out of their way to see it, when a few miles meant a lot. One swore that it would be the among the most-visited places in the world if it were back east. Travelers would rest, talk, and celebrate at the base. Today, it's on private land, and you can only see it from a distance.
USA! USA! USA!
There is a small visitor center some distance away. We walked in to confirm that this was the closest we could get, and politely declined to pay $3 to look at wall displays with blown-up quotes about how amazing the rock was to people who could actually get within a couple miles of it. According to K., the old lady at the desk rolled her eyes at me as we left. Those were, perhaps, the most fucking awesome wall displays ever contracted out to the Kinkos a few towns over, and an opportunity was missed. Roll on, old lady's eyes.
We took a short drive out to an observation point, and were galled to note that the only other visitors had jumped the barbed-wire fence and hiked out to the rock; we could see them at the base, in candy-striped shirts. Our fearful law-abiding natures (and a vehement sign about rattlesnakes) kept us behind the fence. There was a mild fascination to behold in the small cemetery behind us, though. The sign at the entrance trotted out the usual lines about the rigors of the trail and the many who died along the way (K., tastefully, had chosen today to wear her "You Have Died of Dysentery" t-shirt), but there were only two kinds of gravestones in the cemetery: brand-new gravestones erected in the last couple of years for distant ancestors buried in the vicinity, and old gravestones for people who had died some 20-30 years after the end of the trail. If the Oregon Trail days and the associated hardships had been over for decades by the time they died, why were they buried there? Perhaps they had completed the trail as young men and women, and in later years, settled in Oregon and surrounded with family, they had come to remember the triumph of reaching Chimney Rock as a high point in their lives, and had asked to be buried there. Probably not true, but it has a certain beauty to it.
Impassable trail. Lose 15 minutes.
We were stuck behind two long freight trains as we headed back to Route 26, and stopped again just outside of a town as road crews dug into the pavement looking for treasure. Our frustrations paled before those of the Community Drug Drive-Thru, though:
As soon as I finished snapping photos of the signs, the woman who ran the drive-through was upon me, demanding to know what I was doing. I managed to steer the conversation to friendly ground. Evidently, the situation was exactly as it appeared: unidentified no-goodniks had been swiping the letters from the sign or re-arranging the amiable witticisms ("Men, I Don't Understand. Chocolate, I'm An Expert!") into significantly ruder form (I have no idea). We parted on good terms, agreed that it isn't very nice when people steal yor lttrs.
You have reached Fort Laramie. Would you like to look around? Y/N
We skipped Fort Kearny back in Nebraska, but with K. already dead of dysentery (according to her t-shirt's somewhat unreliable diagnosis), it seemed like we ought to stop to rest. Some sources call Fort Laramie a ghost town; I doubt that hardcore ghost town seekers would include it on their list, since it's now a designated State Historic Site and many of the buildings have been fully restored, but it is still a ripe source of toothless ruins and the passage of time.
We were standing near what had been the bakery when, in the distance, we heard someone start singing. There had been warning in the pamphlets at the entrance that roving staff members in full period regalia might walk up to you in character, but since so few visitors were there (elderly couple in a golf cart, middle-aged couple walking their dog, French couple), we hoped common sense would prevail and the re-enactors would take this opportunity to catch up on filing back at the office. K. continued to explore the bakery, while I nervously investigated the source of the singing. It was coming from a tent some distance away, surrounded by clothes hung out to dry, where either a woman or a mannequin in a red dress was sitting on a bench, surrounded by laundry. She did not move, so it was impossible to tell whether she was real or not; I think we all know, though, that the way terrifying undead spirits get hold of you and drag you to frightening alternate dimensions is by manifesting themselves as eerily lifelike mannequins in period dress. So I was not fucking around by going over there. K. was, herself, re-enacting the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey" with this goddam bakery, leaving me locked in a staredown with what may or may not have been an apparition from hell doing the laundry.
Eventually, we moved on to explore other buildings and ruins, about twenty in all. There was a profoundly awful smell in the prison and on the captain's quarters. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that the sergeant-at-arms would be giving a talk and a tour based on the theme of military discipline and punishment. We hurried over to the surgeon's house, figuring we were safe there. Like the captain's quarters and a couple others, it was jammed with vintage gee-gaws behind glass partitions. We even found the building where the fort general store was housed. Upon discussion we agreed that our beverage supplies were low, so we laid down $3 for an IBC root beer and a Sioux City Sarsaparilla at the "Soldier's Bar". There had been another announcement, that a talk would be held on the role of military laundresses, so I was glad for the sanctuary of the Soldier's Bar. On our way out, I saw the woman in the red dress from the laundry tent walking back to the administrative offices - not a mannequin, evidently.
Sun beat down, but we pressed on to a couple of mildly intriguing sights - ruts left in stone by wagon wheels, a cliff where pioneers supposedly carved their names until vacationers from more recent decades carved over them - until we both developed exhaustion, and went back on the open road to Casper, Wyoming, to rest and make camp for the night. We are still about two months behind pace, due to our late departure, but we should hit Independence Rock tomorrow, and continue to make good time.