A cold wind from the Blue Mountains carries the scent of sagebrush as it whips your face. Each step stirs dust on the dry path in this high desert plateau in eastern Oregon, where hundreds of thousands of American pioneers walked, changing the course of history.
A roadside sign beneath Flagstaff Hill points the way to this path, where you can walk in the actual ruts made during the mid-1800s by the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail.
The sage and other brush along the trail may have thinned or thickened over time, but the vista is undoubtedly the same as that seen by the adventurers who made the 2,000-mile, six-month-long trek to the Oregon Territory in the American West. A tan-and-green valley covers the foreground, and the majestic and imposing forested Blue Mountains dominate the sky.
It’s impossible to ignore the ghosts of the pioneers who walked this way and helped shape America’s destiny. With at least a month’s journey still ahead at this point, did they appreciate the beauty of the mountain view? Or was it just stark evidence of another near-impossible task to master?
This year, Oregon is marking the 175th anniversary of the trail, commemorating the first large, organized wagon train that left in late May of 1843 from near Independence, Mo.
There were diary accounts made at the time and shortly thereafter, but even still, details about that group vary widely. Some say as many as 1,000 people began the trek; others say it was between 500 and 700 people in 113 wagons, with as many as 5,000 livestock along for good measure.
What’s clear is that the U.S. government encouraged people to make the journey, hoping that a greater population of Americans in the Oregon Territory would help wrest control of the disputed land from the British.
Politicians were determined to expand the United States “from one ocean to the other,” but individuals were looking for a better life after economic woes hit during the 1830s, said Kelly Burns, supervisory park ranger at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City.
But there was more to it than that. The sense of adventure and the monumental challenge of traveling so far and so long into mostly uncharted territory shows determination.
More than 400,000 pioneers traveled west on the Oregon Trail, which turns 175 years old in 2018. Modern-day travelers in Oregon can retrace history at numerous spots along the legendary trail.
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“We can all understand the idea of leaving something you love for the goal of getting something better, and the whole trail thing, the opening of the West, the infinite possibilities,” Burns said.
It took between five and six months to make it to Oregon City, the end of the trail, where in later years a man could file papers to claim 320 acres of land — 640 if he was married.
Roughly 400,000 people are estimated to have made the wagon-train journey. About 10 percent died along the way. The peak year was 1850, when some 55,000 traveled the route. The caravans started trailing off in the 1870s when train travel became an option.
What’s striking to a visitor is how near the history of the Oregon Trail seems, not just in physical terms but in time. It’s not really all that long ago.
For example, Baker City winemaker Travis Cook, 33, is a descendant of one of the last families to travel the trail, in 1894. His great-grandfather was born shortly after the family arrived in Oregon.
Cook said the spirit of the pioneers — one based on hard work and striving for a better life — is still part of the culture around Baker City.
“Every day, we look forward and try to make our dreams happen,” he said.
For lovers of American history, a visit to Oregon is a way to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. Outside Baker City, in the eastern part of the state, is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a 23,000-square-foot facility atop Flagstaff Hill that overlooks the well-preserved ruts from the 19th century.
Engaging exhibits include short movies, dioramas and a spot where children can stock a wagon, deciding on what is most important to bring when packing for a new life. But exploring the outdoor spaces and the actual ruts in the valley might be the most evocative activity.
On the other side of the state, in Oregon City, is the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a smaller, but similarly well-done facility that also documents the history of the trail.
Today’s travelers can visit both spots over the course of a couple of days with stops along the way for rest and refreshment, sometimes driving along the original route that took the pioneers about a month to traverse. You’ll be able to restock your provisions, but instead of making history, you’ll be retracing it.