Crossing the Great Divide

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Crossing the Great Divide


Fish, Peter, Sunset


I went to South Pass, Wyoming, to mark my son's 4-month birthday and my 43rd. People might think the middle of Wyoming a strange place to commemorate passing time, but I had my reasons. At 43, you look forward and backward, like a driver shifting his gaze from windshield to rearview mirror. At 4 months, you look straight ahead. From both my on's vantage point and mine, I thought South Pass would be enlightening.

We followed the Oregon Trail in from the east, past Independence Rock, where the wagon trains stopped to let emigrants carve their names in splintered granite. We crossed and recrossed the Sweetwater River. We rose with Wyoming toward the sky. At the end of a dirt road was a stone slab inscribed "Old Oregon Trail 1843-57." This was South Pass. Six generations ago my son's ancestors came here on their way to new lives in the West.

"South Pass is almost a religious experience," Terry Del Bene had told me a few days earlier. Before I dragged my wife and son into the sagebrush, I wanted to know where I was going. So I tagged along with Del Bene. He is an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages South Pass National Historic Landmark, and he knows the place cold.

If South Pass did not exist, the history of the United States would be so different as to be unimaginable. The pass rests at 7,400 feet elevation and forms a broad gap in the otherwise unbroken mountain ranges we label the Rockies. It straddles the Continental Divide - "Splash your canteen and half the water would go to the Atlantic and half to the Pacific," says Del Bene - but does so gently enough to allow wagon travel. Without South Pass, there would have been no Oregon or Mormon or California Trail. The first emigrant wagon train came through in 1843. By the time the last recorded wagons rolled west (amazingly late, in 1912), 400,000 settlers had crossed South Pass.

Del Bene told me all this while steering his government truck down State Highway 28. He was dressed as a 19th-century sharpie in wool pants and a vest that resembled mattress ticking. Del Bene is not above spiking his history with theater, and perhaps South Pass needs that - though a national historic landmark, it is noticeably lacking in the visitor centers, interpretive trails, and gift shops with which Americans embalm their history.

But when Del Bene announced we had arrived at South Pass, I thought he was joking. This is not an uncommon response. "It ill comports with the ideas we have formed of a pass through the Rocky Mountains," wrote emigrant Cecelia Adams in 1852, "being merely a vast, level and sandy plain sloping a little on each side of the summit."

Del Bene must have noticed my expression. Enthusiasm is one of his skills, and he went to work. "Look there," he said. "That's the trail. At the peak of the westward movement, wagons rolled through four or five abreast. The wagons tend to push dirt to the side, so you get those marks. The reason you still see them is that we have such a short growing season up here. We have the best wagon ruts in the country."

I squinted at where Del Bene was pointing, but, as usual when somebody tries to show me something important, I couldn't see what he was talking about. Still, South Pass began to make itself felt. The very absence of modern man's tampering helped. At South Pass it's just you and the weight of hopes so numerous they dent the earth a century and a half later.

For every traveler who disparaged South Pass, there was one who knew the most important landmarks are those you don't recognize at first, who understood that he or she had reached the point of no return in a great journey. Some travelers fired rifles in the air and shouted, "Huzzah!" Others turned introspective. "We have forever taken leave of the waters running toward the home of our childhood and youth," one woman recorded in her diary. Another wrote, "Now we are on the other side of the world. …

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