The Oregon Trail: 21st Century version

While in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful humans who also happen to be teachers. Two of them gave up an entire day to take me through the dirt roads of central Wyoming so I could experience the Oregon Trail in the same way the original Pioneers and the freshmen of Natrona County High School did/do. Rather, I should say, using the same route. My method of transportation was an air-conditioned car, rather than my feet, a covered wagon, or a hand cart!

Previously, we had driven by Fort Caspar, the former Platte Bridge Station, and heard the stories of this important site. The morning of our excursion, we started at Bessemer Bend, where one of the Mormon Ferry crossings was located in the late 1840s/early 1850s. In the first several years Mormons were venturing across the overland trail, Brigham Young decided to keep a convoy near Casper to run a ferry across the North Platte River; it was thought to be the first commercial ferry on the river. The iron ore-filled hillsides that give both Red Buttes and Bessemer Bend their names were also the location of the Battle of Red Buttes, which was a significant conflict between settlers and native populations during the 1860s.

Next on the trail was Willow Springs, the site of the first fresh water along the trail since Bessemer Bend, 25 miles earlier. Many who passed through on the Trail remarked about the importance of this site in their diaries. The lone tree at the site (and for miles around) has since been struck by lightning, but the foundation of the Pony Express station, that was turned into a telegraph station after the Pony Express went defunct, and the remains of the tree are still at the site. The water is also still apparently drinkable, though we didn’t test it out.

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The foundations of the Pony Express stop-turned telegraph station and the remains of the cottonwood that was struck by lightning.

Not too far beyond Willow Springs is Prospect Hill. Its elevation rises 400 feet in the span of a mile, and was a very difficult portion of the trail (which NC teachers make their students walk!), though pioneers and students alike were rewarded with quite a view. It is the highest point on this part of the Trail, and one from which you can see Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and the Sweetwater Valley.  Wheel ruts can be seen so clearly here that you can almost imagine the wagons rumbling by., struggling to make it up Prospect Hill. Though there are only four interpretive signs put up by the Bureau of Land Management at the top of the Hill, this is a site definitely worth stopping at and walking around for a while.

“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s

‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’

… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”

Our last stop on the Trail for the day was Independence Rock. Supposedly the destination Pioneers needed to reach before July 4th to make it to the Dalles before winter fell, Independence Rock is an important landmark on the actual trail and in the game. It is a massive sight to behold, and we were able to climb it, and walk across it that afternoon, which took about 20 minutes. Still visible are some of the initials and names of the Pioneers who reached the rock 170+ years ago. The Sweetwater River was high while we were there, so part of the area was flooded, but it made for some pretty cool photos.

My last Oregon Trail stop on the road trip was en route while I was driving from Salt Lake City to Sioux City, Iowa. I stopped briefly at Fort Bridger after the interpreters had left for the day, but the grounds were still open. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established this trading post in the early 1840s to service the trails that came through the area. He also established the first school in Wyoming for his children, who lived with him at the Fort for a while.

And the Pièce De Résistance: my last Wyoming Sunset around 9:30p, and my last Wyoming sunrise, only 7 hours later! Driving across the state of Nebraska was torturous, but at least I had that sunrise to start my day.

If you’re driving through central Wyoming, and aren’t lucky enough to have personal tour guides, the Casper paper put together an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself Oregon Trail tour. The National park Service has also put together a more extensive 84-page Auto Tour Guide that covers all three Trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon,  as they wind through Wyoming. Check them out!

Road Trip Necessities

I haven’t taken a road trip that has lasted longer than my 5.5 hour drive back to school in Milwaukee since I was 7. In the early 1990s, my family drove to Mount Rushmore in our Volvo, listening to Raffi for approximately 8.5 of the 9 hours it took us to get there. We stopped at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, my brothers and I had matching sunglasses, and we took the obligatory photos that prove I was cuter, blonder, and more stylish when I was 7 than I am today.

This summer, I’m undertaking a pretty massive road trip that will last 3 weeks and 3300 miles for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t before, and that’s a good enough reason to do anything.
  2. I have to get to Salt Lake City for a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Seminar on Manifest Destiny and the Mormon Trail somehow.
  3. Along the way to SLC, there are people to see and places to visit. I get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and experience parts of the country that I’ve never seen!

My entire road trip will keep me within “fly-over country;” the crassly-named, non-descriptive way to categorize an entire HALF of our country. I’m a proud midwesterner, and though Minnesota’s topographic features may be lacking, I’m excited to share the beauty and diversity of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains with my kids and my friends.

In preparation for this undertaking, I’m trying to populate a list of road trip basics:

  • A road trip playlist: needs to be upbeat and singable enough to keep you awake, and diverse enough not to become repetitive. Though I’d love lots of suggestions, some of my go-tos are: anything John Legend has ever sung, the original cast recording of Rock of Ages (the stage production, NOT the movie!), which is a nonsense story, but a GREAT soundtrack, and Hamilton. Because duh.
  • Road trip snacks: portable, not messy, and won’t make me feel like death as I’m driving through Wyoming. Also will keep me from spending hundreds of dollars (and gaining hundreds of pounds) on soda and chips at gas stations, hopefully!
  • Road trip-themed reads: though I’m glad to be visiting friends and seeing and doing fun things, I’ll also spend quite a bit of time alone. Good books with themes about travel and adventure, self-discovery, or nonfiction about nearly anything are always appreciated!
  • Pit-stops: I don’t sit in cars well, so having sights to stop and see will make the drive significantly more pleasant. It just so happens that a large portion of my route will take me along the Oregon/Mormon Trail, and will give me plenty of historical sights to stop and see (and parts of my childhood to reminisce):

On the way from Salt Lake City to Madison, Wisconsin, with a pit stop in Sioux City for a family wedding, I’ll also be stopping in Kearney, Nebraska, at another Oregon Trail highlight, the Field of Dreams movie site, and the New Glarus brewery, for the best Wisconsin has to offer.

I’ll be chronicling my trip during and after, in hopes of highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of this region of the country, but first, let me know: what else do I need to know about road trips to make this enjoyable, rather than painful?

Safe travels to all who have summer adventures on the horizon! MC Lean

Global Gratitude, part II: back on solid ‘Merican ground.

So, this post rounds out Eurotrip 2016. I’m grateful for the chance to chronicle my experiences this way, and in a few years, when names and places are escaping me, I’m glad I’ll have this lengthy, delayed, though hopefully *mildly* thoughtful account of an incredible few weeks. I can’t quite thank the Goethe-Institute or the people at the Transatlantic Outreach Program, Deutsche Bank, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Siemens, and the German Foreign Office, enough for the opportunity not only for two weeks in Germany, but for enabling a continuation of my trip, allowing me to see two new cities, and return to one of my favorites. My kids and I will benefit from the experiences I gained in these short weeks for the rest of my teaching career, and certainly I will for the remainder of my days.

Of course, as I’m a millennial, after I got coffee, the next thing I did when I got back on US soil was update facebook. Don’t ask why. I can’t explain the human compulsion to chronicle life via social media, but I willingly participate. Here are my immediate thoughts upon landing in Detroit:

11 July, Detroit Airport

“Back on solid ‘Merican ground. Gratitude is oozing out of me as I reflect on the past four weeks, so why not start sharing it now? In no particular order, I am especially grateful for…
1. A funny, engaging German seat mate named Rudy who kept the wine and the conversation flowing
2. Live piano and a Caribou in the Detroit airport
3. Snarky, clever British flight attendants who DO NOT like being accused of sounding a little bit Irish, thankyouverymuch…
4. Seeing American men in baseball hats as soon as we got into the airport (superficial I know…so sue me!)
5. The incredible people I met and the incredible places I visited in just over three weeks in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

What a gift to love the place I’m coming home to just as much as the places I’ve been.”


I cannot overstate the importance of this particular trip in helping remind me why I do what I do, and am becoming who I am becoming. The two week immersive learning experience exceeded my expectations in ways I can’t describe, but the 11 days that followed were self-indulgent, freeing, enlightening, and reassuring. 


My first Christmas back home after my study abroad experience, my mom got me a gift that has remained incredibly profound in my daily life, though I don’t know that I’ve actually told her that. It was just a piece of card stock, about the size of a business card, with a quote that I didn’t fully understand the value of then.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

How true it was then, and remains to be. London and central Italy await…and I can’t wait to head back to where it all started. Roma; non basta una vita.

 

MC Lean

Berlin; day 1

27 June, Berlin

I had been to Berlin once before, as a young, impressionable 21 year old on my first international trip before my study abroad experience began. I did what I thought tourists were supposed to do: checked boxes of the most well-known sites in the city, ate some sausage and drank some beer, and moved on to Athens without any particular affinity for the city. I later realized that my love for Europe was borne out of being immersed and uncomfortable; a few days in Berlin was clearly not enough to fully understand the gravity, history, and modernity of this incredible city.

Nine years later, I’m thankful that I’m older and (arguably) wiser. Berlin is an incredible, cosmopolitan city that is continually changing and growing. We only had a week there, but I could have done another few weeks or months without question and still wouldn’t have seen even close to everything I wanted to see. We stayed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, which provided a really interesting mix of ethnicities, foods, and sites in close proximity to our hotel. Immediately upon getting into our rooms, we promptly left again to find somewhere with a big screen to watch the German national team take on Slovakia in the Euro Cup. Though I’ve never been a soccer fan, it was fun to be in the city during the tournament. If soccer is the most popular sport in the world, I’ve got to be missing something, right? (…the jury’s still out on that one…)

The next day, we began seeing Berlin in earnest. We started the day with a lecture from Professor Wolf Wagner on the realities of modern Germany. We had lunch in his neighborhood, at a Swabian restaurant, which had food representative of Swabia, an ethnic enclave that today is divided between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria in Southern Germany. We then took a bus tour of the city, and ended the day with a wonderful tour of the Bundestag, and lessons on German government and history. The Reichstag is an incredible mix of modern and traditional, and effectively incorporates the less savory aspects of its history well.

Like many public structures and monuments in Germany, the Reichstag presents information and history surrounding the government under National Socialism or during the period of Divided Germany generally without commentary. It doesn’t tell you what to think, or how to feel, but allows for the space and the interpretation to make the experience your own. This upsets some people, both travelers and Germans alike, and there are even domestic protests that surround the ways Germany chooses to honor those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The way Germany, and Berlin in particular, deal with the atrocities in their history is remarkable. Controversial, definitely, but I just came across the German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally translates to “coping with the past,” which they’ve had to do with regularity in the 20th and 21st century. Especially since the fall of the Wall, memorializing those periods of history has become a priority in the country, and is done with incredible care and consideration. It is continually both reassuring and terrifying that we are so close to so many awful chapters in human history, and the way we deal with them is continually improving and expanding. Lots more to come on the ways that Berlin remembers and memorializes, but in an attempt to keep this chronological, I’ll just say that our first day and a half in Berlin only left us all wanting more…

(Also, ’tis the season to promote this fantastic opportunity, since the application just came out. If you’re a STEM or social studies teacher, please, PLEASE check out the Transatlantic Outreach Program. The application can be found HERE, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have on the application, the lesson evaluation, the workshop, etc. Take advantage of this opportunity!!)

MC Lean