Travel Log: Breathless on the Oregon Tail

Devils Tower

(Gillette, Wyoming; Aug. 12, 2018) – The Oregon Trail is famous for its brutal line of passage across the untamed, unforgiving North American west for settlers crossing Indian land, climbing vast mountains, and facing utterly harsh winters. To a lesser extant in history the California and Mormon Trails also inflicted similar hardships on their travelers. History, however, does not record any of those pioneers in the 19th century running out of breath climbing a hill in Nebraska.

When we think of the West, we think of broad, flat plains, rolling hills, big sky country and semi-arid landscapes rising into majestic mountains. What we don’t usually think about is that this broad, flat country is not at sea level. Alliance, Nebraska, sits about 3, 967 feet above sea level. Just because you’re on the ground doesn’t mean you’re breathing the same oxygen level as you would at sea level. Nope, you’re nearly 4,000 feet up, and human beings suffer hypoxia (passing out due to insufficient oxygen) at about 10,000 feet. So, I’m nearly halfway to the point of not having enough air breathe.

This is important because, ever since I left the Great Lakes (themselves about 600 feet or so above sea level) I’ve had an odd pressure in my skull, my ears have been clogging rather easily, and when I climbed Windlass Hill in Nebraska (where the Oregon Trail left the high flatlands and entered the craggy Ash Hollow lower lands) I was so out of breath you’d have thought I never walked a mile in my entire life. In the space of less than four days I traveled from a near sea-level elevation to a near 4,000-foot elevation. My body is adapted to sea level oxygen levels; the sudden climb didn’t allow time for me to adapt to these higher elevations (hence the odd pressure in my skull, shallow breathing, etc.).

Ash Hollow from Windlass Hill
From the top of Windlass Hill, the view into Ash Hollow is stunning.  (Aug. 9, 2018)

But it gave me an interesting idea as I headed farther into Nebraska to the magnificent Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff formations on August 10. Hiking around those great natural landmarks, gasping for breath and sucking my water pack dry faster than you can say Rumpelstiltskin backwards five times fast…I began to realize that I was being given a clue. I was not walking on hand-made shoes, I hadn’t crossed hundreds of miles on foot leading a fractious horse or mule, I didn’t have a wooden wagon laden with supplies, no. But! I could suddenly imagine how breathless and tired those settlers were when they reached these formations simply from the weeks of exertion they had already endured.

And those weeks were only the first third of the journey to Oregon or California.

When the pioneers reached Chimney Rock or Scotts Bluff, they could take heart as these famous landmarks reassured them they were still on course…and shudder knowing these famous landmarks meant the easy part of the journey west was over.

Both formations are the eroded remnants of ancient plains, but the hard core of stone in Chimney Rock created the breathtaking spire scraping the Nebraska sky. Spending time at the visitors centers at both sites (they are about 23 miles apart) will also blow a major hole in part of the great American mythology: the bloodthirsty, hostile Plains Indian incessantly raiding and attacking the wagon trains.

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock rises above the scrub brush, the first great landmark encountered by westward-bound settlers.  (Aug 10, 2018)

If you actually read the accounts and letters and diaries of the settlers who passed through, the vast majority of interactions were peaceful with Indians interested in trade. As the trickle of settlers became a flood, an undertone of sadness creeps into the interactions as the Indians obviously saw their land being inexorably lost to them forever, but “merciless savage” of myth was just that…myth. Yes, raids and violence did happen, but those were quite the exception, note the rule.

The Indian Wars would happen, but these trails were not the battlefields. Most settlers faced a significantly higher chance of suffering violence at the hands of a fellow settler they traveled with than from the Indians they encountered. Truth is often quite stranger than fiction, and the American West is no exception.

Another joy to my travels is meeting people in the most unexpected ways.

At Scotts Bluff I met a young nursing student and budding photographer named Jennifer Rae (Instagram @ jaerae26 – you need to check out her photography!). We met at the entrance to the Scotts Bluff National Monument while taking pictures of the structure. As we chatted, she told me her ancestors crossed to Oregon and Washington State on the Oregon Trail, and two are buried on it in Nebraska! (And here she is going backwards on that same trail as she heads into Nebraska for nursing school.)

We stumbled on each other again on the other side of Scotts Bluff looking for the site of the 19th century Robidoux Trading Post at Robidoux Pass. We ended up spending over two hours hiking around the open range of the area, peering over fences into ranch land and talking. She picked my brain to no end on photography tips, and in turn shared her knowledge of geography and nature (she knows a lot more about vegetation than me!). We got a good laugh as she realized her boyfriend might not be happy she spent a few hours hiking alone in the middle of no where with a strange man she met…who was himself alone in the middle of nowhere!

Robidoux Pass near Scotts Bluff
Jen Rae, my fellow hiker, examines the site of the old Robidoux Trading Post.  (Aug. 10, 2018)

As we scrambled up a hill, she wheezed a bit and apologized. She told me she ran every day, hiked, and otherwise led an active lifestyle. She was genuinely confused why she felt like she was completely out of shape. I mentioned that we were at a spot on the continent that was about 4,000 feet in elevation, and she had (like me) just come from sea level a few days before.

I could virtually see the light bulb go off over her head as she realized she’d neglected to take into account the fact she was going to be climbing several thousand feet as she came to Nebraska. I told her not to feel bad—I’d been caught unawares myself until only about 24 hours before!

But that moment with Jen really brought home why I do this. In the space of one day I got an interesting view into the realities the 19th century trans-continental settlers faced and I got to meet a young woman is a remarkable character in her own right. She is, I believe, going to go far!

So get out and go find your own Oregon Trail…just make sure you’re aware of the elevation above sea level, though!

Oh, and, again, go visit her Instagram page. You’ll be impressed! (@ jaerae26)

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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