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Following the Oregon and California Trails

The PYOA Contest Grand Prize Winning Story

by Peter Shannon

In the pioneer days, Saint Joseph, Missouri defined the frontier. Before the transcontinental railroad and telegraph, it was a natural assembly point for westbound pioneer wagon trains. Reached via steamboat, St. Joseph marked the beginning of the overland trail into the vast Territories, offering provisions and even a last night of hotel accommodation before months of hardship on the journey to Salt Lake City and beyond, California.

So it was there that I found myself standing in the midday July heat outside the Pony Express National Museum, eastern terminus of the venerated mail service connecting California in ten days via galloping horse.

Headquarters at the eastern terminus of the Pony Express (Pony Express National Museum, St. Joseph, MO)

Gathering provisions for my own journey west, I had a restored Citabria 7ECA to fly to its new home in California and aimed to experience the route pioneers took, to see the scenery they saw, and hopefully, to glimpse from the air remnants from that time of their journey.

The flight would be low and slow and follow as closely as possible the route of California-bound pioneers, tracking the Oregon Trail up the Platte River and over South Pass in Wyoming, branching southwest to the Great Salt Lake and crossing the desert westward to join the Humboldt river across Nevada to Donner Pass and thereby into California.

A map of pioneer trails into the western Territories, with the most prominent being the Oregon Trail and the California Trail

An honest stick-and-rudder flier, the Citabria is a fine aircraft for this journey, offering tremendous all-around visibility and spacious comfort for long periods in the air.

Finishing my errands around town and laden with everything a good camp kitchen would need, I loaded the provisions. Lifting off from St. Joseph, I turned west into Kansas and into an undulating landscape brilliant with sunshine. The road west draped over regular depressions and elevations of corn to the horizon. Overflying Marysville, I joined the Little Blue River northwest and upstream into Nebraska, the farm towns of Fairbury and Hastings passing on the vast flattening level floor below.

My newly-restored 1968 Citabria 7ECA, ready for its journey westward

Toward evening, the Platte River came into view, a sprawling expanse of sandy brown tones in the softening light, more quicksand than water. I joined the Platte at Fort Kearny, a prominent U.S. Army outpost and way station where pioneers could resupply. Passing west into the setting sun, flashes of lightning blanketed the far horizon. Setting down on a grass strip gracing the shore of Johnson Lake, I prepared camp and a fire as booming thundershowers passed to north.

After breakfast, I flew upstream to Julesburg, an overland trading post where westward pioneers turned to the North Platte toward Scotts Bluff. The terrain gradually rising, the changing landscape revealed telltale signs of the high country ahead. Distant bluffs and mountains formed the horizon to my left.

The engine was a relaxed thrum, 90 mph indicated. There was no rush on this July day. My window swung full open, I looked straight down, the warm summer air swirling through the cockpit. The river sprawled in braided muddy channels below me. The river basin was alive with wildlife, from deer and waterfowl to birds of prey. A flat and seemingly infinite expanse of prairie extended northeast. It is staggering to contemplate how vast, empty, and beautiful this land remains, much as the pioneers must have encountered it.

The Platte River

General aviation pilots see our country from a unique vantage point. Neither on the surface bound to a road nor miles up in the stratosphere, our type of flying gives us the perspective to see the landscape as a whole, how it integrates together and changes over each horizon.

In a small plane, we can we truly absorb the beauty, the vastness, and even the history of our country. While we often fly with the destination taking primacy, if we make a journey mirroring the route of our forebears, following the land and waterways, moving slowly and with our senses tuned outside the aircraft, flying can be a vivid portal into our history, to witness the past firsthand.

A fur trading post purchased by the U.S. Army, Fort Laramie stood at the base of the long climb to South Pass, the lowest crossing point of the Rocky Mountains.

So it felt as I passed Fort Laramie, guarding the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie rivers, and then departed Casper, Wyoming, the morning of my flight over South Pass and the Continental Divide.

Joining the Sweetwater River and following its shimmering ribbon past Independence Rock and through Devils Gate, I flew over land that seemed scarcely to have changed since 1850. Wagon tracks were clearly visibly below me, with their meanderings of people and animals standing out compared to smoothly sweeping motorized paths.

Devil’s Gate and the Sweetwater River running through it, climbing into high country toward South Pass

Onward, up the Sweetwater until it is just a trace and then higher still to South Pass. Arid, empty. The terrain and temperature rising, I coaxed my plane higher to assure myself I’d make it over today. I was in an empty place, not a single soul visible below. Ruins of the occasional stagecoach station lay in a square outline, yard and station-house weathering in the dry desolation.

At the pass, the Wind River Mountains above to my right and dry high country stretching gradually downward further west, nearly everything was as it must have appeared to the pioneers. As a witness to their journey, my respect grew at each mile. At this moment over lonely desolation, I better understood them and their resolve to journey through an unforgiving land.

Over the next two days, my path took me past Fort Bridger and through Ogden Canyon to the Great Salt Lake. I skirted the north shore and crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert to join the headwaters of the Humboldt River, following it across Nevada to Carson Sink and the base of Donner Pass. Waiting for a break in the weather through a night of storms over the Sierras, I slipped over Donner Pass in the early morning calm and down into California’s Central Valley, Sacramento, and the Bay Area.

Living history through flight was a rewarding experience in ways I couldn’t imagine. It was like discovering a window into the beauty of our country and our legacy in this amazing land. Left wanting to explore more, I’m already researching the next journey.

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