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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Ten
It was strange, seeing snowy peaks, after endless weeks on the Plains, but after Fort John, that was our new reality, peaks higher than anything any of us had ever seen, reaching upwards to God himself, reminding us, daily, how unimportant we really are. A man could die in this country and no one would ever know, that’s how unimportant we really are. Its enormity is what really wears you down after so much time on the Trail. The feeling that there is no end to it, and what we are doing is pure folly, thinking we can tame this land, this land can’t be tamed, not by us, not by those before us, and not by those after us.
We killed a grizzly yesterday, after it had killed three of our party, three men off in search of game, killed themselves an antelope, skinned it, strapped it to a horse, and found themselves face to face with one-thousand pounds of snarling fur, claws so large, teeth, ripped up those men, took their bullets and kept snarling, took more bullets from those of us who came to their aid, must have taken twenty bullets before that bear crumpled and all was quiet in the valley with peaks overhead and thunderclouds forming.
After we left the Platte we started facing fast-flowing streams and rivers, snow-melt fueling the watery fury, making each crossing an adventure at best and deadly at worst, Jackson shouting us on, urging us to keep moving, tying wagons together at times to make those crossings, still lost two wagons, more pilgrims to the roaring waters, more tears, more suffering for the survivors, fifteen total lost at that point, approaching Fort Bridger, more mountains rising up to take the place of those left behind. One day we made eight river crossings, and it was the same damned river!
We stopped for the night, six hours from Fort Bridger, licking our wounds, mourning the dead, the prairie grass gone by that point, making the feeding of oxen an added chore for depleted bodies.
“I know what the elephant is, Laura,” I said to my wife as she helped me unhook our oxen from the wagon.
“Tell me, Joshua!”
“I think, and I could be wrong, but I think the elephant, it’s not an animal, you know, but more like an experience. It’s gaining valuable experience, and what that experience does to a person. Some people see the elephant and turn tail and run. Some see it and learn from it, move forward, gain strength from the experience. That’s what we’re doing right now, with more dead, with mountains as big as this country’s dreams looming overhead, we’re seeing the elephant. What happens from here on depends on how we react to the sighting.”
Laura put her arms around me, rested her head against my chest.
“Well I sure don’t want to see that elephant again, not in this lifetime. You finish up here. I’ll get a fire going and see about dinner.”
It was the sorriest fort I could ever imagine, sitting along Black’s Fork of the Green River, three or four buildings, logs and dabbled mud holding them together, with maybe twenty-five Indian lodges close by. The buildings hardly looked habitable but still, it was civilization in those parts, and the great man himself, Jim Bridger, was there to greet us and trade if we chose.
The trading center had a vast array of skins and furs, bear, deer, beaver, antelope, and countless items left by other pilgrims. Laura and I traded some flour for furs for us and our children, in preparation for the snows which would surely fall in the Blues ahead. The sun beat down something fierce, making me wonder at the folly of furs, but one look at the surrounding peaks, snow-covered at higher elevations, was all the convincing I needed to make the trade.
“Jackson has you folks right on schedule,” Bridger said as we were completing our transaction. “He’s a good man, tough for sure, but he’ll deliver as promised if you follow his advice.”
“Is it worth it, Mister Bridger?” Laura asked. “Is it worth the death, this Oregon Country we are chasing?”
Bridger spit tobacco into a can near the counter, scratched his beard, took his time answering.
“It seems to me, Missy, that you’re the only one can answer that question. Me, I love the mountains. I’m happier on horseback in a blizzard than I am in a cabin under mild skies in Oregon, but I can’t speak for you. You must have your reasons for leaving back east, and you haven’t turned back having seen the elephant, so I suspect you’ll decide that Oregon is where you were meant to be. I’ll give you one word of advice about Oregon, no charge at all for the advice. Don’t be wasting any time once you get there. The winter rains will begin in October, and once they do it will be damned miserable for a good six months, so you get a shelter built immediately. If you do that you have a decent chance at making it.”
I thanked the man for the furs and advice, took leave, and considered a land where it rains so much.
Eagles soared above us that evening. Later on, wolves sang to the half-moon. There was a chill in the air, a warning of sorts, that winter is never far away in the Rockies.
The Next Day
We turned northwest that morning, while another branch of the Trail went southwest.
“Where does that trail go, Pa?” my son asked.
Just then a woman climbed down off her wagon up ahead of us, a widow, her husband having died in one of them crossings. She ran off the trail screaming, leaving her young daughter sitting on the seat of that wagon. Took us all a few seconds to figure out what the hell was happening, a young slip of a thing, she was, not even one-hundred pounds, curly red hair, her skirt billowing in the wind as she ran full-speed, her screams heartbreaking to us all, Jackson on horseback chasing her down, grabbing hold of her, holding onto her, other women then reaching her, taking her in their arms, the procession halted for a good hour while the commotion and problem was handled.
In the end it was decided that Jackson would take the woman and her daughter back to Fort Bridger where hopefully she would get help. The wagons would keep moving northwest, and Jackson would catch up soon enough.
“Damned shame,” I told Laura as Jackson led the woman and daughter back the way we had come from.
“The country just became too big for her once her husband died,” Laura said. “Their dream died with him.”
A half-hour later we couldn’t see Jackson or his wards. It was as though the country had swallowed them up.
It was not unusual for the Trail to cross and re-cross the same river several times in one day. Each crossing was dangerous, depending on the water level and swiftness of the flow. There were days the progress would only be two or three miles because of the river crossings and subsequent problems.
It also was not unusual for people to lose their minds on the Trail. For us today, it is impossible to comprehend the toll taken by the Trail. They began the trip with fear. It never left them, and many of them were one tragedy away from total panic. For some it was simply too much to endure.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)