16 June 2009

Paleo Road Trip '09: The Oregon Trail

This blog didn't get its title because 'The Oregon Trail' was the first name to spring to mind. Or rather, it was the first name to spring to mind for a good reason. When you grow up in the South, I'm told, your history classes revolve around the Civil War. In the Northeast, you get a heavy helping of the American Revolution. Presumably, Californian children are all conversant about the Camino Real and the Gold Rush. In the Northwest, we learn about trails. Two trails, to be precise: the one blazed by Lewis and Clark and the route followed by overland immigrants to the promised land of the Willamette Valley. It's quite a testament to the Northwest that people wanted to get there so badly they were willing to risk life and limb (from bears and Indians in the case of Lewis and Clark, from snakes and dysentery on the part of the settlers) to get there. Of course, both trails were blazed across landscapes far different from the lush river valleys and dense forests of Oregon and Washington. One of the most storied parts of the Oregon Trail lay nearly 2000 miles to the east, in the western half of Nebraska. This is where the emigrants first saw significant topography along the trail. They were still out of sight of the Rocky Mountains, but over millions of years the Platte River has carved the sandstones along its banks into convoluted hills and bluffs that would become among the trail's most recognizable landmarks. The two most famous of these (intimately familiar to anyone who played the Oregon Trail computer game as kids) were Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff. Given that I had a full day to get between Laramie and Lincoln, I couldn't pass up the chance to swing a little bit out of my way and acquaint myself with these monoliths in person. Chimney Rock is a state symbol of Nebraska and certainly the more bizarrely shaped of the two, but if you find yourself in the area and only have time to see one, by all means go to Scott's Bluff. You can drive or hike to the top, and it's well worth the trip, because the views are expansive and absolutely gorgeous. On top of that, the area has some really interesting plant life, with flora that would look more at home somewhere in the Southwest than in the Great Plains.
Of course, there's another reason to make the trip to the Nebraska panhandle, provided at least you have an interest in fossils. I waxed ecstatic in earlier posts about the Eocene fossils of Wyoming, but if you, like me, are more interested in the fauna of the Oligocene and Miocene, there's no place like Nebraska. Every town you pass through seems to have some formation, fauna, age, or at least species named after it: Gering, Scottsbluff, Bridgeport, and so on ad nauseum. People don't tend to think of Nebraska as a paleontological mecca, but it really is. I only regret that time didn't allow for me to visit Agate Fossil Beds up the road, source of copious numbers of fossils of the bizarre perissodactyl Moropus and the gigantic, piglike entelodont Dinohyus. As it was, I had to get back on the road to get to Lincoln, one of my favorite homes-away-from-home.

No comments: