WALK IN FOOTSTEPS OF PIONEERS

June 20, 2003 12:00 am

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Elizabeth is a spry woman, especially for someone more than 150 years old. Her eyes flash blue in the shadow of the emigrant wagon as she tells her stories of balking oxen and cursing men, of illness and accident and death along the Oregon Trail.

Well, OK — it's Elizabeth's great, great, great granddaughter who tells the stories, but its Elizabeth herself who wrote the script in the form of the diary she kept as she and her family made their way by wagon train toward the Willamette Valley. Today you can hear the words from that diary at Blue Mountain Crossing, an Oregon Trail interpretive park located in the mountains between Pendleton and La Grande.

What sets this park apart from other Oregon Trail sites are two special qualities. The first is the Trail itself, which the Forest Service calls "Some of the best preserved traces of the Old Emigrant Road." Two connecting paths — "Discovery Loops" — lead you to them.

The longer of these is the Independence Loop. Along its three-quarter mile length is a series of 10 numbered posts, which help guide you through a brief history of the road that not only led pioneers, miners and freighters over the Blue Mountains, but also served for decades as the primary connection between eastern and western Oregon.

The route curves down a gentle slope where you'll probably encounter chipmunks scampering across the fresh prints of deer or elk. You'll also find the tracks of freight wagons and stage coaches, for nearby lie the ruts where five old roads converge. These different roads resulted from rough terrain and road blocks.

"Our traviling through the timber was quite difficult," wrote an 1842 emigrant, "as the path wound back and forth and many logs lay across it."

When the path turns uphill toward the ridge, you'll climb out of the trees and up through wildflowers and sage to the ridge, where forested slopes drop steeply into the next drainage. According to the Forest Service, this hill looks much as it did in the time of the wagon trains, though it now grows more sagebrush and less bunch grass than it did prior to the westward migrations, when livestock began grazing the Blue Mountain region.

Because pioneers found their wagons tipped easily on side-hills, they drove them straight up or down slopes like this. The resulting ride could be a long, rough roll over the mountains. One emigrant described a section of trail as "…first up a long hill… then down a long ridge…then up another long ridge and down a steep hill…[then] onto the next ridge…"

On steep hills, wagons had to be "double-teamed" by harnessing extra horses, mules, or cattle to them. "We went up one [hill] today and it took twenty-two head of cattle to haul up one wagon," wrote emigrant Elizabeth Wood, "and there was not much in the wagon either."

Along the ridge stand some of the last surviving witnesses to the great migrations of the last century: the pines and firs cut and scarred by the thousands of iron rims that once clunked against them. "I never saw as crooked a road in all my life," wrote one emigrant. "Some of the trees are rubbed one third the thickness through by the wagon hubs."

This road is still clearly marked, for the emigrants cleared rocks from the wagons' path and stacked them on the sides. Those stones too large to move they ran over, either crushing them into gravel or wearing them smooth. Either way, the labor and the erosion slowly opened the way for those who followed, increasing a wagon's eight-mile day in the 1840s to a 20-mile day in the 1860s.

Although the wagon road continues across the Blues from here, the walking path turns aside when it connects with the Oregon City Loop, a quarter-mile trail that steers you toward the scent of a campfire. Follow it, and you'll find the second distinguishing quality of the park: the emigrant camp of Elizabeth and her husband, Andrew.

While Andrew splits the wood and tends the campfire, Elizabeth stands near the wagon in her soil-stained bonnet and dress and describes their menu ("Everything is based on flour and salt"), their discoveries ("The Platte River is too thick to drink and too thin to plow"), and their difficulties ("Dysentery has plagued us the whole way"). But when they reach the Willamette Valley, she says, they will also reach the end of those difficulties: "No more plains to cross. No more burials to endure."

It is a history lesson with a human face. "But I learn more than the visitors do," says Andrew, who wears a wide-brimmed hat and suspenders, wooden buttons on his trousers and mule ear pull-ons on his boots. "So many people who come here have their own Oregon Trail story to tell."

Those stories might be about why their ancestors made the journey, or how to grease an axle or hitch a team of oxen. Elizabeth's story, once she leaves her emigrant character, is that her great, great, great grandmother did not complete her journey, did not cross over these mountains. She's buried along the trail, somewhere nearby, "at the base of a yellow pine."

But until that end, Elizabeth's diary carries a message of hope typical of many emigrants: "Be of good cheer," she wrote. "We're going to see those trees of Oregon." One of those trees now marks her unfound grave in the Blue Mountains, near the crossing that carries the voices of pioneers.