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2,000 Miles of Bad Road: The Geology of Western Migration

This view in Wyoming's Sweetwater Valley looks west from Split Rock toward South Pass. (Click to enlarge.)

I don’t think I ever really appreciated the amazing journey undertaken by almost half a million settlers in covered wagons between 1941 and 1869 until I read Keith Heyer Meldahl’s Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Dust Trail (University of Chicago 2007). The book follows the route of those people who crossed from Missouri to California through a mostly unexplored wilderness, as scenic and fascinating as it was forbidding and treacherous, to an uncertain future in what would become the state of California.

That’s a story that’s been told before, often and well, but author Keith Heyer Meldahl applies a geologist/historian’s skills to help explain the route as contingency history. “Historians like to talk about contingency – the notion that key events in the past (turning points, if you like) determine the course of subsequent history,” Meldahl writes. And he offers a good explanation of how geologic processes that have taken place over millions of years (and are still continuing today) shaped the routes and indeed the destinies of the emigrants making their way to the gold fields.

Driving along highways today that take us a covered-wagon’s daily mileage in less than half an hour, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have made — or would have even attempted —  this monumental, fraught-with-danger three-month trip. Meldahl explains how the geology made it so much more difficult. “North America’s geological story built the stage and the props, and wrote large parts of the script, for the human drama of the western migration.”

And so he tells two stories, one of the overland journey itself, mostly through the journals of the participants (a great number of people kept them), and the other the tale of how the land came to be.

It’s a great combination. My geology knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond reading John McPhee and taking the Roadside Geology series when we drive Western roads, but his analysis, charts, illustrations, diagrams and photos make it easy enough to understand how our continent pushed westward, creating high mountains ranges, scenic lakes, lush valleys, arid deserts and swift rivers, all which seemed to conspire at one time or another to keep the emigrants from succeeding in their westward quest. At one point he notes that had all these geological phenomena – earthquakes, mountain building, river and valley creation – happened mostly east to west on the continent instead of north to south, the trail would have been so much easier.

South Pass, the one place in the Rockies where you could get a wagon over the Continental Divide.

I had never realized that the science of geology during this period was just beginning to move away from acceptance of the Biblical account of creation to a more scientific way of approaching why the earth looks the way it does. This greatly influenced how the travelers interpreted what they encountered. Today, we see much the same landscape as they did, but we know a whole lot more about the forces that created it.

I found Google Earth to be an excellent companion to Hard Road West. It’s not difficult to trace the emigrants’ route across the broad plains of Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, over that one spot along the Continental Divide into Utah and their twisted paths through some of the most inhospitable deserts and intimidating mountain ranges on earth before entering the Sacramento Valley.

Donner Party Memorial west of Truckee, California, a grim reminder of the dangers of the journey west.

I learned a lot from this book. There are several places where we have driven along the trail, mostly in Nebraska and Wyoming. But reading this one makes me feel like I did after finishing Empire of the Summer Moon – I want to get out and follow more of the trails and cut-offs and routes and see more of the paths of this amazing journey for myself.


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