Protecting the Oregon Trail from the development it helped create

Dedicated volunteers fight to preserve one of the trails that brought settlers west.

Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.

“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”

 

I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.

Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.

The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”

To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?”

The Carbieners want me to stand in pioneers’ boots, but they’ve brought me here to imagine something else: lattice towers up to 195 feet tall marching along a nearby ridgeline. Though the Park Service is charged with protecting the trail, it doesn’t actually have control over the 2,250-mile long corridor, which crosses a patchwork of federal, state and private land. This spot belongs to the Bureau of Land Management, and it’s contemplating routes for the Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line Project, or B2H — a 300-mile, 500-kilovolt powerline between Boardman, Oregon, and the Hemingway substation near Melba, Idaho. Idaho Power, the utility that proposed the project, says the B2H will enable electricity sharing between the Northwest and the Intermountain West, helping meet new demand as the ­population grows.

According to the BLM’s 2014 draft environmental impact statement, the line could also cross the Oregon Trail a dozen times and be visible from up to 80 percent of it within the project area. Much of the trail corridor is already significantly altered, but about 18 percent in Oregon still has intact ruts and relatively pristine views. That includes significant portions of this stretch, which the BLM’s preferred route would parallel south of where we stand and cross just to the north, causing, as the agency acknowledges, “direct, long-term adverse impacts to the visual setting.” Farther northwest, the line could sweep across the viewshed of other fairly pristine sections of trail and the BLM’s National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City.

The Park Service has expressed serious concerns about those impacts. And the Oregon-California Trails Association, to which the Carbieners belong, is pushing for the line to be rerouted if not stopped altogether  — putting the organization in the interesting position of defending a historic agent of development from a modern one. “We’re a bunch of damn old folks that just like to go out and walk the ruts! And then all of a sudden, we’re realizing that they’re disappearing,” says Gail Carbiener.
“Our concern is that we can’t afford to lose any more. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

 

Muriel, in 1852 period garb, and Gail Carbiener, who have helped erect Oregon Trail signs and markers, walk on the Oregon Trail at Birch Creek.
Otto Kitsinger

What exactly is lost when parts of the Oregon Trail succumb to development? The events are over, the people long dead, and the corridor itself is less a continuous trail than a series of car-accessible historic sites and segments. First and foremost, today’s trail is a story. And the one most often told is of ordinary people enduring an incredibly difficult months-long journey in search of new beginnings. The rhetoric that helped inspire the first waves of the 300,000 to 500,000 settlers who headed west along the Overland Trails often highlighted their character in the face of privation and struggle, and glorified them as the vanguard of the new nation’s aggressive expansion. The pioneers themselves later formed societies to celebrate a similar notion of their experience — one in which, Benjamin Franklin Owen wrote in 1853, men and women “had a fair test as to the stuff they were made of.”

Their pride also hinged on the conversion of the region’s land into thriving farms, ranches and settlements. Whether the settlers acknowledged it or not, that land was “empty” only because of the brutal displacement of Native people. But when the U.S. fell victim to widespread economic depression around the turn of the century, the romantic idea of the frontier gained even more traction. In the ensuing “cultural crisis,” historian Peter Boag writes, “efforts intensified to remember Oregon’s pioneer generation as representative of a cheerier and more heroic phase of the local past.”

It’s not surprising, then, that many early attempts to commemorate the Overland Trails were themselves development proposals, calling for paved roads along the wagon routes to encourage growth. Between 1906 and 1928, the most famous Oregon Trail campaigner, an elderly, ambitiously bearded former pioneer named Ezra Meeker, crossed the country several times, in part to promote a memorial highway. Twice, he retraced the Oregon Trail by covered wagon. He also went by car with covered-wagon carapace, by plane, and by train — his vehicles mirroring the transformation of the West, for better or worse.

It wasn’t until Congress designated the trails under the 1968 National Trails System Act that preserving their remains became a formal federal priority. The Oregon and Mormon Pioneer trails were listed in 1978, and the California and Pony Express trails in 1992. “In many ways,” historian Will Bagley wrote for the Park Service in 2007, the four trails’ 11,000-mile web constitutes “America’s longest and narrowest national park, stretching from the Missouri River to the Great Salt Lake and beyond the summits of the Sierra Nevada and the ­Cascades.”

An illustration depicts an Oregon Trail “oroboros,” which is a symbol of continuing cycles and re-creation.
Sarah Gilman

 “What we’re trying to define is a moment in time that has disappeared,” explains Aaron Mahr, superintendent of the Park Service’s National Trails Intermountain Region. Preserved ruts, a long view, an important mountain pass, a spire of rock repeatedly noted in old journals — all provide anchor points for contemporary travelers to connect historic events to the places where they occurred, illuminating the pioneer experience. “The landscape,” agency archaeologist Lee Kreutzer says, “is part of the trail.”

But preservation is complex. The Park Service relies on partnerships with the Forest Service and the BLM to protect trail corridors and help provide interpretation, as well as with state historical offices, tribes, and private landowners. Nonprofit volunteer organizations also provide labor and expertise. Among them is the Oregon-California Trails Association, or OCTA, which has about 1,400 members and draws half its budget from the Park Service. It was founded in 1982 after an Oregon farmer plowed up a mile of ruts to plant potatoes; the trails were vanishing even as preservation efforts ramped up.

And no wonder: “What made a good route of travel in 1840 makes a good route of travel in 2016,” says Kreutzer, who tracks projects on federal land that might affect the trail. Aside from being swallowed by farms and settlements, stretches of the Oregon Trail have long since disappeared under modern highways like I-84. Utility corridors parallel it. Natural gas fields and pipelines gnaw at the sage flats surrounding it and other trails. Overuse can even be a problem, with thousands of Mormon pilgrims hauling heavy handcarts across a Wyoming stretch of trail each summer. But wind farms and new powerlines like the B2H are the biggest worry, simply because they’re tall enough to bite into the vistas that support the vicarious emigrant ­experience.

Preserving historic trails is just one of many legal mandates that the Forest Service and BLM must balance, and neither of the agencies have any say on private land, home to an estimated 1,700 miles of the Oregon Trail, explains Kreutzer. “And the National Historic Preservation Act is just not that strong. All (the Park Service) can do is speak up and hope to be heard.”

“Sometimes that works straightaway, or you get some compromise,” says OCTA’s national preservation officer, Jere Krakow, who held Mahr’s superintendent position until 2007 and is now monitoring 29 projects in nine states. Still, “We try to preserve everything, knowing that we’re going to lose.”

 

Gail Carbiener discusses a photograph that is marked to show where power lines might obstruct the view from Oregon Trail wagon ruts south of Birch Creek, according to one route proposed in the 2014 draft environmental impact statement.
Otto Kitsinger

The land west of Ontario, population 11,000, is remarkably flat. From the town’s assembly of chain motels and restaurants, tilled earth sweeps toward the hills in all directions, peppered with houses, windrows, and, improbably, two fighter planes parked amid low prefab buildings. Gail Carbiener steers the Jeep through the tiny community of Vale, where stoic-looking settlers and a single Indian stare from a grocery-store mural. Technically, we’re back on the trail, buried under Glenn Street, but we’re bound for a stretch of pristine ruts farther south, beyond the B2H’s reach. “Tell her about how you were in the bathroom and the Donners were there!” Carbiener calls to his wife.

The Donner Party was a group of emigrants trapped by snow in California’s Sierra in 1846, who may have resorted to cannibalizing their dead to survive. “When I meet descendants of real people, I really get excited,” Muriel Carbiener elaborates. The couple was visiting Donner Memorial State Park when Muriel emerged from a restroom stall to find two Donner relatives: The family, it turned out, was there observing the ordeal’s sesquicentennial. She clasps her hands jubilantly. “It was just like, AAAHH!”

Muriel Kilgo intended to major in history at UC-Berkeley, but married Gail Carbiener instead. After the Carbieners’ children finished school, she returned to her studies, focusing on emigrant women’s lives, and earned her degree in 1990. When she dragged her skeptical husband, a retired banker, to an OCTA convention in 1994, he was hooked, too. One of his ancestors traveled the Mormon Pioneer Trail, and he likes to think he also would have come West; he’s always loved the mountains.

Since then, the Carbieners have collected 200 books and diaries on the emigrant trails and have explored them extensively. Gail Carbiener volunteers a few weeks each year for federal agencies, sleuthing historical sites with a cadre of other metal-detector-wielding old guys, under the supervision of an archaeologist. With OCTA, the couple erects directional and interpretive signs, and Gail Carbiener has even re-cast concrete trail markers in home-built molds.

After we park below a gap in the hills called Keeney Pass, Carbiener tenderly takes his wife’s arm and they stroll along the wagon track through the sage. “You’re camping in a cesspool and you’re walking in one,” Muriel Carbiener reminds me cheerfully. The trail would have been littered with livestock feces and carcasses, denuded of grass for miles around. To lighten the load, people often jettisoned belongings — a piano, libraries of books, thousands of pounds of bacon, even a diving bell — a wake stretching back to Missouri.

Many died from cholera or drowning. Others, according to historian John D. Unruh, died as a result of “careless handling of the fantastical arsenal of firearms” they dragged west. Some, perhaps, even succumbed to despair. A plaque at the grave of John D. Henderson, which we visit next, notes mournfully: “Died of Thirst, August 9, 1852, Unaware of the Nearness of the Malheur River … Proved too Great a Struggle for the Weary Travelers.” Those remembered hardships retain their power, especially for pioneer descendants. David Welch, former OCTA president and national preservation officer, describes his sense of connection to a little-changed landscape in Nevada, where his great-great-grandmother walked while nine months pregnant. Amateur historian Stafford Hazelett says perfect strangers reach out to him for help finding the exact places along the trails where their ancestors are buried.

Muriel Carbiener carries paper towels and water to clean signs and marked graves. Sometimes, she feels ghosts with her. “It seems like you take care of these like you might take care of a family member’s grave,” I observe.

“Gosh,” she says, as if surprised. “Maybe more than a family member’s.”

“It’s personal,” her husband adds. “It really is.”

 That might explain the vehemence with which he’s fought the B2H. He’s driven to Eugene to meet with environmental lawyers, Skyped with law students, and, with OCTA, has signed onto a lengthy comment letter opposing the project alongside hardline environmental groups like Oregon Wild. Just before I met the Carbieners, the BLM dismissed Gail from a special committee reviewing the proposal: He had inadvertently shared privileged information in an anti-B2H letter to the editor.

It’s uncertain how the powerline will affect Birch Creek and the pristine segment to the south, called Alkali Springs. The final environmental study won’t be out until summer. And because powerlines traverse their own patchwork of public and private land, they’re perhaps as hard to build as the trail is to protect. The alternative routes here have their own controversies: One would pass through more farmland, potentially disrupting irrigation and crop dusting, says BLM Vale District project coordinator Renée Straub, and both cross more habitat that is considered a priority for greater sage grouse.

Recent preliminary maps suggest the BLM may be leaning away from the route that most impacts the Oregon Trail here. But its preference for the section near the interpretive center appears little changed, and 35,000 to 40,000 people visit that site annually. Other alternatives for that spot, at least those that have been analyzed, are more problematic; the only one that would mostly bypass the trail would detour far from existing utility and transportation corridors, slicing through more intact forest and big game and sage grouse habitat. “It’s not always feasible,” says Straub, “to protect everything when we’re trying to balance all these resources.”

Before I leave the Carbieners, we stop at McDonald’s. Muriel elucidates the finer points of emigrant cuisine as she nibbles a burger: “Beans … and beans … and beans.” The list underscores the relief they probably felt trading with tribes for salmon and vegetables. Early on, Native Americans often helped travelers with dangerous river crossings and route finding, especially in Oregon. Sometimes, Muriel Carbiener says, “the Indians wanted to charge people for crossing their land, and most whites refused to do that.” She pauses. “We were mean and nasty.”

That hints at a painful side of trail history that the Carbieners frankly acknowledge. Empowered by a sense of divine destiny, the emigrants squatted on tribe-owned lands, overgrazed grass tribes needed for their horses, depleted wild game, destroyed staple camas meadows, fouled drinking water, and inadvertently devastated Native American populations with novel diseases like measles — ultimately leading to bloody clashes as settlement swept the region. “This is our history,” Muriel says circumspectly. “None of us would be here unless these people had done this.”

“I think these stories are a part of us,” OCTA’s Krakow says later. They carry a lot of the nation’s formative values, “and not all of those are good ones.”

 

There are more than two dozen murals in Vale, Oregon. This one, called Death on the Trail, is on the side of a Les Schwab Tire building.
Otto Kitsinger

One of more than two dozen Oregon Trail murals in Vale, Oregon.
Otto Kitsinger

Hitíim̀ecix Wéetešne — They are marking the land. The Nez Perce phrase appears on a text panel at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. About 160 miles northwest of Ontario on I-84, it’s the only tribal interpretive center on the designated Oregon Trail route. The panel describes the treaty process that carved up the Columbia Plateau, forcing the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla to surrender their lands alongside other tribes in 1855. Beside it, there’s a map of the tiny trapezoid that became the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where Tamástslikt is located, contrasted against the vast expanse of ceded ancestral territory.

Much of the B2H’s length, it turns out, falls inside that ceded land, where the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla — now the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — still have treaty-protected hunting and fishing rights. While the tribes have no official position on the line, their formal comments fault the BLM for not adequately consulting them about the project’s possible impacts on archaeological resources, as well as the continuing uses and cultural significance of the land. In fact, the tribes preferred the proposed routings that most irk Oregon Trail advocates because they’re closer to existing development and appear less harmful to wildlife. “Our first priority is preservation of tribal cultural history and treaty rights,” explains Chuck Sams, tribal government spokesman. But “we want to ensure that the line has negligible impacts on everyone’s historical background.”

“All of that is part of our past, too,” Bobbie Conner, Tamástslikt’s director since 1998, tells me later.  “I believe the wagon ruts tell an important story. I understand what enlightenment it brings people to know the struggles of their ancestors.” She notes her own blended heritage: Umatilla, Cayuse and Nez Perce, with a last name from a Scotch-Irish ancestor. Still, she adds, “There is much that we wish to protect that’s much older. We’ve been here in this landscape for more than 10,000 years. And we don’t ever expect to leave.”

It’s this last message that Tamástslikt most conveys. In addition to showcasing tribes’ rich histories and covering the dark years of land division and forced assimilation that followed white settlement, it takes visitors up to the present, as the tribes restored water and salmon to local rivers emptied by irrigation and built a modern economy while still maintaining traditional culture. Núun Wišíix, reads a wall near the end of the exhibit: We are.

Such inclusive histories have been slow to catch on at other emigrant trail interpretive sites. Recognizing the problem, the Park Service began holding tribal listening sessions about five years ago to build relationships and find ways to integrate tribes’ perspectives. The agency has worked with Oglala Lakota College students to collect oral histories from elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation for use in a trail interpretive film, for example, and the BLM hopes to use Park Service funds for an exhibit exploring Native Americans’ experience of the Oregon Trail.

But no matter how close the agencies get to telling the Oregon Trail’s complete story, the scars of land theft and its legacy remain. No signs on I-84 identify the ancestral homelands of the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla. A casual traveler would have no idea they used these routes in a seasonal migration for food long before the pioneers, or that the tribes are still deeply invested in this landscape. The Oregon Trail, meanwhile, is marked with signs likely to catch the eyes of even incurious drivers, emblazoned with the symbol of this region’s conquest: A covered wagon. As University of Oregon emeritus professor Matthew Dennis writes, “history and memory are not merely ways of recollecting the past but are also means of obscuring and forgetting it.”

 

Wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail at Keeney Pass south of Vale, Oregon.
Otto Kitsinger

The sky is fading to pink when I exit the interstate one last time, then wind through alfalfa fields. Center-pivot sprinklers loom like giant mantises, and gray birds blink through my headlights. Beyond someone’s farmhouse and up a gravel road, I park at a picnic shelter and set out down an asphalt path buckled by tumbleweeds. It’s completely dark by the time I find the cement obelisk marking a stretch of wagon ruts at Echo Meadows. To the northwest, red lights atop the Columbia Gorge’s thicket of windmills pulse with cardiac regularity.

I follow the bright spark of reflective trail markers in the other direction, towards a black horizon crowned with stars. I think of the rest areas along 84, with their Oregon Trail kiosks — of the families adjusting baggage in their SUVs, the truck drivers hunched into cellphone conversations. I think of the people who honor pioneer ancestors, and those who make a hobby of following emigrants’ footsteps. Few among them could claim roots in this region more than a handful of generations deep. Perhaps the trail helps them feel that they belong, both to history and to the landscape itself.

As a recent transplant to Oregon, I pause to see if I, too, might experience something like Muriel Carbiener’s communion with ghosts. I hear rustles and squeaks in the head-high sage. But all I feel is the disquieting sense of drift that comes from being in constant motion—just one more emigrant shifting between the hubs of a society that is forever pressing outward, devouring new places. History aside, perhaps the best reason to preserve these last shreds of trail and the sweeping views around them is as reference points that help us remember how much the land has changed — and is still changing.

Sarah Gilman unwittingly traveled parts of the Oregon Trail on her way to and from college in southeastern Washington in the early 2000s. She is a High Country News contributing editor in Portland, Oregon.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.