One day early in the summer, my husband, Mike, and I were working on our place, a few irrigated acres carved from Wyoming's high desert. Tree limbs lay scattered from a recent tree trimming, manure was heaped in the corral. The last thing we needed was a telephone call from a stranger.
He spoke with a thick German accent. "I found your name in the Oregon-California Trails Association directory," he said. "I am looking for the true Parting of the Ways, not the one where the highway marker is. I know I'm close; can you help me?"
I thought of all we had to do and fumbled with an excuse. "But, I have come all the way from Germany," he said. "I will be so disappointed…" So we said yes, or my husband did, saying he’d meet the traveler on Highway 28, at the sign for Bridger Wilderness, Big Sandy Openings.
But there was no question of my going. I knew I had too much to do to drive around, looking for wagon ruts and the precise spot where The Parting of The Ways happened. It’s the place where, halfway into their 2,000-mile journey, emigrants faced a choice: They could take the Sublette cutoff, saving 46 miles but then traveling 50 miles through the waterless desert, or they could keep to the longer main trail through Fort Bridger.
Emigrants who had been inseparable for the first half of the journey said goodbye here, not knowing if they’d ever see each other again. Wagon ruts and an occasional manmade marker identify the Oregon Trail as it snakes through Wyoming sagebrush, climbs gentle South Pass, and continues into Idaho or Utah.
During the Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial, wagon trains re-enacting the journey lumbered past our house. They reminded me that one reason I love living here — despite the harsh climate — is the land's history. When I look out at the Wind River Mountains, I think about those pioneers, moving on with courage, and often, desperation.
Taking a break from gathering tree limbs, I went inside to find my phone blinking. Mike's voice rang out: "We found it. It's beautiful here. We'll be starting back soon."
I realized that my husband had chosen the better way to spend the afternoon. I’d denied myself the chance to rediscover the landscape I love, made fresh by a European’s determination.
Although the visitor, Hermann, wasn't very talkative, my husband learned that he was from a little town about 50 miles from Stuttgart and that he was a longtime member of the Oregon Trails California-Oregon Association. This wasn't his first trip West; once, he followed the trail all the way from its starting point in Missouri. Since his wife doesn't like long trips (or perhaps doesn’t share his obsession), he comes alone. As Mike drove around on dirt tracks, Hermann fidgeted, worried they were lost. But when they spotted some markers for the Oregon Trail, he cheered up.
Hermann didn’t say so, but I bet he became fascinated with the American West in part through the 19th century novels of Karl May, a German who wrote some 60 novels about the region before ever setting foot on American soil. May's romantic adventures inspired a yearning for the West among German readers that continues today. There is a yearly festival in his hometown, a museum is dedicated to his work, and brisk sales continue today of his westerns, one of which features Winnetou, a noble Apache chief whose heroic German friend is called Old Shatterhand.
My husband said when they finally found the Parting of the Ways, Hermann became very quiet, taking it all in. He commented on the beauty and the silence of the immense landscape and how different it was from crowded Germany. He wanted his picture taken by the marker, then took Mike's, too. He said he felt a sense of freedom here. Then he walked off by himself to where the trails actually parted and stood for a long time staring into the distance.
A week later, a postcard from Hermann arrived thanking us and concluding "God bless you and America." It made me think. Sometimes it takes a tourist to remind us Westerners that while the wide open spaces of the West today aren’t the romantic settings imagined by Karl May, and they’re no longer the wild lands seen by the pioneers, they are still our sacred ground.
Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives near Farson, Wyoming, on land homesteaded in 1909. Occasionally, she wishes the nearest grocery wasn’t 50 miles away.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.