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Where Our History Cuts Deep

Paul Hermans
Wikimedia Commons

They're sweet these days, as long as they stay in their banks. When and if they flood, they're a pain, and most do come spring, unless they're damned up somewhere and brow-beaten into behaving. Outside of swelling up after some gully-washer, rivers are little more than a sweet feature of our landscape, home to ducks and geese, and life itself for deer and coons and a whole gallery of neighboring wildlife. You can pump ‘em out and sprinkle what you get over parched land. But that's it: rivers are just, well, rivers. We notice them only when they get out of line.

The only reason we’re here is our rivers. We’ve got three—or they’ve got us: old Muddy, the Big Sioux, and the Floyd, named after the sergeant whose monument towers over us all.

It’s easy to forget that rivers like ours were once upon a time our interstate highways. Lewis and Clark were here, after all, not in Sutherland or Ft. Dodge. After the Corps of Discovery, if you were traveling a distance-- across country, say --you never left a river valley because the oxen and the cattle and horses, not to mention the wife and kids, couldn't go without water.

Which is why the oldest highway on record anywhere in our neighborhood is the old River Road we’d actually forgotten entirely until some local historians found the story in old cache of papers. Go visit War Eagle, up on the hill over the confluence of the Missouri and the Big Sioux. That new marker urges us all to remember the highways once there through most of the 19th century. Our own River Road followed the water.

Today, come summer, locals get out old tubes and ride the Laramie and the Platte. Kids probably shoot ducks in the fall and snowmobile through the winter. Those two rivers come together near Guernsey, a town, like our Hulstein, unenviably blessed with the name a cow. Cattlemen grab what they can of both rivers for center-point irrigation. But like the old steel bridge just outside of town, the real life of both rivers these days is pretty much behind them.

Just before the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of emigrants, following the rivers, left their tracks here, literally, on the Oregon Trail. If you’ve never seen them, you should stop sometime because they’ll take your breath away. The Guernsey Tracks are like none other, trust me. They're worn deeply almost like a wound or a scar into the soft sandstone. Hundreds of thousands of people knew you couldn't be haphazard about time or place if you were going to make it to Oregon or Utah or California. You needed to stay near water on a trail that would keep you from the most horrendous climbs through the Rockies. If you were going west, you stayed with the rivers and made tracks where the others already had.

The Guernsey tracks are their own kind of funnel. Everyone passed this way. The Lakota watched fearfully, then angrily as the masses kept coming in an endless train of Conestoga wagons and Mormon handcarts, more white people than they'd ever seen or even imagined to exist. Concerning? –you bet. Concerning enough to complain? –but of course. They couldn’t help but see that a way of life—their way of life--was getting washed away by a flood of pale faces.

But for the emigrants, making a path anywhere north or south would have been a huge gamble with death itself. That’s what the Guernsey Tracks so deep and permanent. I don’t know that you could pass through the Guersey Tracks and not remember this place. The steep gashes in all that sandstone remembers everyone who once passed through.

There are other spots where wheel ruts still tell the story, but if you're anywhere near Guernsey, Wyoming, you really must stop. After all, 175 years ago--no foolin'--hundreds of thousands, following the river, did just that.

As you can tell, right here beside the rivers, in stone, 175 years later. Amazing.  

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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