The Evidence Is in the Ruts

As a child, I was always amazed when my parents pointed out ruts created by pioneer wagon wheels on nearby hillsides or in farmers’ fields. The ruts made me think that it wasn’t so long ago when people had risked their lives to ford treacherous rivers and walk for days across dusty, desolate country guarded by coyotes and rattlesnakes. Now, those ruts remind me that even though the pioneers were ordinary people like you and me, they did more than dream. The ruts are evidence that they took action, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Keeney Pass on the Oregon Trail
By Judy Grigg Hansen

When the dust mushroomed up like a dense, dirty shroud
each time James Field took a weary step forward,
I bet he never imagined people would drive for hours to stare
at the deep ruts cut by his ironclad wagon wheels more than 150 years ago.

Except for the BLM’s interpretive signs and a few rangy cows,
this god-forsaken land in Eastern Oregon still belongs as much to the rattlesnakes
and jack rabbits as it did when Fields and his fellows traveled through endless miles of
sagebrush on their way to greener pastures in the Williamette Valley.

Today, it seems like an easy hike to the top of Keeney Pass
when it’s a Saturday morning outing in shorts and flip flops
rather than the third month on feet that were blistered and raw at first,
then more like leather than the shoes that had logged a thousand miles or more.

As we stroll where he slogged, we munch granola bars
instead of subsisting on boiled corn mush—
and we carelessly slurp bottled spring water, unaware
that John D. Henderson lost hope and died of thirst here.

As I look at the swale carved by wagon after wagon of hopeful pioneers, I wonder
what they would think if they saw us staring at the ruts,
the evidence that they really did traverse the breadth of the United States,
betting their lives that there would be a better place in Oregon.

As you are driving Idaho’s highways this summer and fall, take a few moments to look at the evidence the pioneers left. Some interesting sites are Three Island Crossing near Glenns Ferry on I-84, the Oregon Trail Park and Marina on U.S. 30 west of Soda Springs, and the Fort Hall Replica Museum in Pocatello.


About Judy Grigg Hansen
I write poetry and nonfiction, and I am passionate about the people, places, and wildflowers of Idaho and the Northwest.

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