April 18, 2008

Tales of the Trail

I once sent a passel of poems to a well-published western writer for critique and review. He sent the whole bundle back with the exclamation that nothing I had was worthy of print. I found this rather curious since two of the set had already won national awards, a couple more had been published in local media in Montana and Idaho – many had been published on CowboyPoetry.com and I was working with award winning photographer Arthur Myerson on a print project managed by an agent in New York to publish several others. Some poems of the same group were later picked up by universities and schools for use in the lecture hall and classroom. (Now - visualize my left hand lifted to the back of my head in a ponderous scratching motion.)

At the same time, I sent the same bunch to a fellow poet in southern Utah. Most of the feedback was useful, but when she got to “Tales of the Trail” she said she just couldn’t relate since that sort of thing was not part of her experience. I could relate with her not-relating. So many of those old trails are long forgotten by the masses and the media – but that has not always been the case. The discovery and publication of the trail through South Pass, Wyoming that opened the west to wagon traffic in the early 1840’s was as big a development at the time as was sending men to the moon in my generation. Everybody of that generation knew something about it. It had entered the common vernacular together with the Cumberland Gap and the wide Missouri. Now it is largely forgotten among most segments of the population. Only a few even know about it anymore. Those of us that have ridden the trail can relate to Badger Clark of South Dakota who once wrote of “ the piano’s dreamy voice (that) took you out and far, ridin’ old forgotten trails underneath the moon . . .” (The Piano at Red’s) One of those old forgotten trails is the Goodale Cutoff of the old Oregon Trail in southeastern Idaho.

In Emigrant Trails of Southern Idaho published by the BLM in 1993, we read about the cutoff; "The various emigrant trails and later stage and freight roads which followed the general route of Fort Hall—Big Southern Butte/Camas Prairie are included as the Goodale's Cutoff of the Oregon Trail. This cutoff had been used by fur traders for many years, and emigrant wagons had traversed the eastern section as early as 1852.

" 'A very reliable' mountain trader in the Snake country before Idaho was settled, Tim Goodale knew just about all of the Indian and fur trade trails of the valley and mountain country north of the Snake. For the 1862 trip Goodale used the Jeffers Road/Camas Prairie route. Setting out from the Snake River July 22, 1862, Goodale's wagon train collected into a large force to discourage trouble with Indians.

"Near Craters of the Moon, Goodale stopped for a day (July 28) to gather up still more wagons. This precaution gave him a force of 795 men, augmented by 300 women and children. With such a show of strength, his wagons escaped the kind of misfortune of some emigrants who ran into an Indian fight at Massacre Rocks, August 9, on the regular Oregon Trail south of the Snake River.

"Goodale's Cutoff departed the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall, crossed the Snake River Plain past Southern Butte to Lost River, and then headed west across the Camas Prairie. Camas Prairie provided an approach to the Boise region that stayed north of the broad valley of the Snake. The cutoff rejoined the Oregon Trail at Ditto Creek."

Emigrant Trails of Southern Idaho, p. 130
The Goodale route was heavily used in 1852 and 1854.

Big Southern Butte is the most predominant feature of the desert west of Idaho Falls. It is volcanic in nature and there lie in the surrounding vicinity a myriad of ancient lava flows – the most striking ones are found in Craters of the Moon National Monument near Arco. The Goodale Cutoff was not one trail only, but referred to the maze of trails that followed the general direction from Fort Hall past the Big Southern Butte to Craters of the Moon and west to Camas Prairie and then on to Ditto to connect with the main Oregon Trail. The cutoff was used to avoid Indian trouble as well as to herd thousands of surplus cattle from the Oregon Territory to Cheyenne and the Midwest markets.

A favorite past time we all had as I was growing up, and this included adults as well as children – was to spend time out on the “desert” west of town. This necessarily brought us into this maze of old forgotten trails that made up Goodale’s Cutoff. There were old wagon roads carved through the lava rock seemingly in the middle of nowhere. At the time, it was common to come across old out-of-place artifacts that had either been discarded by a passing wagon or had fallen out. One such object was the weathered remains of an old straight-back chair that graced my mother’s flower garden for some years. We found rusty oxen shoes, horns and tracks and trails – all evidence of human migration on the road west in search of a new home.

Home is where every trails leads. Circling back home is the subject of this poem.

Tales of the Trail
by Paul Kern

As time rushes over a concrete bridge,
It slows to a walk on a rocky ridge.

Since just a boy
barely five feet tall.
I have followed this backcountry call,

Imprinted young at eight years old,
To follow the tales of the trail I was told,
Those old time trails that I still ride,[2]

Burned deep their brand into my hide.

Up ahead in the next drainage over,[3]

The past meets up with a mounted rover.
Ghost riders of pintos untacked and unshod,
Rise up through the dust of unplowed sod.

Faint rings in the bottoms along a stream,[4]

Come into view in the morning gleam.
Teepee rings face the rising sun -
Circles of home before the ride is done.

Voices of those, whose legends were made,
In rendezvous camps of the beaver trade,
Echo through canyons and fade in the trees,
Where a rusty old trap still holds the keys,[5]

Of a cook fire ring that’s still neatly made -
A circle of home lies there in the shade,[6]

Of a trapper blowing coals on his knees,
Over rocks in a clearing back in the trees.

And of time worn tracks and dusty trails,
Where an old time path is there - then pales.
Dust has settled followed by grass,
It comes into view and then seems to pass.[7]

Those worn out trails of olden date,
Spread over grassland in paths of eight.[8]

Riders and wagons rolled side by side,
To check the dust where the trail gets wide.

Dust that rises, takes wing, then falls,
Signals the past and quietly calls,
To tell the tale of those yesterdays,
And the circle of home over bygone ways.

Trails rocky and steep then easy and wide,
Circle me back each time I ride.
They circle me back each time I roam.
The tales of the trail are of going home.

1 Rocky Ridge – Old Oregon/Mormon Trail, Wyoming
2 Cascade Canyon – Hurricane Pass – Death Canyon, Teton Range
3 Headwaters of the Gallatin, Yellowstone Park
4 Headwaters of the Yellowstone, Bridger Wilderness Area, Wyoming
5 Trapper era beaver trap found near Two Ocean Pass, Wyoming
6 Campsite on the Atlantic side of Two Ocean Pass, Wyoming
7 Nez Pierce Trail, Camas Meadows battle ground, Kilgore, Idaho
8 Old Oregon Trail about eight miles east of South Pass, Wyoming

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