Chapter 11 -- Retracing the Emigrant Trail

September 28, 1997

Drove west from Star City, making quite a few miles. I filled the propane tank for the first time in three or four weeks; it took 3.1 gallons, about four dollars worth of propane. I'm amazed at how cheap and long-lasting the propane is. It runs the refrigerator continuously, and cooks meals, and once in awhile runs the furnace, though I haven't needed the furnace much.

I cross the Bonneville Salt Flats, and stop at the speedway. Compared to the Black Rock Desert, Bonneville seems tiny, cramped, crowded, and overdeveloped. Compared to virtually every other place I know of, Bonneville is none of these. Bonneville has a white, salty, crystalline surface, looking almost like snow, where the Black Rock is more beige dried alkali mud. Bonneville has no racing now, because of standing water from a rainstorm a few days ago. Bonneville has powerlines, ditches, roads, even Interstate 80 crossing it, where the Black Rock has no permanent structures whatsoever.

I drive through Salt Lake City around sunset and start looking for a place to spend the night. I'm hoping to find a pretty, primitive campground in the Wasatch mountains, but no such luck. Perhaps if I had more time to explore... I leave the Interstate for the little state highway 65, which closely follows the original route the Mormon Emigrants used in getting to Salt Lake. It's beautiful, with yellow and orange groves of quaking aspen trees blazing in the autumn sunset. I stop an snap a picture. However, the canyon is now damned for use as the water supply for Salt Lake City, and there are lots of signs saying things like

So I drive a bit further, and crash at a Motel 6 in Evanston, Wyoming.
Sept 29, 1997

Filled up the gas tank at Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the first time since Salt Lake City. I got 456.9 miles out of that tank, for a whopping 24.5 MPG. This is the best mileage of the trip, undoubtedly because it's fairly level interstate cruising, instead of the mountain driving and dirt roads I've been on before.

This part of Wyoming has pretty scenery, of the type that continuously reminds one of the Oregon Trail. Flat-topped mesas and ridges, without nearly the relief of the Rockies just one state southward. The continental divide was barely noticable, and I would certainly have missed it if not for the sign.

Early this morning, to the south, the High Uintas were completely covered with snow, probably from the same storm that flooded Bonneville. They made for beautiful scenery, but our elevations are snow-free, and it's sunny and unseasonably warm (85 or so).

Just east of Laramie, I saw a "Point of Interest" in the median of I-80. I stopped, and the signs proclaimed "Tree Rock". It's a boulder of granite with a pine tree growing in a crack. Not particularly noteworthy, but the sign claimed it has been an attraction since before the railroad came through this area in the 1800's. In fact, they ran the route of the railroad slightly off this most direct course, so that passengers could get a view of this "interesting" rock. Likewise, they diverted highway 30, and later Interstate 80, to have a good view of the tree growing out of the rock. The sign claimed that, even with the mountains and varied topography around here which would be novel to an easterner, most early travellers noted "Tree Rock" in their journals. I can only conclude that weeks of travelling across the prairie had an unfortunate effect on their mental faculties. Then again, I suppose I'm continuing the tradition.

I stopped at Rock Springs, Fort Bridger, Laramie, and Cheyenne, hoping to find something interesting to live up to those historical names. I pretty much came up empty. I was particularly disappointed in Cheyenne, since most small state capitals (Cheyenne is 50,000) are beautiful. Cheyenne was pretty dirty and economically run-down, from what I could see. At least Laramie had a pleasant university.

Sept 30, 1997

I crossed nearly the entire state of Nebraska today. I've decided Nebraska is a lot like Kansas, only longer. I've followed the Platte River, and visited a lot of historic landmarks along the old emigrant's trails, but overall, I'm not terribly excited by the whole ordeal. Stopped in Syracuse, NE (not NY) around sunset to call my sister Susan and warn her that I'll be coming tomorrow evening. Around Nebraska City, I look for a place to stop, and see on the computer that there's camping at Riverview State Park. I get there, and find it's absolutely packed with travel trailers parked a foot or so apart, and there are big signs saying "Permit required. Permit not sold here. Buy permit at vendor in Nebraska City". But they don't say where in Nebraska City to buy the permit, and it's 7:00 or so, so I decide that squeezing in among the travel trailers isn't worth the hassle. I cross the Missouri River (much wider here than last time I saw it, at its headwaters in Montana) and leave Nebraska behind. I camp at a nice little state park in Iowa, called Waubonsie. According to the computer, I have 389 miles left to drive to get to St. Louis.

Oct 1, 1997

I drive out of the corner of Iowa, and down to St. Joseph (head of the emigrant trails) and Kansas City, then across I-70 to St. Louis. I can tell I'm back in the midwest; at Kansas City I saw my first large shopping mall of the trip. Also, I mostly give up on using the cruise control. By western standards, I-70 is a crowded interstate, with heavy truck traffic, not very good pavement, and quite a bit of construction.

A little after 5:00pm I cross the Missouri River one last time, on highway 67, the last place you can cross before the river joins with the Mississippi. I've now followed this river from its headwaters to its mouth.

At Alton, IL, I head up the Great River Road, next to the Mississippi, toward my sister's house in Elsah. Pepper gets very excited, because she remembers this road from her puppyhood, when we lived in St. Louis and would use the road to visit her "cousin dogs", Cinder and Frito. We arrive at Susan and Mark's, and Pepper runs around like a wild puppy, excited to see Cinder and Frito. Susan and my nieces, Valerie and Libby, and I go out to eat in Grafton.

Oct 2, 1997

Susan & Mark go off to work, Valerie goes off to school, and I take Libby over to her grandparents in my hometown of Fairfield, IL. It's about a two hour drive, and she only asked "are we close to Grammy's yet?" about 10 times, starting about 10 miles from her house. But she's a good traveler, quiet and well-behaved.

We arrive in Fairfield, and say hi to my mother's new dog, Snickerdoodle, a tiny (about 3 pound) miniature dachshund puppy. Snicker really likes Pepper, but Pepper is a bit old and sour toward Snicker. Pepper is a pretty small dog, but Snicker can walk, standing as upright as she can, underneath Pepper with plenty of clearance between Snicker's back and Pepper's chest. Snicker has to stand up on her hind legs and stretch out her front paws to reach Pepper's face. She practices this quite a bit in an effort to get Pepper to play. Pepper generally tolerates it pretty well, but with an occasional growl to keep Snicker in her place.

I plug the van into an electrical outlet for the first time ever, mostly to make sure it works. It saves me a small amount of propane, since I can now run the refrigerator on 110VAC. I wash the van, and vacuum inside it.

I didn't plan it this way, but I've arrived in Fairfield on homecoming weekend. We go watch the parade, and then go watch the Fairfield Mules lose to the Flora Wolves at the football game. Today's high school students were just being born at the time I graduated from FCHS, which makes me feel old. I recognize some familiar faces, even seeing a few old high school friends. Two of the cheerleaders from my high school days are there, escorting their daughters who are now homecoming attendants. This year's homecoming queen is the daughter of a guy who I went to high school with. There are several young faces at the football game who look very familiar; I'm sure they're children of people I know.

October 4, 1997

Susan, Mark, Valerie, Cinder, and Frito came over to Fairfield this evening. Pepper was happy to see her old dog-cousins, and relieved that Snicker had someone else to harrass for awhile. Snicker has torn three of the four ends off of my shoelaces, and now they're fraying.

October 5, 1997

We had a picnic out by the pond with Susan, Mark, Valerie, and Libby. We felled a dead hickory tree, to keep it from falling on the house. There were gross ugly grubs in the rotting hickory tree. Valerie took some of them home in a jar for show and tell at school. I bet her teacher was very happy with us. I headed out after noon, and ended up in Hazelwood, visiting old friends.

October 6, 1997

I went by my old house where I used to live in Hazelwood, saw that the dogwood tree I planted 7 years ago is growing very well. Took Pepper for a walk in one of her favorite parks from puppyhood. She really enjoyed it, but I couldn't tell for sure if she recognized it.

Drove down toward Kirkwood, MO, stopped at a quick oil change place, hoping to quickly change the oil, because it's been 5000 miles since the previous oil change in Bozeman, MT. They took the van in, looked at it for awhile. I got worried when the technician looked at the Eurovan nameplate twice, and then had his supervisor check once more. Then they came to me, saying that they didn't have the right oil filter in stock, but they could get it in 10 minutes from a storehouse or something. I said "fine", and waited. About 10 minutes later they said they couldn't get the oil filter, after all.

Plan B: I go to the VW dealer in Ballwin MO, to try and get them to do an oil change, or at least buy the oil filter. It turns out their service department can't get work me in today, so I tell the parts guy I want the oil filter for my '97 Eurovan, and he sells it to me.

There's another quick oil change place right next door, so I have them do the oil change. The VW oil filter costs me $9.00, but they only give me a $2.00 credit off the price of the oil change. They struggle for a long time getting the skid plate off the bottom of the van, and then they tell me it's the wrong filter. Sure enough, I go down into the pit under the van, and there's no way the filter which the VW folks gave me could fit that space. So I walk back over to the VW dealership and explain the situation. The parts guy had given me the oil filter for a '95 Eurovan, with the 5 cylinder engine. The '97 vans have a weird cartridge-type filter, where the part that's replaced is just a paper filter element, like an air filter. The metal case is a permanent part of the engine. The parts guy said he's never seen a '97 Eurovan. Anyway, the little paper filter element costs $14.00 but they give credit for the wrong filter which I already bought. I run over to the oil filter place, and they install the filter and get me going. Total time for a 10-minute oil change: about 3 hours, including running around between different places of business. Price for the $29.00 oil change: $47.00 plus tax ($5.00 surcharge for skid plate, $1.00 surcharge for the engine's large oil capacity, $14.00 for the oil filter from VW, $2.00 credit from the oil change place for the $14.00 filter.) The folks at the Texaco oil change place were very nice about everything, and I kind of hated to put them through all the trouble. I'm glad it wasn't crowded. They were good to take care of Pepper while I went over to the VW place.

Ballwin, MO is full of strip-malls and franchises. They build disposable commercial real estate here. It seems that every business lasts only a few years, and they can never re-use an old building for a new business. Tear down, rebuild, tear down, rebuild. I guess it keeps the economy going.

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