Nyssa, Ore. Wagons carved such deep ruts in some dusty hills on the Oregon Trail that nothing will grow there again. The parallel path of the wheels stretch for miles in those spots, unprotected from eastern Oregon's wild winds.
From a crossing at the Snake River, visitors can follow parts of the route taken by more than 300,000 homesteaders and adventure-seekers as they pressed north toward the Columbia River into what is now Oregon, then west to their Eden: the lush Willamette Valley.
Wasted away by weather and use, much of the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail has become disconnected, and too faint to find.
"There is no single trail," says Michael Evans-Hatch, a historian who has contracted with the National Park Service to identify and research the path. "Throughout the western United States there are enormous gaps."
Those gaps are growing as modern road builders follow deeper, more permanent sections of the trail, paving over wagon ruts with highways. The first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific, was built along parts of the route. And new roads have shifted settlements far away from old emigrant towns, leaving much of the trail unkempt and abandoned.
To remind visitors of the perilous journey made by those long-ago weary travelers, museums, wayside stops and parks have been built along the route, offering a glimpse of the struggles of those who helped open up the West.
Between 1841 and 1869, a wave of emigrants set out from Independence, Mo., crossing through what are now the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and into Oregon.
Most walked, often barefoot. They were tired and hungry. The going was slow, with the oxen that pulled their wagons plodding across only about 15 miles a day. At least 20,000 people died along the way, many of cholera.
By the time the pioneers reached what is now Oregon, they had been on the trail for several months.
Hardships and heroics
Near the pioneer crossing over the Snake River close to what is now Nyssa, a wayside marker at dusty Keeney Pass points out several miles of still-visible wagon ruts.
Legend has it that the pioneer John Henderson died there. A stone marker outside the nearby town of Vale reads: "Died of Thirst Aug. 9 1852 Unaware of nearness of the Malheur River."
"He just gave up," says Virginia Bloom, who works at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center not far away in Baker City, where about 150,000 visitors stop each year. "He was only so many yards from where he could've gotten water."
Settlers who found the river several miles to the northeast rested on its banks, bathing and washing their clothes in the hot springs there.
In Vale, an 1873 building that once offered bare accommodations for travelers has been transformed into the Rinehart Stone House museum. These days, the town is adorned with more than 20 graceful murals depicting the history of the area.
From Vale, the emigrants forged north, meeting up with the Snake River one last time at Farewell Bend. A state park now marks the spot where, as early as 1840, pioneers stocked up on wood and water before bidding farewell to the river that had guided them for 320 miles.
One of the most spectacular stops is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, built just outside Baker City 10 years ago by the Bureau of Land Management to re-create the everyday hardships and heroics of life on the trail.
The museum offers the rare opportunity to stand in old wagon ruts. A 4.2-mile trail system loops around Flagstaff Hill, leading to a series of viewing points and historic sites. The life-size models, artifacts and sound recordings of journal entries pull visitors back in time.
Sonja Estes, who lives in nearby Richland, stopped by the center to kill time on one recent cold afternoon and found herself enthralled with the local history.
"Can you imagine?" she said, looking at a life-size display of a haggard pioneer woman offering clothes to an American Indian in exchange for a fish. "I like the creature comforts myself."
Pioneers may have struggled as they passed through the Burnt River canyon in barren eastern Oregon, and welcomed the grass, wood and water available once they reached Baker City.
Close to the end of the wagon trail era, a miner struck it rich while searching for the Lost Blue Bucket mine, transforming the town into the Queen City of the Mines. The city flourished, and by 1900, the city's hotels, opera house, trolleys, electricity and telephone service made it the cultural showplace of the region.
Baker City now boasts more than 100 buildings listed on the National Historic Register and is a jumping-off point for spectacular scenery, wildlife encounters and historic exploration of the area.
A fight to the finish
Before reaching the Columbia River, the travelers had to traverse the rugged Blue Mountains.
There is another interpretive park at Blue Mountain Crossing, between La Grande and Pendleton. It offers a paved, half-mile trail through the forest, guiding visitors along some of the best-preserved sections of the pioneers' path.
After the pioneers crossed the Blues, the vast Columbia Plateau stretched before them. Off in the distance was the last mountain range to cross, the Cascades.
Many emigrants passed through the twin towns of Echo and Stanfield, following the Umatilla River on their way to the Columbia. Several old emigrant cemeteries, as well as hiking and camping sites, are located around town.
A replica of Fort Henrietta, the first military stockade for local Indians, stands on the edge of Echo.
From there, pioneers met the mighty Columbia. Those who could afford it paid local boatmen to take them and their wagons on rafts down the dangerous river, or they built their own rafts. Many chose to continue by land and cross the Cascades on the Barlow Road, where they had to pay a toll.
"It was sort of a jolt to have to face those choices," said Richard Engeman of the Oregon Historical Society. "Neither was easy, neither was cheap."
But after a six-month journey and 400 miles across Oregon the settlers were near the end of the great trail.