Ive been along parts of the California Trail before, at least a couple of times
over the years. And the first time I saw the area around Independence Rock, I
thought it must have looked like that back in the 1840s. When I went back there
again in the late 1980s, it still looked pretty good. And when I went out there
again to do this story, it was still intact. I was happy to see that something
that historic had not been pecked to pieces.
Degradation is happening in some places along the trail, and seeing that was the
worst experience for me. Its slipping away, especially in urban areas. It
disappeared around Kansas City a hundred years ago. Sprawl is happening
everywhereeven in smaller communitiesand thats taking away some of the trail.
The park service is doing a pretty good job at keeping parts of the National
Trail System intact, but if a farmer is growing corn somewhere in Kansas where
the trail used to be you cant kick him off his land.
We all remember Horace Greeley, the old editor of the New York Daily Tribune, telling young men to go West. But he didnt mean all the way West. At the time,
in 1843, he thought that people going up the trail all the way across the
country to California and Oregon were crazy and that nothing good could come of
it. His West stopped at Illinois. That was a real surprise to me.