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What's in a Picture?

Chasing the historic Oregon Trail westward on a fine spring day leads to the discovery of human tragedy and a love affair with machines in an image that emerges from the blur of a spring blizzard in the Colorado high country.

by James C. Moore

We were on a fast run west across Nebraska and bound for Colorado in late March. There were already early wildflowers across the High Plains and we left the Interstate to follow the river course of the Platte and the cottonwoods that lined its sandy banks. The trip had much to do with history and my fascination with the westward movement of Manifest Destiny and the clash of cultures as America expanded.

“There are probably a dozen people buried for every mile between here and Oregon,” I told my buddy Robby as he stared out the window.

“Nice way to ruin a beautiful day,” he said.

“It’s just amazing to me, the determination, that’s all.”

“I doubt they would have left if they’d known disease was an even bigger risk than Indians.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

We were in his new van and had decided to take our spring break looking for traces of history along the Oregon Trail. In northeast Kansas, a farmer had shown us a section of his land with native grasses that he had kept protected and what he said were wagon wheel ruts he had never disturbed. There was narrow dirt two-track that looked like it went for several miles and appeared to have been packed as hard as concrete.

Robby pointed at a sign. “Let’s pull off up there. That’s an historical marker or something where the Mormons camped.”

“Okay. Will do. Gotta be interesting.”

The history was beyond sad. There was a field of crude markers with several children’s names scratched into stones. There was no official marker of the site but it was clear what had happened even to college historians.

“Cholera,” Robbie said. “Killed a lot of ‘em.”

“Yeah, and what disease didn’t get, the Indians did.”

I read later that it was estimated by historians that somewhere between 3400 to 4300 of Brigham Young’s “saints” had died on the overland trails in a two-year period between 1846 and 1848. Their simple graves still mark the way westward to Utah and California.

“Let’s go,” Robbie said.

A wind had come up quickly and it felt cool like it had brushed the tops of the snow-capped Rockies still two hundred miles to our west. The sky darkened as we bent away from the river and went southwestward with plans to reach Rocky Mountain National Park before nightfall. We came across through Greeley and Loveland and as the road pitched upward snow had already covered the ground and was falling in chunky flakes.

“You glad you didn’t ride your motorcycle now?” Robbie asked.

“Maybe. I’d have just pulled over and waited for it to stop and warm up.”

“Yeah, right, for a couple of weeks. It’s not even spring here yet. Won’t be for another month.”

Luck and nature gave me a reminder of how complicated motorcycle travel might have been at that time of year in the high country. About ten miles east of Estes Park, sitting up on its center stand, we found a motorcycle covered in snow. The bike was an almost new BMW and the owner appeared to have abandoned it to the cold. We stopped to get a picture.

“Man, I’d have never left this beauty alone,” I said.

“Yeah, sure. Shut up and be still so I can get your picture.” Robbie was chilly and impatient.

“Got it?”

“Yeah, let’s get back in the van. Jeez, it’s cold.”

I look at that picture now and am still connected to the long-haired college student in the baseball cap and cheap, mirrored sunglasses. I had found something in motorcycles that stirred my soul and decades later has never relented. The snow accumulating on that BMW and weighing down the pine boughs in the mountains did not turn my imagination from warm days, smooth roads, and long horizons, and nothing ever will.

I still wish that bike were mine. But it has had much to do with my long journey on two wheels.

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