A New Understanding of History on the Old Spanish National Historic Trail

By McKenna Drew

My name is McKenna Drew and I was raised in the beautiful and diverse landscape of Cedar City, Utah in Iron County. This college town is the largest in Iron County. Although Cedar City is just 180 miles north of Las Vegas it sits at approximately 5,800’ in elevation. The cold desert climate merges parts of the stunning red rock found in St. George, Utah with coniferous forests found in Cedar Mountain. I have always felt fortunate to live in such a beautiful place. Growing up,  the majority of our recreational time was spent exploring this incredible landscape.

Cedar City is home to a rich history. Historically, Native American tribes lived in the area, the most well-known tribe being the Southern Paiute. This tribe is a prominent part of the community today. In 1851, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, also settled the surrounding areas in Iron County.

My understanding of the area’s resources and history shapes my relationship to the where I grew up place and the people that once lived there. However, it was not until my present internship with the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, that I learned another important part of the area’s history.

Congress designated the Old Spanish Trail as a National Historic Trail in 2002. From 1829 to 1848, this trail was known by Spanish traders as the most feasible path between Los Angeles, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico for a pack mule trading route. The OSNHT runs through Iron County, Utah.

I graduated from Utah State University with a degree in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. Following graduation, I began internship work at the BLM Utah State office as a Recreational Site Design Intern. I work directly with Rob Sweeten, a Co-Administrator over the Old Spanish Trail. One of the projects I work on is developing recreation and development plans for the counties that the Old Spanish Trail runs through. These plans identify the best place for the recreating public to access the Old Spanish Trail.

This fall, I lead my family out on the Old Spanish Trail to visit the recreation sites near their home in Cedar City. The trip turned into a multi-generational event. Family members included grandparents, an aunt, my parents, two of my sisters, my brother-in-law, and my two year old nephew.


Left to right: Me, my nephew and sister, Hailey Lawrence, Taylor Drew, and Grandma, Sandra Drew.  Looking at Old Spanish Trail Inscriptions

Left to right: Me, my nephew and sister, Hailey Lawrence, Taylor Drew, and Grandma, Sandra Drew.  Looking at Old Spanish Trail Inscriptions

Together we read incredible inscriptions from the Old Spanish Trail travelers and events at the exact site where they happened. As a family, we were able to understand the history of where we grew up and gain an appreciation for those that passed before us, all while enjoying the fresh air.

Although, we ranged in levels of physical activity and knowledge concerning the Old Spanish Trail we all gained a mutual appreciation and love for the history within our area. I later asked my family members what they gained from our experience along the Old Spanish Trail I could better understand the importance of National Historic Trails.

Hiking with Dad

Hiking with Dad

My youngest sister, who is 18, said that what she gained most from this experience was historical information that she did not know before. It made her want to further explore historic trails and public lands. She also valued spending time with her family outside and felt it brought her closer to them.

My oldest sister brought her husband and her two year old son out to explore the Old Spanish Trail. When I asked her what she gained most from the experience she said,

“Exploring the trail gave me a deeper appreciation for the incredible landscape that surrounds me on a daily basis. I’ve always loved history and it was fascinating to watch it come alive right in front of me. I was able to bring my son with me to see the beautiful sites. I want to teach him and have him experience these bits of history, so that he can gain greater appreciation for places, life, and others.”                                                                                  

I asked my grandparents what their favorite part was in exploring the Old Spanish Trail. My grandparents were thrilled that there were finally efforts happening to help remember and celebrate the trail. My Grandma said, “It’s wonderful to have something that highlights a history and knowledge that has been forgotten in this area.”

Out of all the family members who came with us, the most enthusiastic participant was my Dad. My Dad is a history buff who loves studying and exploring historical inscriptions and rock art. The Old Spanish Trail was familiar to him, but as we explored these historical sites, it reignited an excitement and need to explore more history. He said,

"Understanding the history around us is very important. There are so many stories and information that is being lost. As a family, we love to experience our history and we understand that our history is part of us."

Silhouettes in Cedar City

Silhouettes in Cedar City

After this experience, I am inspired and excited to celebrate the 50th Anniversary for the National Trails System Act. After interviewing my family members about what they gained from the Old Spanish Trail, I reflected on my experience as an intern, and what I have learned while I working on and exploring this amazing historic trail.

The first is, history takes on a new meaning and understanding when one has a vicarious experience traveling along the trail and visiting the sites. Second, spending time out on historic trails with others is a great bonding activity that can bring diverse groups together. Last, historic trails are multi-generational there is something that everyone can enjoy and learn from.

McKenna Drew is a Recreation Site Design Intern at the Bureau of Land Management Utah State Office


Driving a Wagon Train on the Oregon and California National Historic Trails

By Lee Kreutzer

When I was invited to help drive a light wagon as part of a wagon train on the Oregon and California National Historic Trails through northeastern Kansas in 2007, I felt like one of the luckiest history nerds alive!

My benefactors were Ken and Arleta Martin, of Oketo, Kansas, who were long-time members of both the Oregon-California Trails Association and the National Pony Express Association. Through the years they had organized several wagon train reenactments on the trails across Kansas, and this time they offered my National Park Service trails office colleague, Kay, and me the use of their horse and wagon. Kay, being a highly experienced NPS interpreter, was an old hand at this kind of thing, but it would be my first wagon trek and my first time driving a horse, so I was ecstatic. Another friend from the office sewed me a prairie dress and Kay loaned me one of her poke bonnets, and I was all set to roll out onto the trail.

We gathered with the other participants, a group of 73 “rut nuts” with various types of conveyances and quadrupeds –full-sized covered wagons, farm wagons, buggies, draft horses, saddle horses, mules, and dogs, at the Scott Spring Oregon Trail Park near Westmoreland on a mellow September evening. The next morning we shook the dew off our tents, got costumed and hitched up, and rolled out down a Kansas country road edged with beaming sunflowers.

If you’re thinking, meh, Kansas, brown and flat, you couldn’t be more mistaken. Northeastern Kansas is beautiful rolling prairie, sprinkled with wildflowers and tickled by streams. That autumn the farm fields were golden, the pastures green from a wet summer and full of fat, curious cows that lined up along the fences to moo at the passing procession. We soon left the roads and followed original swales, cut by 19th century wagon wheels, across private lands whose owners graciously welcomed the Martin wagon train.

Photo credit NPS

Photo credit NPS

Our horse, Lady Bay, was a dreamboat: a beautiful, long-legged bay mare (as her name rather hints), broke to harness by an Amish trainer, with a peach of a personality. (I kissed her on the nose one morning while preparing to hitch up, and she reached back and nuzzled me on the cheek! There were witnesses!) Our little wagon creaked and chirped cheerfully up and down the backroads and swales, and Lady Bay took it over the stream crossings like a boss. One such crossing, I recall, was a bit sketchy: a short, abrupt drop down to the water with a steep, long pull back up the other side. Kay handled the reins, urging Lady Bay into a mighty lunge to carry the wagon up the opposing bank. I was too chicken even to ride in the wagon for that one. I got out and watched from the safety of the streambank, instead. Bravo, Kay!

As the miles passed, some horses grew stiff and lame from the unaccustomed strenuous work and had to be trailered home or switched out. Who knew that horses are so delicate? I sure didn’t. No wonder nineteenth century cross-country travelers preferred oxen and mules.

Photo Credit NPS

Photo Credit NPS

In the evenings we moved our motor vehicles to the next overnight spot and pitched camp. I slept in the back of the trails office SUV, but others brought campers or slept in their wagons or tents. Meals were Dutch oven country comfort food prepared and served up by caterers. One evening we had musical entertainment by a local bluegrass/country-western group that boasted one of the best female yodelers I’ve ever heard – and that includes the Dixie Chicks, the Wailin’ Jennys and the rest of the pros. Such fine, athletic vocals! It was a real treat to hear them perform.

But my favorite memory of this incredible trip is that of driving our wagon along swales through rare, native tallgrass prairie. Most Kansas tallgrass has been plowed under over the past century and a half to make room for profitable fields of wheat, soybeans, corn, milo, and hay. Hey, farmers have to make a living, too. But some have saved acres of tallgrass because they are paid by the federal government not to plow, or simply because they treasure the prairie. I never thought I’d be lucky enough see any of it. Driving a horse and wagon in the authentic track of the Oregon Trail while passing my hand over the heads of big bluestem higher than Lady Bay’s back…well, it was as close as I ever expect to get to time travel.

Ken, Arleta, and Kay—and Lady Bay, too—gave me an unforgettable trail experience. Sadly, this was Ken’s last wagon train. Shortly after the trip he was diagnosed with cancer, which caused his death in 2012. Historic trails were an important part of Ken’s life, and he made them an important part of others’ lives, as well. Thanks so much for the memories!

Lee Kreutzer is a Cultural Resource Specialist for the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.

Discovering History on the Pony Express National Historic Trail

By Frank Norris, NPS

More than 150 years ago, teams of Pony Express riders galloped between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California and made history in the process. Before Pony Express service began, the fastest mail service took more than three weeks to go between the Missouri River valley and California. But beginning in April 1860, Pony Express riders cut that time down to ten days or less.

What was it like to be a Pony Express rider, and what was the route like? For many years, many basic facts about Pony Express service were shrouded in mystery. Recently, however, an assemblage of journalists and historians, occasionally assisted by the NPS, have provided long-elusive answers to these questions.

Today, historians recognize that Pony Express riders in Nebraska followed much the same route as Oregon and California Trail emigrants. But much of that route - and the sites of many Pony Express stations as well - now lie under fields of corn, soybeans, and milo. Farther west, however, many stretches of the old trail still remain as county roads, and travelers heading through portions of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada can drive over the same route as the iconic Pony Express riders.

To really get a feel for the isolation and difficulties that the Pony Express riders contended with as part of their everyday jobs, a drive west from Salt Lake City across Utah's West Desert is highly recommended. Today, the Bureau of Land Management maintains the Pony Express  route as a scenic byway. Featured along the way is a reconstructed Pony Express station, along with the archaeological remnants from other Pony Express and stage stations. The road is open to two-wheel drive vehicles. Caution is advised, however; sharp rocks in the road can flatten tires, and water along the way is either scarce or nonexistent.

Image credit: Faith Photography

Image credit: Faith Photography

Heading west into Nevada along the route can bring on even greater challenges. Along the Pony Express corridor, most of eastern and central Nevada brings the traveler into some of the least-populated country in the Lower 48 states; Life Magazine, in 1986, dubbed nearby U.S. 50 as the "loneliest road in America," and some segments of the Pony Express route (all of which is located on a dirt road) are 60 miles north of that two-lane ribbon of pavement.

Traveling that route - mostly recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles - takes the traveler through basin-and-range country that offers forests of pinyon and juniper alternated by vast, open valleys of Great Basin sage. Ranching is virtually the only livelihood, although the trip along U.S. 50 brings the visitor to Austin, Eureka, and other 19th-century mining towns. Both ranching and mining, however, grew up after the brief heyday of the Pony Express had come and gone; instead, Pony Express riders were a vanguard of white civilization into land that was the traditional homeland of Paiutes and the Western Shoshone. Just a month after the riders began criss-crossing the area, in fact, Paiute bands rose up and destroyed many Pony Express stations, delaying mail service for several weeks.

Today, well-prepared travelers heading out over the Pony Express Trail in western Utah, and in central and eastern Nevada, will immerse themselves in some of the most lonely, isolated country anywhere in the United States. But in its own stark way, visitors will also find some of the prettiest, most pristine scenery to be found anywhere. And if they know where to look, they will find the sites - and occasionally some remaining ruins from - the many Pony Express stations that were once scattered along the trail's right-of-way.

Learn more:
Pony Express National Historic Trail - National Park Service
National Pony Express Association
ony Express National Historic Trail - Bureau of Land Management

Frank Norris is a Historian with the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.

A Sense of Ownership and Accomplishment: A Volunteer's Story on the Florida National Scenic Trail

The Florida Trail would not exist if it weren’t for the many volunteers in the 1960s and 70s who dedicated their free time to the building and development of hiking trails across the state of Florida. Later these trails would be pieced together to create the Florida National Scenic Trail in 1983. For many, their volunteer work on the trail provides a sense of ownership and of accomplishment. For others, volunteering on the Florida Trail can cultivate a passion for the outdoors and provide skills to pursue a career in public lands management. Jeanene Dole, a volunteer in the Central Florida Chapter of the Florida Trail Association (FTA), is a great example a volunteer who learned hard skills that later transferred to future employment. Here is her trail story.

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I was looking to do some trail work to find out more about the area. I also wanted to meet people with similar interests. I found the Central Florida Chapter and joined their Meetup.com group. I soon started attending chapter meetings, participating in the volunteer trail work events. I was impressed with how organized the chapter is and how welcoming they were.

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An important moment for me that was representative of why I was out there doing this type of work happened at the end of a trail maintenance hike. A young couple with a child were hiking out and passed our group of volunteers. They thanked us for our work caring for the trail and they were so enthusiastic about their hike. That inspired my current motivation to create and protect something for other people to enjoy, especially future generations. I want to improve the environment and leave a good mark on the world. In fact, I believe that my experience doing trail maintenance with the FTA was a catalyst for how I ended up in the career I’m in now.

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It felt like a natural transition for me to progress from doing trail work to my current work with prescribed fires. Doing trail maintenance in Florida physically prepared me for the hot and humid conditions of prescribed fire. In my first season of fire work, I felt well-adapted to the physical demands of the job. The social environment in the fire community is also similar to the FTA community. Like my experience volunteering with the FTA, I regularly meet a wide array of people with different backgrounds and important, unique qualities that they bring to the table.

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I administered my first controlled burns in Florida, with the National Park Service in Big Cypress Preserve. Big Cypress burns the most acreage out of any national park system, so that was important exposure for me to this field of work. Since then I have done prescribed fires in South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada and currently, Idaho. I moved to Cascade, Idaho and I plan to return to Florida for a visit at the end of the fire season. I’m looking forward to volunteering again with the chapter in the winter and picking back up where I left off.

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Jeanene is a Forestry Technician with the USDA, and her story is just one of the thousands of engaged citizens working to keep the Florida Trail open to the American public. Learn more about the Florida Trail and the FTA at floridatrail.org.  

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Developing the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

By Coreen Donnelly

This trail development project in Tennessee's David Crockett State Park on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail was truly an amazing experience with unforgettable partners, and it all started with an idea and a little initiative to go after an Active Trails Grant in 2013. Our office had never received funding from this source before, and it seemed like the perfect match for this small trail development project. With the help and support of park manager John Bass, our office received the grant, and partnered with the park to develop a 2.5 mile Trail of Tears NHT retracement trail that weaves in and out of the historic route of the trail.

Laying out the trail

Laying out the trail

Over the course of a year, I worked with the park and many volunteers to turn this idea into a reality. What once was a forgotten history within the park’s boundaries became a cherished trail where visitors from across the nation could come to walk in the footsteps of the Cherokee and learn about the stories and history of those who walked it before them.


Fast forward to 2017, and this interpretive trail has become one of the most popular trails in the park with an annual estimated 30,000 trail visitors. There is also an annual Trail of Tears commemorative walk held here by partners. The park also received a couple of state awards for this project, including the Historical Commission Certificates of Merit in the Book/Public Programming category for the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail kiosk and wayside exhibits.

The author, befriending the local wildlife

The author, befriending the local wildlife

As for myself, I will always remember walking and laying out the alignment of the trail before it was built, and later getting my hands dirty with partners actually building it. (I forgot how back breaking trail construction can be!) It was the first section of national historic trail I developed as a team member at NTIR, and it, along with the partners I worked with, will always hold a special place in my heart.


Coreen Donnelly is a Landscape Architect with the National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region.

The Multitudes in a Mural: Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

By Jenny Gaeng

At the end of the road walk on Highway 90 is the Silver City Visitors’ Center. It’s classic New Mexico adobe. Stunningly intricate murals decorate the outer wall. They are the colors of a desert sunset: yellow, pink, and deep purple. Yucca and agave plants, meticulously crafted from tile and clay, dominate the foreground. Animals in the style of pictographs line the border: pronghorns, coyotes, lizards, and more.


Inside, there is a large wall sign with the blue insignia of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Rebecca behind the desk will show you to the hiker box, a large plastic bin full of clothes, fuel canisters, and dehydrated food. She will give you the CDT log book to sign in.

If I flip back to April 2016, I can read my own name: Jenny, eager and scared. This was before the heat and snow and loose rock, before the sunsets and the endless stars, and before the other hikers assigned me the trail name Cloud.

Jenny on her 2016 CDT thruhike

Jenny on her 2016 CDT thruhike

Fast forward to December, 2017. I have been living in Silver City for ten months, working for CDTC as Gateway Community Coordinator. Silver City was our first Gateway town, designated in 2014. Once reliant on copper and silver mining, the town is looking to redefine itself – a future based on two sustainable pillars, the wilderness and the arts.

They are going to intersect here, at the Visitors’ Center. Five students from the local charter school are designing a mural for an empty wall. It will be entirely devoted to the CDT.

I ask the girls if they are familiar with the trail. Of course, they say. Aldo Leopold, locally referred to as the “hippie high school,” takes them on backpacking trips every year. They have been to Jordan Hot Springs, and speak enthusiastically of the beauty of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

“The thing about the CDT,” I tell them, “is that it’s very long.” It will be hard to contain its multitudes in one mural, even one of this size.

That’s okay, they reply. They want to focus on New Mexico.

When people discuss the grandeur of the CDT, New Mexico is often overlooked. Even our official guidebook calls the northern terminus in Montana an “objectively prettier” ending. The stark rocks and muted colors of the desert hold a softer, subtler beauty.

So they decide to focus on one thing that’s scarce, but so crucial, to their ecosystem: water. Diana Ingalls Leyba, who runs the Youth Mural Program, asks me, “What’s one thing that only someone who has hiked the trail would know about?”

I pause. I don’t know what people might not know. “Cow troughs,” I say finally. “In New Mexico, we get a lot of our water from cow troughs.” I show them a picture of a giant tire, its liquid surface coated with a sheen of green algae.

The girls love this. They point excitedly to where a cow trough could go in the mural, between the Gila and the Rio Chama. They want to include a cow.

But cows aren’t the only ones looking for water in the desert. They want to include the other animals too: deer, elk, roadrunners, and the elusive Mexican Grey Wolf. They pepper me with eager questions about hiking the CDT, and I am surprised by the depth of their interest. They ask about gear, about making camp, about the different things you see and do in a day. This mural will not be just a map, but a window into life on the trail. They are determined to get it right.

I don’t know if cows will make it into the mural. I don’t know if any of my stories will become clay on a wall for all to see. After all, I am a traveler, and in two months I will be gone from this town. But these girls will stay, and the steadfast beauty of the CDT will take shape between their fingers. I think how remarkable it is, for a trail that traverses 3,100 miles and five states, to live in the hearts and minds of a tiny town in New Mexico. These girls may never see Montana. They may never hike beyond the Gila. But they are inspired to create something that will last just as long, hopefully, as the trail itself.

Rio Chama

Rio Chama

Jenny “Cloud” Gaeng is the former Gateway Community Coordinator for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. She hails from Baltimore, Maryland, and has no intention of returning. She fell head over heels for the Rocky Mountains and decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail in 2016. That journey first led her from Mexico to Canada and then to the position of Gateway Community Coordinator. Jenny loves writing, her dog, and the feeling of weightlessness at the top of a mountain.

Volunteers are VIPs: A Story from the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Whenever I tell others here in Iowa that I volunteer for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, they almost always ask, “Oh, did you go work on parts of the trail or build something?” So when I explain I primarily write Facebook posts from my small home office, their faces wrinkle in confusion. “Really…?”

Lacing up my hiking boots, tossing a backpack in the car and heading West for a few weeks is something I would love to do several times a year. But, even though I’m 90% retired, it would be a challenge for me to find the time for on-site volunteer work. Instead, I was blessed to discover about a year ago that the trail staff in Omaha needed someone to help develop content for their daily social media posts – a perfect match, it seemed, with my career in advertising and my love of 19th century American history and our country’s National Parks.

I’ll be the first to admit I do this partially for myself. I enjoy the research, the increased knowledge and the time spent writing. But I also do it because I hope our 16,000 Facebook followers enjoy reading and learning more about the many facets of the incredible Lewis and Clark story. For sure, this task is small, dwarfed in comparison with the work of thousands of other volunteers along the Trail’s 3,700 miles – from trail restoration to research, interpretation to internal operations. The point being – every role is important and contributes to the overall mission of the Trail.

Being a National Park VIP (Volunteers-in-Parks) is a hugely rewarding experience. There’s a place for you to help, a way for you to share your skills and talents, and an opportunity for you to make a positive impact. Contact Trail headquarters to find out how you can connect -- it’ll be a Win-Win-Win experience for you, for the staff and for everyone who enjoys and appreciates the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.


Kent Schlawin, Volunteer
Johnston, Iowa
Each year, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail benefits from the dedication of thousands of volunteers.

Chief Joseph and the 1877 War and Flight of the Nez Perce

By Roger M. Peterson

A Pacific Northwest historic event provided the topic for a recent meeting of the Kittitas County Genealogical Society in Ellensburg, WA. Society member David Storla gave a presentation about the 1877 War and Flight and the famous Nez Perce Chief Joseph who is closely associated with this historic event which occurred 140 years ago.

In his presentation, Mr. Storla told his audience the tragic tale of how the ever increasing encroachment of settlers onto Nez Perce homelands resulted in a series of treaties which substantially reduced the size of land recognized as traditional Nez Perce homeland. The Treaty of 1863 caused the Nez Perce tribe to be divided into “Treaty” and Non-Treaty” groups and eventually the U. S. Army to ordered the “Non-Treaty” group to voluntarily move onto the reservation within 30 days or the Army would move them by force. This led to bloodshed and a journey of 1170 miles by the “Non-Treaty” Nez Perce group closely pursued by the U. S. Army.

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, at the Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, MT. Battle commemoration August 2010. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, at the Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, MT. Battle commemoration August 2010. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

The flight finally ended 40 miles short of Canada in Northern Montana on October 5, 1877. Mr. Storla pointed out to his audience the various events leading up to the war as well as events during and after the war that affected the Nez Perce. He also displayed around the room, several “Show and Tell” items about the conflict further explaining aspects of the war. He told of how he had received many of the materials used in his presentation through the generous help of Sandra Broncheau-McFarland, Administrator of the Nez Perce (Nee-Me- Poo) National Historic Trail (NPNHT) office in Idaho.

Of particular interest to the attendees was information about the NPNHT and the ability to travel a “part of history” and visit sites along the Trail, using information contained in the Auto Tour brochures produced by the NPNHT staff.

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail in SW Montana. Big Hole National Battlefield. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail in SW Montana. Big Hole National Battlefield. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson

Near the end of Mr. Storla’s presentation he presented a handout list of resources regarding the war and Chief Joseph for further research by his audience. He also showed a slide of a 6 foot tall bust of Chief Joseph that is displayed at the west edge of Ellensburg, right next to the main road into/out of Ellensburg from Exit 106 on Interstate 90.

As he concluded his presentation Mr. Storla shared a special connection he has with Chief Joseph as he showed the attendees a Chief Joseph handmade doll that his mother made for him several years ago. In addition to the doll, he showed a miniature rifle his dad had made to go along with the doll. These items hold a special place in David’s memory of his parents. Mr. Storla also mentioned that Sandra Broncheau-McFarland told him she was a direct descendant of Chief Joseph so Mr. Storla is especially thankful for all the help she provided him in the preparation of his talk to the genealogical society.

Those who would like to know more about the NPNHT and receive information to plan any upcoming travel can visit the NPNHT website or contact NPNHT staff by e-mail at: npnht@fs.fed.us

Roger M. Peterson is a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service at Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail

A Thru-Hike of America's Oldest Trail

By Bill (Samson) Wasser

On January 2, 2017, after spending a wonderful weekend exploring Natchez, Mississippi with my wife Teresa, I arrived at the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. My goal: “thru-hike” the 444-mile Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. The Parkway was established to commemorate the “Old Natchez Trace.” Subsequently the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail was established, running parallel to the Parkway with several designated trail sections.

Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

A “thru-hike” is defined as “a completed long-distance trail end-to-end within one hiking season.” For instance, in 2013 I “thru-hiked” the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail and in 2015 the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. In 2016 I attempted to thru-hike the 3100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Unfortunately, upon entering the snow-covered San Juan Mountain Range of Colorado, I slipped and broke my ankle 880 miles north of the Southern Terminus of the CDT.

It’s not exactly like I would be the first to traverse this 10,000 year old route. Centuries ago Native Americans improved the trail originally forged by migratory bison seeking salt licks. In 1810, thousands of Kaintucks made the 500-mile-long journey north, after floating down the Mississippi and hopefully departing Natchez with all their financial gains. These hardy men walked the length of the Trace to Nashville, Tennessee before dispersing towards home. Some navigated on horseback, but most were barefoot with muskets hoisted over shoulders for hunting as well as protection from highwaymen. Luckily, I didn’t have to concern myself with these Kaintuck worries!

Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

My plan was to travel designated trails where possible. However, at times I was forced to walk roadside. Despite starting in the dead of winter I raced against unseasonably warm weather resulting in severe weather for much of the trip. I hiked wet, a lot. One kindhearted park ranger stopped to make sure I was ok and to warn of an approaching storm. This gave me a chance to hop under a dilapidated cabin stuck back in the woods, where I was awarded with several adolescence gobbler turkeys strutting by, while at the same time the boss gobbler sounding off in the woods with each lightning strike.

The journey started surreal amid foggy surroundings which seemed to have the wildlife teaming. I possibly saw more whitetail deer everyday than my entire time on the Appalachian Trail. I also saw one very large alligator, revealing itself as Godzilla before violently exiting the bank and disappearing into the muddy waters below the Trace, unbeknownst to those traveling above.

I would hike daylight to dawn, with intermittent breaks, setting up camp before sundown, at the most interesting and secluded spot possible. I enjoyed listening to coyotes howling, often accompanied with serenades from Barred Owls performing duets of hoots, cackles and caws. Additionally I heard and witnessed other critters rummaging around outside the safety of my ultra-lightweight one-man tent including deer and wild hogs. There would be the occasional sound of an automobile traveling the Trace, totally unaware of my dozing off to sleep in my humble abode perched on some rise. Thursday afternoon I completed the first 100 miles where I merely exited the Trace, walked a few extra miles in the pouring rain, arriving at the comfort and warmth of my Madison, Mississippi home.

Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

My earliest memories of the Trace are from my early childhood years when my father would drive us from my hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi out Fisher Ferry Road. Upon arriving my older brother and I would explore and wade through the crystal-clear springs. I’ve driven a Harley the entire length of the Trace and traveled by car countless times. However, there is something a bit more magical about walking, listening, and taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells by foot. I spent a great deal of time reminiscing over a lifetime of fond memories collected along the Trace.

The following Monday I walked a few miles from my home to reconnect with the Trace then continued north past Reservoir Overlook. Three days later, at roughly mile 160, I arrived at the Kosciusko Information Center where I was awarded some good advice on where to grab a good hot meal. The following evening, I would arrive at historic French Camp and enjoy perhaps the best bread pudding known to man at the Council House Cafe before my support team (my amazing wife) arrived to temporarily escort me back to Madison.

Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Days later we traveled the Trace up to Nashville and spent two fun days enjoying music and sightseeing. Sunday morning we shared an incredible breakfast at the “World Famous Loveless Café.” Afterwards, I merely had to walk out the restaurant’s back-door, backpack in hand, in order to start walking south towards French camp where I would connect the dots. In the thru-hiking world this is termed a “flip flop.”

I arrived at the Highland Rim trail section later that evening amid bikers, cyclist and convertibles enjoying the sunshiny day. My son Joel joined me a few days later at Meriwether Lewis, the spot where Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition met his untimely death. We made several off-Trace hikes while exploring the area. My lone journey ensued and a few days later I exited the Trace directly behind the friendly Parkway Visitor Center in Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley, to grab a hotel room for the night while enjoying modern comforts and a hot shower.

After twenty-two actual hiking days I once again arrived at French Camp, completing the journey, Teresa arriving on cue to drive me home, but not before another celebratory Council House meal. I would travel to Colorado a few months later to complete the Continental Divide Trail and claim the “Triple Crown of Hiking” joining a few hundred others who have completed the three major trails. Most of whom have more notable hiking resumes conquering trails from around the world. However, having accumulated over 8000 hiking miles, I’m the only “Triple Crowner” who God has blessed with the addition of hiking the oldest, most historic trail in this great country, the Natchez Trace.

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail: A boost of fun at the end of a dreary winter stretch

by Keith Uhlig

My dog, Henry the Adventure Trail Hound, and I have been slogging through a northern winter as best we can.

February was a beast of a month to contend with, dark, cold and for the last couple of weeks, so icy as to make even the most simple walk around the block a risk to limbs and skull. I like to embrace all of Nature’s personalities, but this is my most unfavorite-ist time of the year. Even the snow is gritty and dirty, an affront to winter aesthetics.

I have been diagnosed with a type of low-grade depression, and with the help of a small dose of medication, regular exercise and a lot of fresh air, I generally keep it at bay. But February. Ugh. February is a beast of a bridge to cross sometimes.

However, I’m lucky to live in Wausau, Wisconsin, a medium-sized town in center of the state. It’s not far from the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. This nearly 1,200-mile footpath bisects the state, tracing the edge of the glaciers that last retreated from the area around 15,000 years ago.

Henry waiting

Henry waiting

When I get antsy or blue or start questioning the purpose of humanity itself, I head out to the Ice Age Trail. One of my favorite sections is called the Plover River Segment which runs about 2.5 miles from State 52 northeast to Langlade County HH.

There are terrific stretches of boardwalk hiking that takes one through a wetland area where you can tell yourself you are in Alaska.

There is a line of rocks paralleling the trail called a boulder train, left by the glaciers as they receded back to Lake Superior. I take comfort from the boulder train. It makes me feel both important and insignificant at the same time.

There also is remnant of the Cold War near the trail, although it has nothing to do with glaciers. It is a radar installation put in place to detect a commie attack from the north. The old base gives me this tingly feeling that part creepiness and part excitement. I tell myself that I should take comfort from the fact that it is now just an empty relic. But I don’t.

Henry leaping the Plove River

Henry leaping the Plove River

Earlier in the month, I took Henry out to the Plover River Segment thinking I could do some trail running to the radar base and back. It was a fiercely cold day, but I figured I could bull through it.

Henry was with me, and despite the cold, he bounded through the snow with this terrific grin on his face.

Henry doesn’t care about the weather. He is not depressive at all. He jumps for joy at the very thought of going outside, and his happiness is infectious. I couldn’t help but be happy myself.

But it was 10 below zero and happiness doesn’t prevent frostbite. I turned back well short of my goal.  Still, it felt good to be out on the trail and in the woods. But that quick cold trip just left me wanting more.

Henry goofing off

Henry goofing off

So Henry was with me again a week later when the temperatures were 40 degrees warmer. This time I decided to go south of Highway 52, into a section I never explored before because the boulder train always pulled me north.

It still was tough going for a run. The snow was covered with crust and as I plodded through it crunched under my feet. Henry floated on top, and he ran ahead, stopping every 30 yards to check on me.

The trail here was a lot different that it is just a mile to the north. There it is rocky, hilly with trees thick like a jungle. Here the trail had more gentle slopes, and while wooded, the trees had more space between them. The Plover River burbles alongside the trail here, which was terrific for me.

Henry did not particularly like the stream because this trail segment includes two crossings. I discovered that, although he is an energetic and tough trail dog, he does not enjoy getting wet. He leaped over one stream crossing, and unhappily waded through another. On the way back he balked at getting his feet wet. He paced and cried as I tried to coax him across.

Henry did not like this crossing

Henry did not like this crossing

There is a kind of stepping stone bridge at that particular place, and I had to cross back, put a leash on Henry, and gently pull him from rock to rock as he crossed. When we got to the other side, he jumped with a sense of victory.

It didn’t take us long to get back to the car. Henry sighed when he got in the back seat, and his head was down and his eyes were closed before I could start the engine.

I sat there for a minute, listening to the dog breathing heavily and my own breath coming to me nice and easy. It was only an hour-long jaunt on the trail, but it was a such a boost of spirit.  Man, it was good.

Keith Uhlig is a reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. He writes regularly about running, biking, the Ice Age Trail and generally goofing off with Henry at https://www.wausaudailyherald.com/blog/wanderingcentralwisconsin/.

A Tragic Winter on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

By Frank Norris

Florence, Nebraska, is a leafy suburb on the north side of Omaha. Today, the suburb is quiet and not particularly remarkable, and what passes for history to most passers-by is a series of historic buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The present town site, however, is a personal witness to one of the great tragedies in the decades-long history of America’s western migrations, because it was in present-day Florence where those who led of the Mormon migration suffered – and in many cases died – along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail during the winter of 1846-1847.

Why Florence? During the 1820s, Joseph Smith witnessed remarkable events while living in a rural area east of Rochester, New York, and in 1830 he founded a church whose adherents were called Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Popular antipathy against Smith and his followers, however, forced church members to flee the area – first to Kirtland, Ohio, and later in Nauvoo, Illinois, with an outpost at Independence, Missouri. In 1844, however, Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois (near Nauvoo), and soon afterward, church leaders concluded that the only way to provide the flock safety and breathing room was to relocate them farther west, beyond where most Americans were living at that time. Based on what they learned from explorer John Fremont’s maps and reports, the church’s new leader – Brigham Young – decided to head some 1,300 miles west to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

The Florence Mill

The Florence Mill

In February 1846, the first elements of the Mormon migration left Nauvoo and headed west across Iowa on what is now known as the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. The church’s leaders had initially hoped to make it all the way to their destination in one year. But rain, mud, swollen rivers, and poor preparation slowed things down considerably, and by mid-June the decision was made to overwinter along the Missouri River. Three settlements were eventually established there: Kanesville (initially called Miller’s Hollow), which later became Council Bluffs, Iowa; Cutler’s Park, a short-lived settlement founded in August 1846 perhaps 1.5 miles west of present-day Florence; and Winter Quarters, founded in September near the Missouri River’s west bank.

Recognizing that winter would soon be upon them, the emigrants quickly set to work laying out streets – three blocks from east to west and seven blocks from north to south. Within that rectangular grid they constructed some 800 buildings, made from either logs or sod. Some 2,500 Mormons spent the winter here. The industrious assemblage immediately set to work building a nearby mill, and enterprising church members quickly fanned out into adjacent areas and began trading what additional supplies they had for hogs, grain, and vegetables. Despite those efforts, however, most emigrants subsisted on corn bread, “salt bacon” (salt-cured pork) and a little milk, with occasional fresh game or domestic meat.

Even so, the population suffered. The lack of fresh vegetables soon resulted in a prevalence of scurvy, and others got consumption (tuberculosis), malaria, and a host of other diseases. Church documents – not at all complete – show that by the spring of 1847, 359 members had died, or more than one-seventh of those that had arrived at Winter Quarters seven months earlier.

This vanguard of Mormon settlement left Winter Quarters in April 1847, headed west, crossed the Continental Divide, and arrived in Salt Lake Valley in late July along the western end of today’s Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. Thereafter, Winter Quarters continued to be used by later migrants until the site was abandoned in 1848. Just six years later, the new town of Florence was platted at the site, and by the late 1850s it was community once again. But what still remained of the old Winter Quarters site was quickly subsumed within the town of Florence. Today, all that remains from that era is a cemetery that pays silent witness to the Mormon pioneers who died there, along with the nearby Florence Mill. To tell the story of what took place here during Winter Quarters’ remarkable two-year existence, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates a visitor center adjacent to the cemetery.

Frank Norris is a historian for the National Park Service.

Educational Trail Tours on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail

By Karen Heagen

Each summer, the Nez Perce Trail Foundation conducts a guided Summer Educational Trail Tour that follows the route of the 1877 Nez Perce Trail. Building in popularity, the Tour begins at Wallowa, Oregon at the Tamkaliks Pow Wow and concludes at either Big Hole, (Wisdom) Montana (Segment 1) or at the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana (Segment 2). Due to the length and distance of the route, the NPTF Tours are conducted in alternating parts each year.

Participants hike the actual Trail in many areas, and learn about the relevant sites throughout the four states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. As a brief history--- bands of Nez Perce were peacefully on their way to the reservation and their allotments in June,1877. The conflict became ignited when a small group of resentful warriors committed crimes near Whitebird, Idaho. Nine hundred Nez Perce men, women, children, and elders (with their 2000 horses) decided to flee the area to avoid confrontation and achieve a peaceful life in the Buffalo Plains. Under government and public pressure, they were relentlessly pursued and attacked by the U.S. Army under the command of General Oliver O. Howard, as well as other Indian tribes.

The conclusion of the Nez Perce War finally came after five days of freezing weather, starvation, and casualties. The Nez Perce quit the battle near the Canadian border after traveling nearly 1,200 miles. The extended history of the Trail includes Kansas, Oklahoma (Indian Territory), and Nespelem, WA. These areas identify the eight-year incarceration of the prisoners, and Chief Joseph’s exile from the Wallowa homelands.

Confluence Circle along the Snake River

Confluence Circle along the Snake River

Each July, the NPTF Summer Educational Trail Tour visits significant sites along the route that include the Wallowa homelands, the Nez Perce National Historic Park at Spalding, Fort Lapwai, Whitebird Battlefield, Clearwater Battlefield, Lolo Pass Trail, Fort Fizzle, Bitterroot Valley, Big Hole Battlefield, Camas Meadows, Yellowstone Park, Canyon Creek, and Bear Paw Battlefield.

This adventure is available to all ages that want to explore and learn about the history of one of America’s most significant (yet relatively unheard of) Native American stories. The Nez Perce tribe has captured the attention of people worldwide-- first from their expert horsemanship involving the Appaloosa horse, and also from their courageous Flight to obtain freedom from the reservation in 1877. The 1800’s public made Chief Joseph (aka the “Red Napoleon”) an underdog hero and figurehead in these efforts. However, his role was primarily a peacemaker and negotiator between the white settlers, the U.S. Army, and his people.

Unknown to many, several bands and their chiefs were involved with the War and the Flight. The NPTF Tour embraces young and old who want to visit the beautiful homelands of Oregon and Idaho, and beyond. It is conducted for those who wish to learn and experience first-hand the epic scale of challenges and trials during the Flight of the Nez Perce. Your experienced guides travel with you to areas that are significant chapters in the history of the Nez Perce War, revealing details and personal experiences of the soldiers and warriors. This Tour will also reveal the timeless beauty and spectacular scenery of the Nez Perce Homelands and its wildlife, landscapes, and culture.

Participants must have reliable transportation for car camping, minimal camping gear, and beginning hiking ability. We encourage groups no larger than 25 people for the maximum quality experience. Please check the website for details. Past participants have included photographers, historians, philosophers, educators, and students. As a two-year participant, Professor Wayne Olts was so inspired that he created photography exhibitions at Folsom Lake College and UCLA featuring his experiences while on the Tours of 2016 and 2017.

White Bird Trail

White Bird Trail

Many participants may like to combine a family vacation with portions of the Tour. All are welcome and we will help plan your itinerary to fit our schedule. There is also ample opportunity to visit museums and cultural centers along the way, as well as a few favorite fishing holes and hiking trails! Our journey takes us through many beautiful valleys and communities, each with their own flavor and culture. Come join our “Walking Stick” band and discover the ancestral lands of the Nez Perce. Share and review our experiences around the nightly campfire and Talking Circle. Our goal is to get people out on the Trail for the trip of a lifetime!

Karen Heagen is the President of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation.  The NPTF was created in 1991 to Protect, Preserve, and Commemorate the events and history of the epic exodus of the Nez Perce people from their homelands. Other endeavors by the Foundation include special projects, scholarships, and community partnerships. Continuing Education College Credit is available through MSUN. For more information, please visit www.nezpercetrail.net