Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Last Wagon

Nobody died. Nobody ate anybody. But we did have an adventure on the Donner-Reed Party's route along the Hastings Cutoff.
The Last Wagon by Lynn Fausset
We went with some great public servants from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). When I saw the notice of this trip on BLM's Facebook page, I immediately thought of my old friend from all the way back to grade school who is now teaching Law Enforcement at Great Basin College, Elko, Nevada. And he has a four-wheel drive.

In the old days, we did our exploring on bikes and in the woods. Sometimes our moms would meet at the grocery store and each would say, "I thought they were at your house!" while we were miles away from either. We found a lot of cool places but the golden hoard of some lost mine or buried treasure always eluded us. We did learn that the reward is in the adventure itself. That is the life lesson. So we took on another adventure yesterday on National Trails Day. 

The best part was to spend some good time together in one of those friendships that picks up after 40 years without skipping a beat. His wife came along and the night before our adventure, she and my wife found a connection in quilting and got along great. My buddy and I talked a lot about the old days but more so about who we are now and the mutual respect we have for each other. Friendship.

If only the folks in Donner-Reed had done so well. They faced so many trials along the trail, some of them avoidable. The main one was being sold on the cutoff by Lansford Hastings at Fort Bridger. That California huckster had no business promoting the new trail.

While Hasting led a group down treacherous Weber Canyon, he left a note at present day Henefer that Donner-Reed should go up to East Canyon and over Big and Little Mountain. To do so, they had to cut through trees and underbrush to make a wagon road. It was an ironic blessing to the Mormon vanguard of the next year who took only a few days through to the valley while it had taken Donner-Reed three week.

In 1846, there were only scattered Native Americans in the Great Basin. The Donners were on their own. Crossing the Jordan was a challenge as it was not a regulated irrigation canal in those days. Then the real adventure began.

 Meeting up at BLM West Desert District, Salt Lake Field Office
We met the BLM group accompanied by a couple of experts from the Oregon California Trail Association (OCTA) at BLM in West Valley. Then we went to Grantsville  (formerly Twenty Wells) to meet up with a couple more people and get our orientation from the experts. I introduced myself revealing my status as a fellow fed from the Department of the Interior adding that I was there in my personal, not official, capacity and was not checking-up on them (but I do highly recommend them). I also met a couple of historians from the OCTA to whom I explained my rather esoteric questions about the 1859 Army escort on the Humboldt Route and ancestors in Jacks Valley. They were interested in the story, but had no answers to offer.

We took off in caravan. My friend, a cop, likes to drive carefully and below speed limits which is how we ended up as the last wagon.

We curved south and north in both Tooele and Skull Valleys as the trail did because there were no dikes or railroads or interstates along the Great Salt Lake in those days and its salty mud flats stretched into those valleys. 

Horseshoe Springs in Skull Valley is a beautiful place and right off the highway to Dugway. Anyone and everyone should go there to see the place and a clear trail, well-marked of not just the Hastings cutoff but a stretch of the old Lincoln Highway.

Horseshoe Springs, Skull Valley, Utah

My long-time buddy, right on the trail

Easy to follow trail here
Iron Rail Markers - less subject to vandalism by gun-toting vandals

Then we curved around that valley and came to Redlum Springs--a less salubrious and more ephemeral source of water. And the last water until after the salt flats. The remnants of a torn note was pieced together by Mrs. Donner and the other ladies to reveal the message from Hastings. "2 days, 2 nights to water." 
Redlum Springs last water for 60 or so miles, and questionable at best.
Stansbury Mountains from Redlum Springs

Oregon California Trail Association Historian at Redlum Springs

Blooming Cacti near Redlum Springs, Stansbury Mountains in background
We went up and over Hasting Pass on the Cedar Mountains and saw the hogback route traversed by the heavy wagons of Donner-Reed where the oxen had to go back and forth to get all of them over. And several miles beyond the trickle of Redlum Springs, with no water. 

Top of Hastings Pass, Cedar Mountains.
The wagons turned off where the new road first appears below and went straight up the hogback ridge to the right
BLM Expert interpreting the route
Down the steep backside we came to Aragonite and onto I-80 where we stopped at the rest area along with a crowd of Christian motorcyclists for a lunch break.

Then my buddy discovered that his front passenger tire was flat. We had some trouble getting the tools to work as he'd never yet had a flat with this vehicle. So his wife called Triple-A and we said we would wait for repair as the rest of our party went on over the Salt Flats. Sigh. The fate of the last wagon.

It was still a trip well-worth the failure. And no severe consequences like Donner-Reed. 

And it reminded my of the classic discourse of The Last Wagon which I now see was given by J. Reuben Clark in LDS Conference, 1947, on the Centennial of the Mormon Vanguard, the year after Donner-Reed blazed the trail. I highly recommend it as a good read. Here's the link.

The Last Wagon - 2017
Long-time friends of the last wagon


  1. Thanks for sharing the photos and thoughts. I'm so sad you were unable to continue with us.


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