By Mike McKenzie, associate professor of philosophy and religion
Five miles farther, the road bids farewell to the Snake River & strikes off to the left. Here also “The Oregon Trail” strikes off to the right & leaves us alone in our glory, with no other goal before us but Death or the Diggins.
–Wakeman Bryarly, July 16, 1849
We camped for the night on the opposite side of Raft River; the Oregon road turns off. Here there are a number of wagons camped on the river that intended to go to Oregon. They are all family wagons.
–Joseph Hackney, July 24, 1849
Elizabeth Adams was buried near Raft River—by the side of GW Sanders from KeKuk Iowa who died here July 27th 1862, aged 33 years. Near here I noticed the grave of Hays who died 1852. At this place the road forked, the left hand leading to California.
–J.S. McClung, August 11, 1862
Gar Elison is living proof that it’s foolish to judge a book by its cover. Gar is a mover and shaker in the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA), the group that leads the charge to educate the public and preserve the great historic sites of the two major westering trails that bore the brunt of some 500,000 people who went west from the 1840s through the 1860s.
I was looking for help in locating the famous “Parting of the Ways” in Idaho, that spot at which the main Trail forked, the Oregon branch tracking northwest to the fertile farmlands of the Willamette Valley, and the California Trail bending southwest, to the glittering country that John Sutter had put on the map in 1849. My thought was that this spot would make the perfect place to start my book on how certain religions took root (or didn’t) in the far Northwest—a geographical metaphor of the kinds of people who would later fill up the region.
Although I was familiar with large portions of the Oregon Trail, southern Idaho was new country for me, and I needed a guide. I ran my request past the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the largest (and frequently most reviled) federal presence in the region, and they referred me to OCTA. And the OCTA folks kept singing the praises of one man:
“You have to talk to Gar Elison, he knows all about that country over there.”
“If Gar can’t help you, nobody can.”
“Get in touch with Elison, he’s hiked that whole stretch of the Trail.”
The man’s legend was growing by the minute, so when another OCTA member sent me Gar’s email address, I wasted no time in asking him if he’d meet me near the Raft River, about 30 miles east of Burley Idaho, along the dry Snake River plain. Knowing that summers mean business in that section of the state, I wanted to do my explorations as early in the season as possible, before the sun baked the land hard. We agreed on a place and time, and Gar and Lyle (a local land owner and cattle rancher) would meet me at a nearby freeway exit ramp.
When Gar got out of his van, I did an immediate double take: he reminded me of an urbanite whose outdoor experience consisted largely of watching over his patio herb garden. Long and lanky, he wore a broad straw hat, striped cotton shirt, what seemed to be a generic type of khaki pants, and—of all things—a pair of wing-tip loafers! It seemed hardly the outfit for exploring the rough country of lava rock and thorns that stretched out to the distant mountains. I couldn’t help wondering: What should I do if he passes out? As it turned out, Gar hardly needed any help.
As we drove, Lyle provided background information. The Raft River, once a dependable water source and a barrier to the wagons of the pioneers, had long since been drained of most of its water for irrigation. In many places the river had been reduced to a tiny trickle or even a meandering green streak on the canyon floor. Ranchers raised beef cattle and the alfalfa to feed them, relying largely on the aquifer that once fed the river. The Parting of the Ways was at the edge of the canyon with grassy meadowlands and alfalfa in the bottoms, bordered by steep walls of black lava and columns of basalt that rose a hundred feet or more. Although it was still May, large circle sprinklers had been at work for weeks, their cannon-like nozzles watering huge chunks of land as they slowly circumnavigated the round fields. It had been dry, Lyle told me.
The two men had a plan of action. Gar and I would visit the sites of local interest, many of which were on Lyle’s property: the Oregon Trail ruts that climbed out of the canyon; the pioneer graves that were scattered in the area—people who had left the east and headed for the far side of a new land—only to end up under the dry and hot Idaho sky; and the Native petroglyphs that were carved high on the black cliffs, watching over the immigrant graves and the trails. As the wind blew hot through the sagebrush and cheat grass, I couldn’t help thinking that the land was steeped in death and loss.
But following Gar Elison was like trying to follow a machine. The man marched through the bottomlands and clambered up vertical canyon walls. He was tireless, keeping up a nearly non-stop patter on the history of the various trails that crisscrossed the area. This guy must have a resting pulse of 30! Finally, we stopped by a grave enclosed by a split rail fence. The grave was likely that of Elizabeth Adams, a young woman from Iowa who had died from her wounds from an earlier Native attack at Massacre Rocks and had been buried here. Actually, as Gar explained, the original grave was about 50 yards away, but Lyle was a rancher who had a heart for the land and for the people who lay beneath it. He had moved the grave out of the range of the huge sprinklers and stomping cattle.
“You mean he dug up the grave?” I asked. Gar shook his head: “No, he left the actual grave there, but just moved the rocks the other pioneers had used to mark it. We’re pretty sure who she was by the accounts and diaries that exist.” I looked at the spot that Gar was pointing out as the actual burial site. A Hereford steer was standing there, looking us over and chewing a mouthful of grass and alfalfa. Hardy plants whose roots went down deep into the dirt—deep enough I knew. I looked at Gar, and I could tell he knew what I was thinking. “Sort of a circle of life thing,” he said.
I was uncomfortable with the notion that today’s hamburger might contain yesterday’s pioneer, and lamely tried to lighten the mood. “Well, after 160 years, there couldn’t be much left, so. . . .” I let my words trail off in a hopeful tone; I wanted Gar to confirm I was back in a more sterile and safe environment. Nothing doing. In fact, he took us further into uncharted and even more troubling waters.
“The reason we like to document these pioneer burials is to put down some record for posterity, to let others know who died where, so these people are not forgotten. We don’t exhume any remains, just locate, document, and hopefully protect them.”
“But how exactly do you locate the graves?” I asked.
Gar answered. “We use a variety of methods: pioneers’ accounts of the actual burial sites, ground-penetrating radar, steel bars that we shove into likely sites, and which indicate the softer dirt of a grave, and even copper or metal divining rods. Lately we have also been using cadaver dogs.” As his last remark sunk home, I can still remember my jaw dropping at the same time as my eyebrows rose. Everyone who has watched any of the countless CSI “reality shows” knows that trained dogs can detect the special scent of a dead body, allowing law enforcement to crack previously unsolved murders. But after 160 years?
“Wait a minute,” I said. “With no embalming, what could possibly be left after so long a time?”
Gar paused, his eyebrows pinching together as his face got serious. I could tell he was weighing his words carefully. “Mike, the last time we used cadaver dogs at Massacre Rocks, we used the same dogs and handler as the FBI and State Police. After the dogs had come to a certain area we had long suspected as having some burials, the dogs all sat on their haunches, their heads and noses pointed high in the air, toward the tops of a cluster of large sagebrush. It was strange to see all those dogs in a circle, looking up like that. See, cadaver dogs always point down to the grave, with their chins resting on their paws, their heads indicating the location of the dead body. I remember looking toward the dogs’ handler and asking him what his dogs were doing. ‘There are your graves, underneath that sagebrush,’ the handler told me matter-of-factly. ‘The dogs are smelling the dead as the odor leaves the very tips of the sage leaves.’” Gar stopped talking, and looked square at me, knowing how I’d react.
“You mean the dogs were actually detecting a physical body some 160 years after it died? Even in a pungent plant like sagebrush?” This seemed impossible to believe.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Gar replied. The dogs’ handler had not been shocked, but I was dumbstruck.
Then it hit me. In a very real sense—in a physical sense—those pioneers of long ago were still with us. For well over a century and a half, their molecules had been gently but inexorably lifted from the deep dirt, picked up by the smallest and deepest root fibers of the sage, traveling slowly up the plant then eventually out the fragrant leaves and stringy bark, finally being picked up by the scent glands of homely dogs who had been trained to solve horrible crimes. It was an odd metaphysics—somehow both highly unsettling and strangely comforting. The conservation of matter in the olfactory glands of dogs. But this discovery meant far more to me than some application of the First Law of Thermodynamics.
The pioneers looking for a new start in the West were like most Americans of the period, earning their bread by the uncertain livery of the plow. It was comforting to me that even those who didn’t make it—who lost it all to cholera, measles, the frequent accidents of the Trail, or to the odd attack of another culture—could still end up as true people of the soil. Sitting on the rim of the canyon, smelling the tang of the sage and sweating in the unrelenting sun, I knew that this place had redefined for me the saying “Dust to Dust.” As I watched a solitary red ant scramble over lava rock, it struck me that we were sitting in a valley of remains: Native etchings scratched into the cliffs, bearing mute witness to an ancient people who once roamed this land free and clear; cattle ate plants whose roots no doubt suckled nitrogen that once resided in Midwest farmers; and even the very air we breathed contained the remains of other cultures from long ago. All these human traces were jumbled together at this place.
When I first came to the Raft River Valley, I thought the dominant themes would be separation and death. It had been obvious enough. Men and women whose friendships had been forged on the long and unrelenting Oregon Trail, being forced to sever those close bonds and go their separate ways—abruptly, right at this exact spot—never to see each other again. Lonely graves marking the ultimate separation of death; strangers dying in a strange land. But this tough country had spoken with a softer voice. The sagebrush and rock canyons had indeed seen more than their share of tragedy and sadness, but there was another layer to it all.
In our many conversations along the rim of the valley, Gar and I never talked about concepts of the soul; there were no speculations about the hereafter or talk of God. We had just met, and such talk would have been out of place. This was the time and place to be immersed in the physical—to sweat amongst giant boulders, to climb rough cliffs while keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, to wonder about the people who had lived and died in the dryness.
Now, I teach at a college dominated by water and lakes, and I often think about those people and that faraway valley. I know how the wind bends the tall yellow bunchgrass, and how the canyon walls bulge out just above where the Oregon Trail heads up a draw to the west. I also know something about the people: Shoshonis and Bannocks and Paiutes, who had hunted and lived forever amongst the black rock and tall grass; sturdy farmers and shopkeepers from Pennsylvania and Iowa who were just trying to get through the country, but who were struck down by bad luck. But I also know something else, a more important truth. I know those people belong to that country around the Raft River, just as much as any tree or deer or rock. All of them are part of the land now; all of them are still there. Maybe they always will be.