fossils,  Mormon Trail,  Mt. Rushmore,  Nebraska,  Old West,  Oregon Trail,  prairie life,  Research trip,  road trip USA,  South Dakota,  Wild West,  Wyoming

Roadtripping through Western USA

Most of the time, when I’m plotting my next book, my mind usually drifts back to places I’ve been. There’s something comforting and secure about setting a story in a location I’ve actually seen and incorporating things that are special to that place in the story. Once in a blue moon, when my plot absolutely requires me to step out of that comfort zone, I will spend an eternity researching a new locale online. But only if the story really needs it. (I’m working on becoming a more adventurous writer! Maybe someday I’ll get there.)


A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking a wonderful road trip with my family through seven Western states – seven! This included Arizona, where I’m from, because I live at the southern end. Seemingly by coincidence, though it rarely is when I consider the Lord’s hand in my life, I was planning a family vacation for summertime and knew that I wanted to see a certain historical site in central Wyoming that is important to our family history that I’ve never seen before. At the time, I was also writing my third story in the Pinkerton Matchmaker multi-author series, An Agent for Hallie. I thought I would be setting this story in northern Utah, but after consulting with my writing partner, who was also writing her story about the dinosaur treasure hunts of the late 1870s, I changed my location slightly. My story would now take place on the border of Utah and Wyoming Territories, about 10 miles from Evanston.


Yet, there is a third piece to this puzzle of figuring out the route we wanted to take for our road trip. I have already mentioned that I would like to write a series about the Oregon Trail. I actually have the entire four-book series outlined, but between writing for the Pinkerton and Belles of Wyoming series, along with my freelance editing jobs and family life, I haven’t found the time I needed for that project in the past year. Rest assured, it is still on my radar, and I will try diligently to put it together in the coming year. In the meantime, I figured we could see a few places along the original Oregon Trail while we were taking this road trip as well.


So, with these thoughts in mind, I’d like to take you through our road trip from beginning to end. I didn’t take any pictures of us while traveling through Arizona and Utah, since our family is so familiar with these two states and we were in a hurry to get up to our hotel in Evanston, Wyoming.


Our first stop, just outside of Evanston, Wyoming – the setting for my Pinkerton Matchmaker story, An Agent for Hallie. Isn’t she lovely? Click on the cover to read the blurb.


Can’t you just see a dinosaur dig happening here in the 1870s? I love the combination of prairie land and hills in this part of the country.


Next stop – Martin’s Cove, Wyoming – the place where beleaguered and bedraggled members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stopped to wait out a blizzard while walking across the plains on the Mormon Trail, which was only designated by the fact that they walked on one side of the North Platte River while other pioneers of the days walked on the Oregon Trail, the other side of the river. My ancestors were caught in this blizzard, and my great-great-grandfather, whose story is shown on a video here at the visitor’s center, froze to death. This place had a very reverent feeling. It is now a working ranch, but there are many original artifacts to see.


This fireplace was made from various stones that were found on the property. Our tour guide pointed a few of interest out to us. See that spongy-looking stone to the upper right of my daughter? It is fossilized coral, evidence that this land was covered by seawater millions of years ago, a fact that I mentioned in An Agent for Hallie. Also, our tour guide shared with us that the gun hanging up on the chimney belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody. He gave it to the family who purchased this property after the events of 1856.


Devil’s Gate – a landmark that is mentioned in many pioneer journals – at Martin’s Cove, Wyoming

Rattlesnake pass at Martin’s Cove – can you guess why they call it that? Although we didn’t see any on this hot summer day, I’m sure the pioneers encountered many rattlesnakes on their way to Oregon, Utah, and California. Our tour guide pointed out that this was the spot where these weary travelers came into the cove. We walked the 1/4 mile pathway to the bridge that was closed for repairs. As you can see, it is lined by aspens.

Here, my kids are standing in front of the bluff that the members of the Martin Handcart Company huddled behind as they waited out the bitter snowstorm in October, 1856. Several wagon teams from Salt Lake City were sent to rescue them. My great-grandfather, who was only 7 years old at the time, survived, but his father did not.

After visiting Martin’s Cove, we drove just a couple of miles down the road to see Independence Rock. By this time, it was late afternoon, and we needed to find a place to camp for the night, so we cut our visit to this historic landmark short. I would have loved to walk further in to view some of the names that were carved into the rock by the westward migrating people, but I know from reading various accounts and talking with a hiker who had just come down from the rock, that many of the names have eroded over time. What I didn’t know or expect to see until our visit is that the rock has a greenish hue to it. You can see traces of it in this picture. I found that to be very interesting!

Proof that I was at Independence Rock, ha ha!

Sunset over central Wyoming at our campsite


Next stop – the Black Hills of South Dakota


The next day was mostly spent by driving into South Dakota. I have to say this is the first really up-close encounter I’ve had with prairie land, and it was beautiful and so fragrant! I loved it! Not only that, but the colors of the landscape changed from a sage green to a yellowish green. So bright and pretty!

On our way toward Mt. Rushmore, we saw the Crazy Horse monument in the distance. I snapped a picture of it as we drove past. Sorry if the image is a little blurry.


Four of my kids standing in front of the Mt. Rushmore National Monument – quite an impressive sight!


Although the museum was closed on the day we visited Mt. Rushmore, I did learn one thing from this signpost: President Jefferson came up with his own ice cream recipe! I knew he was an inventor, maybe not to the extent that Benjamin Franklin was, but while researching for An Agent for Jessica, another book in the Pinkerton Matchmaker series (of which I ultimately made the decision to use President Washington’s Mt. Vernon instead of President Jefferson’s Monticello), I learned that he was, in fact, an inventor of several things. However, ice cream never came up as one of them! What an amazing mind!


So, maybe not the best quality picture, but our next stop was the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Again, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore here, but it is a really cool place! Not only is it the location of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane’s burial, but in the Adams Museum, we learned of several important figures who helped to settle the West by coming through this area. A few other items of interest we saw in this museum were: a gold nugget from the Gold Rush of 1874, a plesiosaur skeleton (Awesome! I featured a mosasaur fossil in An Agent for Hallie), a two-headed calf that had been taxidermied, intricately made furniture as displayed in the photo below, and several more fascinating pieces.

This interactive exhibit in the Adams Museum shows the effects of people on the water systems of the land.

This was a really fortuitous visit to the museum! I was surprised to see #12 in the glass case. Do you recognize it from the description I gave in An Agent for Hallie? Yep, it’s a mosasaur vertabrae! Earlier in my research, I watched a YouTube video of a guy just going out to a river somewhere in Wyoming and combing through the rocks along the riverbank. He found several of these fossils within minutes! Just washing upshore from all the millions of years they’ve been here. Isn’t that the coolest thing?! In one scene, I had my “bad guy” show Jeff how to find them, and then Jeff, in turn, showed Hallie. Readers now know that my “bad guy” wasn’t as bad as Jeff and Hallie thought, and he will be one of the main characters in my next Pinkerton Matchmaker story, An Agent for Meg. Meg, of course, is paleontologist Professor Ashwood’s daughter, who initially tried to sabotage her father’s digging exhibition. Thank goodness she saw the error of her ways before the end of the story! (On a side note, see #15? That’s a fossilized turtle from millions of years ago. Interesting stuff!)


Our next stop – western Nebraska, where we saw several landmarks of the Oregon Trail. We only briefly stopped at the next few since it was an overcast day and we weren’t sure what the weather would be like, and then we stayed a little longer at Ash Hollow.


Scotts Bluff, Nebraska – This was literally a “let’s get out of the vehicle and take a quick picture of us standing in front of the display” shot. Still, it was interesting to see, and I would have loved to have more time to explore it.

Chimney Rock, Nebraska – No surprise, every parking space at the visitor’s center warned of rattlesnakes. Better be on the lookout when you come!

I really like this picture of my oldest son standing in front of Chimney Rock. He just came home from a three-day intensive mountain trip when we left on this trip. I’m sure he was tired at this point in our journey, but he’s a big history buff like his parents. He’ll be flying the coop soon. We’re really going to miss him!

Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Nebraska were two more important landmarks along the Oregon Trail. An important thing to note here is that from Deadwood, we traveled straight south to Scotts Bluff and then drove westward a little ways so we could see these natural landmarks. So we were traveling in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION that the Oregon and Mormon Trail pioneers traveled. They would have seen these landmarks in the opposite order.

Our last stop before heading home was Ash Hollow State Historical Park. This was a place that allowed the weary travelers to rest for a little while. There’s cool, clean spring water that runs through it as well as a cave that we were allowed to go down and look at. (It’s actually more like a cove than a cave, and it is protected with a glass covering – it’s also really smelly down there! Eww!)

Before the pioneers reached Ash Hollow, they had to pull their wagons up to the top of Windlass Hill, and then down again. From what I’ve heard in several accounts, it was a huge struggle. While we were at Ash Hollow, I kept looking around at the hills that surrounded this beautiful area, wondering which hill was Windlass Hill. I didn’t see anything that designated it. By the time we finished looking through the museum (pictures to follow), we were tired and just wanted to get on our way home. As we left Ash Hollow and were driving on the highway, we passed Windlass Hill, which was marked by a historical marker. However, realizing it too late, and being so tired, we didn’t stop, and I didn’t get a good picture of it. It would have helped if I had remembered that we were traveling in the opposite direction the pioneers traveled. That’s the only real regret I have about our trip.

Anyway, here are a few more pictures of our visit to Ash Hollow. I always thought of Nebraska as a flat land, which we saw plenty of. But Ash Hollow is surrounded by several steep hills, and so green! Seriously, this Arizona gal doesn’t see lush, green grass naturally growing in every direction very often!

My kids really liked the box of dress-up clothes at the museum.

They also enjoyed the fossil-digging exhibit as well as the glass-encased fossil exhibit.

We definitely had a memorable trip!


In connection with this blog post, I’m hosting a fun giveaway on my Facebook author page! Click here if you would like to enter for a chance to win a paperback copy of An Agent for Hallie as well as a cute Christmas ornament that will remind you of a special scene in it.


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