One could argue – I would – that some of the most enjoyable days I’ve spent on tour were those covering many miles of what early settlers mistakenly took for the “Great American Desert”. It’s ironic that these settlers – nearly all of them farmers – didn’t recognize fertile agricultural land when they saw it. But because they didn’t, much of this land has remained unbroken and undeveloped, for us to enjoy today. One of the reasons our travelers are so taken with the West is that many modern city dwellers have never in their lives seen endless horizons or vast treeless plains – what the explorers, pioneers, trappers and Native Americans encountered every day of their lives.
As we travel westward following a Vanishing Trail (it is almost always westward, the exception being the Nez Perce Trail, which runs eastward from Oregon to Montana), I remind our participants that our forebears traveled these same trails, usually on foot, to reach the promised land. Or like Lewis & Clark under military orders to find “the most direct and practical water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.” [Thomas Jefferson].
We talk about the hardships they endured, read from their journals, and discuss how their determination affected those people who were already here. (One of my favorite quotes sums up the Native viewpoint in two simple sentences: “They called it wilderness. We called it home.”) It is somehow easier to contemplate such philosophical thoughts in the quiet stillness of the open prairie.
The historical value of such a journey is self-evident. The mesmerizing terrain turns out to be a bonus. There is much to be said for just how unique the wide open spaces of the Great American West are in today’s increasingly urbanized world. 80% of Americans live in or near urban areas, so the vastness of our own country not only comes as a surprise, but also a welcome respite from hectic urban lifestyles.
Lest you think our days are filled with endless, mind-numbing highway miles, let me describe a typical “travel day” on one of our excursions. First of all, we avoid interstate highways like the plague. In fact, our routes are so notorious that coach drivers have been known to compete for assignments on a Shebby Lee Tours’ itinerary, because they know the road will be winding, it will be scenic, and it will be interesting! And since we are following history, not interstates, many of the day’s highlights are also off the beaten path.
Even on long travel days, we never just sit. We have frequent breaks to stretch and take nourishment. We play games (NOT, God forbid, Bingo), but interesting trivia and mind-teasing challenges related to the theme of the tour, and supervised by volunteer fact-checkers with fabulous prizes. We watch interesting documentaries and examine artifacts and replicas from the time period such as a pioneer woman’s sunbonnet, a carrot of tobacco, a beaver pelt, or the blue beads which were so popular in Lewis & Clark’s time. We discuss different aspects of the Vanishing Trail we are following or the history of the West in general, the original inhabitants, the wildlife, the settlement of the West. There’s just SO much to discuss! And learn!
But there are times too when we just kick back, read the newspaper, doze off, listen to period music, or perhaps the sound track from Ken Burns’ seminal documentary on the Lewis & Clark Trail. It’s during these times that participants can really reflect on our American heritage and take a good look at the landscape outside those oversized coach windows.
And that’s just on the bus! On the Lewis & Clark Trail for example, the historic sites we explore, the historians and re-enactors we meet, the authentic meals and music, the astounding museums, the nature walks including Spirit Mound and Pompeys Pillar, the boat rides on the iconic Missouri River, all contribute to a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will forever dwell in your memory book.
There’s a reason our slogan is “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. After participating in your own Vanishing Trails Expedition, we think you’ll agree.
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.