I had the privilege of editing and designing this book last year. Will is one of the best writers I know, and working on his texts is always a joy. This is a narrative book (as opposed to one made up of primary source documents) and very easy to read, in a style similar to Will’s other series for the University of Oklahoma Press, Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails.
Will is a great storyteller and knows how to knit all of the background goings-on into a comprehensive lesson. He laughs throughout the interview–his delight in the material is clear and infectious.
South Pass was the easiest way over the Rockies, used by Indians, fur traders, missionaries, forty-niners, and Mormon pioneers. It was also a site crossed by the Pony Express, stagecoaches, and the telegraph. Named a National Historic Landmark, South Pass is one of the few places in the country where the trail to the West has remained untouched, where we can go and really see the world that the pioneers saw 150 years ago. In his afterword, Will writes about the legacy of the area and the importance of its preservation:
Even better, with the American West seemingly doomed to have its public resources privatized, encouraging a swift and brutal transformation of our natural landscape into industrialized “sacrifice zones,” South Pass belongs to you and me. As the twenty-first century begins, international corporations increasingly desire and demand unfettered access to the gold, oil, gas, coal, and the rare earths hidden in our nation’s last, best places; they even strive to monetize—a horrific word—the wind and sun. Yet virtually all of South Pass is unchanged, and its classic open emptiness still belongs to the American people.
This epigraph from the book emphasizes the history still seen there:
Stand on South Pass now, and you will find it as still and peaceful as if no clamor of empire had ever surged through it. Antelope will drift close to see what you are up to; no smokes stain the dark blue sky; the riotous rendezvous of the fur hunters, held for a dozen years after 1825, have left neither mark nor echo, not even a tepee ring. The wheels that between 1836 and 1869 rocked and creaked and squealed up the Sweetwater and down past the westward-falling
trickle of Pacific Creek have left ruts that are still visible in places among the sage and bunchgrass if you look hard, but modern travel does not go this way. Both Highway 30 and the railroad cross the divide at Creston. All that crosses
South Pass now is Wyoming 28, a secondary road. And here is a lesson, not only in history, but in the fallibility of prophecy based on false premises.
–Wallace Stegner, Marking the Sparrow’s Fall