We have made the great American West into a grand and civilized place. Geologists love to explore its rocks and admire its mountains, but they come well equipped. At night in their tents, supplied from their trucks, they marvel to themselves that the first settlers came and built the first desert towns and roads with almost nothing.
From the Great Plains to California is about two thousand miles, a safe three-day drive on excellent roads. But during the time of the California gold rush, from 1849 for the next 20 years, people going west made that whole journey through wilderness. The emigrants had no cars, just wooden wagons pulled by draft animals; no roads, just a handful of ungraded dirt trails. During their four-month journey, they had to feed themselves and their livestock along the way.
Keith Meldahl brings that grueling, life-changing and iconic ordeal to life through the letters the emigrants wrote. He visits the remaining traces of the California Trail to ponder the surroundings. Any "rut nut" can do that, but only an energetic geologist with a gifted pen can also tell us why the countryside, in all its rugged grandeur and deep structure, is this way. For rockhounds like me, it's the ultimate field-trip guidebook to the emigrant trails, and it makes me itch for the road. For Trail tourists, Hard Road West is a superb text for learning a whole new side of the story. If you are neither, this book may make you both. (Read an excerpt. Shop here for the paperback or the hardcover.)
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