On the Oregon Trail

One of the things I’ve been very interested in since my undergraduate days is preservation and conservation. Preservation is the idea of “freezing” something like an artifact in time, preserving a specific moment in history for the future to enopy and learn from. Conservation is the idea of not bulldozing stuff flat, but considering the need to sometimes repurpose historic buildings and the landscape for the needs of today and tomorrow. We have to consider what gets preserved, what might just need to be conserved, and how to do it. But we also must consider what CAN be preserved or conserved. Not only with available time and money, but in the available technology. Simply put, not everything can be, no matter how important it might be.

I’m starting new research using ground penetrating radar (GPR) and magnetometry (mag) on the Oregon Trail. Since moving to Wyoming, I’m become involved in the unique nature of the Trail through Wyoming, and shown many the actual trail ruts. It’s a visceral connection to a movement that we can hardly imagine today, people picking up everything they own and putting it into a wagon, or a hand-cart, or even just a leather roll on their backs, and walking or riding for weeks and months across this vast country. I’ve seen tears come to the eyes of adults, and children choke up as they look East and West down the Trail. The Trail itself is worth preserving. But how?

I’ve been working with GPR and magetometry for several years. They both have industry and scholarly applications. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for GPR, in case you’re interested: GPR, and here’s the one for magnetometry: Mag. But I’ve never used it on a road before. WyoFile reported on my work last year: Oregon Trail, and I’ve just gotten in from the field this year with even more data.

I had an amazing field crew this year! (Kim Haws pictured)

This project will take years. I’ll post some of the GPR images soon as I process them. But I’m excited. Stay tuned.


Just as a note: I have a formal research permit to conduct this work on federal land. Don’t try this at home, folks!