Ashley was not what we think of as a 'mountain man', but through
his courage, intelligence and efforts, the mountain man of the
west was born. Ashley revolutionized the fur trade by establishing
the first rendezvous where the men were left in the mountains
and the supplies were brought to them once a year. The first
rendezvous was held July 1, 1825, almost exactly 175 years from
the date of the current Green River Rendezvous on July 6-9,
I made a whirlwind visit to southeastern
Wyoming and northeastern Utah between July 6 - 9. I attended
the lecture by Dr. Fred Gowans on the history of the Mountain
Men on Thursday night, drove to the Grand Teton Mountains
on Friday morning, went on a tour of the rendezvous sites
on Friday afternoon with Dr. Gowans leading, ate buffalo at
the roast and then visited Green River Lake on Friday night.
On Saturday, I began the day at the pancake breakfast held
at a local church and then roamed the trader's fair downtown.
After that, I watched the parade and then drove up Skyline
Drive before heading to the Rendezvous Pageant where most
of the photos of this site were taken. Once the pageant was
over, I headed for South Pass.
Once home, I realized that I did
not have any photos of South Pass. I have plenty of video,
but no photos. In retrospect, I realize that South Pass is
really impossible to capture in a photo. That is the reason
I have based my images upon satellite photography to properly
illustrate the scale. Most people think of a mountain pass
with steep cliffs overlooking a narrow passage through the
mountains. That is not South Pass. South Pass is a broad,
gently sloping area that is basically nondescript. The sage
and prairie hens dominate the landscape while the Rocky Mountains
loom in the distance. South Pass is important because wagons
could cross the continental divide at this spot.
At South Pass, I drove my car down
a road not meant for cars to get to the actual pass. Once
there, alone, hungry, tired and with my car running hot, I
marveled at the spot I was standing. How many thousands of
people and hundreds of wagon trains had passed this way? I
wondered, "Did William Ashley and his men pass where
I was standing or was it 20 feet over in that direction or
five feet in that direction? I was overwhelmed with the thoughts
of the thousands of courageous people that had stood and passed
on the ground that I was standing. Storms were brewing to
the west in the direction where I was heading, my car might
not make it and I was not sure how many more hours I had to
go that day and wondered how many more hours I could safely
drive. It had already been a long day and I had no idea how
many more miles I could make.
Suddenly, my problems seemed trivial
as I compared them to the trailblazers, the mountain men and
the settlers that had passed that way before. I stood in the
ruts left by the wagon trains and looked to the west and the
trail disappeared into the desolate landscape. What courage
those early people had when they crossed through this country.
No maps, no photos and nothing definite to describe where
they were heading. Dreams of a better life pulled them towards
I headed back down the slope of South
Pass as the highway paralled the Big Sandy Creek. This was
the stream that Ashley and his men followed down the western
slope of South Pass. I was on a highway that followed the
general path of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the
Pony Express and there was no traffic on the highway.
Once I came to the Green River, I
could see the tree line that followed the meandering river.
Where the Big Sandy and the Green River met looked like an
oasis in the desert. This is where Ashley and his men built
their bull boat out of buffalo hides and where Ashley split
his men into different groups and sent them different ways.
At this point, the Green River looks deceptively mild. It
is fairly wide and the current moves at a moderately fast
pace. It was here that Ashley and a small group of his men
entered the river.
From here, I followed the Green River
to the south until I came over a rise and was met with the
modern transcontinental traffic. There was I-80 with cars
and trucks going both directions and trains in the background
as they passed through the narrow pass at the town of Green
River, Wyoming. The Palisades rose sharply by the highway
as the traffic zoomed along the interstate. I then realized
that I was on the modern equivalent of the Oregon and California
Trail. I pulled off and went to my room. Exhausted, I looked
out my window at the countryside with the storms brewing and
saw a magnificent rainbow shining over the Green River and
Flaming Gorge to the south, my destination for Sunday.
I awoke early on Sunday morning knowing
that I had many miles to cover as I headed south along the
Green River, through Flaming Gorge, over the Unita Mountains
and then through Ashley Valley back to Salt Lake City where
my airplane would await me... if I made it. I looked into
the mirror in my room with excited, but tired eyes and said,
"William Ashley, I make this trip today in your honor
and with your spirit and courage, I will make it."
Driving through the desert at 6 am
with no traffic on the road and fantastic scenery in the distance,
elated me and propelled me. I envisioned Ashley and his men
to my left as they floated down the Green River in their bullboats.
At this stage, they were optimistic. They were now west of
the Continental Divide on a river and floating in a boat after
spending 10 months walking across the country from St. Louis
and through the snow of the Rocky Mountains. floating on a
boat in a river in the warm desert sun with these mountains
as a vista must've seemed like a dream to them. But, it began
to change as the cliffs of Flaming Gorge and Red Canyon began
to rise and squeeze the river into narrow rock strewn channels
with rapids and waterfalls blocking their way. At one point,
it looked to them as if the river actually disappeared into
the side of a mountain. I could only imagine the fear that
was in the minds of Ashley and his men as the river ever more
quickly propelled them into this chasm.
With no idea
of what faced them around each turn
in the river, they continued
their adventure down the Green.
The road enters Ashley National Forest
as it begins to climb into the Unita Mountains. I ran into
red rocks and cliffs, the likeness I have only seen in two
other beautiful spots on earth... Sedona, Arizona and the
Riviera in France. As I climbed into the mountains and left
the river down in the canyons to my left, I felt grateful
that history had named such a beautiful spot on earth after
Ashley. I am not sure how much of this land he had seen, but
I feel that he would be elated that history had remembered
him and his contributions and had put his name on this wonderful
I turned to head down to the Flaming Gorge
Dam and stopped at the visitor center. The rangers were very
helpful and we chatted about Ashley and my 'mission'. It seems
that John Wesley Powell and his expedition down the Green
and then on down the Colorado River dominate the history at
the dam. He had followed Ashley approximately 25 years later
and had left his mark in history and had named Flaming Gorge.
Even though we were in Ashley National Forest and Ashley had
been the first man in recorded history to navigate the Green
River, there was surprisingly little information about him
at the visitor center.
Earlier in the year, when I had decided
to make the journey to the Green River Rendezvous, I was surprised
to find that there was not mention of the fact that this year
was the 175th anniversary of Ashley's journey and the first
rendezvous. The Museum of the Mountain Man later replied that
they would have a special ceremony at the beginning of the
pageant and asked if they could use some of the material from
my web site. It nearly brought tears to my eyes as the pageant
opened with this special recognition and I heard my works
spoken by the announcer.
For the past several years, I have had
a dream where I would be driving in the west in an area that
I had not traveled, but that seemed familiar. I did not put
any special significance on these dreams, but they did stuck
in my memory. When I attended the rendezvous and then drove
through Ashley National Forest, I realized that I was in the
land about which I had been dreaming.