The New Old Oregon Trail


My intention in the classroom was to make my lessons in history pertinent to today. And it actually wasn’t that hard because geographic places don’t change location, just the cobwebs of time cloud the human story.

The high school where I worked sat on the north alternate of the Old Oregon Trail. In fact the highway down a couple blocks from the building was the asphalted remnant of the actual Trail. I would ask the kids to raise their feet still sitting in their desks, then stomp down, (bet the classroom below liked that) explaining they were sitting atop the Oregon Trail, the topic for the day.

I began this western migration unit by paying homage to those inhabitants of the west who never asked for conquest. Some effort was made in acknowledging the rich role played by native peoples who had once populated the far reaches of the American West. I described what a wagon contained, that most emigrants walked, and what supplies were necessary for success. We would talk hardships; accidents, disease and death, and speculated if our school might have ghosts like in the movie, Poltergeist.

I projected a map on the wall of other trails west—California, Mormon, Santa Fe, etc . . . I continued by explaining that the Panic of 1837, another of countless bank failures had forced people from their secure homes to face an unknown future, and pointed out western areas of settlement founded by those emigrants who survived the trek.

“Who in here was born in Idaho?” I would suddenly ask. A small number of hands would go up, and we’d chat about native Idahoans for a moment. “Out of state?” I followed up quickly after. This time the majority of students waved excitedly, anxious to tell of their own 21st Century emigration story. “Where is your family from? What brought you here?” And around the classroom we traveled with tales from Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. “My dad lost his job when the economy crashed—or my mother was promoted. Lo and behold the ageless push and pull of human migration remarkably mirrored those of 1837.

“How did you travel to southern Idaho?” “I-15 to I-84,” says one kid. “I-84 over the Blue Mountains from Portland,” offers another. “Interstate 5, then over Donner Pass. It took us forever.” I refer back to the trails map of the old west, and we reexamine the freeways and highways of today. A moment of epiphany, as time is momentarily frozen.

That is the story of Southern Idaho. Populations come from all around our land-locked state, and “home” for most inhabitants does not mean Boise. And I have observed over the years that there are three major umbilical cords tying residents to places outside the region.

The first home, (and the group where I belong) lies up, in the Pacific Northwest. Somehow, over the years, the Oregon Trail shifted backward into reverse bringing many to the Gem State. Living and working in the Treasure Valley folks hail from Roseburg, Oregon, to Bellingham, Washington, and east to Spokane. (In that mix are sprinkled a few newcomers from Alaska as well.) Holiday flights for this group means PDX, SEA, GEG, but all taking off from BOI. This crowd conceptualizes home as a place with a chilly surf, dripping madrona trees, and plenty of slugs oozing through wet moss.

The next category is made up of Californians. This group has found a region and climate similar to what they left behind, sans the overpopulation and crime. These people are notoriously disliked in Idaho as opportunistic trespassers. Perceived as “carpetbaggers,” Californians are on record as selling their Orange County, or Marin County homes for bundles, then invading Idaho to reinvest. This crowd is vilified for running up the price of local real estate, leaving poor Idahoans further marginalized. I’m not so sure that these gloom and doom charges are valid, but as a historian I do find some humor in this generalization. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, and those destitute Okies received no warmer California welcome back  in the 1930’s.
Needless to say the glorious landscape of the Golden State is home for many transplanted Boiseans. I do recall the empty desks on Thanksgiving Wednesday for families driving over Donner Pass to see grandma in the warmer climes of the gentle southwest.

The last major group, makes up by far, the largest portion of Boiseans with roots outside the state. These are LDS residents who might have been born in Idaho, but more often than not, came into the world in Utah. This faction is formidable in size because the Wasatch Valley is the point of origin for their Mormon faith. For example even if a student was born in Boise, and graduated from high school along the Snake River basin, they will, more often than not, seek higher education in Utah. Those same young people usually marry and have their own children in the Beehive State, but may return to Idaho later to expand and raise their families. Home for the Mormon faithful is identical to those back in Utah. Life centers around their Ward, their Stake House, the Temple–all rich with historic traditions, rites, and the stress on community passed down from the earliest days of Deseret.

All of these visions of “home” remain powerful in my area. The idea of belonging stretches out of Boise in all directions, much like the wooden spokes on an old wagon wheel.

When a Boisean says “I’m going home,” it is very likely doesn’t mean a house in town.

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