New Directions

Hello all! It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted any writing here, but that’s more to do with the state of the world and shifting focus than lack of interest.

This page was originally put together to extend my writing on historic rail in San Diego, and to support my book Images of Rail: San Diego Trolleys (Arcadia, 2017). I’m still interested in that subject and may still add pieces on San Diego’s historic trolleys as new information becomes available, but my research interests have always been wider than that. The subject of this page will expand to include other historic transportation networks, including trails, wagon roads, and highways – to really go Off the Rails.

Aside from not wanting to let this page languish, a couple of things lead to this change. First, I just finished reading a book about the Donner Party that I received as a gift, Michael Wallis’ The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (Liveright, 2017). I found myself following the map in the book, and other more detailed maps, along with the story, and really wanted to travel along the route and see what they saw. Not in a covered wagon in 25-foot-deep snow, but still.

Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee, California (10/31/2020)

Then, a couple of months ago I went on a drive through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, mainly to get out of the house for a bit, but also to drive San Diego County Highway S-2, which I’d never driven from one end to the other. Seemed like a great way to pass a winter day and avoid the crowds throwing snowballs at each other up on Mount Laguna. S-2 is also named the Great Southern Overland Stage Route, and at points you can still see the ruts from the wagons that went through here in the 1850s as part of the Butterfield Overland Mail line.

Butterfield Overland Mail route (faint track in center distance) near Vallecitos Spring (1/24/2021)

Some of these trails across the West are well known, like the Oregon Trail, and others are more obscure. Most connected existing Native American foot trail networks, later widened to accommodate stagecoaches. Some of these were trails of exploration, like the John Frémont and Kit Carson expeditions of the early 1840s, while some had military origins, such as General Stephen Kearny’s Dragoons in 1846-47. Others were associated with trade and commerce, including the Santa Fe Trail, and some were primarily used for colonization or migration, like the Anza trail of the 1770s. And, of course, some started as one type and became another.

And I thought, what if I could follow these old trails? Preferably in a modern vehicle with heat and air conditioning, and without running out of food like the Donner party. I could trace the trails, with a book or two as a guide for context. I could drive, or bike, or hike, sticking as close to the original route as possible. And I could stop to check out sites mentioned in the accounts, and any related museums along the way as things get safer and reopen.

Historic plaque for the Yuha Well on the Anza Trail near Seeley, California (3/19/2021)

So, what will the new page look like? Mostly a travel journal as I explore the historic routes across the West. I’ll likely start near home in San Diego, but I travel for work in a much wider area, and I already have some longer, more distant trips in the planning stage. Each entry will focus on a portion of one of the trails, summarize the historic context, and include photos, both historic and modern, especially when I can find those spots where the route still looks like it used to. I’ll provide links to sources in case you want to learn more. And, like all of my projects, this will be a team effort, with colleagues providing Story Maps, illustrations, and maybe putting a drone in the air where that’s allowed.

While I explore the trails, I’ll have plenty of opportunity for camping, overlanding, and SUV RVing. For those that are interested, I’ll talk about the gear I use and good places to overnight, eat, and recreate along the way. I’ll generally keep these things separate, since I know not everyone will be interested in both subjects, but if I find the best BBQ joint or vegan bakery or free campsite with an amazing view, I want to be able to pass that along.

Butterfield historic plaque next to Vail Pizzeria in Temecula, California (7/28/2020)

So, if these things interest you, come along with me virtually to explore the West, the history of its exploration and migrations, and some of the modern tools I use to do so. I’d love to hear your feedback on the site and its new direction, tips on where to camp or eat along the way, and for books or gear to make the trip more enjoyable. Thanks for the company!

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