Morning at Chimney Rock

Ernie and me beside our tent.

Prairie Journey Travel Blog

Next morning. We rise at 6:30 am, climb out of our tent, rub the sleepy out of our eyes and stretch our arms up to the sky to welcome the morning. It smells fresh with sage. Coffee’s brewing in the old black kettle and young breezes drift cool across our cheeks. We look and see the sun rising half-way up and Chimney, too, still here.

Remembering last night. We hunkered down by the fire, talking, talking, about how they called her Tall Lady, called her that in the late of the night, the pioneers did. Chimney stood before us, her full skirt adorning a slender torso. We were her court-in-waiting, and she our queen.

Our fire flickered shadows, gray as ghosts, then burst into the glow of long-ago lanterns, everything becoming eerie, mystical, and Chimney transforming into a night beauty, right before our eyes.

I thought then how much I like the name, Tall Lady. Surely, as the pioneers gazed out at her in the moon-slivered nights, that name came to them. It fits.

We sat silent then and listened to cicada sounds. They spread out over the prairie evening, like a song, and coyote pups were yipping and howling. We got all sleepy-eyed then, put ourselves to bed, and slept deeply.

It must have been something about the cicadas, the coyotes, and Chimney beside us. Thinking about our ancestors, how they lay here 150 years or so ago, on this same hard ground, and I got all quiet inside. I dreamed something beautiful, even though I can’t quite remember what. But I must have, because I woke up, and a poem was coming to me, coming slow as the night winds, but steady and clear.

Here’s the poem I wrote this morning. It’s the beginnings of the one that my character, Savannah, wrote when she was at Chimney.

Chimney sits
big as sky
shining in the sun


buffalo grazing
wagons ho
but gone now


rising from the earth
like fresh-baked bread
making for a pretty morning.


Climbing Chimney Rock

Murph driving the covered wagon.

Prairie Journey Travel Blog

It’s late afternoon by the time we arrive at Chimney. We set up our tent and sleeping bags while Murph unloads our food and cooking supplies. Murph says that in the 1850’s, pioneers camped exactly where we are, with Chimney in full view and a spring just over the hill, an easy walk to fetch water. There’s no spring here now. It’s long dried up.

I try not to gawk at Chimney, mouth open, but it’s too beautiful and I can’t take my eyes off it or ignore the feeling I get when I stare. Chimney Rock- it’s a masterpiece. I have to look. Goose bumps pop out then, all over my arms and legs, and I kindly laugh at my body, grateful for it letting me know how I feel.

At dusk, Murph makes a gravy stew, filled chunks of beef, carrots and potato. We hear it, bubbling and boiling in the cast iron pot that hangs on a metal tripod over the wood fire. Murph piles on more wood. The fire gets hotter and we wear the smell of smoke, all of us do, Doug, Ernie, Murph and me, too, as we fill up our bellies with the stew, sweet to the taste..

After dinner, we hike over to Chimney, a quarter of a mile through rough grasses and across wild sage and yucca, growing in spikes cut like cactus. The scent of sage makes its pungent way into our nostrils, our bodies, and slowly we become conscious of how rich and right it is, and even familiar. Pioneer sensations, like hand-me downs, belong to us now.

The climb is steep and slippery on the sandy clay rock and we hold onto big boulders that jut out, then climb higher and rest on grateful ledges, slipping here and there as we go farther up. Tiny rocks crumble and fall with us, then we catch ourselves. We look over the big rock’s edge and see that it is possible to fall off completely. It’s a long way down.

Murph carries a shotgun. Rattlesnakes make their homes on Chimney, he says. Growing up in Texas, our family often visited my Aunt Lynn’s ranch near San Jacinto. Rattlesnakes crawled all over that land – the ranch hands carried shotguns, guarding us as we ventured outdoors. So, rattlesnakes on Chimney feel oddly reminiscent, and I am selfishly thrilled. I want something in my story to happen on Chimney Rock – something dangerous, something big. And here it is – rattlesnakes. It’s a gift and I take it.

We can only go so far up the pyramid of the rock, says Murph. It’s getting steep and dark. Soon the rock goes vertical and the chimney is not for us to climb. Still, before we hike down, we must look out into the beyond and give it all a good gaze. We see the rock named Biscuit and it is shaped just so. There’s Pregnant Lady, too, gracefully reclining, her belly full. I see her face, and it’s looking up to the sky, cloud blue by day, star black by night. Lucky her.

Buffalo no longer graze here, but Murph says 50,000 did in 1850, the whole valley brown with bison. The Platte’s in view too and I picture a whole slew of prairie schooners (the official name for covered wagons) and oxen, plodding along beside the river, wagons moving forward, slow and steady, like winter pushing at spring, determined and unstoppable.

I’m so close, I’m almost there, back in 1850, and I sigh and think, I’d sure like to be with Savannah, not just in my imagination, but on the real trail, right in the midst of the journey, rattlesnakes and all.

Prairie Journey From the Beginning

Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska


Prairie Journey Travel Blog

It’s July, 2006 and our first research sojourn.

Doug (my husband and best friend) and I are setting out to find and travel the actual California Trail for the novel I am writing, Prairie Journey. It’s the story of 12 year old Savannah and her family who travel by covered wagon from Missouri to California in 1850.

I know. We should be starting at the trail’s beginning in Independence, Missouri, but we can’t. That’s because, well, Chimney Rock is calling, it’s calling out, loud and clear, like a thunder lightning storm. It beckons and tempts, so we must go, we really must, see that big rock for ourselves, and first thing.

Unlike the pioneers of 1850, we have the luxury of spontaneity. So we decide on a Monday to leave on the following Saturday for a four-day jaunt from Denver to Nebraska and Chimney Rock and back. Early Saturday morning we grab our stuff and some grub, throw it in our forest-green Honda civic, fill up the 40 mile-per-gallon gas tank, head out onto paved highway, Interstate 76, and we’re on our way. If it were 1850, there’d be broken, bumpy roads, rusty wagon-wheels, oxen to feed and hitch to our wagon, and a milk-cow tied behind.

We bring our dog Ernie, our little golden Lhasa, just like Savannah brought her Caleb. But, unlike Savannah, we’re not real pioneers. And yet, it feels like we are, somehow, it does. And we want that feeling, more than anything.

Chimney (as it was called in 1850) appeared to the pioneers as far away as 40 miles, about three days travel before reaching it. They had a chance to view it … ponder it … name it. Some commented that it looked like

-a gigantic tree trunk

-a lighthouse

-an inverted funnel

-a haystack with a pole stuck through it

-a cathedral

-and even the Washington Monument.

Emigrant journals are full of writings about Chimney. “ We’ve never seen anything like it,” they wrote, “ and never would again,” and ” it’s the most remarkable (site) I ever saw.”

A few days before our trip, we search the Internet and discover a company called Oregon Trail Wagon Train. It’s in Bayard, Nebraska, near Chimney Rock. We call its owners, Rick and Judy Bayne, who assure us that we can camp at the base of Chimney Rock with a guide, Terry “Murph” Murphy, who will be in charge of getting us there in a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses.

And so after the four-hour drive from Denver, we arrive in Bayud, meet Rick and Murph, and load our camping gear, food and supplies into the wagon. Murph, white-bearded, loquatious, and full of folklore, hitches the horses, climbs aboard, and we start off, traveling the trail to Chimney. Doug and old Ernie ride the wagon, and I walk the trail that begins near the Bayne’s property, just south of the North Platte River.

Like Savannah and her sister, Faye, I take one step, then another. I stride along the trail. The wind blows at my back. It moves me this way and that and dust is flying everywhere. The wagon’s wheels creak and scrape the hard ground and Chimney Rock is just four miles down the road.

The best thing about this day is that it is our birthday, July 1, mine and Doug’s, too!

I am smiling all the way to Chimney.

Welcome to my Prairie Journey Travel Blog

Welcome !

Join me on my adventures as I travel the California Trail from July, 2006 – November, 2011 with Doug, my husband, and our little golden Llhasa, Ernie. I want to take you back in time to what it might have been like to be there in 1850, while at the same time write about our present day experiences on the trail as well. I’ll be sharing about how our travels across the land gave me many of my ideas for creating the characters and plot in my novel, Prairie Journey. As we traveled the trail in small travel bits (3-4 day trips to various parts of the trail) over the five years time, I wrote Prairie Journey, word by word and chapter by chapter, revising along the way, until I got the characters, plot and the land itself working together seamlessly to tell a story that could have possibly happened.

Come along with us on the journey. I hope you will !