By Myra Vanderpool Gormley
It was love at first sight. I was only 16, when I fell in love with the American West, but my passion for it has never diminished.
It was a hot July day when I viewed the Grand Canyon for the first time and it grabbed me and wrapped me in its spell. I was awe-struck and that was just the beginning of the marvels that I saw on my first trip to the West Coast. I saw the deserts, the snow-capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean. I was dazzled by the huge fir, pine, cedar and redwood trees reaching toward heaven and the palm trees, orange trees, and the many fruit and nut trees of the San Joaquin Valley.
I etched the beauty of Yosemite National Park into my mind’s eye and vowed to return someday. The car ride over the nearly 10,000-foot high Tioga Pass took my breath away and I vowed never to take that route again.
I discovered beauty in Nevada near Elko where the Ruby Mountains sparkled in the sunrise and then marveled at the Great Salt Desert in Utah. But it was Yellowstone Park that contained the most magnificent sights my young eyes had ever seen. I knew someday I’d be back to see it all again and spend time at the rustic lodge and camp by the Yellowstone Lake and explore gorgeous Jackson Hole.
From Wyoming we went to Colorado Springs and Pike Peak and then to my home in western Kansas. I was exhausted and my diary was crammed with notes and thoughts.
It would be nine years before I saw the West again — this time via my little red Volkswagen that I drove from Texas to Seattle with stops in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Montana along the way.
On a crisp October dusk more than 89 years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought I spent the night at a motel on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and saw the battlefield of Custer’s Last Stand. There, with a brisk western wind dancing through the tall grasses of the undulating prairie, history came vividly alive to me. I wandered among the 220 markers with the names of those who perished there, wondering if any of my family members had participated in that conflict. It was an evening that would affect me for the rest of my life — it was then I became an aficionado of American Western history and also a genealogist with a passion to learn more about and see the West and to discover more about my family’s journey across it.
In the years to come I would explore the Oregon Trail, Lewis and Clark’s trip from Saint Louis, Missouri to Washington and Oregon in 1804-1806 and hundreds of localities in the Western states.
Whether at a famous tourist sight, such as Crescent Lake in Oregon, Mount Rainier in Washington, or in the obscure Nevada town of Tonopah where Wyatt Earp and his wife, Josie, spent some of their latter years, the thrill of seeing and learning about this incredible land never ceases.
Sometimes the history and wonder is so real to me that I can hear the hooves of the fast ponies of young fearless riders as they gallop across Nevada on the loneliest road in America on the Pony Express trail.
Next time you visit the area between Austin and Eureka, Nevada, take time to listen for the ponies. You may hear them, too.