America's Triple Crown

The Continental Divide Trail: Steeped in History
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The Continental Divide splits America's watersheds
The Continental Divide splits America's watersheds

As every schoolchild can recite, the Continental Divide is the height of land that divides America's watersheds. But reciting dictionary definitions is no way to learn about something as grand and dramatic as the Continental Divide. Instead, make a visit to a place in Wyoming named Two Ocean Creek, which, despite its lofty name, is a gently flowing ankle-deep stream that splits in two when it hits a bump in the ridge. That bump is the Continental Divide, and once it splits the creek, the branches don't rejoin. Instead, they head downhill in different directions. A sign tells us where they are going: Atlantic Ocean 3488 miles; Pacific Ocean 1353 miles.

I throw a leaf in the water, and watch it meander downstream, but it doesn't have much of a future as a long-distance traveler. It gets stuck against a log and stops. I have better luck with a twig. It turns, swirls, bobs along on the water, swivels around uncertainly and finally seems to make up its mind. Eastward it turns, and then it is gone, headed for an ocean some 3,500 miles away.

That is what it means to be the height of land that divides America's watersheds. The Backbone of a Continent. America's Rooftop. The Center of the World. The Great Divide. A barrier to water, and people, and roads, and railways.

Of course, today's technology does not recognize mere mountains. We can tunnel through them, build roads across them, fly over them. But only a hundred years ago, it was not nearly so easy, and the landscape of the Divide is littered with the detritus of those who tried to live in and travel through this harsh terrain: native Americans and settlers; explorers, trappers, and fur traders; the builders of railroads and the miners of ore. This sense of history, ever present, accompanies a hiker all along the Continental Divide Trail.

More Continental Divide Stories
Biking the New Mexico Divide
Hiking Canada's Great Divide

Related GORP Resources
Continental Divide Trail

It is said that to know a person, one must walk a mile in his shoes. Perhaps footprints are good enough. If they are, I know something of Lewis and Clark, and James Fremont and Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. I know something of Coronado, who searched the New Mexican desert for the Seven Cities of Cibola; of Chief Joseph, who tried to escape across the Divide from the US army and the Nez Perce War; and of gold miners, in whose ghost towns I slept, high in the Colorado Rockies. I know something of the ancient Mogollon and Anasazi, because I have heard the wind blow through their homes, and I have dipped my canteen into their springs.

Theirs are the voices I hear, murmuring in the empty spaces, where the CDT follows in history's footsteps and, sometimes, in its wheel-ruts. In Wyoming, the route of the Oregon Trail which is also the route of the California Trail and the Mormon Pioneer Trail and the Pony Express is still visible, etched into the ground one wagon at a time, sometimes at the rate of a thousand wagons a day.

On the sides of the trail is other evidence of the great migration: graves, only occasionally marked. It is estimated than 1 in 17 people died during the great migration, and that there is an average of one grave for every tenth of a mile. On an early September afternoon, I pass a graveyard in the parched desert country of Wyoming's Great Divide Basin. A marker tells me that 77 people, all Mormons led by one Captain James Willie, died here in mid-October a little more than 100 years ago, trapped by an early winter snowstorm. I can only imagine what the settlers would think about the fact that we are walking through this land by choice, for recreation. For fun!

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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