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A Trail That Stops At The Sea
Bil Gilbert
July 05, 1976
As Route 40 sinks slowly in the West, travelers who push on to the Pacific can sense the spirit that moved explorer Joe Walker
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July 05, 1976

A Trail That Stops At The Sea

As Route 40 sinks slowly in the West, travelers who push on to the Pacific can sense the spirit that moved explorer Joe Walker

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In 1833 Captain Joe Walker, the man who made trails instead of following them, led a party of mountain men due west from Utah in hopes of reaching California. They were the first Americans to attempt and make this direct traverse. Traveling through entirely unknown country, Walker crossed the salt flats and worked up the Humboldt, blazing the route over which he would later lead emigrants. They struck the Sierra above what is now Walker Lake and sniffed out a pass. Coming down the western slope, they were the first whites to see and marvel at Yosemite. Once out of the mountains they continued westward, drinking sweet water, gorging on fat game, soaking up the sun, but not knowing how far they would have to go to reach the western extremity of the continent.

On the night of Nov. 10, 1833, the party was camped along the San Joaquin River. According to the journal of Zenas Leonard, a young trapper from Pennsylvania, "We were startled by a loud, distant noise similar to that of thunder. Whilst lying close to the ground this noise could be distinctly heard for a considerable length of time without intermission. Some of our men were much alarmed, as they readily supposed it was occasioned by an earthquake, and they began to fear that we would all be swallowed up in the bowels of the earth. Captain Walker, however, suggested a more plausible cause. He supposed that the noise was originated by the Pacific rolling and dashing her boisterous waves against the rocky shore. Had any of us ever before been at the coast, we would have accounted readily for the mysterious noise. The idea of being within hearing of the end of the Far West inspired the heart of every member of our company with a patriotic feeling of his country's honor, and all were eager to lose no time until they should behold what they had heard."

Perhaps nobody ever again will have quite the feelings that Joe Walker and his men did when they came to the very end of the Far West. Now it is so much easier to get there and we know so well what to expect that some of the excitement is gone, but certainly not all of it. No matter how they may have crossed the continent—by train, by jet or meandering along Old Route 40—there can be few travelers so dull as to be unmoved when they first come to the edge of the great Western ocean. At the very least, there are powerful feelings about how far this is from the Boardwalk of Atlantic City and how much lies between.

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