The Hundredth Meridian

“The hundredth meridian of west longitude, a geographer’s symbol of the true beginning of the West (meaning the point beyond which the annual rainfall is less than twenty inches), strikes the Platte near the present town of Cozad, Nebraska, well east of the Forks. The trail up the North Platte moved mainly west or a little north of west to a point opposite the present town of Ogaliala, Nebraska, where it took the due northwest bearing it would maintain for hundreds of miles. And between the sites of the present towns of Broadwater and Bridgeport, Nebraska, it struck the Wildcat Range. Here the scattered buttes and bluffs which had been growing common for a considerable distance became a true badlands. The scenery was spectacular but spectacle was only a momentary solace to the emigrants, who had now reached truly tough going – with cumulative fatigue, anxiety, and mental conflict piling up. In early June the desert still had the miraculous brief carpeting of flowers that delights travelers to this day, but it was late June when the emigrants got there, a wholly different season, and ’46 was now a drouth year. The slow-pitch of the continent which they had been climbing toward the ridgepole so slowly that they seldom felt the grade here lost its monotony. The gentle hills that bordered the valley of the Platte, known as the Coast of the Nebraska, suddenly became eroded monstrosities. Jail Rock, Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, were individual items in creation’s slag heap that had got named, but the whole formation was fantastic. The learned Thornton called it Tadmor of the Desert and sketched a gift-book description of ruined cities, defeated armies, and ancient peoples put to the sword. (But exactly opposite Chimney Rock one of his hubs locked for want of grease and he had to interrupt his poetry.) Even such prosy diarists as Joel Palmer and Overton Johnson were startled into rhetoric, the realistic Bryant saw Scott’s Bluff against the green and purple murk of an oncoming storm and committed phrases like “ruins of some vast city erected by a race of giants, contemporaries of the Megatherii and the Icthyosaurii,” and Fremont composed a resounding tutti passage about “The City of the Desert.”