TOOELE If there's one thing that Gregory M. Franzwa feels in his heart and soul, it is "the power of place."
"That's a phrase my old friend Stanley Kimball told me. He used to talk about 'the power of place, the spirit of locale.' That's been guiding me ever since. It's what you feel when you stand in the ruts left by thousands of covered wagons," he says. "You get out there, and if you don't feel it you're either dead or don't know history. If you do know history, there's tremendous meaning in being able to stand in those ruts."
Franzwa has spent more than 40 years tracking "the power of place" across the American West. He is the author of some 20 books. He was a founding member of the Oregon-California Trails Association in 1972 and of the Lincoln Highway Association some 10 years ago, and he is in the process of writing a series of state-by-state books on the highway.
His most recent book, "The Mormon Trail Revisited" (Patrice Press, $24.95, patricepress.com) tracks the 1846-47 route of the Mormon pioneers, providing driving directions to guide motorists along the 1,300 miles of trail, wherever it can be reached by a family car.
"We tell you where to turn the steering wheel," he says.
Although he is not a member of the LDS faith, Franzwa has long been fascinated by the Mormon migration and the tremendous undertaking that it was. "This exodus was the most amazing thing. There's been nothing like it before or since. You think of the 2,500 humans and 500 wagons that left Nauvoo and camped at Sugar Creek. That has to be the biggest wagon train in history times 10."
Franzwa and his wife, Kathy, who now live in Tooele, spent three years tracking the trail. They follow the mass exodus across Iowa, where the "adhesive mud so frustrated the pioneers' plans to cross the Rockies that year that they had to hole up along the Missouri River. That must have been so discouraging for them."
He then follows the trail that Brigham Young and the lead wagon train followed across the plains and into the Salt Lake Valley. "We found every single campsite," he says.
His purpose in writing the guide was twofold. He wants to help people get there "right in the traces. Right where the mules and oxen and wagon wheels left those scars. To get out of the car and stand in those ruts. Or, on the roads, even if the ruts have been covered with gravel, oil or concrete. Stop the car in an isolated place, with nothing man-made in sight. Turn off the engine. Leave the car and listen to the sound of silence. The feeling will still be there, for all those who know what happened along the way."
Don't be surprised, he says, if you get the "willies big-time. I've had perfectly normal people tell me that they have stood in the sandstone scar over Deep Rut Trail in Wyoming or in the trench over California Hill in Nebraska and simply trembled with emotion."
A second reason for the guide, however, is equally important, he says to encourage preservation. "When a person has read that history, stood right on those pioneer pathways and driven or hiked the pioneer routes, it is unlikely that there will be much support for proposals which would damage or destroy the historic trails or sites."
Yet a lot of the trail has been lost or at least paved over or built on. And that's one reason Franzwa got into the "trail business" more than 40 years ago.
Born in Iowa, a veteran of World War II, a journalism graduate from the University of Iowa, he has always been interested in history. He moved to St. Louis in the early 1960s, and his first book told the story of Ste. Genevieve, a historic French settlement along the Mississippi River.
"I was delivering some of my books to the bookstore at the Gateway Arch and happened to see another book on the rack. It was Francis Parkman's 'The Oregon Trail.' It has been in print since 1848, and I asked the book manager how it was doing all these years later. He said, 'compared to yours, about 100 to 1.' So I bought it to read. Parkman was a snooty young grad student when he wrote it, but it's an awfully good book."
Captivated by what he read, Franzwa rented a trailer and followed the trail "as far as we could go. We got to Casper. We checked out a hundred books on the Oregon Trail, and no one could tell us exactly where it was. I came back and started my own research."
That led to a number of guidebooks and map books on the Oregon Trail. Then he was hired by the National Park Service to do a series on the Santa Fe Trail. But, he says, "I was never as hot on the Santa Fe trail." For the most part, it was carved by freighters and teamsters, whereas the Oregon Trail was etched by ordinary folks looking for a new life.
But as he was working on those books, he realized that a lot of people "were not paying attention to the trail. They were plowing it up, grading it away. I found 12 people who were still interested, and we met in Denver in August 1982 and founded the Oregon California Trail Association. Last year, I gave the keynote address at the 25th anniversary meeting. There are now some 1,700 members."
It was through that association that he met Kimball, who had done a lot of research on the Mormon Trail, "and we remained friends ever since."
"The Mormon Trail Revisited" lets travelers do as much or as little of the trail as they want. Be aware, says Franzwa, that much of the path is on back roads that are often unpaved. Some is on private land, and you must ask permission to cross it. "But I've never meet anyone who wasn't proud of their trail land. Some will even take you out and show you. I knocked on one door, and the guy looked at my camera and said, 'I know what you want.' He took us to see the ruts."
And as someone who got stuck in an April blizzard in Wyoming, he advises you to watch the weather carefully. He also includes a "speed trip," which points out the most important locations for those who don't have the time or inclination to follow the entire route. It will take a good couple of weeks to experiences it all, he says. The speed trip can be done in five or six days.
But just the Utah part is "incredibly picturesque," he says. "From The Needles to Echo Canyon to the Hogback to East Canyon Creek absolutely easy and a delightful drive all the way."
Those who visit any of the trail sites will be rewarded, he says. Sugar Creek. Garden Grove. The very place where "Come, Come Ye Saints" was written. The place where William Clayton's odometer was put into use. The North Platte. Fort Laramie.They are all names and places that resound with history and meaning, where you can hear the echoes of yesteryear and feel the presence of what went before. You think about those people and you appreciate their sacrifices even more. That, he says, is what the "power of place" does to you. "It's one tremendous adventure."