Orange light dripped over the southern ridges of the Wind River Range as 11 Casper students finished setting up their camp in the sagebrush wilderness outside South Pass City.

There is a relief, always, to see the sun go down at the end of a day tromping outdoors — it means it is time to rest. Despite the grit, the August heat and the ever-present wind, the students were happy, peaceful even. They had one day left in their 40-mile hike along the pioneer trails between Sweetwater Junction and South Pass City.

They made pies of dried apples. They sorted beans for the next morning’s breakfast. They unrolled the long tarps that would become their tipi-shaped shelter for the night. For many of the kids, this venture was their first time they spent the night outdoors.

“The stars, the coyotes — they had never experienced it,” said Jason Vlcan, one of the interpreters at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center who led the trip.

Since 2011, staff at the center, who work for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, have led the three-day trek in Fremont County for a group of Casper students. Some of the participants are “at-risk” students from Roosevelt High School while others are volunteers with the center’s student docent program for grades five through 12. For three days, the students walk and ride in wagons along the historic trails while learning about the area’s history. The pioneers’ hardships become more real as the students cross the Sweetwater River and clamor up the same rocky ridges.

The group’s 2017 trip is now the focus of an exhibit at the trails center, “Scratching the Surface.” Throughout the three-day journey, the students and their adult supervisors took photos and recorded their thoughts in journals. Those photos and excerpts from the diaries now line walls in one of the center’s exhibit room.

The photos record small moments from the trip: holding a tiny horny toad, tossing beans toward the dusk sky in celebration, the horses who pulled the wagon grazing in golden light, the long line of students trekking down a red-dirt road.

“I also hope to discover something about myself on the trek,” one featured quote from 12-year-old Alexis Worthen reads. “I wonder if I shall discover that I have as much strength and spirit as the Mormon pioneers, or perhaps as much courage as the pioneers on the Oregon trail, to leave their homes for a place that they knew nothing about.”

Worthen first heard about the trek as a volunteer with the docent program.

“It sounded like a very big, grand adventure,” she said. She had to go.

The trip was much easier than she expected, and she had a lot more fun as well. At the end of the three days, she was excited to take a shower and chow down on some pizza but was sad the adventure had ended.

Worthen and other students who went on the trip organized the exhibit: choosing a select few photos out of hundreds, hanging the frames, lining up the words for the quotes on the wall.

Reminiscing over the adventure helped cement some of the lessons of the hike.

“It was fascinating experiencing the pioneer’s viewpoint — way better than just reading about it,” Worthen said.

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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