Olivia Newport vintage wagon wheel

Photo by Lorri Nussbaum www.keeperscards.com

Fifteen years of curiosity came to a head at Thanksgiving.

Fifteen years ago, my family moved from Illinois to Colorado. Since the extended family hub is still near Chicago, we’ve trekked back and forth too many times to count. My kids started asking for their favorite truck stops. Seriously. Have you seen the Iowa 80 Truckstop?

In the middle of Nebraska is an arch that spans I-80 and beckons travelers to the museum within log-fort looking walls. The Great Platte River Road Archway.

But usually we’re driving like maniacs to conquer 1,000 miles and every minute counts. And in the past, we had kids who protested loudly against the idea of their historical writer mother dragging them through yet another museum. So we’ve always driven past, and I wistfully turned my head to watch my wish to stop fade yet again.

The kids are grown now, with jobs that don’t accommodate a Thanksgiving trip even at maniac pace. So in November it was just my husband and me in the minivan. Happily he has always been amenable to museums, a sweet trait in a writer’s spouse. On the way home, we set the alarm clock an hour earlier and hurtled toward a disciplined lunchtime stop.

The place is even more impressive on the inside than it seems when you whiz by underneath. At Fort Kearney of the Nebraska Territory, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Pony Express converged, all of them pushing westward. Around 250,000 travelers followed the Road during its peak years of 1841 to 1866.

We followed a pioneer road of covered wagons aimed west, then the transcontinental railroad that transformed the country. Then came the Interstate system marked by some cool cars from decades past and a roadside diner, and finally the path of fiberoptics connecting the coasts. All of these followed the basic route of the Great Platte River Road.

As I browsed the various displays, it struck me that they all pointed to the future. Whatever the era, whatever the form of the road, the direction was forward to dreams that lay ahead. As a historical novelist, I’m always poking around the past. I love when I find real people there, and I absorb the ways that their future became my present—or even my past.

As I chase joy through my own present, I hope I am paying it forward and building something for the future I will never see. It won’t be a pioneer wagon or an information highway, but it might be a heart of grace and gratitude that sparks hope and ambition in someone else.

• If you could choose one word to describe the legacy you hope to leave, what would it be?