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Roughing It on the Oregon Trail

Cindy Ross is the author of "Kids in the Wild, a Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation" (Mountaineers). She lives in Pennsylvania

“Hold the wagon, Jiggs. Hold the wagon back,” our driver commands the mule that is pulling ahead of her teammate. I grab onto the side rail of the wagon as the wooden wheels roll us down a rock-rutted hill. My 7-year-old daughter, Sierra, laughs and squeezes my knee with excitement. “Oh, Mama, I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder!”

Sierra had read every book in the “Little House” series about life on the prairie and was primed for our adventure: two days and nights traveling in a pioneer wagon on the National Historic Oregon Trail.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 13, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 13, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Wagon train--Due to a reporting error, a picture caption on a story about Wyoming (“Roughing It on the Oregon Trail,” May 23) misidentified a covered wagon as a Conestoga wagon. True Conestogas were larger, with high, angled front and rear panels and white canvas bonnets giving them the nickname “prairie schooners.”

From 1841 to 1869, nearly 500,000 people followed this route across the Rocky Mountains to the untamed West. They were the restless ones, the determined ones, the ones looking for a better life than what they’d known “back East.” The 2,000 miles from today’s Kansas to Oregon took about six months, and it meant hardship, pain and, for 20,000, death.

Our little excursion will be at one of the hopeful points on the trail. Here the pioneers could look back on the Great Divide Basin and its rocky desert and tainted water. Ahead was South Pass, a wide and gentle ascent of the Continental Divide.

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I am hypnotized by the vast, almost flat landscape. Some people describe it as empty, but it’s full of sky and sage and wind and sunlight. Morris interrupts my reverie. My husband, Todd, and I asked for a hands-on experience, and it’s my turn to drive. Morris hands me the leather reins, and I steer the team along the ruts that thousands of wagons carved 150 years ago. A screech pierces my ears as Morris depresses the foot brake, which pushes into the metal band of the wheel. “We’ll take a break here,” he says.

Morris Carter owns Historic Trails Expeditions, based in Casper, Wyo., which runs “prairie schooner” rides ranging from four hours to five days. Most of the longer trips start with an escorted van ride from Casper, passing natural landmarks that guided the emigrants, such as Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate.

On our two-day ride, we’ll cover about 25 miles in the wagon, and we’ll help care for the animals, help cook and help set up camp.

Morris built his 16-foot Conestoga wagons as exact replicas of the emigrants’; the only difference is the wooden bench seats he added to accommodate up to 15 passengers. We weren’t interested in the rubber-tire wagons that some outfitters use, and we wanted a guide who really knows what the emigrants’ journey was like. Morris has been guiding wagon train expeditions for 11 years. He is passionate about educating folks in this part of our history, and he turned out to be an entertaining and patient teacher.

We meet up with Morris and his daughter, Oneta Houston--his right-hand woman--on a dirt road along the Sweetwater River, basically in the middle of nowhere. One of Morris’ employees would drive our pickup truck to South Pass City, where our wagon ride would end. There we’d resume our two-month summer camping trip along the Continental Divide.

We throw our gear into the back of the wagon, climb aboard and immediately have what turns out to be the most uncomfortable part of the ride: a bone-jarring traverse of Rocky Ridge. The iron rims of the wagon wheels screech against the rocks, and we all get jostled around as we cling to the seats. But at least we are riding.

It was along this stretch of the trail back in 1856 that a Mormon emigrant brigade met disaster. Of the 1,200 who started out, half were on foot, pushing handcarts carrying all their worldly possessions. They were bound for the Great Salt Lake, where Brigham Young had reestablished the church to escape persecution. But they were caught in a snowstorm, and 145 perished.

Once on top of the plateau, we hit topsoil and the ride becomes smoother. After a lunch stop of sandwiches, fruit, cookies and lemonade, Sierra and Bryce, 5, run off to climb a nearby rock and play scout. Todd and I follow through purple asters and yellow stonecrop flowers to the windy heights where the kids sit. “Wild horses, Mum,” Bryce says, pointing to a herd less than a mile away. Above us, wide gray sheets of rain descend from the clouds, but the air is so dry, the moisture vanishes before it can reach the ground. We look out over the open land and imagine lumbering wagons on the horizon.

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The Oregon Trail was not a defined track, and beyond South Pass, it branches into routes to different destinations. In some spots the wagons might be 20 across as drivers spread out to avoid eating dust. One journal reads, “Dust is two or three inches in depth and as fine as flour. We cannot see the wagons next to us, and at times cannot even see the mules.”

At one point, a concrete marker tells us that we are on the Pony Express trail as well as the Mormon Pioneer, Oregon and California trails. The convergence surely makes this one of the most historic spots in America.

Today there are 300 miles of ruts that haven’t been paved over. These segments and 125 related historic sites are protected by an act of Congress passed in 1978.

After the lunch break, Sierra and I trade places with the guys and make ourselves comfortable in the back of the wagon. Oneta rolls up the canvas sides so we can watch the land go by. She tells stories about what we’re seeing, and not just about the past. She points out rock cairns that sheepherders use to mark their routes. We spot a herder’s shiny metal wagon on a far hillside.

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We regularly switch the child up front with the one in back to keep boredom at bay. “Helping” Morris drive the team fills up the afternoon without any problem.

The mules can go about four miles in an hour and cover 16 miles a day. Morris will provide horses for folks who don’t want to ride in the wagon.

As we approach our campsite at Rock Creek, excitement builds over spending the night in a tepee.

But first there are the mules to tend to. We all help unharness Jiggs and Jake. The kids give them a supper of high-protein grass hay and some oats and corn in molasses. Buckets of water follow. Then there’s brushing and combing, cleaning hoofs, watching for loose shoes and making sure there are no bruises from the rough stones of Rocky Ridge.

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Historic Trail Expeditions encourages guests to participate in as many aspects of trail life as they’re comfortable with. Most folks want to play as much of a role as they are able, Morris says, but no chores are mandatory.

After Jiggs and Jake are taken care of, we begin to set up camp. White canvas Indian tepees held up with lodgepoles are what we’ll spend the night in. It takes an experienced crew only 15 minutes to set one up, and after the second night, we’d be in that category.

Supper is beef stew, biscuits and peach cobbler, all prepared in a Dutch oven over a charcoal fire. Then come the large enameled coffee pots, heating water for cowboy-style boiled coffee and for cleaning up.

Some nights local musicians and storytellers come out to entertain the campers. Tonight, Morris teaches the kids how to make bows and arrows out of aspen twigs and twine. Todd tries his hand at shooting Morris’ muzzle-loader. I sit back, watching a bald eagle ride the currents overhead, its white head reflecting the setting sun.

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As we turn in, coyotes call. The rising full moon beautifully illuminates the inside of our tepee. The kids cuddle close to me in their sleeping bags. “This is so neat, Mama,” they sigh. The first day on the Oregon Trail has filled their heads with images, and they are slow to fall asleep.

Day 2 of our wagon train journey takes us up and down draws and drainages as we cross wide plateaus and make our way toward South Pass City. A nearby gold strike drew almost 2,000 people here in the 1860s; by 1875 they had moved on, leaving a ghost town. Today 30 buildings remain in the state historic site, and we feel like part of the scenery as we drive through in the wagon.

On a rise outside town, we see the snowcapped Wind River Mountains to the north. To the south, Oregon Buttes mark the far side of South Pass. I strain my eyes to see it.

There the emigrants celebrated the crossing of the Continental Divide. As the highest land in the country, the divide parts the waters, those on each side flowing to either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. But in central Wyoming the divide splits open to form a basin more than 100 miles wide. Water there tends to stagnate, posing yet another hazard to the emigrants: If their thirsty stock drank too much of the water, they died, and the wagons they pulled had to be abandoned.

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We pass an alkali stream with water the color of coffee froth. “Steer clear of that water,” Sierra advises Morris, remembering her “Little House” stories. Morris tips his cowboy hat and smiles.

Our destination is Pacific Springs, where a small creek provides good, cool water.

The evening passes pretty much as it did the first night, except that pork chops are on the menu and the kids sleep in the wagons. Our morning routine is the same too: helping Oneta fry up bacon, eggs and pancakes in iron skillets.

Morris drops us off at our truck in South Pass. We look into some of the historic buildings there, many of them furnished with artifacts restored to their original locations. Maybe it’s all our camping, but I’m struck by the primitive “luxury” of the South Pass Hotel. All the rooms have chamber pots, the ladies’ being decorated with painted flowers.

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We drive to nearby Atlantic City, another mining town. Our lodging for the night is Miner’s Delight B&B;, an old mining camp. For $60 we have snug beds in a cabin (no electricity), and baths in the more modern main house--to us, luxury. After breakfast (included), the owners’ son, a geologist, takes the kids out back to pan for gold in a small stream. Up to their knees in black mud, they show off their haul of pyrite flakes (fool’s gold).

There’s no telling what they will remember of their days in a “Little House” on wheels. But I’m leaving the Oregon Trail with a new definition of “American heroes.”


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