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Westward Bound: A Week on the Oregon Trail : Surprises abound as author retraces the 2,170-mile route taken by American pioneers 150 years earlier.

June 27, 1993|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

In eastern Kansas near Manhattan, affable Charles Tessendorf ambled out of a pasture near a historic wagon train crossing at Red Vermillion River to tell me he had watched travelers pass by 50 years ago during the 100th anniversary of the Oregon Trail and he looked forward to this year's parade. In Oregon City, Erica Calkins showed me a historical pioneer garden she and other volunteers were planting to welcome Oregon Trail travelers this summer. They were eager to do it, she said, because of their love of the trail and its history.

I set out on the first of May, as the pioneers did, when the prairie grass was green and tall enough to feed a wagon train's livestock. Moving at a rate of 15 to 20 miles a day, they hoped to reach Oregon in about five months. If all went well, they would cross the Great Plains before the summer sun shriveled the grass, and they would descend from the high mountains of Oregon before winter snows began to fall.

At a rate of about 360 miles a day, I rapidly outpaced them, catching up with the last snow flurries of this season in Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. In a sense, my trip was too early, because I did not experience the heat and the dust that tormented the pioneers over so many miles.

An estimated 300,000 to 340,000 men, women and children and 75,000 wagons traveled at least part of the Oregon Trail in its heyday from the early 1840s to the late 1860s, when railroads began to ease the hardship of the transcontinental trip. A great many of the pioneers branched south from Wyoming for California, lured after 1849 by the prospects of gold. Perhaps as many as 10% of the people who attempted the Oregon Trail died along the way, mostly from wagon and firearm accidents, drownings and outbreaks of cholera. Deaths from Indian attack were relatively few, despite the myths portrayed in Hollywood Westerns. I flew into Kansas City on a Saturday morning, picked up a rental car at the airport and turned onto Interstate 435 for the 45-minute drive south to Independence. It was the busiest route I would travel until I pulled into Portland the following Friday evening.

I found Independence Square, the historic heart of the city, blocked off for a street festival. In a way, the bustle re-created the excitement the pioneers must have experienced as they gathered by the hundreds and thousands before the start of their trek.

Modern-day Oregon Trail travelers can stock up on guidebooks and maps at the National Frontier Trails Center, located in a partially reconstructed 19th-Century mill building south of Independence Square. The museum details the city's role as a major outfitter for wagon trains--in the 1840s, it boasted as many as 26 blacksmith shops to handle the demand--and it displays many items such as huge cooking pots and tiny candleholders discarded along the trail when the going got rough.

As I headed out west, I crossed briefly into Kansas for a look at the little brick town of Gardner, where the Santa Fe and Oregon trails out of Independence parted ways. In no time I was in rolling farm country, my route roughly paralleling the Kansas River. In the first weeks of their adventure, the pioneers enjoyed the blessings of good grass, easy terrain and sufficient water. It gave them time to toughen up for the hardships ahead.

In a new car, my hardships were nonexistent. Rather, I luxuriated in the absence of traffic. It can actually be fun to drive, I concluded, when yours is the only car on the road for miles at a time. I sailed along, drinking in the expansive views of the green countryside and a bright blue sky.

About 20 miles east of Manhattan, a small road sign directed me onto the first of many detours during the week down unpaved rural roads. This one led to the pleasant site of an early river crossing, shaded today by one of the largest elm trees in America. It also marks one of the trail's great tragedies. On the opposite bank, I followed a short trail leading to a small cemetery sheltering the graves of as many as 50 pioneers from a single wagon train who died within a week in 1849 during an outbreak of cholera.

After a night in Manhattan, I crossed into Nebraska, the state that has done the best job so far of marking the Oregon Trail within its borders. Frequent signs labeled "Oregon Trail Auto Tour Route" pointed the way from one end of Nebraska to the other, and I never got lost relying on them. The trail is also prominently detailed on the official state road map.

I always feel a curious sense of freedom and relief from urban cares when I roam Nebraska's winding open roads. That I can catch Mozart or Mahler symphonies on Nebraska Public Radio almost anywhere in the state adds to the pleasure.

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