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Roughing It on the Oregon Trail

Two parents and two tykes sample the pioneer experience in an authentic 'little house' on wheels

May 23, 1999|CINDY ROSS | Cindy Ross is the author of "Kids in the Wild, a Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation" (Mountaineers). She lives in Pennsylvania

ATLANTIC CITY, Wyo. — "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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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