California/Oregon Trail

The Overnight Wagon Trek

I decided to do a separate post for my overnight wagon trek experience so I didn’t completely overload today’s activities post. 🙂

Based on my hatred of camping, one would think that I would have been nervous going on an overnight wagon trek. Amazingly, I was only excited. Probably because I figured it would be the most authentic experience possible for the Oregon/California trail. And it did not disappoint! We met the people leading it at the National Historic Trails Center parking lot, and found out that we were only two of fourteen people going, eight of which were planning to spend the night. We were honestly surprised, but apparently the Historic Trails West actually does a very steady stream of treks between their 2-hour to 5-day options.

Anyway, it started out with some adventure, since we were all to follow the lead car in one long column to the place where we would get in the wagon and head off on the trail. We were following another car and an RV when whoosh—a piece flew off of the RV. Turns out it was the metal thing for his canopy. Thankfully it missed both cars behind him, and we all pulled off to the side of the road while Daniel and the driver of the other car ran to get it for him, dodging traffic. We finally got underway again and whoosh, the canopy portion flew off the RV. This time only the car in front of us stopped to get it, since the RV driver didn’t seem to notice, and we had a semi trailing us too closely to randomly pull over. Eventually that was retrieved and the car caught up with us, and the lead car came back to get us, and led us down this old dirt road. Well, we turned and, creaaak… the RV driver got stuck in the tracks, and bent part of his front end. He bent the pieces back in place and after some trial and error finally got going, with us following at a very cautious pace.

We finally arrived at the field area where the wagon was waiting, pulled up, got out, grabbed out backpacks and were about to head to the wagon when, bam, the RV driver’s sister got whacked with the RV door when the wind caught it and fell flat on her back. Daniel, me, and one of the wagon ride leaders ran to help her. Nothing was bleeding, but it took a few minutes to get her back on her feet.

Finally, we all clambered into the wagon, the RV driver and his sister last, as they talkied the whole way about what rotten luck they were having—which was true enough–and though my excitement was muted a little by all the drama prior to actually starting, it all came rushing back when Morris, the wagon driver and owner of the business, told us we were about to ride on actual ruts from the Oregon/California trail.

There were six people following on horseback (which was another option), and eight of us in the wagon itself. The ride was only about…well, I thought it was fifteen minutes, Daniel thought it was an hour…obviously we didn’t keep track. I didn’t think it was very long, but it made up for it by being so bumpy. I mean, I knew that everyone except the sick or infirm walked the whole trail rather than riding, and I knew that was partially due to the bumpiness (though mostly because the wagon was too full of belongings), but I honestly did not appreciate just how bumpy it was. And that was with some springs added! Other than those springs, it was an honest-to-goodness prairie schooner that he built (or had someone build) himself. It was pulled by horses instead of oxen, but I suppose we can forgive that since we weren’t actually going across the whole country.

Though we found out later that he, his daughters, and a couple others actually did do the wagon trek from Missouri to Oregon for the 150th anniversary of the trail! It took them six and a half months, and a wagonload (hehe, see what I did there?) of permits and money.

Anyway, we went up and down hills and he pointed out various other ruts along the trail, even as we followed one of the main trails ourselves, and talked about which Indians had occupied the area, and the various methods used to get through tough spots on the trail, and then we arrived at our camping site.

There were three huge tipis (tepees? Teepees?) set up, and a few women were just finishing cooking a Dutch oven dinner. I was so excited when I saw that they were employing actual Oregon Trail methods! I mean, they were using charcoal instead of wood or buffalo chips, but they were cooking and baking by heaping hot coals on the lids of Dutch ovens, just as the pioneer women did, and it was so cool to see!

They served us steak, green beans, baked potatoes, and biscuits, and let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so good! And then they pulled out a fruit cobbler for dessert. The rest of the evening was quiet, but pleasant. Morris took the people who weren’t spending the night back to their cars, and we chatted with Neola, the cook, while she prepared potatoes for breakfast, walked down to the river for some pictures, and sat around a small fire before turning rather early. Our beds were thin pads on a tarp and sleeping bags, and we were both amazed at how well we slept despite that. The horses had been turned loose to graze, and we went to sleep with the sound of them munching around our tepee.

Morning came too early at 6:15ish but when I heard people up and about, cooking breakfast and chatting, I couldn’t handle it and immediately got up, dressed, and started on my hair and makeup. Daniel got up shortly after, and by the time he was done getting dressed and I was finishing my makeup, Morris was making the rounds to tell us it was time for breakfast, so it is a good thing I got up when I did anyway.

We were poured coffee out of a cast iron pot hanging over the coals, and served fried eggs, potatoes, and the best bacon in the entire world, along with some more biscuits.

By the time we finished, it was time to head back, and Morris regaled us with more stories and information on the emigrants’ travels. That time it was only Daniel and I in the wagon, with the other six on horseback, and it was far more bumpy than it had been before! I actually had to brace my foot on the other wagon bench to stop from bouncing up and down. Morris said that was because there was so much less weight in the wagon, the springs hadn’t activated, so it was what an actual wagon ride would have been like. He pointed out that, even though most people walked, you had to be aware of that amount of bouncing to make sure you tied down your belongings well enough that they didn’t break.

It was a little sad to leave that surreal world as we returned to the SUV, but at the same time…imagining doing that for days, let alone months? It definitely gave both me and Daniel a new understanding and respect for those pioneers. And someday, I think I will try their five-day trek.

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