THOUSANDS of American and foreign tourists are visiting the
historic spots and important geographic landmarks along the Oregon
Trail this summer. Forts and settlement sites, trail ruts several
feet deep in limestone, rocks where pioneers scratched names still
legible, new exhibits that give a sense of life on the trail and in
Indian villages along the way.
But for some, the only way to truly experience the "Great
Migration" of the mid-1800s across 2,000 miles of North America is
to do it the way those first pioneers did - by horse, wagon train,
or on foot.
In early May, about a dozen wagons left Independence, Mo.,
heading for Independence, Ore., which train organizers plan to
reach on Oct. 20. Traveling about a dozen miles a day, they angled
northwest through Kansas into Nebraska, where they followed the
Platte River - "a mile wide and an inch deep" - west to Wyoming.
Past Fort Laramie and Caspar and Independence Rock (named by fur
trappers on July 4, 1824), they crossed the Continental Divide at
South Pass, then dropped south to Fort Bridger, where they stayed a
couple of days earlier in the week.
In some places the historic Oregon Trail is now a busy
interstate highway, which this 20th-century wagon train is having
to parallel. But along much of the way, the full-trip group of five
wagons and 18 people (plus other wagons and individuals who joined
up for part of the way) are on the actual trail.
"We're staying fairly close to the time schedule and staying in
many of the same campsites," says trail captain Morris Carter, a
rugged Wyoming native who looks like he stepped out of the 19th
By the time Mr. Carter's group finishes, they will have camped
out in 135 different places, shaded their eyes from the sun, "eaten
dust," and smelled the sweat of hard-working animals through six
They also will have been able to take showers in small-town high
schools now and then, had meals prepared and hay provided for their
animals by farmers and ranchers turned out along the way to see
them, and been closely followed by a special wagon with two
chemical outhouses. Which is to say, their trip may be more arduous
than the one recently taken by a Monitor reporter and photographer
(10 days in a rented Buick), but it won't be fully authentic.
Still, those making the trip are full of enthusiasm. "This is
something you gotta do, just once," says Roy Katskee, a high school
math teacher and coach from Omaha, Neb., who traveled the trail on
horseback through his home state. "I tell you, it's something else.
It's a cleansing of the soul."
"I grew up on the Oregon Trial, I grew up with this in my
background. But I can see now how tough it was for them. You admire
them a whole lot more after doing this for three or four days," he
For Cookie Katskee, who's a junior high school principal, the
trip is a reliving of family history. Mrs. Katskee's
great-grandmother traveled by wagon train from Illinois to Nebraska
in the 1860s when she was two years old. One of nine children, the
girl was inadvertently left behind at a rest stop.
"One of the outriders caught up with the wagon train and said,
`Is this anybody's baby?' " says Mrs. Katskee.
The family's first home on the Nebraska homestead was a dugout
in the side of a hill - the kind described in Laura Ingalls
Wilder's book "Little House on the Prairie."
"I'm having a great time out here," said Ray Tinkey as he
unhitched a pair of mules (Ann and Sue) after a hot and dusty day
on the trail. …