Following the Pioneer Path 20th Century Travelers Retrace 150-Year Old Trail through Six States
Stories Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 century.
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 states.
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 adds.
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. …