Over the Fence: The Oregon Trail

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Oregon Trail Wagon

What do you call the jitters that take over a horse when it’s left behind in the barn while everyone else goes out? I don’t know, but that’s what I felt like in the summer of 2011. I was home in the city with two little kids while two of my dear, horse-loving uncles were trekking 1,800 miles across the country the old-fashioned way. Their goal? Retrace the original Oregon Tail in a replica wagon pulled by three gorgeous and sturdy draft mules. My uncle Rinker had further plans – to write a book about the history of the trail, as seen through the eyes of a modern-day traveler.

That summer, I checked my email constantly for updates. Every once in a while I got a dusty, long-distance call from the trail. But the news came way too slow for my CNN-style newsfeed addiction. I gobbled every wonderful word that came through and longed for more.

Here are the kind of words that trickled in through emails while I was picking up kids from baseball camp and setting up lemonade stands: camp, fort, mules’ shoes, ranch, safe pasturage, South Pass, big-cow country, Medicine Bow range, family-style meal, storytelling, barrel-racing ponies, lariats, Split Rock, Platte River, trail dog, and one line from one of my uncles that I really liked: “no cell phone service, no internet, no nothing except remote, beautiful country.”

I compulsively planned a trip. I could fly into Casper, Wyoming in July. Or Cheyenne, Wyoming. I could fly into Salt Lake City, Utah or Denver and rent a car. But if I couldn’t reach Rink or Nick when I got there, how would I find them? They could only guestimate their daily and weekly progress in hoof-beats per mile. This was not a “find my iPhone” kind of situation. I pondered hopping in my car with my older son and driving out there to sleep on the prairie and hear the clip clop of the mules as we ditched the car and jumped aboard the wagon. I wanted to, badly. But it never worked out.

My uncles had quite the adventure – and a successful journey all the way to Oregon, without a follow car. At the end, the three mules — Jake the gelding, and two mares, Bute and Beck — were sold (and given a forever home, as a team) to a wonderful ranch couple in Oregon. Especially for my uncle Nicky, I know leaving those animals was a long good-bye.

Just today, I was so delighted to see the above video put together by Rinker’s publisher. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book, even if it does mean adventuring via reading, in my own barn-bound kind of way.

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