By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
September 9, 2008
Now that public reports have surfaced about Kim Jong Il's absence from official state ceremonies in North Korea amid serious health concerns, I am finally at liberty to announce that Kim Jong Il tried to travel the Oregon Trail at the same time as we did, and his current health problems stem from a debilitating case of dysentery, a failure to invest in spare parts for North Korea's wagon, and the unified refusal of Indians to help him find wild fruit. We passed his party of high-level party functionaries on the side of the road and it was a pathetic sight. Kim Jong Il did not make it to the end of the Oregon Trail as we did. They flew home from Boise, Idaho. His operatives are under orders to hack together a cheap Photoshop job with him at the end of the trail where they just put his head on top of K.'s body, but now, dear readers, you know better than to buy that shit.
I intend to write an itinerary so anyone who would like to travel the Oregon Trail can follow our route, but I may not get around to it. Google seekers of the future may feel free to email me if I don't.
Football season is here, and that is a fine thing. However, while watching the day's games, I saw a series of beer commercials touting "drinkability" as a new word. Our cultural discourse is eternally an optimistic child on the way to school, and "drinkability" is the flash of a pervert's trench coat. I used to believe that we, as Americans, would stand up and reject things like "drinkability", but now I am older, and resigned that frat boys are already using "drinkability" in term papers and preludes to date rape, and it will be in President Palin's 2011 State of the Union address.
I am resigned, but not surrendered, for today I am proud to announce the first official What Jail Is Like Fellowship Program. What Jail Is Like Fellows will defend cultural discourse through the creation and use of compound German words to describe every-day situations. It is a documented fact that Germans communicate with each other exclusively through compound words: weltschmerz, schadenfreude, so on and so forth. These words, absorbed into our cultural discourse as a whole, have proven tremendously useful in the past. However, it has been ages since a new German compound word has crossed over, and situations are still emerging that require their use. I have an opening for two What Jail Is Like Fellows to create and propagate German compound words, and one What Jail Is Like Fellow to slander the first two Fellows and persistently argue that this ought to be done in another language.
Applicants for the first two positions should submit German compound words to encapsulate the following emotions:
1. The sense of hearing a song you like in a commercial, and feeling your emotional attachment to the song calcify.
Needless to say, the Fellowship Program is unpaid and probably does not qualify for academic credit of any kind, but I will be happy to send emails on behalf of Fellows urging immediate recognition of their work by scholastic or professional organizations.
September 1, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
We made camp at The Dalles, near a roaring dam on the Columbia River. The Comfort Inn had a plate of warm cookies on the counter, and I took one before the clerk had a chance to announce the price of a room; K. rejected her offer and we left, but I still had the cookie. You can't get to the end of the Oregon Trail without that kind of quick-thinking.
On the fateful morning, before starting out in the Volks Wagon, we headed over to a gas station to fill up on sugary nonsense. It sat next to the shell of a Taco Bell, identifiable by the shade where the sign had been and a few price strips on the drive-through menu. (We saw a number of shuttered Taco Bells and Taco Johns on this trip. It was eerie, as though a plague had gone before us, and fast-food taco chains had not built up the necessary immunity to it.) The gas station also hailed from another era. It had one of those racks of classic rock cassette tapes, with more Alabama than is currently stocked by any music store in America; although I already had all of the songs, I thought about picking up a Kinks compilation that appeared to have whimsical biographies of the band members in the liner notes. There was also a selection of bumper stickers, including one that said, "Bill and Hillary = America's dual airbags". Really? In 2008? How long can an item sit on sale without anyone noticing it hasn't sold? Does that explain the shitty off-brand rice krispie treat I bought?
Sandwiched between the hotel and the dam were some old cedar shacks, long abandoned. They were a bracing reminder that not everyone makes it to the end of the trail.
We carried on. This had been a long, long trip. We were out of Q-tips, and certain members of the party were out of clean underwear and socks, while certain other members were also low on socks, but not on underwear. I had blisters on my toes from a long hike in the Tetons, and blisters on my soles from a long, blissful session on the basketball court at the Hampton Inn outside of Boise. (Age has only improved my magnificent skyhook.)
The last miles were a time of reflection. I can't remember anything specific that was reflected upon, although I did play a lot of the soundtrack from Head, in recognition of the previous day's discovery / decision that Mike Nesmith's ancestor James Nesmith traveled the Oregon Trail. (Put it in Wikipedia, folks. I'm an authority.)
Today, Oregon City is a suburb of Portland, but during the pioneer days, it was the end of the Oregon Trail. That's still the city slogan, emblazoned on the welcome sign. Did we make it?
We certainly fucking did. Free of dysentery, cholera, typhoid, snake bites, exhaustion, and broken arms; all members of the party in full health, farmers from Illinois, triple points. We are unsurpassed in the annals, at the top of the top ten list. We are exuberant. We reached the end of the Oregon Trail.
The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center has that sign out front, and the stairs list major points from the trip - Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, and the rest. Those stairs felt like they were meant specifically for us, for people who had arrived there after doing the trail, and it was fantastic.
The exhibits weren't up to the standard of the centers in Independence (Day 1) or Baker City (Day 9), though. They obviously meant well, but there wasn't much in the way of depth or interactivity. There were photocopies of land-claim forms and pages from coloring books, accompanied by signs asking you to be polite and only take one. There was a room full of half-told stories of people who traveled the trail, with instructions for you to visit the Museum of Oregon City to learn whether they arrived safely and what they did afterward; there were replica bottles of medicine that promised to remedy illnesses such as "women's weakness", a malady whose symptoms include fainting, cramps, and "fear of impending evil". If I understood the schedule of events correctly, a movie called "Bound for Oregon!" was shown every couple of hours, and there were presentations by a band of hucksters who pretended to be merchants outfitting wagons or some shit like that - whereas, at the other two museums, you could load your own wagon without the intercession of hucksters.
Also, there was an outline on the wall of a dog, and you could dip your hand in a bucket of hand-written name tags, choose one, and place the tag on a hook coming out of the outline's neck, thereby naming the outline of the dog. First, though, you had to take off the name tag placed by the previous person. So, I un-named the dog outline "Target", and re-named the dog outline "Albert". It was electrifying. By contrast, the Baker City center had a true story from a girl's diary wherein her faithful dog, Tray, was shot because the other dogs in the party were barking at the cows and scaring them off, and the leader of their wagon party felt that dogs were a liability the group could no longer afford. The girl was sad, and felt certain that Tray would have enjoyed Oregon.
The woman at the admission desk did not comment on my "You have died of typhoid" t-shirt. (K. did not wear her "You have died of dysentery" t-shirt.) I found it bizarre that the computer game got no mention at all in any of three, uh, interpretive centers. (What is wrong with the word 'museum'?) I didn't expect the displays to be pixellated or anything, but the computer game is the primary driver of public understanding in their subject, so you'd think it might warrant a shout-out somewhere in the facility. But no, MECC does not receive its due.
We left and headed for the Volks Wagon. Our path was long and roundabout, though, and took us past an eager old man named Cedar Walt, who was keen to show us things he had made out of cedar, and then showed us how nicely and easily planks can be split from a cedar log. I tried doing it myself, and with a firm effort, soon had a fine plank in front of me. I now feel significantly more confident that I could fashion a shelter of some kind in the wilderness, were cedar trees around, and tools available. (I am also confident that I could fashion the necessary tools out of two sticks, a rock, and a vine, but the tools would be helpful.) I'm glad to know that. Unlike the pioneers, we had a hotel room to sleep in that night, but I think we could have managed in 1848. We'd have done well, even after the computer screen blinked off.
From there, it was on to Portland and Seattle to see old friends, and then across the country back to Chicago - journey's end.
August 27, 2008
(Spotty Internet connections continue to bedevil these updates. Being sleepy at the end of each day's journey is also to blame.)
Oregon Trail Diary
We are nearing the end of the Oregon Trail, and supplies are low in the Volks Wagon. We have but two more days of Q-tips, and K. has relapsed in her addiction to Easy Cheese; that poor woman, so long the bedrock of our journey, now makes only half-hearted attempts to pretend the accursed spray-cheese is going on crackers instead of directly into her mouth. I am not without struggles of my own, of course; having traveled alone through many foreign lands, I failed to anticipate that a traveling companion would expect me to change my underwear regularly. (Girls!)
Yesterday, we re-joined the main trail in western Idaho, and today, we crossed over the border into Oregon. Despite being critically low on supplies, we have decided to skip Fort Bridger and seize the fading summer by heading straight for The Dalles. I have never been to the Pacific Northwest, and eastern Oregon quickly obliged my expectations with a heavy shroud of fog and a funereal march of tall, gorgeous pine trees.
Our only major stop for the day was the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon. (K. was curious why they won't just call themselves a museum, as "interpretive center" is really a rubbish term. I don't know, although I do work for a library that is extremely sensitive about being called a museum, so there may be issues at work.) I didn't understand why it was located in Baker City (absent from the game and historical accounts) until we were actually there. As it turns out, this was the point where settlers caught their first glimpse of the Blue Mountains, which meant the end was finally within reach. There are also some wheel ruts in the field below from the many thousands of wagons that passed through here. A marker noted that wagons usually reached this point in late August or early September; at last, for the first time in this trip, we are on pace!
The interpretive center is surprisingly excellent. Although the one in Independence is a must-visit for the load-a-wagon and ox-democracy, the exhibits in this one were jam-packed with disheveled mannequins voiced by intensely earnest actors:
This fellow argued incessantly with his ox and sheep over which way to go, and voiced doubts about their prospects for survival. He had not earned the trust of the animals, because the argument kept flaring up every couple of minutes. There were complex relationships at work there. Even better was a husband and wife on the verge of starvation, sounding out the concept of "swap" with some sock-crazy Indians. The Indians had an apparently inexhaustible supply of salmon, and were willing to use those salmon to satiate their equally inexhaustible desire for socks. The wife ended the exchange by pledging to hurry back to their wagon to knit some more socks.
The signage also displayed a wicked sense of humor. Here's an example, from the trip preparation section, with the question listed on the top flap:
Q: Harriet Malinda has learned to play the melodeon, a sweet reed organ that looks like a little piano. Can she take it in the wagon?
Lift up the flap for the answer:
A: Yes, she can take it, but will have to throw it out at Devil's Gate. The death of three oxen are one factor. Harriet Malinda's death from cholera is another. There's no one left to play the thing.
What do you add to that? And there was also crucial anthropological evidence to be uncovered:
This grave marker may be conclusive evidence that pioneers of the 1800s played the Oregon Trail differently from kids in my third grade computer lab, who never would have wasted their precious character count on details like that.
All in all, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center was exceptional, and ranked as a favorite stop for both of us. (We also appreciated that, unlike everything else we've seen and read so far, this place had some discussion about what the pioneers actually did when they reached Oregon. There were illuminating quotes from the diary of a settler named James Nesmith, who I'm going to assume was the ancestor of Mike Nesmith from the Monkees.)
Tonight, we make camp at The Dalles, on the banks of the roaring Columbia River. The Barlow Toll Road is an option, as is a raft. Some pioneers, having abandoned all of their possessions, are wind-surfing on the river; their progress is slow and frequently devolves into circles, and we pity them.
Tomorrow, no force on Earth can keep us from the end of the Oregon Trail.
August 26, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
After a few miles of Montana, today was consumed by the bone-dry expanses of Idaho. Shortly after leaving West Yellowstone, we picked up a branch of the Oregon Trail called Goodale's Cutoff, which was named for an Illinois mountain man named Tim Goodale. In 1862, fearful of recent Indian hostilities along the trail through present-day Idaho, a group of pioneers hired Goodale to come up with an alternate route. ("Mountain man" is one of those careers that isn't as employable as it used to be, but in those days, it was a hot industry.) Goodale came up with a route that arcs through central Idaho, across what is now the Craters of the Moon National Monument:
Craters of the Moon is an area with a handful of small, active volcanoes that erupt every so often (in geological terms), leaving the whole area covered in black lava. In the years since the last major eruption, some shrubs have made a comeback. The trees are not quite thriving, though:
All things considered, not an easy place to drag your wagons through, and not a place that inspires optimism about the road ahead. But if you have invested in a mountain man, you're kind of stuck with him, even when he takes you into a lava field. What do you do when you're a thousand miles from home and you suspect your mountain man is crazy? In this case, you stick with the plan; they rejoined the original trail (as we did) near Fort Boise, and made it to Oregon without any more than the usual amount of dysentery and cholera.
Of course, the game clearly states that you are leaving Independence in 1848, not 1862, so Goodale's Cutoff shouldn't be available to us, as we are attempting to re-enact the game as farmers from Illinois. We are cheating for practicality's sake, because we're coming from Yellowstone, which is north of the original trail. In 1848, no cutoff was necessary; everything was fine along the original trail, because the Indians weren't yet pissed off about you hunting every couple of days and only hauling 200 pounds back to your wagon. They thought it was a phase you were going through, that you would eventually start using every part of the buffalo like they did. (Or more parts of the bear.) But you never did, did you? Look around. How many parts of the buffalo are you currently using?
With regard to that 1848 date, though, a couple of things can be inferred. The migration on the Oregon Trail began in earnest in 1843, so in the game, your party of pioneers were setting out fairly early in the scheme of things, which means:
1. The reason you lose the route sometimes in the game is because the trail wasn't as worn and clearly defined as it would become in the 1850s. Also, your guidebook was probably still full of bullshit.
We made camp for the night on the outskirts of Boise. The lava field had been hot, but not compared to the stretch of interstate between Mountain Home and Boise. The temperature gauge of the Volks Wagon said 102. As I waited in the car, K. proved her mettle by making fresh baked cookies a deal-breaker in her negotiations with the desk clerk at the Hampton Inn; we had an excellent night.
August 24, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
Wrong trail. Lose 3 days.
MovableType, my web publishing software, has been very aggressive toward comments written over the last few months, and while checking the 'Junk Comments' folder, I found comments from several worthy correspondents mis-categorized as such. Sorry about that. Comments are enjoyable, not junk. This is what you get for leaving duties like that to robots.
We have been off the trail, but only temporarily. Tomorrow, we plunge into Idaho to catch back up with America's grand western migration and its finest achievement in educational computer gaming, the Oregon Trail. Because of this diversion, I am ashamed to report that we will miss Soda Springs, which was included in some versions of the game. Idaho will be a ferocious drive to make up for lost time and prepare for that last, fateful effort to deliver our entire party safely into Oregon, collecting vast amounts of bonus points.
Unlike the pioneers, who were a naturally humble lot and well aware of the mortal risk posed in the making of this epic journey, we are cocky bastards; we have taken a three-day diversion into mountainous territory, namely Grand Teton National Park and its neighbor to the north, Yellowstone National Park. Although fur-trappers worked this area, pioneers would likely have steered clear. It's been hard enough getting the Volks Wagon up some of these hills, let alone a team of oxen and a Conestoga Wagon.
We parted from the trail in Farson, Wyoming, which consists of a gas station and a small trailer park with a sign identifying the trailers as "The Oregon Trail Residences". (Was that the point at which exhausted settlers declared they'd had enough and re-fashioned their wagons into trailers, settling in to await the coming of a gas station? Some things are lost to history.) Instead of continuing west, we traveled north and checked into a Super 8 in Jackson, Wyoming, as our base for exploration of the Tetons. There isn't much to say about the Super 8, other than that the continental breakfast area had a taxidermied brown bear in a glass case, standing on two feet and wearing a ranger's hat. Mind you, it wasn't wearing any other parts of a ranger's uniform, just the hat. Over breakfast, we considered the possibilities:
1. This was a bear with a hat fetish, who was indulged by the locals with gifts of various hats until they grew bored with the game and shot him;
Jackson (or, as the locals seem to prefer, "Jackson Hole") caters to wealthy tourists, extraordinarily wealthy part-time ranchers like Dick Cheney, ski bums, and disgruntled members of the service industry. ("We call this place poverty with a view," a desk clerk said.) It is surrounded by mountains and features a dazzling hotels-to-other-sorts-of-businesses ratio, and yet it finds room for two arches made out of old antlers discarded by local elk and collected by Boy Scouts. We made reservations at the Pony Express Motel for the second night, which was enjoyable, and transferred to the small Montana town of West Yellowstone as our base for the rest of the parks expedition. I soured on West Yellowstone almost immediately, after being serenaded by a roving local theater group promoting that night's production of "Oklahoma". We're in Montana, visiting a park in Wyoming, and you interrupt my dinner with songs from a musical about Oklahoma? You, local theater group, are Satan's geographers.
I won't write in detail about the Tetons or Yellowstone, since they're not mission-specific to the Oregon Trail (and I'm falling behind on these entries), but I should note that K. finds it strange and intriguing to be able to see the moon during daylight hours, and also that:
I could only carry 200 pounds back to my wagon. Them's the rules.
August 21, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
(I didn't have a reliable wi-fi connection last night, so this entry is being published a day late. A strained analogy involving the Pony Express is available to subscribers for an additional fee.)
We ended last night on the outskirts of Casper, Wyoming. There are plenty of hotels in Casper, as it is the second-largest city in the state and features a whopping two Wal-Marts, but they were all booked, save for ones offering extremely specific room types (handicapped smoking room with three single beds, one of which is haunted, but it switches from night to night - that sort of thing). The Hampton Inn had a big plate of freshly-baked cookies at the front desk, and I fear I may never fully recover from being denied lodging there. (The excuses I would have found for trips to the lobby...the mind boggles.) A clerk at the Super 8 (also full) referred us to the West Side Hotel, which is on the west side of town, and appeared - based on the sign, color scheme, wood-paneling, and murals from "Yellow Submarine" in the restaurant - to have been opened by hippies in the early 70s, and preserved thereafter as a museum illustrating the sort of hotel that hippies opened in the early 70s.
I found the place charming, fond of wood-paneling as I am, but K. didn't like the mold in the bathroom or the pillows. Well, fair enough. My enthusiasm was significantly dampened at breakfast, when I asked the waitress if the breakfast burrito had any meat in it, and she said 'no', and then brought me a breakfast burrito smothered in ground beef, and we had to have a semantic argument about whether there was a meaningful difference between meat being 'in' the burrito or 'on top of' the burrito. (Are there directional vegetarians?) The aging hippie in the kitchen, thankfully, took my side.
You have reached Independence Rock. Would you like to look around? Y / N
Independence Rock is so named because if travelers reached it by July 4th, Independence Day, they knew they were on pace to reach Oregon before the winter. Although the game and historical accounts refer to it as a major highlight, the state of Wyoming refers to it as a "Rest Area", with an additional small brown sign saying "State Historical Site Independence Rock" directly across from the entrance - very helpful, as long as your car (and all traffic behind you) is cool with going from 70mph to zero in less than a second in order to make an instantaneous turn. The Volks Wagon, however, needs a little more notice than that.
Unlike Chimney Rock, about half of the land around Independence Rock is publicly owned, so you're welcome to have a look around (until you reach the fence, at which point a sign reminds you of the importance of respecting property rights). Travelers on the Oregon Trail usually rested there for a day or two and carved their names into the rock; their names are preserved today, evidently sliding in on the favorable side of that fine line between "historic" and "graffiti". Otherwise, it's mainly a big rock, so you can walk around it and imagine people firing off guns, cheering for their nation and their ability to keep to a schedule.
At this point, we were on Route 220. By taking state roads, which are very well-maintained in Wyoming (and generally decent in Nebraska), it is possible to drive very close to the original Oregon Trail. There are plenty of little markers along the way, ranging from little white marble blocks saying 'Oregon Trail' to the big, grandiose signs of the 1930s and the teacher-chat sequential interpretive displays of the 1980s. (The WPA-era prose on the sign at the Wagon Ruts near Guernsey is particularly exceptional. That anonymous writer saw the whole sweep of history before him and strained to the very limits of the sign genre to get his readers to see it, too.)
Later in the afternoon, we indulged another fascination of mine, ghost towns - or, as they're known in Wyoming, "towns". We had already passed Jefferson City along 220, which I was surprised to find classified as a ghost - there were plenty of deserted structures, including an enticing motel with a top-hat on its weather-beaten sign, but overall, it didn't look any less active than any town we'd seen in the state other than Casper. Now traveling south on Route 287 (and witness to some astonishing mountain views), we turned on a gravel road to find Atlantic City and South Pass City. Both were mining towns that boomed in the 1870s and dwindled thereafter. Today, these roads are nearly impassable to the likes of the Volks Wagon in mid-summer, so I doubt anyone gets in or out during the winter.
K. was not much interested in Atlantic City, but I liked the atmosphere there. It had a hillside clutter of structures, but the small handful of still-occupied buildings were hard to tell apart from the vacant ones, making thorough exploration a dicey option. One billed itself as a cafe, and showed signs of being open; another, with the tall words MONK BIRD KING scrawled in red outside, claimed (in smaller words) to be the studio of a sculptor. Another long-abandoned building had an optimistic 'FOR SALE' sign in the window. We had passed a sign for "Crazy Woman Realty - Buyers Only" earlier in the day, and they have a website - they may know more about the size of the down payment expected, financing options, etc.
South Pass City is closer to the abandoned mine, which can be seen on a nearby hilltop. (Evidently, there is a state agency dedicated to making sure these abandoned mines don't become a problem.) According to the welcome sign, "about 7" people live in South Pass City today. The state has bought and semi-restored a handful of structures, the few that survived a massive fire after the town went bust around the turn of the century, and some are now mini-museums about the town's history. Others remain vacant, such as a remarkably creepy jail / temporary schoolhouse where the letters of the alphabet can still be seen inside, above the door, facing the dungeon-like cells.
The gift shop had a primitive coloring book about the Oregon Trail (trust me, I would have bought it if it had been worth buying) the same fake gold-panning kit we've already seen a dozen times on this trip, and a stack of lurid romance novels by Wyoming authors.
Impassable trail. Lose 1 hour.
There were more road crews digging for treasure in what appeared to be perfectly serviceable roads, so K. and I entertained ourselves with Chinese fire drills while waiting, and we both spent too damn long behind the wheel before winding up in Jackson for the night. We're off the Oregon Trail now, spending a couple of days at the national parks, which may come back to haunt us in the winter. Wish us well.
August 20, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
Bridgeport, Nebraska has a high level of uranium in its tap water, so we were cautioned not to drink any; we were assured that it's fine to brush our teeth with it, so we did, and I will be checking the mirror for the next couple of nights to see if my teeth are glowing.
A few words about Bridgeport, before I continue. Although Main Street was only seven blocks long, it had two options for nearly everything. Want to take the lady out for a cheap meal? There's Subway. Fancy meal? There's the Mexican restaurant. There were two grocery stores, two funeral homes, two bars, and two gas stations; we stayed at one of the two hotels, and according to signs, there were two parks, one to the east and one to the west. (There was only one chiropractor, but I suppose not believing in that voodoo back-crackery represents the second option.) The local paper had an editorial about how to attract and keep new residents. Evidently, there is a theory in place, and it involves two of everything (and no more than that).
There was only one cafe in town, the Tarnished Halo, but that was all I needed to begin the day with a banana smoothie. Cookies were also on sale, and I bought one, eager to sample uranium-enriched chocolate chips, but they were actually made in Wisconsin. ("That cookie has traveled farther than we have," K. observed.)
You have reached Chimney Rock. Would you like to look around? Y / N
Chimney Rock was one of the most notable landmarks of the Oregon Trail. Some pioneers would travel a few miles out of their way to see it, when a few miles meant a lot. One swore that it would be the among the most-visited places in the world if it were back east. Travelers would rest, talk, and celebrate at the base. Today, it's on private land, and you can only see it from a distance.
USA! USA! USA!
There is a small visitor center some distance away. We walked in to confirm that this was the closest we could get, and politely declined to pay $3 to look at wall displays with blown-up quotes about how amazing the rock was to people who could actually get within a couple miles of it. According to K., the old lady at the desk rolled her eyes at me as we left. Those were, perhaps, the most fucking awesome wall displays ever contracted out to the Kinkos a few towns over, and an opportunity was missed. Roll on, old lady's eyes.
We took a short drive out to an observation point, and were galled to note that the only other visitors had jumped the barbed-wire fence and hiked out to the rock; we could see them at the base, in candy-striped shirts. Our fearful law-abiding natures (and a vehement sign about rattlesnakes) kept us behind the fence. There was a mild fascination to behold in the small cemetery behind us, though. The sign at the entrance trotted out the usual lines about the rigors of the trail and the many who died along the way (K., tastefully, had chosen today to wear her "You Have Died of Dysentery" t-shirt), but there were only two kinds of gravestones in the cemetery: brand-new gravestones erected in the last couple of years for distant ancestors buried in the vicinity, and old gravestones for people who had died some 20-30 years after the end of the trail. If the Oregon Trail days and the associated hardships had been over for decades by the time they died, why were they buried there? Perhaps they had completed the trail as young men and women, and in later years, settled in Oregon and surrounded with family, they had come to remember the triumph of reaching Chimney Rock as a high point in their lives, and had asked to be buried there. Probably not true, but it has a certain beauty to it.
Impassable trail. Lose 15 minutes.
We were stuck behind two long freight trains as we headed back to Route 26, and stopped again just outside of a town as road crews dug into the pavement looking for treasure. Our frustrations paled before those of the Community Drug Drive-Thru, though:
As soon as I finished snapping photos of the signs, the woman who ran the drive-through was upon me, demanding to know what I was doing. I managed to steer the conversation to friendly ground. Evidently, the situation was exactly as it appeared: unidentified no-goodniks had been swiping the letters from the sign or re-arranging the amiable witticisms ("Men, I Don't Understand. Chocolate, I'm An Expert!") into significantly ruder form (I have no idea). We parted on good terms, agreed that it isn't very nice when people steal yor lttrs.
You have reached Fort Laramie. Would you like to look around? Y/N
We skipped Fort Kearny back in Nebraska, but with K. already dead of dysentery (according to her t-shirt's somewhat unreliable diagnosis), it seemed like we ought to stop to rest. Some sources call Fort Laramie a ghost town; I doubt that hardcore ghost town seekers would include it on their list, since it's now a designated State Historic Site and many of the buildings have been fully restored, but it is still a ripe source of toothless ruins and the passage of time.
We were standing near what had been the bakery when, in the distance, we heard someone start singing. There had been warning in the pamphlets at the entrance that roving staff members in full period regalia might walk up to you in character, but since so few visitors were there (elderly couple in a golf cart, middle-aged couple walking their dog, French couple), we hoped common sense would prevail and the re-enactors would take this opportunity to catch up on filing back at the office. K. continued to explore the bakery, while I nervously investigated the source of the singing. It was coming from a tent some distance away, surrounded by clothes hung out to dry, where either a woman or a mannequin in a red dress was sitting on a bench, surrounded by laundry. She did not move, so it was impossible to tell whether she was real or not; I think we all know, though, that the way terrifying undead spirits get hold of you and drag you to frightening alternate dimensions is by manifesting themselves as eerily lifelike mannequins in period dress. So I was not fucking around by going over there. K. was, herself, re-enacting the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey" with this goddam bakery, leaving me locked in a staredown with what may or may not have been an apparition from hell doing the laundry.
Eventually, we moved on to explore other buildings and ruins, about twenty in all. There was a profoundly awful smell in the prison and on the captain's quarters. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that the sergeant-at-arms would be giving a talk and a tour based on the theme of military discipline and punishment. We hurried over to the surgeon's house, figuring we were safe there. Like the captain's quarters and a couple others, it was jammed with vintage gee-gaws behind glass partitions. We even found the building where the fort general store was housed. Upon discussion we agreed that our beverage supplies were low, so we laid down $3 for an IBC root beer and a Sioux City Sarsaparilla at the "Soldier's Bar". There had been another announcement, that a talk would be held on the role of military laundresses, so I was glad for the sanctuary of the Soldier's Bar. On our way out, I saw the woman in the red dress from the laundry tent walking back to the administrative offices - not a mannequin, evidently.
Sun beat down, but we pressed on to a couple of mildly intriguing sights - ruts left in stone by wagon wheels, a cliff where pioneers supposedly carved their names until vacationers from more recent decades carved over them - until we both developed exhaustion, and went back on the open road to Casper, Wyoming, to rest and make camp for the night. We are still about two months behind pace, due to our late departure, but we should hit Independence Rock tomorrow, and continue to make good time.
August 19, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
Depending on the number of oxen involved in the original measure, we covered somewhere between one and two months' worth of ground today, including most of Nebraska. I think that's fairly impressive. A few pioneers were stopped by the side of the road, forced to make repairs to their wagons at this early stage. I pity them; I do not expect to see them in the Willamette Valley.
It is doubtful that the Volks Wagon can be safely caulked and floated across the river, so we have set aside enough money to pay for ferries or hire Indian guides. Fortunately, the Big Blue River has a bridge now, and so do the other rivers we've crossed, so we have not had to dip into those contingency funds yet. (I am already getting tense in anticipation of the part near the end of this trip where we're going to have to put the Volks Wagon on a raft and shoot down the boulder-filled rapids. That part is never easy.) In the afternoon, we arrived at Fort Kearney, and selected 'N' when asked if we would like to look around. Our supplies were holding up fine.
Most of the day's travels were on I-80 W, which was cluttered with garish attractions, but the trail did not come alive until we branched off to Route 26, heading northwest. Suddenly, the landscape changed - from acres of corn to rolling hills and gorges, lone trees and distant rock formations. It's not as otherworldly as, say, the Badlands, but it did finally start to feel more like a journey into a remote land described but not known. With towns few and far between, gasoline became a serious concern, but the Oregon Trail Trading Post in Llewelyn (pop. 228) had a pump. Inside, there were signs posted to welcome hunters, and stuffed bobcats striking wary poses above the beer. Also, there were Doritos. The later town of Oshkosh pledged TWO COOL MUSEUMS, and Broadwater proferred the multi-colored remains of the Lazy-U Motel; Lisco was fleeting.
We decided to make camp for the night at the pleasant Bridgeport Inn, located in the regional metropolis of Bridgeport. It's nice here, and large enough to feature a Mexican restaurant. (It was our second Mexican meal of the day, after lunch in Lincoln, Nebraska.) As we ate, a group of farmers at another table discussed world and domestic affairs. The frustrating thing is not that they were bumbling redneck fools and they share an electorate with us; actually, their analysis of events was, although unburdened by specifics, reasonably cogent. The frustrating thing is that they know all of that, and they're going to vote Republican in the fall anyway.
There is a cricket somewhere in our room. Tomorrow, we sight rock formations.
August 18, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
K. has objected to my characterization of her iPod in yesterday's entry, and would like it to be noted that her iPod includes music other than the Top Gun soundtrack and Jets to Brazil. In fairness, that is true; "Jump (for My Love)" by the Pointer Sisters is also on her iPod. The record has now been corrected, and another chapter has been written in the legend of my fairness.
Our inn has a deal with the IHOP down the block whereby guests are supposed to receive a 10% discount on meals. We set out for breakfast, intended to take advantage of that offer, but found the IHOP still and lifeless. According to signs on the door, the IHOP had suffered severe structural damage and was undergoing repairs. There was plywood and orange netting on the right side of the building. Hillcrest Drive, as a whole, seemed to be an idea which had reached its end. On both sides of the street, reaching off into the distance, there were acres of abandoned strip-mall storefronts and big-box retailers, bare of signs and even the most faint identifying features. But there was a bus stop, and people waiting for the bus.
Back at the hotel, the desk clerks were stunned to hear about the structural damage at the IHOP. According to a quick investigation on the web, it has been closed since June, when a vehicle plowed into it. The most recent business to occupy the large retail space behind the IHOP was evidently Montgomery Ward's, which shuttered its last stores in 2001.
Hungry, with the 'Meals' category running dangerously close to 'Meager', we drove to downtown Independence and found the one restaurant open on Sunday, a German restaurant called Rheinland. In lieu of anything else on the menu without meat, I had the soup of the day and a plate of spätzle. K. had an order of Hawaiian Toast, which she enjoyed, but which raised serious questions about how much the Germans really know about Hawaii.
Not much else was open in downtown Independence. There was a business called "Game Cafe" that had a posterboard reproduction of the cover of Batman #429 in one of the windows, which is as intriguing an opening gambit as any business can offer, but it may or may not have been open, and the long, recessed entrance-way had the stink of sullen, prematurely-aged youth; we kept walking. There was a Harry Truman statue and a Harry Truman Visitor Center. I considered checking the gift shop to see if they had any of the hell Harry was so famous for giving, perhaps in convenient bottled form. But our destiny lay on the trail, so we returned to the Volks Wagon.
The National Frontier Trails Museum was the key stop for the day. It is dedicated to the various pioneer trails, with some Lewis and Clark shit thrown in, and a painfully loud recording of a cranky old man reading a cranky Horace Greeley quote (intending to dispel the rumor that he said "Go west, young man" or even thought that going west was a good idea at all). While complimentary of their overall achievements and leadership, the Lewis and Clark display had some harsh comments for the men's policy toward Native Americans. Evidently, they attempted to talk the various tribes into ceasing tribal warfare and abandoning all other activities in favor of fur trapping on behalf of the United States government; evidently, the tribes did not take them very seriously. Further on, there was a half-baked thesis that the craze for beaver pelts led to America's economic supremacy, and there were samples of various fur pelts that you could feel, along with the prices they would fetch on the open market back in the pioneer days. K. has expensive taste: her preference, otter, clocked in at $4/pelt.
The most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum is the room with the test wagon and the supplies. On the wall is a suggested list of things to bring on the Oregon Trail, derived from letters written by some fellow named Campbell. The shelves in the room are stocked with supplies that are proportionately weighted. There were heavy barrels of bacon, slightly less heavy bags of flour and rice, and relatively light tins of cayenne pepper; that sort of thing. The wagon is plugged into the wall, and an alarm goes off if you overload the wagon, so you have to make careful decisions on what to bring. (There is also supposed to be a warning light if you're getting close, but that was broken.) The implication is that this is supposed to be a challenge; if so, the only conclusion I can draw is that K. and I are fucking awesome at the ancient pioneer arts, because we had that thing filled up with everything we wanted long before the alarm went off. Granted, we were light on bacon, because K. would be the only one eating it; we stocked up on rice and beans, and had a generous supply of cornmeal and biscuits. I persuaded K. to bring only the iron skillet and a single bowl, reasoning that whoever is not eating out of the bowl can just eat directly out of the skillet. She was skeptical of this, but when that earned her an additional sack of coffee in the wagon, her objections evaporated.
Here is a picture of our victorious wagon:
Please feel free to ask detailed questions about the contents of our wagon in the comments section.
The second most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum was the wall that listed the pros and cons of mules and oxen, and then asked visitors to register their vote for the party of their preference. (These votes are apparently reset weekly.) The voting was running 2-1 for mules when we walked in. K. and I discussed the issue and agreed to vote for oxen. However, due to a bug in the system, each vote for oxen counted as 10, whereas each vote for mules counted only for 1. When we returned to the voting area on our way out of the museum, the counting had been fixed; however, vicious pro-mule ballot stuffers had clearly been at work, as mules now led 133-21. Outrageous!
The third most important part of the National Frontier Trails Museum was the display about ridiculous things people brought with them on the trail, and abandoned along the way. There was a grandfather clock and a six-volume set of commentaries on the laws of England. Most poignantly, there was a rolling pin, and the story of the man who had been forced to abandon it by the other members of his party in an effort to lighten their load. "My mother used it for for making biscuits," he pleaded. "She made awful good biscuits." There was also a rocking chair that had been abandoned, found by another traveler, and carried the rest of the way as a present to his wife; and there was the story of a "handsome, Gothic wooden bookcase" abandoned on the trail, which I mention because there was a less handsome but entirely real bookcase sitting in the left lane of I-435 as we drove back to the inn. These people go too far for historical authenticity.
The critical parts of the day's agenda complete, we had pleasant, informative visits to the Negro League Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and then had dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the block from a blues band with a devoted following among bikers. As we walked back to our car, a homeless young man lurched forward and semi-rapped "Pay me, don't give me no shit," at me, and then thanked us very much for coming. As we were driving through the Financial District downtown, heading toward the highway, another homeless man smiled and shouted "No, you don't. It's your birthday!" at us. I don't know what's going on in Kansas City.
Somehow, a discussion about making a mixtape about songs with cities in the title led to a discussion about making a mixtape about songs with superheroes in them, which led to "In the Garage" by Weezer, which led to a loud, raucous sing-along to old Weezer songs all the way back to our inn. We are pioneer as fuck.
August 17, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
K. and I have decided to travel the Oregon Trail for our summer vacation, and I will keep a record of the journey here. I have written fairly often about the Oregon Trail in the past, but only in the form of the computer game. Now, we are on the trail ourselves, using K.'s Volks Wagon to make the trip.
There are a few places from which those historical pioneers set out on the trail, but we are beginning in Independence, Missouri, because that is where the game began. It is close to the border of Kansas. We left Chicago around 10AM, but stopped for breakfast before travel had begun in earnest. Later, at the edge of civilization - in a dire outpost called North Aurora - we stopped at a Target to buy a football. It was agreed that vigorous games of catch at rest stops would promote good health and constitution. K. asked that we purchase a Nerf football instead of a regulation NFL football, which might bonk her on the nose and break her glasses. Curiously, though, there were no Nerf products on the shelves of the Target. What happened to Nerf? They were the Microsoft of our childhood. How could they disappear? Did they diversify into fields for which their solid foam was not qualified, such as the manufacture of Nerf space shuttles, and dissolve under lawsuits? I don't know. It was a disturbing omen. Nevertheless, we found a plastic Amazing Spider-Man football that met K.'s requirements, so all is well. (The clerk asked if we wanted a gift receipt for the football, assuming that we intended to give it as a present to a child, providing said urchin with a momentary distraction from the crushing despair of childhood in the barren wasteland of North Aurora. No, clerk! We are pioneers, in search of places better than this.)
My iPod's battery ran out a couple of hours before we reached Independence. Many pioneers faced that problem on the trail, and found that the guys at Fort Laramie were total dicks about letting them use their outlets. So we are going to have to be more disciplined about ensuring that things remain charged. K. has an iPod as well, but it is mostly just the Top Gun soundtrack and Jets to Brazil, so that is what we were listening to as we arrived in the Kansas City metropolitan area, which includes Independence.
Here are the basic theories with which I play Oregon Trail on the computer:
1. Load up on oxen for speed.
Here are the ways in which we have already broken those rules:
1. We are not going to buy any oxen, relying entirely on the internal combustion engine of the Volks Wagon. (As I recall, Matt will not let you out of the General Store without oxen, so this would be a deal-breaker in the actual game.)
We left I-435 at exit 69 and found three inns to choose from. With the rates comparable at all three, we selected the Days Inn, hoping that the warm, lodge-like atmosphere of its lobby and its charming front desk staff were reflective of the rooms. They were not, but we will make camp here, and begin our preparations for the trail tomorrow. (I have to ask a local where Matt's General Store actually is.)
May 19, 2005
As I started to gather my thoughts for this entry, an email from my friend Eamon arrived with a link that put me in a reflective mood. As some people may know, when I finally returned to Chicago, I spent a bit of time bored and depressed and obsessed with getting the entire Bolshevik Party across the Oregon Trail successfully without any fatal "accidents" along the way. (I believe that my use of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin was a reasonable distillation of the original Politburo. Some will criticize the omission of Kamenev, but I feel that he is given fair representation as an implicit member of the Zinoviev - Kamenev power axis. Granted, I would rather not travel across the country in a wagon with a whiny shit like Zinoviev, but this is a matter of the historical record, not my own personal comfort.) I wanted to test whether the Bolshevik Revolution was an elitist, murderous sham from the start (the Richard Pipes view) or whether, given more careful stewardship, the substitution of a party vanguard for the proletarian masses could have developed into a true dictatorship of the proletariat (Isaac Deutscher, et al) and successfully led the workers of the world to Oregon.
Because I am fucking amazing at science, I set up the trials very carefully. I hadn't played Oregon Trail in several years before setting out. (Contrary to the assumptions of many who downloaded my copy of Oregon Trail and looked at the high scores, it was my younger brother who obsessively tried to shepherd the 1992-93 Charlotte Hornets across the country, not me.) My feeling was that they had to start out as farmers from Illinois ($400 start-up cash) if they were to have any credibility as friends of the laborer, and if the only way to get them all across was to allow them to be bankers from Boston ($800 start-up cash), then they were basically kulaks and the whole thing was bullshit by definition. (You could argue that was the case anyway because I wasn't about to set out on the trail in October anyway, but I felt that if I could land them in the Willamette Valley by then, that was a suitable corrollary.)
So I spent a while working on that. I am a big believer in blowing a ton of money on oxen and just eating whatever you can shoot along the way. I tried to be fair to all members of the party, regardless of their historical deeds. For example, there were a few incidents on the trail when Stalin got the measles and I was disinclined to rest so he could recuperate - when Trotsky's dysentery was treated with much greater care - but ultimately I did not overstep the bounds of fairness. The other ground rule I had - and this is based on the fact that Lenin only ever wore a suit and Stalin only ever wore a trench coat - was what brought this entire story to mind when I read the link from Eamon, an interview with the creators of the original Oregon Trail, with questions from grade school children:
Mindy Pontzon, age 10, writes:
So, yeah, as far as I was concerned, no Bolsheviks were allowed to buy any clothes, either at Matt's General Store or any of the trading outposts along the way. That seemed like a very important rule to me at the time. You have to remember that I was kind of depressed and wasn't wearing any pants myself. I never got around to posting my findings on this webpage. I should probably hold out for a prestigious journal, but it's embarassing when they fight over me, so I will settle for this, instead.
1. It was extraordinarily difficult to get Trotsky and Stalin across the country together. I shit you not. One or the other was almost always dead by the end. (Usually Trotsky.)
The fact is, the Bolsheviks had a pretty easy time on the trail as bankers, and they couldn't hack it as farmers. Does that prove Pipes' thesis once and for all, or does it merely presage the antagonism that developed with the peasantry post-NEP? I'm not going to pretend that my findings are conclusive. If someone will give me a grant and a copy of the Great Maine to California Race, I could probably get some definitive answers.
(news) A Russian village was left baffled Thursday after its lake disappeared overnight. NTV television showed pictures of a giant muddy hole bathed in summer sun, while fishermen from the village of Bolotnikovo looked on disconsolately. "It is very dangerous. If a person had been in this disaster, he would have had almost no chance of survival. The trees flew downwards, under the ground," said Dmitry Zaitsev, a local Emergencies Ministry official interviewed by the channel. Officials in Nizhegorodskaya region, on the Volga river east of Moscow, said water in the lake might have been sucked down into an underground water-course or cave system.
You'd think they'd be used to things disappearing in the middle of the night by now in Russia. That's always how it works. First they come for the dissidents, and then they come for the lakes. And if you tolerate this, then your porches will be next.
I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.
Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.
January 2012, December 2011, January 2011, September 2010, August 2010, June 2010, March 2010, October 2009, February 2009, January 2009, September 2008, August 2008, March 2008, February 2008, October 2007, July 2007, June 2007, January 2007, September 2006, July 2006, June 2006, January 2006, December 2005, September 2005, August 2005, July 2005, June 2005, May 2005, March 2005, February 2005, January 2005, December 2004, October 2004, July 2004, June 2004, May 2004, April 2004, February 2004, January 2004, December 2003, November 2003, October 2003, September 2003, August 2003, July 2003, June 2003, May 2003, April 2003, March 2003, February 2003, January 2003, December 2002, November 2002, October 2002, September 2002, August 2002, July 2002, June 2002, May 2002, April 2002, March 2002, February 2002, January 2002, December 2001, November 2001, October 2001, September 2001, August 2001, July 2001, December 1999, November 1999, October 1999, May 1999, February 1999, January 1999, December 1998, November 1998, October 1998, June 1998, May 1998, April 1998, March 1998, February 1998, December 1997, November 1997, October 1997, September 1997, and the uncategorised wilderness of the Beelzetron era: 010622 - 010619, 010615 - 010611, 010608 - 010604, 010601 - 010529, 010525 - 010521, 010518 - 010514, 010511 - 010507, 010504 - 010430, 010427 - 010423, 010420 - 010416, 010413 - 010409, 010406 - 010402, 010330 - 010326, 010323 - 010319, 010316 - 010312, 010309 - 010307, 019223 - 010219, 010216 - 010212, 010209 - 010205, 010202 - 010109, 010126 - 010122, 010119 - 010115, 010112 - 010108, 010105 - 010102, 001229 - 001224, 001222 - 001218, 001215 - 001211, 001208 - 001204, 001201 - 001124, 001124 - 001120, 001117 - 001113, 001110 - 001106, 001103 - 001030, 001027 - 001023, 001020 - 001016, 001013 - 001010, 001006 - 000927.
Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.