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I’ve read enough Oregon Trail diaries to know the numerous ways you could die on the trail in the 1800’s. Among the most colorful ways that people met their fate:
1. Horse in quicksand
2. Drowned in the river
3. Indian Attack
4. Bad berries
5. Caught under the wagon wheel
My knowledge of the trail was edified, of course, by the video game that all school aged children played in classrooms across the nation from 1992-1996. This game taught us things that every American should know: How to budget enough bacon for a family of 6, how to ford a river with your team of oxen, and how to shoot and kill with the click of a button.
As youth we spent hours captive to the pixellated screens as our wagon parties dwindled to the few remaining healthy members who could survive for weeks on flour until the next trading post. Oh what joy and jubiliation we found when we reached the long-awaited city.
Compare this now reader, to the “easy on the eyes” interface of the updated Oregon Trail game – which features cute gnarly little oxen and prairie munchkins who make their way along the lush landscape with cinematic gusto. Is this updated version truly teaching our children about the stark hardships of the trail life? Or does it make a mockery of our history?!? It is my opinion that the 1992 version still better captures the spirit of those harsh and minimalist times.
But as distressing as it is, there is no use fighting modernity. The Oregon Trail itself is only a shadow of what it used to be. In Oregon, it mostly follows a highspeed freeway- winding through the mountain roads around Mount Hood and spilling into “oh-so-majestic” Oregon City. Having a longtime fascination with the trail I swayed one of my comrades out to the Zig Zag river this weekend to hike a portion of the infamous Barlow Road. It was not as simple as one would think. If a “Friends of the Oregon Trail” society exists, they have been truly slack. There are signs suggesting historic landmarks, but after hiking miles to that end, said landmarks are not apparent. Other times they are simply ski lifts where there should be historical markers. In one instance, we spent about an hour roaming around the foggy woods looking for Laurel Hill Chute. We finally found it thanks to a generous soul who attached blue tape to a tree branch marking the path that leads to the hill. Seeing that craggy descent did help me to appreciate the hardships the pioneers faced on their perilous journey. It also gave me an excuse to speak in a pioneer dialect for at least an hour.
We never would have found these places if we didn’t have our own pioneer-driven determination. As usual, the signage in Oregon is poor and was clearly made by drunken townies on snowshoes. You have to look closely to find these special spots, but if you do, the charm and nostalgia of the Oregon Trail still remains.