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The Oregon Trail: Could We Survive It?
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A revised version of this essay is included in the recently published, second edition of my (Freeway Flyer/Paul Swendson) American history book.
The Oregon Trail: Could We Survive It?
In my early American History courses, I have students watch a brief documentary about the “Oregon Trail” and list all of the difficulties that one might face on this perilous journey. Topics such as this always make me – and hopefully my students - realize how much tougher and braver the average person of the past was in comparison to a typical American today. I doubt that I would even last a day on the Oregon Trail. For me, after all, a two-day camping trip is a bit of a grind, and I am usually on a campground with actual toilets and showers. (And I sleep in a tent on a foam mattress.)
It’s hard for me to decide what would suck the most about taking a five-month, two- thousand mile hike to the west coast. First of all, of course, there was the constant knowledge of all of the various ways that one might die on the trail: disease, starvation, prairie fire, injury, Indian attack (which was rare, by the way), nasty weather, getting stuck in the snow, being eaten by a fellow traveler, etc. According to the film that I show to my students, one out of seventeen pioneers on the Oregon Trail died on the trip. How many middle-class Americans today would even consider taking a journey with that kind of a death rate? When we travel by plane, car, boat, or train, we begin with the assumption that we will reach our destination safely. How many of us take off for work or on a vacation crying with our loved ones out of fear that we may never see them again? We live in a world, after all, where people travel great distances for the fun of it. In the time of Columbus, people would have thought you were nuts if you sailed off into the open ocean on a pleasure cruise.
One of the great blessings of the modern world – and some would say curses – is that you never feel like you are isolated and alone. We always have our trusty cell phone at our side. The national weather service can warn travelers of impending trouble. GPS devices can help us to know at every moment our specific location, and if we end up stranded somewhere, all sorts of modern transportation and communication devices can be used to get to us. On the Oregon Trail, of course, travelers were cut off somewhat from civilized society. If you got injured, sick, or struggled to find food and water, there was no way to call for help and no store where you could shop for supplies. You could wait by the trail in hopes that someone might show up, but there was no way to know when or if this might happen. If bad weather lay ahead, there was no warning. And if you ran into some bad guys, you better be able to fight them off. Few people in a modern, industrial society have any concept of what it means to be isolated. For many people, the phone is practically implanted to their ears or to their rapidly texting fingers so that they never have to feel anything resembling real loneliness and isolation.
I have a feeling, however, that the constant fear of various forms of death would not be the hardest thing about life on the trail. The worst thing, in fact, might be plain old mind- numbing boredom. For a person like me who considers an eight-hour car ride or five-hour flight to be an almost unbearable ordeal, it is impossible to even comprehend what a five-month journey across the plains and through the Rocky Mountain passes would be like. Can you imagine hanging out with the same people, most likely your family members, every day for that length of time? And to make matters worse, you would not have an IPOD, radio, video game device, DVD player or anything else to keep you occupied (and distracted from the annoyances of your siblings.) You would be forced to talk to people, read books, and engage in other non-electronic, archaic activities. Hangman, twenty questions, and the “let’s count the blades of grass game” could only be entertaining for so long.
So why were people of the past able to do this? How did they withstand the physical ordeal, the fears, and the mind-numbing boredom and drudgery of trail life? The simple fact, I would argue, was that trail life was not a huge deviation from their normal, day-to-day lives. In the America of the 1840’s, death could always be around the corner. Before the advent of modern medicine, roughly half of people died by the age of five. If a disease was contracted, doctors could do little to cure you, and some of their misguided practices could play a big part in finishing you off. Many people were still forced to adapt to and deeply respect the whims of nature since they did not have the modern technologies that lead us to believe that we can overcome weather, natural disasters, and time and space itself. Since death was always in their face, their fear of it was probably not as great as modern Americans who often do everything in their power to put their impending mortality out of their minds. It takes so little, after all, to freak us out. Almost every year, we hear the story of some disease that is apparently going to wipe out all of humankind: SARS, West Nile Virus, Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu, etc. Now while I recognize that these diseases do some real damage, the death rates are microscopic in comparison to the epidemics, plagues, and day-to-day diseases of the past. Would one hundred people dying of West Nile Virus freak people out 160 years ago?
People of the past were also well acquainted with boredom and drudgery. Without modern labor saving devices, they were forced to perform many time consuming, physically demanding tasks that most modern Americans have never had to do. Doing laundry, chopping wood, gathering water, and producing food required both time and hard labor. For me, the ten or fifteen minutes that I must spend on laundry, the half an hour at the grocery store, and the twenty minutes spent doing dishes feel like an overwhelming ordeal. I wonder how long I would last on a mid-nineteenth century farm. And when I managed to get some free time, would I know what to do with it? Before Facebook, cell phones, video games, ESPN, and DVD players, what the hell did people do with themselves?
In a sense, people 160 years ago were almost a different species than I. Because their lives were harder, they became tougher. Because they were well acquainted with drudgery, they tolerated boredom more effectively than many of us would, and a good book or conversation was often the ultimate form of entertainment. They were not conditioned to need continuous visual stimulation. And because they knew that death was a possibility no matter how risk-averse one might be, they may have been willing to take more risks. Still, I can’t imagine that the journey on the Oregon Trail was remotely easy. So like the Polynesians who ventured throughout the Pacific, the people who first crossed the Sahara Desert, or the men who were crazy enough to set sail with Columbus, the pioneers on the Oregon Trail deserve the awe and respect of the wimps of modern society. I don’t know if we will ever truly see the likes of them again.