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August 19, 2008 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Lessons from Oregon Trail

Road trips are exhausting.  We ran out of diapers somewhere in Wyoming.  I bet at one time this was a big deal, but we just veered toward the nearest Wal-Mart.  Even in the vast desolation that is Wyoming, we were able to restock and replenish at the slightest hint of low supply.  Because of this uniquely American phenomenon, we were able to pack lightly and travel without worry.  In this country made for driving, you have zero chance of starving on the interstate.  Getting from one place to the other is a piece of cake, and though we have many things to be upset about (gas prices, lack of vacation days, irritation of having to rotate tires) in reality we have life pretty darn easy.

But this was not always so.  I know a lot about traveling the Western frontier back in the day.  I played Oregon Trail like, every day during eighth grade Social Studies class.  We got back from our eight-day excursion to Colorado and I promptly laid on the couch, spent from the difficulty of the trip.  But was it difficult, really?  I got to thinking about how difficult our trip would have been had it taken place about 150 years ago. 

MISSION:  Take the family from Montana to Colorado and back

CHALLENGE:  Prepare for the Trip

NOW:  Take the family rig to Jiffy Lube.  Pay $25 for oil change and fluid check.  Hopefully the adolescent on duty remembers to check the tire pressure.  Fill up gas tank at the corner station.  Though you pay with a card at the pump, you go inside to buy an overpriced bottle of water and a bag of pretzels.  Maybe you buy one of those 5000 calorie brownies, too.  And a Mountain Dew.  And Skittles.  Hey, it’s a long trip.

BACK THEN: Write letters to Grammy and Paw-Paw informing them of the summer’s trip.  Do this about a year ahead of time.  It would be unfortunate to travel all that way to find that Ma and Pa decided to go to Independence to restock the pantry with flour and salt pork.  Hopefully the Pony Express rider avoids rattlesnakes and delivers the letter on time. 

Prep the covered wagon.  Stock it full of flour, sugar, and lard.  You’re going to be making a lot of biscuits.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t forget the cast-iron pan and the Dutch oven.  The cows will be coming along side the wagon so get them out of the barn.  You’ll need them for milk, butter…and incase you lose a wheel and need to winter over a mountain pass…meat.  You don’t want to be the Donner party.

CHALLENGE:  Run out of Diapers

NOW:  Glance out the window and spot the nearest Big Box store.  This will take you under ten minutes.  Pull off the highway, enter store, find diapers.  Walking to the farthest corner of the store to retrieve diapers will be the longest leg of this challenge.  Don’t forget to pick up a convenient, travel-sized wipes box and a tube of diaper cream.  Those long days in carseats can be hell on the bottom.

BACK THEN:  You never run out of diapers…because you have two and they never get thrown away.  One is made from an old potato sack, and the other is a piece of calico from last year’s Sunday dress.  You have to change them every couple of days.  Dry them out by the fire every night and they’re good as new.  When you pass a creek or pond, use that as an opportunity to wash Junior’s butt-cover.  If you don’t pass a creek, don’t fret too much.  When Junior’s rash really starts a-hurtin’, he’ll get himself potty-trained.  But you still won’t throw those diapers out, because they’ll make good rags for kettle-scrubbing.

CHALLENGE:  Family gets hungry

NOW:  Reach into the cooler and grab a cheese stick, granola bar, or piece of fresh fruit.  If you’re frugal, grab a sandwich in a baggie.  If you were too busy doing last-minute packing to remember to make sandwiches, worry not.  Just look for a fast-food drive through…this will take you five minutes, tops.  If you’re interested in sitting down to eat, there will be a Perkins next door to seven different fast food places.  Take the family, go inside, read menu, and order a delicious meal (if it’s Perkins, then just ‘meal’).  Either way, your hunger problem vanishes for at least the next couple of hours.

BACK THEN:  Build fire.  If you can’t find firewood, burn the cow patties.  If your cow is dead, rip of a piece of your dress and burn that.  Burn something, for Pete’s sake.  But don’t make the fire too big…you don’t want to get scalped out here. 

Combine flour and lard to make biscuits.  Go easy on both ingredients, as you don’t want to run out the first month into the journey.  If you’re in a game area, enlist Pa to snare a rabbit or a grouse.  That will make a tasty addition to those biscuits, which tend to get old after a couple of weeks.  Plus, the protein will really help the children’s spine grow straight.  

If you thought ahead, you slaughtered a pig last fall, and now the pork remains are sliced, salted heavily, and stored in a barrel that’s in your wagon.  Hopefully you did this, because Pa doesn’t get a rabbit every time. 

CHALLENGE:  Upset Stomachs En Route

NOW:  You probably have Tums in the glove compartment.  Pop a couple of those and you’ll feel better.  If it’s an emergency, pull over at the next gas station and run inside.  No gas station?  Someone with foresight has placed convenient “rest stops” along the side of the highway every so often.  Just go inside and “rest.”

BACK THEN:  Say your prayers.  You probably have dysentery.  Even though you are toast, Ma will probably go a couple of miles into the prairie/forest to search for appropriate herbs.  These will be boiled in the kettle (did you remember to pack the kettle?) and made into a tea.  You will drink this tea and if Ma picked the correct herb maybe you will live to the ripe old age of forty. 

CONCLUSION:  Traveling in a Covered Wagon Sucks!

Sometimes it’s nice to find reasons to appreciate all of the little things that we have in our lives that makes everything we do really, really easy.  Thinking about how

If you long for the Pioneer life, I’m sorry to say that you’ll never be able to replicate it in today’s society.  Just try taking a covered wagon down I-95.  I don’t know what kind of fine the Highway Patrol will stick you with, but I’m sure it will be a hefty one.  Maybe you should just buy this T-shirt instead:



Leave a Comment
  1. Miss Virtual Reality / Aug 24 2008 2:26 pm

    This post should remind us, on just how luck we are to live the times we do.

    Good post!

  2. crisitunity / Aug 20 2008 10:13 am

    Re your last sentence in reply to my earlier comment: I always wondered that about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books – what exactly did her mother think about all this tramping about the wilderness, going from homestead to homestead every couple of years? Laura’s curiously silent on the matter, in my opinion.

    Yeah, lots of this was inspired by Little House on the Prairie…my favorite “series.” I guess back then people just listened to their parents. What were they going to do? Rebel by playing Wii all day? It’s hard to say. Life must have been really hard, but maybe it didn’t seem like it because it was just the way it was.

  3. glassowater / Aug 20 2008 8:52 am

    I’ll take one XL t shirt please! Great post!!

  4. bluesuit12 / Aug 20 2008 7:03 am

    This is hilarious!! “Say your prayers. You probably have dysentery.” That line had me laughing right out loud. I’m so glad I live today and not back then and your post helped to solidify that feeling. I remember playing Oregon Trail in middle school and loved it. Just glad I didn’t have to live it.

    I LOVED Oregon Trail. I know it was a silly game but I thought it was awesome. They have a new-ish version out that is in color and you can see the wagon wheels moving and it’s just not the same as seeing those green letters say “You have reached the Dalles!”

  5. curlywurlygurly / Aug 20 2008 6:28 am

    that is hysterical. i feel your road-trip pain–we’ve done two in the past two summers–nj to california and nj to houston. they were so much fun and much easier than riding by wagon or horse.

  6. crisitunity / Aug 20 2008 5:50 am

    I also played Oregon Trail a LOT in middle school. It occurs to me now that the teachers probably thought this was “educational”. Really it was only good fodder for future blog posts and overpriced, deeply desired t-shirts.

    In all seriousness – probably not what you were looking for in this post, but oh well – I have often thought about how challenges of the past and challenges of the present are simply different. Life during Oregon Trail days was difficult in a way we can’t imagine surviving, but the pleasures were simpler, and I’ve often longed for that sort of life. Living among nonstop glass and steel and plastic has its own challenges.

    You’re right about that. I think living in a rural area is a good compromise…you get the “pleasure” of getting snowed in four or five times a year…but emergency services is just a 911 call away. I don’t miss living in a big city one tiny little bit. But chopping of a chickens head every day would get old. I guess I should counter that and say “because I work.” If I didn’t have to come to work every day, and my sole purpose was gardening, making biscuits, and sewing one of my two dresses, that would be a bit different. I wonder how many pioneer women secretly cursed at their husbands for making them leave “back East.”

  7. morethananelectrician / Aug 20 2008 4:20 am

    Very well written and very funny…

    “Say your prayers. You probably have dysentery. ”

    What a riot!

    I went back and read this whole thing twice to make sure I didn’t miss something.

  8. Ian / Aug 19 2008 9:48 pm

    LMAO@”if it’s Perkins, then just ‘meal’”

    And I love the t-shirt too. It’s up there with “WIZARD NEEDS FOOD BADLY! WIZARD IS ABOUT TO DIE!”


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