(Cover Photo: Johnny and June on The Horner Schooner, with Curt Herman, Swamper, in the driver’s seat)
It has been awhile since I sat down to write an entry for the 4H Wagon Train Adventure Blog. My time and attention focused on conditioning horses (and starting my garden) as soon as we started having semi-reliable sunshine, and I’ve been making lists and preparations for the trip. I’m obsessive about list-making and plan-making and being ready has been on my mind, non-stop, for months. I’ve been making lists and plans in my sleep!
My obsessive preparations were put to a mini-test for the “4H Wagon Train Tune Up” last weekend at Flying M Ranch in Yamhill, Oregon. This is a weekend designed to introduce the participants to the logistics and traditions of life on the 4H Wagon Train, test our gear, and enjoy a small taste of the food and activities and friend-making we can look forward to on the 7-day Barlow Road trip July 8-14. All the details I’d been churning in my head finally got to come out and play – in sports this would be like running plays in your head and practicing some of your moves before you finally get to take the field and see what your team can do.
Lemme tell ya, Oh Boy, my team CAN DO!
In this case, my team is Johnny and June, full-sibling Percheron crosses. I’ve had them since they were 2 & 3 years old and they are now 8 & 9. We’ve done a lot together in that time and I am always looking for new opportunities and adventures, which is how I got hitched up to the wagon train (pun intended). My team has proven themselves to be able to go-anywhere-do-anything and they do it all with a gusto for the work and affection for the people around them. In all of my little-girl dreams of the horses I would have when I grew up, I could not have dreamed-up these two horses. I am constantly in awe of them, not for their beauty (yeah, I guess they are kinda pretty), but for their work-ethic and what they put into everything they are asked to do.
Saturday was only their second time hitched to the wagon and really only my first time driving it! There were a few hiccups and one near-tragic moment that was the driver’s fault (that’s me). But in spite of the driver’s learning curve and the rain and sloppy trails, and wet, low-hanging limbs crashing into the wagon (and them, and me), and some seriously crazy new terrain (like water-crossing stream bottoms with basketball sized boulders), they hardly seemed to notice they were pulling a 2,000lb wood box, rolling on primitive wheels with zero suspension and a big flapping canvas behind them, draped 10-feet over their heads.
The first 30 minutes were a bit of a shock from the deafening clatter of the wagon and the rough ride. I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into (and asking myself how I was going to get out of it). My body was jolted and bounced, like I was riding a jack-hammer. Then, we stopped for a break and I focused my attention on the horses, wondering, if they could, would they ask the same question – what are we doing out here?
My answer came back to me through their body language – relaxed, ears forward, eyes soft, heads-up, scanning the trail ahead and ready to move out. No stress, no resistance, just quiet anticipation and willingness. During each break, while fallen brush and trees were being cleared by the trail Scout and his helpers, and then, turn by turn, over the next 5 miles or so, over trail you would never imagine you would take in this rig, the answer came to me: this trip is going to be amazing! This is a dream team for this adventure and they are totally into it. Yes, it’ll be rough, but, it’ll be so worth it. When we have conquered 80 miles together in this procession, we will all be changed forever for the better.
On Sunday morning, after a fabulous breakfast (something I will definitely be looking forward to on the trip), the wagon train covered another 5 miles or so. The sun shined, and the trail presented beautiful vistas to us around every corner, and the rhythm of wagon and the hoofbeats and the happy voices of kids just filled me up.
Ultimately, I was prepared for everything except the range of emotions I experienced in my first 10 miles with the wagon train…and, at the end of the The Tune Up weekend, all doubts about the trip and our readiness and commitment to this adventure had vanished.
Two weeks ago this blog was about getting yourself in shape for the wagon train adventure. If you are planning to participate in the 4-H Wagon Train, I know you’ve been getting active and putting some miles on those hiking boots! Hopefully you’ve been keeping track of your miles for the 200-Mile Challenge, too.
On my own hikes I’ve been making a plan – if I want my horses to be in the best condition possible for the wagon train adventure I need a plan for their fitness too, and a timeline and some resolve… because when I get home from work every evening, I’m too tired to think about it. I just gotta go do it! If your horse(s) will be participating in the wagon train, you may want to create a similar outline with your own plan of action. There are only 9 weeks until the Tune Up Trek, and only 13 weeks until we hit the trail for the big “Barlow or Bust” Trek!
Here are some things to consider – I asked a few Teamsters and Riders who regularly participate in the Wagon Train to give me their best advice about getting horses and mules in shape for the trip:
Start every exercise session with warm up time and end with cool down time, increase/ decrease circulation gradually.
Depending on your horses current condition, you’ll need to add duration and difficulty gradually, building up to longer rides/ drives and adding hills and trails – doing too much too soon may lead to injury, but not doing enough will not lead to an increase in fitness level.
Mix it up – mentally and physically you and your horse will benefit from “cross training” in different activities rather than doing the same thing every session.
While every horse is different, horses need to be worked more than a couple of times a week over a period of many weeks to get in shape for wagon train – make time for it, all of you preparations will make for a better trip.
Work with your horse with not only physical fitness in mind, but also the mental-work of wagon train – walking quietly on a lead rope, riding with other horses and accepting slower paces on the trail, eating and drinking in unfamiliar surrroundings (with unfamiliar water!), high-lining, etc.
Look now at what needs to be scheduled over the coming weeks to make sure your horse is healthy from head to hoof – call the vet for a basic musculoskeletal exam, get teeth checked, think ahead for vaccinations, worming, shoeing or boots, etc.
Take a good look at the equipment you’ll be using and how it fits, then monitor how it fits as your horse gets into better condition. Also, it has been said many times but it’s worth repeating, if you are getting new equipment, get it now and use/test it long before the wagon train!
Review your feeding plans and whether your horse is getting the right amount and type of feed for the work you are doing.
Monitor your horses body condition and be on the lookout for soreness and/or swelling.
If you have other advice about how to get a horse into the best condition possible for the wagon train, or other wisdom you’d like to share related to equine health and safety on the wagon train, please share in the comments of this blog.
May the sun shine on all of your exercise sessions!
This week, the 4H Wagon Train adventure blog was supposed to be about conditioning horses for the wagon train. However, the sun shined in the Willamette Valley a few times in the past week, the waters receded, and this blogger elected to go out and play in the mud with her horses instead of blogging. The good news is that playing in the mud (a/k/a “plowing”) is a great way to condition horses.
This blogger will be participating in her 4th year of the Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association Annual Plowing Competition on Saturday. If you want to see wagon train horses and mules in action, I invite you to come out to this event, rain or shine! If you are interested in the 4H Wagon Train, talk to any Teamster at this event – they absolutely will make time to talk to you. There will also be a 4H Wagon Train booth amongst the exhibitors at the event – those volunteers are giving their time to talk about wagon train, so go see them too. Please share this post and invite your friends.
More than 30 years ago the 4H Wagon Train idea was brought to life by Teamsters who had been plowing in this same competition for more than 20 years before that. They were plowing their own fields and wanted to find and make ways to work their draft animals for the betterment of their hobby, their industry and their community. Plowing and 4H Wagon Train are inseparable concepts, and, folks, this week it’s time to plow!
The first of three 4-H Wagon Train general meetings was held March 18, 2017. The main themes for the meeting were a little bit of getting to know each other and a lot of inspiring us to start getting ready for wagon train. Yes, the overnight Tune-Up Trek & Campout is not until June 10th, and the full 4-H Wagon Train “Barlow or Bust” trip is not until July 7th, but clearly now is the time to start getting in shape and planning for what you will need to make your wagon train experience a great one.
For advice on how to get your body ready for your adventure, I consulted Leslie McLeod, “The 4-H Wagon Train Fitness Expert” (an unofficial title), for insight and assistance. Leslie has held many official and unofficial volunteer titles with 4-H Wagon Train over the years. This year she is part of the Scouting Committee, meticulously planning the route, obtaining permits and riding/walking ahead of the wagon train to make sure the trail is clear and dropping markers for the train to follow. She is also an avid runner and off-road biker, swimmer, and, did I say, a meticulous planner?
Q: How long have you been participating in the 4-H Wagon Train and what volunteer jobs have you held?
A: “I attended the 1996 trek as a youth walker then reconnected with the program in 2011 as an adult leader and have since been a swamper, mule rider, horse rider, and walker. I have held the position of Ramrod, Scout, Scouting Committee Member, Trail Boss and unofficially been part of the trail clearing and flagging crew as well as organizing many past recruiting efforts, fundraising, and craft projects.”
Q: What’s the best part of 4-H Wagon Train for you?
A: “One of the things that I look forward to most besides the trip is getting prepared. It not only is getting you prepared but building excitement and belonging. I like to look at it as the big goal is accomplishing the trek but there are all kinds of little goals (meetings, a piece of gear, a physical achievement, a bit of knowledge, a work party) that are fun steps to look forward to and accomplish. I think it is wise to encourage people to break this up into manageable chunks and identify critical components to really show them the “doability” early on and to also help them fit little pieces into our everyday busy lives.
Q: What is you best advice for getting ready for the 4-H wagon train adventure?
A: Condition! Acclimate! Practice! Desensitize! – This goes for horses and people! I think these go hand in hand and starting early and establishing a routine is critical. Walk in the shoes you plan to bring, use the saddle and pad you are going to bring, try to take at least one hike and trail ride at a slightly higher elevation than you are used to or in conditions such as sand or plowing to accentuate the workload the higher elevation is going stress. I usually plan 1 or 2 hikes to Saddle Mt. for the walkers. Use the fanny pack, back pack, or saddle bags you are going to carry.
Practice with your gear – like putting up highline, and then letting horses who are not used to it spend time figuring it out at home or in low stress environments. If you are a returning participant, this is just as important – pull all your gear out and make sure it’s functional and ready.
Being preconditioned/acclimated/desensitized, whether equine or human, will make for a more enjoyable trip. The trip is challenging mentally and physically and things do happen. It is much better to meet these challenges in comfortable shoes without blisters or with a team that can push that extra little bit into camp after a hard pull without sacrificing their health. I like to say that yes it’s a working wagon train with both pre-engineered and unexpected stressors – but if you have prepared yourself and your horse(s) you make it an enjoyable and fulfilling achievement versus a struggle.
Q: If I’m not a person who camps out a lot, what should I expect?
A: This is a great first time camping experience because everyone takes care of each other – you’ll have a lot of help. Personally, my biggest struggle is usually my first night and getting very little sleep. You have to acclimate yourself – sleep outside or on the porch a few nights in your bedroll. The natural white noise is actually a great sleep aid for me now, but I still have to get used to it every year. By the way, there is a flyer on the 4-H Wagon Train web site called “What to Expect” – I wrote it, and I recommend it!
Q: You’ve provided a readiness challenge for the 4-H Wagon Train participants this year?
A: Yes, it’s the “200-Mile Challenge” – you log your training miles/activities from now until the end of the wagon train route and if you achieve 200 miles you get a custom handmade medal. It’s really just about moving your body and any movement counts. You can find the flyer about the challenge at 4HWagonTrain.org. I find that keeping track of your activity and seeing others participating is encouraging. The 200-Mile Challenge is just that, giving purpose to your movement and finding value in your movement – every little bit counts.
Q: Okay, the big question! Boots or sneakers?
A: This is a tough answer as it can be individual and really should be something that is broke in and what you are accustomed to wearing walking over uneven terrain for as much as 14 miles. If you have poor ankle stability then I suggest wearing a taller boot or shoe. Traditional hiking boots have been suggested in the past but they can be heavy and expensive. If you opt for a lighter shoe be aware that the uneven terrain causes more foot fatigue as the unevenness of the ground pushes through the soft sole material and cause your foot to move around in your shoe more. There are also ways to lace your shoes to help alleviate minor fit problems or issues that crop up on the trail.
What works for me is a broke in trail shoe with stiff insoles. I would stay away from, “keds” type, basketball, fashion sneakers, and open toe shoes. Riders and Teamsters should also wear a shoe/boot that is recommended for their activity but also one that can be walked in comfortably as there are instances where they may find themselves on foot temporarily. The second part of the equation for foot care is socks. Splurge on your socks and wear mid weight merino wool socks meant for hiking. Cotton and synthetic socks are terrible for your feet and are usually the cause of blisters and hots spots, so are too thick and too thin of socks. Change them every day at least and use foot powder.
Q: What do I wear on the trail, and do I have to dress like a pioneer?
A: On the trail I dress in shorts or convertible pants as a walker or jeans as a rider/swamper/teamster. A loose fitting tee shirt with a long sleeve button up light shirt that can easily be tied at my waist. I wear a head covering with sunglasses and have my daypack or saddlebags with water bottle and suggested contents from the different pack lists whether you are a rider or walker. This attire may change with predicted weather conditions so I plan for and pack other layers of clothing for wet and/or cold conditions in my main duffle bag to pull out and take with me for that day. Most of the time the dress requirements are based upon hot sunny conditions. It is imperative to wear or have with you clothing that covers your arms, legs and face in addition to sunscreen. You do not have to dress like a pioneer on the trail but you can. Pioneer attire is available to dress up in on layover day. Also, there is a Dress Code for 4-H wagon Train that you may want to be familiar with (yes, it’s on the web site) as well as refer to the “What to Pack” list for more details.
Q: What other gear do you consider critical?
A: Well, first of all, you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Some of what you need you may be able to borrow if you start asking around and I get a lot of my clothing and gear at thrift shops. Some of it you can even make, like your bedroll. Check out the “What to Pack” flyer on the 4H Wagon Train web site. (I know I keep saying that, but there is a lot of great info there!)
There are a few necessary items that are somewhat unique to wagon train – Highline Equipment, a Bedroll and a Mess Kit should be emphasized from the list of things to pack. There is also a flyer about Highlining on the web site.
I’m in the process of putting together information about building your bedroll and making your mess kit, so stay tuned.
Q: Okay, here it is: The Big What Else?
A: Hmmmmmmm I’m going to pack Lettuce and Marbles and I can go (this is a campfire game we play, if you know the game shhhhhhhh)
Q: Is it true that you are training a pack goat to come along on the 4-H Wagon Train?
A: “Dottie, my rescue goat, probably won’t come on the big trek this year. I still need to discuss with teamsters and riders as they can be very disruptive to horses and mules, which is why we do not allow dogs. She might make an appearance at the Tune-Up Trek & Campout on June 10th. She was a rescue and her body condition and feet need a lot of TLC. Right now she is happily carrying an empty pack around, leads, ties, and snuggles her humans and a horse.
Yes, it would be a first, but we’ve had a sort of mascot before and the kids really loved it. Kids who were not used to big draft animals got to start with Festus, a pony-sized pack mule. It helped teach responsibility and it was always a daily honor for one kid to be Festus’ keeper for the day. We’ve had chickens before and there was talk of a pig at one point.
Q: What would you say to people that still have concerns about the physical requirements?
A: This is a working wagon train and there is physical exertion but it is very moderate and spread out over extended periods of time with many pauses. The main reason behind the 200-Mile Challenge is to encourage people to be moving early on so that they can better enjoy the Trek itself and reduce the risk of injury. You can make significant changes to your health in a short amount of time even with a busy life. The 200-Mile Challenge is the motivation to do such. You all have 4 months to work towards making this your best year and your best Trek. 4-H Wagon Train has been a catalyst in my life, a program that has provided challenges, guidance, a family, and a place for me to grow even as an adult. This is a springboard to healthier living, make every day count and do a little bit every day.
Draw a line on a piece of paper to represent the course of your life. For most of us, that line is not straight at all. There are curves and turns happening at the events in our lives, and decisions to do or not to do something, which alter the trajectory. Whether forced or intentional, change is constant. The only thing we know for sure is that you just never know where the next segment of your line may be going.
Now add dots along the line to represent the people in your life. New people usually arrive as part of those curves and turns. Going to school, getting a job, expanding your family, making friends, perhaps even going on a wagon train adventure – every dot resulted from a change in your life or caused it to change.
Whether you are a fatalist, or you believe everything is an accident, or you believe there is a God with a plan, your line and the dots that connect you to it are what makes you, you. Your formative experiences and relationships are what shape you, and the things that make your line different from every other are tragedy and opportunity.
Since tragedy, by nature, is unexpected and mostly unavoidable, the only thing we control is opportunity – something you have to be open to, or seek out.
Becky Jarnagin was seeking an opportunity for a vacation with her two pre-teen boys, Chris and Cory (13 and 11 years old). They had done some camping and loved being outdoors, but they needed an adventure. Then one day in 1982 Becky saw an advertisement in the Hillsboro newspaper for the very first 4-H Wagon Train. It sounded like just the thing she and her boys should be doing.
Chris wasn’t excited about the trip for the first couple of days on the trail, but Cory was immediately fascinated with the draft teams and started working with a Teamster, Ike Bay, learning how to care for the horses. Chris didn’t want to be left out, so he picked another Teamster, Morris Everude, and started working with Morris and his team. Ike and Morris told the boys, as long as they were willing to do the work and wanted to learn there would be an opportunity for them. So, they both worked hard – fed and watered the horses, shoveled poop, brushed and helped hitch the team to the wagon, and got their first driving lessons.
Becky watched the boys apply themselves to their assigned duties as helpers to the horsemen. They carried equipment and bales of hay, learned about harness and horse behavior, and earned their place with the Teamsters on the wagons as “Swampers.” Becky fought the urge to protect them, seeing them leading horses into streams to be watered, being lifted off their little feet by gentle giants, and becoming giants themselves.
Instead of worrying about Chris and Cory, Becky became the Head of Family for the family assigned to Ike Bay’s wagon including her youngest son, Cory. She kept things organized inside the wagon and on-schedule outside the wagon. Her other duty was “Brakeman” – Ike had no brake on his wagon, so it was Becky’s job to jam a log under the wheel when they stopped. All of this suited Becky – a “working vacation” and a break from everyday life.
Little did Becky and her sons know how much that first trip would alter their lives. Neither Chris nor Cory had any experience with horses prior to that, but they spent years on the trail with the 4-H Wagon Train after that first trip with and without their mom along. They joined their Teamster-mentors at the Washington County Fair every year as part of the crew who helped with all of the Draft Horse events and took every chance they could get to spend time working with horses beyond the wagon train. Even after both boys served in the armed forces in the 90’s, they returned to the trail with the 4-H Wagon Train when they could.
Cory got a riding horse that he rode with the wagon train riders. And, at some point, many years after his first wagon train, there came a time when Cory wanted to sell that riding horse. And a young lady came along to buy the horse, who later became Cory’s wife. Are you starting to see the lines and dots?
As for Chris, well… on the second year of the 4-H Wagon Train there was this girl named Rhonda who was the helper for her grandpa, a Teamster named Charlie Jensen. Chris thought she was a snob and Rhonda thought he was stuck-on-himself, and they really didn’t like each other at all.
Rhonda and Grandpa-Charlie had a rough line just to get to their first 4-H Wagon Train. Rhonda’s dad proposed the adventure to Charlie who did his farming with his beloved dappled grey Percherons.
The family started making preparations for their first trip with 4-H Wagon Train, but Rhonda’s dad died before the trip happened. Charlie decided they were still going and built his own wagon for the occasion. Rhonda, a passionate 4-H event rider who grew up sitting on top of one of the plow horses as her grandpa plowed his fields, would not be left behind.
If Grandpa and his team were still going on the trip, she needed to be there. Rhonda loved that first trip, but she was shy and kept to herself and stayed close to Charlie and their team and the wagon.
Rhonda, Jr. Wagon Master 1986
The next year, Rhonda rode her own horse with the wagon train riders. Grandpa-Charlie drove his wagon. Chris and Cory were back with their Teamsters, Morris and Ike, for their third 4-H Wagon Train. Then, I bet you guessed it, something was different – Rhonda and Chris kinda liked each other.
Fast forward through quite a few adventures on the 4-H Wagon Train and scrapbooks-full of lines and dots: Cory met his wife through a love of horses, Rhonda and Chris
have been married 26 years and have 2 teenagers of their own, and Becky still participates in the 4-H Wagon Train as helper-extraordinaire (all-purpose support volunteer). Becky says the first years of the 4-H Wagon Train were the best experiences, and the toughest, shaping the course of the lives of her and her sons.
Becky continues to volunteer with the 4-H Wagon Train because every year is a new adventure with new and returning participants, and kids like Cory, Chris and Rhonda, discover themselves somewhere along the trail. The unique experience of the wagon train opens pathways of connectivity and opportunity for all who seek it out.
“The time is right to unveil my dream project with you.”
First sentence of a letter from Lyle Spiesschaert, Washington County Extension Agent, to Acting Assistant Director, Duane Johnson, Oregon State University.
If anyone ever needs to know how the idea of the 4-H Wagon Train was conceived, there it is. Lyle doesn’t like to take credit – he is fond of saying that if you want something to get done, you have to give it away. In this case, once the idea was proposed, Lyle gave it away to a trio of Teamsters. But we know from that letter that Lyle certainly proposed the 4-H Wagon Train and modeled it after other similar youth programs he researched in other states. Then, in spite of the doubts and concerns of the academic machine behind the 4-H program, the first 4-H Wagon Train left from Hillsboro, Oregon on July 10, 1982 with 125 people and 78 horses.
Lyle says the time was right for there to be a wagon train because the tri-county 4-H was in need of an event that fostered cooperation rather than competition, was family oriented and would appeal to both girls and boys, and engendered an appreciation for the beauty of Oregon’s outdoors. The time was also right for the draft horse community, as Teamsters were still farming with horses and those with the base of knowledge needed for the wagon train were ready for a new challenge.
The three Teamsters who spearheaded the effort and laid the lasting foundation for Lyle’s dream project were Lyle’s dad, George Spiesschaert, Morris Everude and George Horner. They were the ones who designed and built the first 4-H Wagon Train event, along with input and hard work from many other people who were involved in the first and stayed involved to build the program for many years thereafter. They figured out what it would take to outfit and supply the group, including wagons and horses and food and water for people and animals. They planned the route and led the group down the trail. They studied and calculated and made lists and collaborated and organized. Their families, particularly the Teamsters wives who hosted frequent meetings, were also a major part of the effort.
It’s hard to imagine planning for that first 80 mile trip, assisted by a only few modern comforts and conveniences (but no cell phones!) along the way, much less planning a 2,000 mile trip from St. Louis to Oregon City. It’s mind boggling to think about what those first westward pioneers had to do to make that trip, with no comforts or conveniences. None. “Fun” wasn’t part of it, it was all about survival. Hauling the right type and amount of supplies made the difference between hunger and misery, if not life and death. (I know some of you are thinking ’bout that Wagon Trail video game you played in elementary school in the 1980’s, right? “You have died of dysentery” was the most common way to end the game.)
The first 4-H Wagon Train, according to Lyle, was not much fun. The miles and days were long and the nights were cold. But the adversity of that first year is what brought people together and seems to be the glue that still sticks the group together today. And of course, every year the planning got better and the stories of the volunteers who support the 4-H Wagon Train today will amaze you – coming in future posts on this blog.
George Spiesschaert died rather suddenly of pancreatic cancer 20 days after completing his third year of the 4-H Wagon Train. Morris Everude and George Horner carried on the tradition for more than two decades after that. I had the pleasure of speaking to a few young ladies who were the 3rd generation of Everudes to grow up participating in the wagon train and hopefully someday there will be a 4th generation of Everudes involved in the program. The tradition continues – in my case, with the very same wagon George Horner drove for all those years and all those miles. The more I learn about the 4-H Wagon Train, the more I am committed to helping keep this unique tradition alive in our community.
The first 4-H Wagon Train committee in 1982 had 80 people on 8 subcommittees and George Horner was one of the first Teamsters. Every year he helped to plan the event and participated for an estimated 25 years. My only connection to George is the wagon he drove for all those years is the wagon I’ll be borrowing this year, and I’ve heard a lot of stories about him. George died on January 25, 2017 at 96 years old.
In order to get a better understanding of the 4-H Wagon Train experience and meet others who knew George through wagon train, I semi-crashed George’s memorial service last Saturday. I wasn’t fully crashing because I knew a few Teamsters who were there to honor George. It was still a tiny bit awkward, but by the time the service concluded I felt like I knew him. I wished I’d known him. From the back of a packed church, I listened as a representative from every dimension of George’s life shared poignant memories of a long life, filled with family, friendships, community service, coaching, church and choir and so much more. He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him, across the board, and he was obviously a man who knew how to bring people together and get things done.
When did George have time for all of this? Where did he find the energy? How did he so completely connect with every person in his life? Then I remember, he made things happen before cell phones, texts, emails, and the proliferation of Facebook and all the other social media. When George joined the first committee organized to plan the first 4-H Wagon Train, a long distance call was to the next county, meeting minutes were handwritten and letters were typed – maybe the typewriter was electric – and if you wanted to make a copy you used carbon paper. The way people connected was directly, by spending time together, having face-to-face conversations, in a world that did not measure itself by bandwidth and megabits. Anyone under the age of 45 probably thinks I’m kidding – no cellphone phones!
The last group to speak at George’s service was the “horse people,” who were all seated together, front and center of the church. I see these guys working horses and mules on a fairly regular basis, wearing mostly dirt, so I was immediately moved by their dapper appearances. They also got to the church early, judging from the place they were sitting. They were indeed there to show their greatest respect to George as one of their own.
It was clear from all that was said about George during the service, before Lyle Spiesschaert stepped up to speak for the Teamsters, that George’s passion for horses was known but not well-understood by the non-horse people in attendance. This wasn’t a room full of horse people – we even didn’t make it onto the program for the memorial. But George so thought of himself as a horseman that he penned his own gravestone, “Father, Musician, Horseman.” Of all the connections in the room, the Teamsters were the outsiders. So, when Wayne Beckwith joined Lyle at the pulpit and told the attendees he was going to lead us in singing “The Garbage Song,” I held my breath. Wayne explained that George led the singing of this song every night of the wagon train – George changed the verses to tell the story of all of the adventures on the trail each day and the group faithfully sang the chorus.
Uh oh, I thought, this isn’t going to go well. I wondered how many people actually knew the chorus or would sing it and I thought it would fall flat. Wayne sang the first verses he’d written to honor George… then there was one beat of silence… and then many, many, many voices joined in the chorus,
“Roll on you wagons roll on,
Roll on you wagons roll on,
We’re in this together and we leave at dawn,
Roll on you wagons roll on.”
That was a magical moment for me – proof that George had indeed connected everyone in the room, to himself and to each other, in life and in song. George Horner will live on in the many connections he created, a lesson for me and anyone else who wonders about their place and purpose in this crazy world.
In the early years of 4-H Wagon Train, the trip was a unique opportunity for outdoor appreciation and adventure, but spending time together on the trail was a natural extension of everyday life. Today, particularly in Oregon, outdoor appreciation and adventure is an extension of our everyday lives and the quest for respite from the frenetic pace we set for ourselves. The unique opportunity of the wagon train today is for the connections, and the singing still inspired by George, and that’s definitely something I’m looking forward to on my wagon train journey.
“I had known long before I rode a covered wagon to Oregon that naïveté was the mother of adventure.” Rinker Buck, “The Oregon Trail”
Love that quote. It sums my feeling about this journey. I’m moving forward in spite of the unknowns, asking questions, making lists, and working horses when conditions permit. I’m getting into the pioneer mindset with all of the information I can find about the trip as it is now and as it was 170 years ago when Barlow used axes and hand saws to blaze an 80 mile trail through Mt. Hood’s virgin timber. The rest, I am leaving to faith in myself and my horses. After all, isn’t that what an adventure is all about – faith in oneself?
In 1845, when Samuel K. Barlow’s family lined up wagons on the Oregon Trail and headed west, loaded with a few worldly possessions and as many food provisions and necessaries as the wagons could manage, they knew very little about the adventure they would face across the next 2,000 miles. Their journey into the unknown has been compared to the first moon landing, only it turned out to be much more treacherous.
I’m a decently trained outdoor survivalist – I know how to start a fire and build a warm, dry shelter out of nothing but what I find in the woods, navigate with and without a map and compass, and I know enough first aid to handle a crisis. While these skills increase faith in oneself when setting out on the trail, I’m certainly hoping none of it will be necessary on this trip. In fact, the 4-H Wagon Train has been operating for more than 30 consecutive years and, for the extensive committee of folks who organize the trip, there are very few unknowns. Aside from the possibilities of broken equipment, a blocked route, injuries, or mishaps with animals (domestic, not wild), my fellow Teamsters tell me this is not rocket science.
That’s not saying I’ve been promised an easy trip. I’ve been promised nothing except the opportunity for a great experience with some good folks who know how to take care of each other on the trail and meet any challenge it brings through cooperation and hard work, just like those early pioneers. I’ve been promised that if my horses are properly conditioned for the trip, my team will graduate to a level of training and experience that could not otherwise be achieved. I’ve been promised that I will not starve on this trip (but I’m a vegetarian who subsists on fast food French Fries) and there will be adequate sleeping, bathing and alone-time (but I’m an introvert who has very little experience with kids and I take my alone time seriously). I’ve been promised all of the support I need, and so far this has been more than true – not only have I received a constant flow of support and encouragement since I decided to take this trip, I feel I’ve been adopted into the 4-H Wagon Train family with open arms.
My new family doesn’t really know me, they are accepting me on faith, but the people who have invited me to participate are my other family, the horsemen and muleskinners of the Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association (ODHBA). That’s a fancy title for a bunch of like-minded people, called Teamsters, who spend all of their free time having fun with mules and draft horses, driving, plowing, logging, showing and anything else that can be done for fun with our teams. This family knows me and my horses, and I trust them to know my abilities and not to get me into trouble. After all, isn’t that what an adventure with other people is all about – trusting each other?
As a member of the ODHBA family for a number of years, I’d known of the 4-H Wagon Train from the Teamsters who regularly participate in the trip. Without these Teamsters, there would be no wagon train, and every year they are looking for commitments from teams to pull wagons. Every year, I say “no.”
But you know, when someone asks you to do something enough times, with that sparkle in their eye like “don’t worry, it’ll be great,” and you love and respect the people doing the asking, and your heart is open to an adventure, and the stars and planets seem to align in favor of saying yes, then, you finally say “yes.” Actually, I said “maybe,” but once I let in a little bit of the possibility of this adventure, the rest came like a flood and there was no denying to myself that I was all in.
All in – doesn’t mean no doubts. There will be times in the next few months when I’ll ask myself, “self, how did you get yourself into this?” I will credit (or blame) two muleskinners who I love and respect, Neal McCool and Wayne Beckwith, with finally persuading me to say “yes.” Neal, Head Teamster for the 2017 4-H Wagon Train, is responsible for recruiting Teamsters for this year’s wagon train. He is 77 years young and he estimates he has been on the 4-H Wagon Train 20 times. Wayne is 70 years young and he estimates he has been on the 4-H Wagon Train 19 times. He was Wagon Master, the leader of the event, from 2008 through 2010 and two of those years were on a similar route to this year’s route on the Barlow Road. They are both passionate about their wagon train experiences, and both are delightful story-tellers. They are the Teamsters I can count on to tell me the good, the bad and the ugly, who will answer my millions of questions with patience and kindness and, most importantly for this adventure, give me wagon-driving lessons.
A mule is hybrid between a female horse and a male donkey. They are sure-footed, less prone to injury and exhaustion, need less frequent forage and water, and pound for pound they are stronger than a horse. No offense meant to my fellow draft-horse-horsemen, but mules and their handlers are smart – “muleskinner,” a person who drives mules, means smart enough to outsmart a mule – and they and their animals are the most sensible, colorful, fun-loving and hard working members of the equine family. Teams of mules (and oxen) were preferred over horses by Oregon Trail pioneers. So, if a muleskinner adopts you, encourages you, offers to mentor you, or asks you to be a part of his wagon train, you say “yes.” It’s the next level in your education as a horseman. Ultimately, I think that is what this adventure will be all about for me, having faith in myself and others, and getting one step closer to being the best Teamster I can be.
Next Week: George Horner, and the Pioneers of 4-H Wagon Train
In trying to imagine the history of this wagon I’m borrowing, I have to think back to a time before cars and trucks and decent roadsexisted and what it would take to haul anything for any distance. In the 1840’s, when American pioneers began their massive westward migration from St. Louis across the plains and mountains to the west coast, long before the first individual motorized vehicle, the wagon was the main transport for goods and possessions.
In 1834, Henry Mitchell, a 24 year old wheelwright, immigrated from Scottland to Chicago and began a wagon building business. Over the next 80 years, Mitchell became widely known as one of the finest craftsmen of wagons available commercially. They were also the first to be constructed factory-style rather than pieced together by your friendly local carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith. (And, by the way, imagine all of this happened before the invention of power tools – Black and Decker didn’t make the first electric power tool in the U.S. until 1916.)
At the height of Mitchell’s wagon production, the factory covered 20 acres in Racine, Wisconsin, had it’s own railway, and shipped 25,000 wagons a year through shipyards, rivers and railways to every major city in the U.S. and a few cities internationally. Racine was the birthplace of the factory-built wagon as much as Detroit was the birthplace of the automotive industry.
So, in 1917, when this particular wagon was purchased in Portland, Oregon*, it wasn’t a unique wagon, and buying a new Mitchell wagon was about as simple as going to your friendly local Ford dealership today for a new F-150. That’s probably how this wagon came to be located in Oregon. Since there’s no Carfax report, no odometer, no title, no VIN #, and someone painted over the original paint and pinstriping, I can only guess about it’s age and origins.
The last year Mitchell made wagons before the brand was sold to John Deere was 1917, the same year the United States entered World War I and the automobile replaced the wagon as main transport for goods and possessions. Over the next 100 years, through today, the wagon has become a symbol more than a necessity, and the craft of wagon-making has returned to the hands of a few rare craftsmen. Even with the modern power tools available to today’s carpenter, wheelwright and blacksmith, wagon-making is almost a lost art and repairing and restoring a 100 year old wagon is a labor of love and nostalgia.
As soon as the discussion started concerning repairs to the wagon, Rob volunteered to become involved and make the wagon repair project part of his curriculum for The Anvil Academy students.
Rob is the principal and dreamer behind The Anvil Academy in Newberg, Oregon, a school so unique it almost defies a description. Physically, it’s a wagon shop, and Rob is jolly serious about the craft of wagon building. Academically, it teaches woodworking and blacksmithing, and Rob not only teaches and mentors, he brings in other respected craftsmen to teach these trades. Philosophically, it fosters an appreciation for the history of these trades as a way to better understand process, design and application toward a goal. Whether the goal is building a wheelbarrow or a stagecoach, students make a plan, learn the tools, and use their minds, hands and hearts to build character, self-confidence and life skills.
When I visited The Anvil Academy this week to talk with Rob about the wagon, I watched middle-school aged students pick up a hand-saw, hammer and chisel for the first time and spend an hour trying to master a concept, building nothing more than a skill for the sake of itself. Zero screen time, no keyboards, no electricity, just good ol’ fashioned trial and error. I met high school students who spoke passionately and articulately about their projects in the works at the school and the skills they are learning. So, you see, it’s more than a school and it’s not just about wagons.
No doubt, Rob is a craftsman and a visionary, but a humble one. He learned woodworking in his father’s cabinet making shop, but he is basically a self-taught wheelwright and possibly the only one remaining in Oregon. Over the past three decades he admits failures more than successes in trying to start his school, but he beams about his opportunities to teach wood craftsmanship to at-risk kids. His heart seems to be as big as his whole body, and he is full of stories and experiences that inform and entertain. These stories also tell me that Rob is obviously one of those people who dream up projects at a much faster rate than his plans can be executed, and his list is perpetually getting longer. Luckily for me, he reordered his priorities to accomodate the need for repairs to the wagon.
Also, luckily for me, Rob is committed to the wagon project, because the list of repairs grew longer in the past week as careful inspections were made. Last week the wagon needed a new seat and new bows for the cover. When I visited with Rob this week, he gave me a tour of all of the rotted wood (the wagon had lived outdoors for many of the last 30 years) and declared that the wagon was in need of a whole new front end (front panel, foot rest, tool box, etc.). I am beyond grateful that this was discovered, as the wagon would’ve been unlikely to hold up to the rigors of the trip. Instead, because of Rob, I have faith that the wagon will be sound.
This was the second installment of a blog telling the weekly story of what I learn and do to prepare for an 8-day journey with the 4-H Wagon Train and the stories of the people who help make it possible.
Next week: “Wagon Train, Past and Present & How Did I Get Myself Into This?”
*NOTE: The wagon was purchased from Mitchell, Lewis and Staver* in Portland, Oregon, a manufacturer and seller of agricultural equipment. Mitchell, Lewis and Staver is still in the business today, in Wilsonville, Oregon. The origin of the name “Mitchell” in this company was through mergers and partnerships throughout the years, beginning William Mitchell, son of Henry Mitchell, who opened a Mitchell wagon dealership in Portland, Oregon in 1882.
The Pacific Overland Expo Horse Drawn Vehicle and Equipment Auction, April 21-22, at The Yamhill County Fairgrounds, benefits The Anvil Academy scholarship fund. It’s a very cool event where horsemen, muleskinners, wagon enthusiasts, historians and aficionados of farm equipment for work and fun are gathered. It will expand your horizons – I highly recommend it! Click HERE for more details.