“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