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451 pages, Hardcover
First published June 30, 2015
It was a completely lunatic notion. Except for the occasional faux reenactments staged for tourists by Wyoming outfitters — modern-day "pioneers" are trailed by convoys of sumptuously appointed RVs, and pampered at night with portable showers and catered meals — no one traveled more than sixty or seventy miles of the trail today. I would later read, in a history of the trail years and the subsequent homesteading period in the late nineteenth century, that "the last documented crossing of the trail occurred in 1909." Just to reach my rendezvous with dementia out along the banks of the Missouri River, I would spend two or three days driving west from my home in New England with my gear loaded into a pickup. Then I would spend four months, via covered wagon and mules, crossing what nineteenth-century travelers called the "Great American Desert." Across the high deserts of central Wyoming and Idaho, I would have to cover stretches of forty miles or more without water. And why did I think that the notorious and often fatal obstacles that the pioneers faced — mountain passes strewn with lava rock, hellacious winds and dust storms, rattlesnakes, and descents so steep that the wagons could only be lowered by ropes — would miraculously vanish from the trail for me? Only a delusional jackass, or someone seriously off his medications, would pull off the road at the Hollenberg Ranch one fine summer afternoon and concoct such a preposterous scheme.
But you can't save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me. Already, powerful forces were drawing me west. I felt an irresistible urge to forsake my life back east for a rapturous journey across the plains.
In Maine, Nick was known for fastidiously building mansions and reconstructing burned-out summer camps in record time, but that was when he was working for someone else. On his own time, he sank boats, stripped gears pulling swimming floats from rivers, and wrecked wagons and sleighs. Essentially, crossing the Oregon Trail together, we were a case of collaborating DNA presenting symptoms of incurable bipolar disorder. I proceed with an abundance of caution and prefer not to be dead. Nick is thrilled by danger and proceeds with an abundance of risk.
"Pioneering spirit" is a phrase that was used a lot in my family while I was growing up in the 1950s, and it probably explains, too, why I was so drawn to covered wagon travel. I am emotionally connected to my past as a covered wagon traveler — a time when my father was so strapping and young, fun-loving and emotive, a man so wonderful to love. He was a nonconformist in a rigidly conformist age, but I've often felt since then that there was a logic behind his eccentricity.