IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PIONEERS
Story and Photos by Chris Baxter
As Michael Mackley and the rest of his group of Boy Scouts discovered this past Memorial Day, one walking the several miles of original Oregon Trail will find that the landscape of the pioneers hasn't changed much in a century and a half.
The boys of Troop 521 followed this original stretch over the foothills west of La Grande and down to the banks of the Grande Ronde River near Hilgard Park on a room-temperature Memorial Day, burdened only with lunches and the efforts of honing their map and compass skills.
And while the landscapes today may be similar to the 19th century, the circumstances of the journeys were worlds apart.
When Esther Harris passed this way in the summer of 1852, she had already endured months of travel along this long and arduous trail with her family and all their worldly possessions carried via covered wagon. With oxen, they pulled toward what they hoped would be the fulfillment of their dreams of a new and promising future in the West.
"It is delightful to enjoy the cool shade and tread on the rich carpet of nature's own weaving," wrote Hanna in a journal entry in 1852. "The country here for miles is rolling and alternately praira [sic] and forest. The prairas are covered with grass."
This wasn't a typical pioneer's day. This was a leisurely day for identifying prairie smoke, lupine and columbine; for watching a pair of elk and listening to their curious calling, trying to divert attention from their young one in the brush below. A day for the pure fun of a hike with friends.
"I wonder how they could do that hike without falling over that really rough ground." said Scout Matt Canavan.
In the midst of the sunshine and fun, the group is suddenly quieted. A cross is seen in the shadows beside the trail. The site of what must have been a place of tears and heartache at some moment in that pioneer past.
In the past, yes, but as anyone who has had to say a final goodbye in this life to a loved one knows, time will never completely dry the tears. It's hard to stand by such a grave and not sense the sorrow that must have filled this place as some family surely gathered to say their own final goodbyes and then, gathering all their strength, willed themselves away.
How much greater hardship must it be to not only lose a loved one, but to have to leave them in such a lonely place knowing even the simple yet so welcome consolation of returning to place a flower of memory will most likely never be yours, for you will probably never return to this place. Such sites can't help but remind one of the sacrifices and hardships this trail has witnessed.
One can't dwell on such thoughts for too long. Like the pioneers, these Scouts had a journey to complete, albeit a much shorter one.
"I couldn't believe they could do that trail with those skinny-wheeled wagons and having to heave-ho the whole way." Scout Nathan Olmsted said.
The terrain was challenging.
"In the forenoon, the trail ran over a series of mountains swelling one above another in long and gentle ascents, covered with noble forests of yellow pine, fir, and hemlock," wrote Thomas Farnham in 1839. "Among these were frequent glades of rich pasture land; grass green."
And like the pioneers of a century and a half ago, Troop 521 eventually made their way down to the Grande Ronde River, but it was here they parted ways.
Here, pioneers were now faced with the daunting prospect of climbing back up out of the river bottom and traversing many more miles of the rugged Blue Mountains and hundreds of miles yet beyond before they could rest.
Leaving the memory of Esther and the countless other pioneers, the Scouts climbed into their comfortable vehicles for a smooth, air-conditioned 15 minute trip back to their modern comforts. Surely with a newfound respect and admiration for those who went before.