Retracing Ruts

The Oregon Trail Off-Road group camped each night during their journey roughly following the route of the Trail during this past summer. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Trail Off-Road)

Jason Hamasu didn’t want to merely act like an Oregon Trail pioneer, he wanted to smell like one too.

Not that emigrants’ diaries are rich in references to their own odors.

But considering that 19th century travelers on the Trail couldn’t stop every day and check into a motel with hot showers, it seems likely that the aroma wafting around a wagon train would offend the noses of we who are used to store shelves crammed with anti-perspirants and other toiletries bearing every scent which modern chemistry can concoct.

Hamasu, though, along with three friends who accompanied him this summer on a journey to retrace the Oregon Trail, were committed to enduring the same heat, and coating their nostrils with the same acrid dust, that so plagued the pioneers.

So no air-conditioning.

This of course is an accessory with which our ancestors were not familiar.

But Hamasu’s quartet of modern explorers, all of whom live in or near Oregon City, at the Trail’s end, never intended to replicate the emigrants’ experience in every respect.

They didn’t have six months to make the trip, for one thing.

So Hamasu and his buddies swapped yokes of oxen for six-cylinder engines.

In place of wagons they chose rigs with four-wheel drive, knobby off-road tires and electric winches.

Their 44-day adventure, which started July 16, was a success, in that the team made it to Independence, Missouri, the traditional start of the Oregon Trail.

They even arrived several days earlier than they expected, which gave them time to explore the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, said Hamasu, 34, who’s a general contractor.

But as for A/C, he won’t purposely go without it during future summer trips.

“That was probably one of the biggest mistakes we made,” Hamasu said in a telephone interview this week.

Their concept was sound in a mechanical sense.

Air conditioning puts added stress on a vehicle’s engine, particularly during hot weather, and Hamasu’s group figured their own comfort (and scent) was less important than protecting the two vehicles they were relying on to carry them more than 3,000 miles, most of that on dirt or gravel roads — his 1993 Toyota Landcruiser, and his friend Cauxby (pronounced “Coby”) Brasseur’s 1993 Ford Ranger pickup truck.

Trouble is, Hamasu said, the incessant heat inside the vehicles damaged some of their electrical components.

None, fortunately, was a critical failure.

The absence of artificial cooling did help the travelers appreciate how emigrants suffered, Hamasu said.

“For the most part we were hot and dusty, like the pioneers before us,” he said.

The group, which calls itself Oregon Trail Off-Road, brought a primitive shower but they didn’t have many chances to use it.

And except for an occasional foray into civilization to take on gas — unlike oxen, Toyotas and Fords can’t be refueled in a meadow — the group rarely ventured into towns.

“We resupplied every four days but that was about it,” Hamasu said.

The Idea

It was 2013 and Hamasu was in his living room, watching a documentary about the 1890s Klondike gold rush in Alaska.

Hamasu, who was already a four-wheel drive enthusiast, began to daydream about an extended off-road trip.

“I started thinking about the Oregon Trail,” he said. “I called some of my friends and said, ‘Is this crazy, but what if we backtracked the Oregon Trail?’ ”

They didn’t think it was crazy.

Hamasu knew it would be impossible to truly reverse the pioneers’ route from Missouri to Oregon.

Much of the distance is either on private property or it lies beneath a paved road — sections of Interstate 84 in Oregon being an example.

Hamasu said that although he was excited about the trip, he went about planning it in a decidedly methodical way.

He spent more than a year plotting a route, as close to the Trail as was practical.

“We wanted to see all the same scenery that the pioneers saw,” Hamasu said. “That was kind of the point.”

By late August of 2015 he and Brasseur, 30, along with Steve Wilke, 30, and Chris Flamm, 43, all Oregon natives, were ready to reconnoiter the Oregon section and part of Idaho.

Their seven-day trip included three days in Baker City, a longer stop than they intended but one necessary after a particularly rough section of road near Sumpter busted off a couple of suspension bolts on the Toyota.

Besides that pratfall, though, the trip bolstered the team’s confidence that the much longer expedition was feasible, Hamasu said.

The Trip

On July 16 of this year the team packed the Landcruiser and the Ranger. Both have roof racks that accommodate pop up tents where the friends slept.

Although Hamasu’s goal was to design a route as faithful as possible to the Oregon Trail, he knew even before the group left that their itinerary would have to be flexible.

Private land boundaries that didn’t always match their maps, and several closed roads forced multiple detours.

In Northeastern Oregon the group veered south and west of the Trail, passing through Sumpter. They rejoined the Trail near Kearney Pass south of Vale.

Because the route wandered considerably more than the Oregon Trail itself, the off-roaders ended up putting 5,500 miles on their odometers, Hamasu said. That’s more than twice the distance the emigrants covered in their prairie schooners.

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