Following the Oregon Trail, digitally and on foot

  • (c) Lowell Georgia/CORBIS

As a kid, I loved playing Oregon Trail, a popular and notoriously difficult computer game in which avatars inevitably drown, run out of water or die of dysentery en route from Missouri to the Promised Land at the Pacific's edge. An imaginative child, I took my virtual pioneer adventures offscreen, loading up my small red wagon and careening around my rutted desert backyard in suburban Phoenix. In the game, players are faced with terrible choices, forced to ford treacherous rivers and bury their loved ones. I littered my backyard with teacups and paper gravestones, relics of my own doomed expeditions.

Later on, in college, I studied archaeology and was awestruck to learn that not only do the Oregon Trail's wagon ruts still exist on the ground, in the real world -- they are also visible from space. The land those pioneers crossed still attests to their trials. This past summer, when I joined a team of archaeologists surveying the trail in Wyoming, I saw the evidence for myself. Before our surveys, we combed through diary entries and old photographs in our historical field guide manuals to "get into the pioneer spirit." And at night, after drinking beer and looking at trail sections on BLM maps and Google Earth, we played an Internet version of Oregon Trail.

Of course, the game couldn't recreate the parts of the trail I loved best: The constant smell of freshly crushed sagebrush, released like puffs of perfume whenever our four-wheel-drive trucks steamrollered over it. Wyoming's treeless landscape, populated by wild palomino horses, grazing pronghorn -- whose meat, I was told, also reeks of sage -- and anxiously roaming cows. The snow-capped Wind River Mountains to the north, our reference point in this sea of rolling hills.

Yet the game turned out to be more than an evening distraction. Every day, we fanned out along the real trail's 200-foot-wide corridor, our eyes fixed on the ground as we slowly walked it. Occasionally, we discovered rusted wagon fittings, broken mule shoes, fragments of glass. My childhood immersion in the game had awakened my imagination, animating these lifeless artifacts and bringing the pioneers to life. My nightly forays on the virtual trail only deepened my encounters with its real-life remnants.

The game also opened my eyes to the brutal landscape around me. I began to imagine the Oregon Trail -- its ruts often indistinguishable from modern two-tracks -- as my sole path through treacherous mountains and endless plains. Each time we reached the crest of one sage-covered rise in our monotonous survey, only to be greeted with the next one, and the one after that, I felt a genuine blow to my morale. This trail, I thought, could break any traveler -- certainly my feeble avatar, and perhaps even me, today.

As my parallel treks continued, I bounced between past and present, between the real and the virtual worlds. By day, I combed the trail for important artifacts and possible gravesites, learning first-hand details about the pioneers' strength. The smell of sage, which at first so delighted me, became sickening at times, and I was exhausted by the incessant whipping of the Wyoming wind in my ears. By night, my Old West avatar dug graves, hunted, and re-enacted the lives that so intrigued me.

In June, our crew reached the Sublette Cutoff, the trail's most famous landmark. Pioneers usually spent several hot July days camped at this fork in the trail while they debated their next step: taking the longer, well-watered road to Fort Bridger or the tempting cutoff, which shortened the dangerous journey by almost a week. Caveat viator: The cutoff had no water source until the Green River, 50 miles and five days distant. It was a fateful calculation. With winter's snow fast approaching, should the travelers risk the cutoff, knowing they had scarcely enough water for their families and animals? Though the game helped me understand the pioneer experience, it could only take me so far, for the cutoff does not even appear in Oregon Trail. To really know the hardship of the trail and appreciate the pioneers' persistence, I had to walk the Sublette Cutoff myself, feeling the weight of the pioneers' gamble on my own shoulders.

Even though I had plenty of water and was unencumbered by a wagon, the hot winds and relentlessly beating sun of the Cutoff often seemed unendurable. Along the trail lie rusted metal bands from busted water barrels -- reminders that one minor slip could doom an entire party -- and a smattering of graves, marked only by small piles of shale. But weary as they were, many travelers were tough enough, and lucky enough, to make it. Today, their pioneer descendants thrive in towns along the Oregon coast.

It's possible to reach Oregon on the Oregon Trail -- or in Oregon Trail, for that matter -- with just the right amounts of planning, daring, luck and cunning. I didn't complete the journey in the real world, or in the virtual one. But toward the end of my summer on the trail, I developed a strange attitude. Part doggedness and part resignation, it was a kind of surrender to both the beauty of the landscape and the brutality of the trail. It was, I imagine, how the real pioneers must have felt.

Laura Herrington Watson is a freelance writer in Denver.

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