By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Rachel Becker can't see the buffalo standing at her shoulder.
She reaches out a hand, running her fingers through the thick, brown hair of the exhibit at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
She follows the animal's contours, sliding a hand along a smooth horn and then back down the buffalo's broad face to its nostrils.
Becker, 16, turns and grins at Sonia Sittingdown.
andquot;That was cool,andquot; she says.
Then she extends her cane to check for obstacles in her path before moving on to another display.
Becker is one of 14 students traveling the Oregon Trail through the Discovery Trails program, organized by Accessible Arts and the Kansas State School for the Blind in Kansas City, Kan.
The students are accompanied by 15 staff members, including five artists a storyteller, musician, visual artist, potter and videographer who engage the youth in activities and projects during the travel time and around the camp fire.
For the past five years, Discovery Trails groups have followed the Oregon Trail from Independence, Mo., to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming.
This year, the group's three-week journey will take them from Kansas City to Oregon City, then back along the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Along the way the travelers visit historic sights and museums, setting up camp each night where the youth all help pitch tents, cook dinner and clean up at the end of a long day.
andquot;We're up early and we're up late,andquot; said Bill Daugherty, superintendent at the Kansas State School for the Blind.
andquot;It's a lot of fun, but very tough,andquot; said student Kari Hiltner, 20.
Following a hike into the Snake River canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho, last week, the group's first Oregon stop was at the trail center.
It was a unique visit, as the center staff allowed the young explorers to touch the exhibits they could not see from the wagons to the animals to the mannequins dressed in pioneer clothing.
andquot;One of the main things is we have to take a lot of time and let the kids find their own way. Otherwise a museum for a blind person is just stuff behind glass,andquot; Daugherty said.
Staff guided the students through the trail center's displays, offering verbal descriptions to relay what the youth couldn't see.
andquot;These are not horses. They should be mules let me check and see,andquot; Sittingdown told Becker and Brittany Myrie, 15, as she bent down to read aloud the information plaque.
Kelly Burns, trail center visitor information specialist, greeted the group at the first display, offering general information and the chance to touch or try on a fringed leather jacket.
andquot;If you feel a shiny spot, it's shellacked,andquot; she said as the students each took a turn touching the exhibit of a pioneer riding horseback.
Following a tour of the museum, the group listened to a performance by trail center living history interpreter Nancy Harms she had them feel the dirt and smell sagebrush and then hiked along the trails that wind through the hillside around the Center.
An emphasis on storytelling
Throughout the trip, the youth listen to stories from the journals of early pioneers and then try their hand at storytelling.
andquot;We have a big, heavy emphasis on storytelling,andquot; said Eleanor Craig, Discovery Trails project director for Accessible Arts.
As the group travels in their five wagons (vans), the students take turns creating stories through journals, songs and tall tales, she said.
Each student has their own canvas a blank shirt where they will tell their own trail story through decorations and designs.
andquot;They study the Oregon Trail in the fourth grade, and then it's never mentioned again,andquot; Craig said.
The stories and experiences will then be used as teaching tools this fall when the students present lessons based on personal experiences in two or three elementary schools back in Kansas, Craig said.
Hiltner is already preparing, she says, pulling out a journal filled with pages and pages of written notes.
andquot;Everything has just been amazing,andquot; she said. andquot;We've learned tons. I could, like, write a book.andquot;