Pioneers had it rough — but they had great ground clearance

By Jayson Jacoby June 17, 2011 12:39 pm


The emigrants who plied the Oregon Trail lacked all sorts of amenities, but one thing they had in spades:

Ground clearance.

Now I understand that crossing half a continent without air-conditioning sounds like an unpleasant way to pass the summer, and probably was.

Not to mention the absence of an iPod jack on any prairie schooner’s dashboard.

(No dashboard at all, come to that. Or iPod.)

But it seems to me that too little attention has been given to how fortunate our forebears were in being able to roll right over boulders that would yank the oil pan clean off pretty much any of today’s four-wheel drive rigs.

Including the ones with tires that are tall enough to hide a third-grader and that each cost as much as a used Pinto.

(The tires, that is, not the third-graders.)

Those metal-rimmed, wooden wagon wheels rode a tad rougher than a modern steel-belted radial, of course.

But a sore back beats a ruptured radiator.

And have you ever tried to fashion a replacement driveshaft by whittling a juniper limb?

I had ample reason, and time, to ponder this particular advantage of the pioneers on a recent Saturday afternoon while stumbling about, figuratively, in the sagelands east of town. I was trying, and for more than two hours was failing, to figure out how to drive from Pritchard Creek west to Baker City along the spine of the divide between Interstate 84 and Highway 86.

The topic of the emigrants, and in particular their ground clearance, was apt because our route — my father-in-law, Howard Britton, was along for the ride, unfortunately for him — traced the Oregon Trail for some distance.

I’d argue, though, that those intrepid travelers made considerably fewer wrong turns than I did.

And I’m morally certain that they never worried, what with their shoulder-high wheels, whether their skid plates were stout enough.

That we eventually came onto a road that led us home, by way of the White Swan Mine and Virtue Flat, had largely to do with luck. And perhaps a smattering of stubbornness, a trait that rarely mixes well with luck. It’s just that I hate to backtrack, even when, as is typically the case, that’s the best way forward, as it were.

My navigational skills played no role, certainly — they are, as I implied, negligible.

(To his credit, Howard never mentioned this fact. Not out loud, anyway.)

The whole debacle came about in a manner familiar to anyone who travels often through country devoid of pavement.

I trusted a map.

Actually, that defames maps.

What I trusted was my ability to accurately deduce from a map the relative difficulty of getting from one place to another in a motor vehicle.

Which ability is utterly untrustworthy and prone to emotional outbursts, unlike a map, which just sits there.

Although I wasn’t relying solely on old-fashioned paper maps.

I checked the trip out beforehand on Google Earth, which is anything but antiquated.

If the pioneers had had satellite navigation, for instance, we might never have heard of the Donner Party.

(Although Doppler radar might have been more the beneficial technology for that bunch. And maybe a snowmobile or two.)

But even with the assistance of extraterrestrial cameras I can get into plenty of earth-bound trouble.

The problem is that every ridgeline and draw out there looks pretty much identical to the next one.

And except for an occasional lone juniper, which is no good for anything, there aren’t any trees. Trees, when they grow in profusion, as in a forest, can help a person find his way through unfamiliar terrain. What you do is look for the corridor of open space between the trunks. This is a reliable indicator of a road, since few vehicles, including covered wagons, can easily mow down a single mature tamarack or ponderosa pine, much less an entire thicket.

But in the sagebrush almost any opening looks like the right way to go.

The first time I missed a turn, the road ended in a boulder field at the tip of a minor peak. This road had no purpose I could fathom, unless it was made by whoever built the rock cairn at its end. I don’t know why the cairn is there, either.

Not that a person needs a good reason to build a cairn. Sometimes, having ascended a summit, I just feel the urge to stack rocks. It’s the same primeval need, I think, that compels people who have managed, perhaps without intent, to reach some especially inaccessible spot, to tie a length of bright red nylon ribbon to a tree limb. To stake their claim, so to speak. I’ve been to quite a few such spots — never on purpose — but usually I don’t have any ribbon.

The second time the road seemed to end I turned around and backtracked (brief but annoying) to what looked like it might be an intersection.

There was, at any rate, what seemed to be a linear patch of ground where the sagebrush wasn’t so thick. It requires a childlike sense of optimism to describe this route as a road. But it seemed to be going in the approximate direction of a windmill we had seen, and decided we ought to have a look at, based on the idea that if the builders of cairns need a road then so too do the builders of windmills, which are a lot bigger. Also you don’t as a rule find windmill parts in the hinterlands, as opposed to cairn parts, which are just rocks and which are plentiful.

As it turned out there were actually two windmills. At the second one we found a road that led to another road that sort of petered out for a stretch but then reappeared and soon after connected, finally, with the road I was looking for.

It was a fine afternoon, all told.

Against the annoyance of the two retreats, and the half dozen or so gates that Howard had to open (and, of course, close), there was the spectacle of wildflowers — brilliant yellow balsamroot and Oregon sunshine, phlox in pink and white, the light purple of lupine and the dark purple of larkspur, the whole palette lush in this soggy spring.

The weather was pleasant, too — sunny, temperature in the high 60s and, unusual for that country, only the gentlest of breezes.

I never quite relaxed, though.

The grass grew so tall, and the condition of the roads so abysmal, that I was plagued by a near-constant fear that the green shield was hiding rocks. Like a hiker who is being stalked by a cougar, I waited, tense and anxious, for the ambush.

But the awful screech of metal colliding with unyielding stone never came.

My FJ Cruiser, fortunately, is relatively high-riding by the standards of modern SUVs, with almost 10 inches of space below the lowest-hanging vulnerable pieces.

Still and all, I envied those daring souls who came this way a century and a half ago.

Sure, they had to worry about dangers that I didn’t — a child stricken with appendicitis and no doctor within a thousand miles, early blizzards in the Blue Mountains, the treacherous rapids of the Columbia still ahead.

What they didn’t have was the Toyota finance company.

A much more civilized adversary than, say, a grizzly bear, yet one liable to turn mean when its monthly payment fails to arrive.

Also, the finance company has a whole herd of lawyers at its beck and call.

And they have neither the time nor the sympathy to indulge in stories about wrong turns and chunks of limestone that lurk in the high weeds.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.