In the footsteps of the pioneers — but with fruit snacks

By Jayson Jacoby March 02, 2012 09:49 am

Went for a hike on the Oregon Trail the other Sunday accompanied by a 4-year-old who delighted in the glutinous mud which coated the historic ruts.

“Gooey,” she called it.

Also “mucky” and “messy.”

All three words were accurate enough under the circumstances.

I was distracted, though, from Olivia’s adjectival acumen by worrying about what sort of mess her slime-encrusted shoes were apt to make back at the car.

This particular concern, I suspect, did not greatly trouble the emigrants who traveled the trail 150 years ago.

When there’s a decent chance you could die of thirst or consumption, or drown trying to cross a rain-swollen river, a couple of footprints in a wagon box, which likely wasn’t altogether sterile to begin with, must rank as little more than an annoyance.

Anyway, based on their diaries it seems the pioneers who passed by on their way to the Willamette Valley were plagued more by dust than by its viscous cousin.

My preoccupation with the imminent befouling of my floormats got me to thinking about the other ways in which our little walk might have differed from our forebears’ epic trek.

I don’t mean the obvious ways.

There is scarcely a resemblance, of course, between our hour-long stroll and their crossing of more than half a continent.

Also, I wasn’t relying on a yoke of oxen to get me home.

(A Buick, I daresay, is less cantankerous. Probably more reliable, too. Although I’ve never owned oxen.)

Rather, as I watched Olivia frolic through the sagebrush (which she derisively branded as “weeds”) I wondered how kids her age reacted to their journey.

I felt that queer sensation which is, I suspect, common among people when they go to a place where the people who made history actually, well, made it.

There’s no doubt that Olivia gamboled across ground where other 4-year-olds stepped so long ago.

Were these children as intrigued by the footprints of animals?

Did they shout warnings at the sight of every badger hole?

Pioneer diaries imply that the adults, by the time they reached Flagstaff Hill, would as soon come down with cholera as spend another month wiping alkali dust from their sweaty cheeks.

But kids, as any parent of a 4-year-old can tell you, are different.

The Trail was hard on them, to be sure.

Killing hard, as many tragic accounts tell.

Children tend to be resilient, though.

And during such a trying endeavor as traveling the Oregon Trail, a child’s brief attention span, so vexing to parents in more tranquil circumstances, must have been something of a savior.

I can imagine that the discovery of a brightly colored stone, or the sight of a lizard skittering in front of the wagons, caused a young emigrant to forget, if only for a moment, that he’s been on short rations for weeks.

Olivia, of course, can’t yet understand, much less appreciate, how fortunate she is by comparison.

She’d breakfasted on pancakes just a few hours earlier.

And when she lagged a bit on a slight uphill stretch, her mom, with a magician’s flair, plucked from her jacket a sweet treat that immediately revived Olivia.

Nothing short of a highway with frequent rest stops could have made the Oregon Trail journey easy.

But I’ll wager this: The parents who made the trip would have had a better time of it had they been able, before they rolled out of Springfield, to lay in a goodly supply of fruit snacks.


. . .


The deer have made a fine mess of my yard this winter.

Not that there’s anything especially fine about it.

I was out there on a recent afternoon, mucking about with a plastic snow shovel and trying to thin out the piles of brown pebbles that are the species’ calling card.

This task, though annoying, had a sense of ridiculousness that struck me as humorous.

Slightly humorous.

The byproducts of ruminants, fortunately, are much less offensive than, say, a mound of dog poop.

Drier, for one thing.

Less fragrant, for another.

I’ll never get all the pellets, of course.

But I suppose the ones I miss will help to perk up my grass come spring.

Natural cycles and all that.

Ultimately I figure my ledger with the deer is pretty well balanced.

Olivia likes to watch them stroll past the windows; she gets especially excited when a few does with their fawns hunker down in the front yard, which is next to her bedroom.

With the egotism peculiar to small children, she seems to consider this a personal zoo, assembled for her amusement.

Even Max, who points his index finger at anything that catches his fancy — and almost everything does — seems to give the gesture a special flair when a deer is nearby.

My equanimity aside, I don’t give the deer a figurative pass “because they were here first.”

For one thing, deer, by and large, are migratory creatures. For them, the notion of “here,” as applied to my modest 9,000-square-foot patch of ground, is moot.

For another, I’m pretty sure that the place is far more attractive to deer — a veritable smorgasbord of attractive, and tasty, vegetation — now than before I signed the mortgage papers and moved in.


. . .


I signed up this week for a faster Internet connection.

I did this on the theory that I’m not wasting time online with anything like the speed I’m capable of.

Sometimes websites take as long as five seconds to open.

Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

As bad, almost, as using the word “baud” in casual conversation.

It turns out that, to achieve a respectable download rate, I need to hook up a new modem.

This frightens me.

It’s rather like the computing equivalent of souping up a hot rod by replacing the puny two-barrel carburetor with a Holley double-pumper.

Except carburetors, confoundingly complicated though they can be, are purely mechanical devices.

At least you can see the carburetor’s needle valve before you crush it with a hammer because the stupid thing won’t work right.

Computers, by contrast, are controlled by mysterious pieces hidden inside their plastic cases.

Even a hapless shadetree mechanic (me, for instance) occasionally gets lucky with a screwdriver and persuades a stumbling engine to purr again.

Jab a screwdriver at a modem and you’re apt to ruin the thing, plus start the house afire as well.

A friendly man from CenturyLink, who was as helpful as an obsequious waiter angling for a big tip, assured me that the new modem should get along famously with my wireless router.

I want to believe him.

But I’m no babe in the woods.

I’ve busted more than one carburetor.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.