Tag Archives: Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail IRL


We all remember playing the game as a kid. There was even a scene in the movie Boyhood, where the main character, Mason, is playing the game at school. Across multiple generations, it seems like nearly everyone, at least in the United States, has an experience playing Oregon Trail sometime between grades 3 and 8.

Strangely, I don’t recall the exact learning purpose. It seems like the game is about American History. However, nothing in the game requires players to remember historical facts. I bet that a lot of people play the game multiple times without even knowing that in the year it is set, 1848, James K. Polk was president and we were finishing up a war with Mexico. The game does seem to teach kids about geography, and some basic life skills like how to survive in the wilderness, plan a trip, and avoid disease.

The Oregon Trail IRL was a one time event, on a Saturday evening, at the History Colorado Center. It is only the third time I’ve ever consumed alcohol inside a museum, and is the kind of hands on event I would like to see more of at museums.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love all kinds of special exhibits, and the History Colorado Center had a great on on baseball at the same time.


However, there is something about being able to physically interact with something like the Oregon Trail at a museum. As I had noted before, the permanent exhibits at the History Colorado Center are quite interactive, something I certainly appreciate. The Oregon Trail IRL, a one night event, is quite different a typical museum experience.

Participants took part in real life versions of the activities we all remember doing on the screen; fording a river, hunting, looking for wild fruit, and even fixing tires.


The only disappointment was that I sincerely expected to go to a room where we kill something like 2,400 pounds of bison, but are only able to carry 200 pounds of it back to the wagon. That seemed to always happen in that game.

It had not even occurred to me how much the event was about nostalgia until I entered a room called Ms. Frizzle’s Classroom Crafts.


Popular music from the late 1990s, such as Ricky Martin and Britney Spears were playing. There were old computers, overhead projectors, and everything people of a certain age range would remember about being in school. For a few minutes, I actually got quite emotional, remembering what childhood and being in school was like.

My mind instinctively turned to the good things, the things I wish I had more of in my adult life; Spending most of the day learning about a variety of different topics, and being surrounded by a community of people in the same situation as me (the class). Adulthood can be isolating, and many of us have jobs where we focus on one thing the entire day.

Nostalgia has its place. It is always fun to share fond memories with people. However, nostalgia can also be a trap. We often simplify the past, remembering experiences as only good or only bad, when the truth is far more complicated. I certainly long for the intellectual variety and the community I had during school. However, I would not want to return to an environment with all the social pressure and anxiety, where people are mean to those who do not conform to standards that in now way help anyone achieve success later in life. Like every chapter of our lives, this one had both positive and negative aspects.

Too much nostalgia can also get us too focused on the past. No matter how hard we try, the past cannot be re-created. However, the wisdom of these experience can help us make better futures, or, at the very least put into better context what we want, what we don’t want, what works and what doesn’t. The key is to not spend too much time dwelling on how much we miss our good times or how wronged we felt during our bad times.

At a young age, I recall hearing from a lot of older people that the music of “their era” was better. I started to recognize this as kind of a phenomenon, even though it does not have a name. It felt as if these people were culturally stuck, in a past era, 10, 20, or 30 years ago, however long it had been since their youth.


I never wanted that for myself, because it feels like there is a connection between being stuck in the culture of the past, and being unable to adapt to a changing culture. As I get older, I plan to continue to follow whatever is new, culturally, as best as I can. In fact, despite the fond memories of the songs I heard in Ms. Fizzle’s classroom, I also remember that time period having some really bad ones as well. An idealized version of the past, in our heads, can prevent us from living our best lives in the present. Macklemore and Kesha, in their recent hit song Good Old Days, remind us that whatever situation we are currently in, is something we should be able to appreciate. This can’t happen if too much time is spent thinking about the past.


Oregon Trail Historical Sites in Wyoming


I am not on vacation, nor am I on any kind of a long trip.  I have a couple of more major trips planned in the near future, and I intend to write about them.  Today, I took a day trip up to Fort Laramie and Guernsey, Wyoming to see some historical sites related to the Oregon Trail.  For those who don’t know of the Oregon trail, and have not played the popular 1990s computer game, the Oregon trail is one of several trails commonly taken during the 1800s era of Westward expansion.  As the name suggests, this trail was the route to Oregon.  It originated in Saint Louis, Missouri, which was a common starting point for many westward voyages.  Thus, the Gateway Arch and museum was built in Saint Louis to commemorate the city’s role in Westward expansion.

Several historic trails actually followed the North Platte River from it’s split in North Platte, NE to just west of Casper, WY.  Not only did the Oregon trail follow this route, but so did the California trail (which, as the name suggests went to California rather than Oregon), and the Mormon-Pioneer trail, which was used to establish Utah as the base area for the Mormon population.  These trails break off in different directions farther West, but in order to take advantage of the most efficient pass through the Mountains, they all followed this route, passing through Fort Laramie and Guernsey in Eastern Wyoming along the way.

The main attraction to this particular site is the ability to see the wagon ruts quite clearly, as shown in the picture above.  The wagon ruts are so clear to this day because in this section of the trail, the wagons passed through rock as opposed to dirt.  So, the process of weathering over the past 100+ years did not remove the evidence of heavy wagon traffic here, the way it did in many other points along the trail.

Fort Laramie also had major historic significance.  It was a major stopping point for pioneers making the Westward voyage, providing them with a place to rest, and a trading post for them to obtain supplies for their journey, which was about to enter a more treacherous phase, going through the mountains.  It is, in fact, at this point along the journey, where those traveling West first start to see the Mountains in front of them.  Up until this point, the trek from Saint Louis, along the Missouri, Platte, an North Platte rivers mainly through Missouri and Nebraska is relatively easy compared to what lies ahead.  I can even picture some people making this journey to have put the upcoming challenge that these Mountains pose out of their mind, after a month or so of mostly flat terrain.  While looking Westward from the Fort, I tried to imagine what would be going through the mind of someone traveling the trail in the mid to late 1800s, suddenly being reminded that their voyage was about to get much trickier, and much more dangerous.

It is always interesting how history seems to come alive in places like this.  I know not everyone does this, but whenever I visit historic places like this, I always kind of imagine the actual historic scene that is being commemorated.  In this case, it is Westward expansion, the movement of people from the East across a relatively unknown vast expanse of land, to a whole new life in the West.  I imagine the people at the Fort, discussing their voyage up to this point, and what lied ahead.  Maybe even some of them had a few drinks and had long talks about what they expect from their new lives, in Oregon, California, Utah, or wherever else they may be going.

The first time I ever remember imagining history was on a family trip to Plymouth Rock when I was eight years old.  On this trip, not only did we visit the rock where the Mayflower landed (I was disappointed, I thought it would be bigger), but we also went to Boston Harbor, where the Boston Tea Party had actually taken place.  They even had a ship with mock boxes of tea, so tourists could actually lift these boxes and act as if they were dumping the tea into the sea, the way the colonists did in 1773.

It is when I thought of this experience, and how it taught me to visualize history that I suddenly made the connection between these two places.  The Mayflower is basically where history began (from our perspective) for the state of Massachusetts.  The story of everything in that part of the world begins with the Mayflower’s arrival, then to Thanksgiving, and onward to the revolution, etc.  Where I live now, in the West, history begins much later,  pretty much with this very trail.

The first people to use this trail were actually fur traders, as early as the 1790s.  They made no permanent settlement in the area, but they did “blaze the trail”.  They were the ones that figured out what path was best to take through the Mountains, followed the rivers trapping beaver and such.  In essence, they mapped the route for the settlers that would begin making that voyage several decades later.  Along this trail would be the first white settlement in the region the same way the Mayflower was for the Northeast.  It is truly amazing what kind of connections we can make when we let our thoughts flow like this.

The other major historical significance was Fort Laramie’s military presence.  This is an aspect of our history that is significantly less triumphant and more questionable than the voyages across the country.  When I think of the pioneers, I think of them with pride, as they risked their lives to settle new areas and open up new opportunities to us all.  However, the military presence has a much more morally questionable history.  The military base at Fort Laramie played a role in a ridiculous shoot out with a group of natives over the theft of a cow, as well as some of the “Indian wars”, which, it appears from the way the history was presented there, came about when us, the European settlers, violated a treaty with the native tribes that we had previously made.  The previous treaty had given the native tribes the black hills, but once gold was discovered there, we decided we wanted it.

History is never as clear as we would like it to be.  Everyone loves to study World War 2 and the battle against the Nazis because it presents us as the “good guys” in a manner that is about as clear as any historical event would ever be.  Almost every other event has many shades of gray, and much more complexity to consider.  It is often presented through a biased lenz, but I have found out through further investigation that there is quite frequently more to the picture that what is commonly presented in history class, the media, or any other common discussion.

This bias, of course, is no more evident than my own thoughts earlier in this blog about how Massachusetts “history” started in 1620, while Wyoming “history” started with the first fur traders in the 1790s.  Both those places had been occupied by native tribes prior to those dates, which represents the first time European settlers entered the picture.  They may have a rich history as well, with stories of conflict, adversity, triumph, courage, and even some questionable actions, much like our own story of these places over the past few centuries.  But, I don’t know the story.  Maybe it’s been forgotten, maybe someone still knows it, but the rest of us Americans of European descent just don’t care.  Heck, I find that many people don’t even care about the history our direct descendants were directly involved with, let alone a history of our land that has basically been erased over the past few centuries.

I’ll probably never know that story, and there are probably many aspect of the story of the settlers of the 1800s that I am not aware of.  But, going to places like this does give some perspective, and encourages many of us to think about our history; the good, the bad, and the questionable.  History is not something that can be changed, but learning it gives us all a little bit of perspective.  As Bob Marley put it “if you know your history, then you’ll know where you’re coming from”.