Loving the time of Cholera

Screen shot from original Oregon Trail gameWhen I was in fifth grade, my social studies teacher Mr. Sindall organized our class into an amazing race. He grouped us into wagon teams and told us we were Pioneers on a simulated journey out West in the year 1848. The game presented us with challenges and we made tough decisions about life on the Trail. In real life, it was 1982, and we didn’t have computers in my school. I didn’t know then that our project was based on the now iconic Oregon Trail game, the first and most successful educational software for children of all time (read a great story about how it was developed here).

Mr. Sindall fostered an appreciation in me for all things Pioneer, which was further fueled by my love for the Little House series and the idea of living in a log cabin, scrounging for bent nails as Pa fixed the roof, churning butter, hearing the sound of coyotes howling at night. The draw of the wilderness was so strong that I even begged my parents to take me camping. They, immigrants from Pakistan, didn’t understand. Why would we leave our house and go sleep in a tent, when Howard Johnsons existed? That wasn’t fun, they assured me. It was lunacy. 

Over the years, I thought of Pioneer life, like every time I filled my sugar bowl and remembered how much of a luxury something so simple was for Laura Ingalls and her family. Or when I considered how to ford a river from the days of the game. So I was recently thrilled to be invited to write a series of choose-your-own adventure stories based on the original Oregon Trail computer game. Suddenly, I was back in fifth grade, but even better, because I got to pick the challenges this time, and I got to understand Pioneer life at a whole new level.

The assignment had a tight turnaround and was at times grueling. But every time I started to complain, I read accounts of Pioneers burying their children, resorting to cannibalism in the case of the Donner Party, succumbing to Cholera, Dysentery and all sorts of treatable diseases, and suffering horrific accidents—drowning, accidental gunfire, getting crushed by the wheels of a wagon. It was unbelievable. At the same time, there was this amazing sense of wonder and adventure, of braving the elements and the unknown that was awe-inspiring. I often asked myself, how they survived and if I would have had the strength or willpower to pull off a journey like that in a non-simulated experience.

I imagined filling a twenty-foot wagon with enough food and basic supplies to survive a four to six month journey during which I would travel fifteen miles a day. I wouldn’t be riding in the wagon, which was pulled by a team of oxen, but walking since there was no room to sit inside. I’d have nothing personal but the clothes I was wearing and maybe a book if I was lucky. When the morning bugle sounded, I’d scarf down a ration of bacon and beans and panbread, do my chores, and head off, walking past the hurried graves of fallen Pioneers, ignoring the stench of the animals and people around me and the blisters on my feet. I’d walk every single day, through rain or shine, heat or snow, wearing down the ground as the wagon wheels carved deep grooves that can still be seen today. For fun, I’d scratch my name into major landmarks, like Chimney Rock or Devil's Gate.

Could I do it? No way. I whine when I haven’t eaten for three hours. I get a headache from being in the sun for more than an hour and have seasonal allergies. And they didn’t have GPS back then so I’d likely end up going in circles. I’ve accepted that I’m weak and wimpy. The desire to go camping? It’s gone, replaced by my inherited love for climate control. But I do want to get out to Nebraska and Wyoming by airplane and see some of the Trail sites--wagon ruts, gravestones, and rock formations. And then I’ll go back to my air-conditioned hotel, eat something delicious, look at my pictures and read. Some of us were destined to live out wild adventures. Others were meant to write about them.