Starting in Cape Cod, we hugged the Oregon Trail as closely as possible along America’s stunning scenic byways. As we approached the end of the line, after driving 6,000 miles, we wanted to walk in the pioneer’s actual footsteps and feel the powdery dust in the well-worn wagon ruts. Baker City, Oregon was the place.
The architecture of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is industrial yet unobtrusive in the parched landscape. As we moved through the interactive exhibits, ceiling to floor windows gave us vistas to the very paths the pioneers traversed. The kids played a massive version of the old Oregon Trail game many of us remember, complete with bouts of cholera and troubled river crossings. They packed a life-sized wagon three times until they successfully loaded it under the acceptable weight limit.
After an hour-long survival class designed for kids, we set out to walk on the actual trail. We walked less than two miles in 103-degree heat. By the end of our walk, we had dust coating everything from our eyelashes to our toes. From the park ranger to the docents, the people were knowledgeable and gracious and stirred the kids’ enthusiasm in new directions as the morning quickly melted into afternoon. We spent almost seven hours at the Interpretive Center and the kids were begging for more.
There is nothing like understanding an event through a well thought out exhibit, then walking into the sunlight and finding yourself in the actual landscape. It happened in Normandy, Berlin, Boston, and Baker City. As we stood on the hillside, at the same time of year the pioneers would have crossed this valley, with the same sun relentlessly beating down on us, we felt so full of gratitude. Our appreciation was not because we are traveling and get to see wonderful things. It was because these moments connect us to generations of people with a completely different experience of the world. The more moments of connection we feel, the more we care about the people and paths we cross, even, and perhaps especially, in our own backyards.