The Pioneering Spirit
“The Peter Schuttler wagon was the minivan of the plains, and by the 1880s, at least thirty thousand Schuttler wagons had crossed the frontier.” Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail
After reading this, I look up from my navigator’s position in the passenger’s seat of this 2014 Chrysler Town and Country and take a peek behind me. Like the pioneers in their Peter Schuttler, (NOT Conestoga wagons, contrary to popular myth), there is no room to spare in our vehicle. Every seat has a kid and every kid has a life support system, a comfort zone built of books and movies, teddy bears and a stuffed pink pig. Within an hour of our departure from Kansas City, jumping off place for many wagon trains, the van’s floor is completely covered with the kids’ scattered possessions. The front seat is no different with coffee in the cup holders, iPads in the chargers, and last but not least, a six year old Rand McNally Road Atlas for those roads less traveled, where cell service falters and paper is still relevant. The westward travelers also had a wide variety of guidebooks and maps from which to choose, available not just at outfitters’ establishments, but even at bookshops in places like New York and Chicago. I cannot imagine what the floor of those wagons looked like after months of dust and ruts and wind.
“My own comedy of discarding began that first morning…I had slept peaceably enough, but across the thirty-eight-inch span of the wagon, my head was wedged between a barbecue cooker on one side and a stack of books on the other.” Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail
Unfortunate, ill-informed or gullible pioneers took outfitters’ advice and found their wagons bursting at the seams with useless and superfluous gear that would be discarded in vast quantities along the trail as the emigrants came to their senses. We are not green tenderfeet when it comes to long road trips: a cooler of drinks and a cooler of snacks are close at hand. The kids have been hugged and kissed by their parents and told in no uncertain terms, “You go to the bathroom every time the car stops!” Today’s pioneers obeying the modern rules of the road.
The pioneers slept among their belongings too…or underneath them for safekeeping. Our road warriors are spread between four queen beds and two bathrooms, not exactly roughing it. But there’s a fair amount of negotiating. Experience and compatibility come into play whether one is bunking with the pots and pans…or your cousin with the restless legs. Blake discovers early on that Aaron is not exaggerating when he says he won’t sleep with Gabe: “He kicks!” Gabe nods complacently…he is guilty as charged and yet innocent of conspiracy by reason of slumber. For the remainder of the trip, Gabe is the one child who will have a bed to himself. One morning Blake and I awake to find the bed next to us empty of dreaming children. First Aaron and then Lizzie have been driven to find less comfortable, but quieter, places to lay their heads by their Grandpa’s snoring.
“Perhaps we possess a dimly repressed but nevertheless accessible memory of how much community was formed by the necessities and sheer obstacle-climbing along the trail. That’s what the covered wagon represents…We have always called this the “pioneering spirit.” Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail
Saturday night Blake got a phone call from a friend of ours who was in some distress. Members of his family traveling from South Dakota in a pickup towing a trailer had broken down near Rock Port. They were moving an aged parent who was waiting inside in the air conditioning. There was no chance of finding someone to repair their truck on a Saturday night, so we brought over one of our pickups with a bumper hitch so they could hook up their trailer and continue on their way.
Stranded travelers and broken wagons…runaway mules or lamed teams…part of the rough road the pioneers trod, but one that translates seamlessly to any hot August day when the interstate highway is littered with “gators” and the shoulder punctuated with overheated tourists with their car trunks…or hoods…up.
Ann and Matt are packing up the 14 years of their life in the painted lady on College. Aaron says it’s not so hard to think about moving when the pictures are off the walls and the books are in boxes. Like the pioneers, they are choosing what to discard and what to store. Pots and pans, books and dishes are easy to move. A garden…not so much. And so there are some newcomers to the plot of soil behind our garage: some roses, some iris, of sentimental memory. They are watered in and pruned back and will grow patiently amidst the veggies until their new home is ready and a new garden begun. Our pioneer ancestors pulled up roots…but they didn’t sever every one. The yellow rose we called the “Corner Rose” from the original bush at a bin site was no doubt an immigrant from some other farmstead miles away. The two fern leaved Mother’s Day peonies in Lee’s garden at the farm are hand me down posies brought to Missouri in a wagon. Ann and Matt will also move the limestone stepping stones picked up from the creek that runs through Redbarn. Such are the seeds we plant to build new homes from old memories.
“On our 1958 covered wagon trip, my father wanted the automobile drivers backed up behind us to know that we appreciated their patience…so he had a sign maker in New York City paint a simple explanation in black and red letters: ‘We are Sorry For The Delay–But We Want The Children To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY…’” Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail
Alas! Our black minivan is under more of a time constraint than the Bucks’ family. But our wagonload traversed eight states, saw cotton and rice and peanuts, climbed the Mississippi River flood wall at Greenville and showered in tannic cypress stained waters, ate ice cream in Arkansas, tunneled through an Ozark mountain and under a Florida bay, tried eggplant fries, blue crab in a basket, and Key Lime pie. We saw tows and barges (Josh: Is that an aircraft carrier?) and a guy in a jetpack turn flips in the air. We bobbed in the Gulf and built a magnificent…if ephemeral… white sandcastle. We know our way around a Holiday Inn Express breakfast. No, we didn’t ride the Oregon Trail in a Peter Schuttler wagon, but we had “pioneering spirit!”