The Oregon Trail

By Corey Van Landingham

Featured art: Wooden fence with two black buffaloes by Markus Spiske

When my first boyfriend’s mother died of breast cancer, I spoke with him on the cordless, from the bathtub, trying to console him. He was calm in his grief, and I broke his heart soon after. A cruelty only vaguely acceptable at fourteen. A week before we had snuck out, in the middle of the night, and driven up the snaking mountain roads of southern Oregon. Toward what? Toward something. We could feel a pull all around us, the silence in the woods, the ghosts of the Shasta people passing below our windows.

What did we know of love? Across the screen, in the dark computer labs of our youth where we played The Oregon Trail on our soon-to-be-extinct Apple II computers, love was entering in the names of those you wanted to take with you, west, toward the promised land. We could all begin a new life together, if we purchased the right supplies. Unless we were in a particularly harsh environment, we knew to conduct a brief funeral. Here lies Laura. We wrote epitaphs across the virtual tombstones before continuing down the trail.

Laura has measles. Press enter to size up the situation.
Date: April 24, 1848
Weather: cool Health: fair
Food: 788 pounds
Next Landmark: 113 miles
Miles traveled: 191 miles

Laura, however, was sitting right beside me in the computer lab. Here, in a room squeezed between the gymnasium and the principal’s office at Bellview Elementary, three blocks away from my own home, Laura was doing just fine. This was years before a babysitter—a neighborhood boy we knew well, who would often ride his bike next to ours on our way home from school—molested her younger brother. Before they moved out to the country where her step- mother could keep her horse. This was before Laura began carving long lines into her arms, before the drugs and the divorce. Before her two beautiful boys were born. No, Laura—legs dangling from her chair, her flower-printed leggings bringing some semblance of life into the drab room with all those whirring, gray machines—was in excellent health. But the class had gathered, as we did every week that year, to play The Oregon Trail, and it was the fashion to submit the names of friends (as well as family members, and crushes—how many times did John Woodley die of dysentery?) for each wagon party. In that room normally reserved for tedious typing exercises, we all hushed before our screens. We pressed down hard on the keyboards, eager to begin our individual journeys.

I’m not quite sure how our teachers presented the computer game as a lesson. Was it simply to place us in front of those large machines none of us yet owned? To foster critical thinking (how many yokes to buy, how many sets of clothing) or leadership (party morale would waver if one declined to hold a funeral after a death)? While the game was designed in 1971 with hopes of introducing schoolchildren to the realities of pioneer life, I suspect that it mainly supplemented our first forays into our unique geographical situation. We were Oregonians, after all! Even though the Trail didn’t dip below the Harney Basin toward our home near the state border. If our ancestors had settled 16 miles to the south, we would have been Californians. The horror.

I imagine, for students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in Cleveland, in Des Moines, the game represented a possibility they could themselves enact— move westward, someday, to the glittering architecture of San Francisco, stroll through Pike Place Market, sip the Willamette Valley’s fine Pinots. But for us, it was creation myth. It was our origin story. It was Adam and Eve grasping hands and walking out into the new world to create, yes, us.

There were no buffalo to hunt with our space bars. Not in Ashland, Oregon. My father was an avid rafter, but I had never caulked the wagon and floated the river. We were far from the actual trail tracks one can still see up north (later I would head off on my own to Lewis & Clark College—closer to all of Oregon’s significant historical markers). Much like our taxonomy, the year before, of the various Native American tribes who once lived in the West (with our adoption of “Indian Names” and stringing of plastic beads onto fake leather string), we were interested in proximity only to a certain extent. We didn’t learn about the Siskiyou Trail, which led hunters and trappers right through our town in the 1820s, or of the Applegate Trail bringing settlers to the valley. There weren’t MECC games for those. We had to write our ancestors, write ourselves, into the world somehow, onto the green square Oregon occupied on the map hanging over our teachers’ desks.

Outside of the game’s crude pixels, our own lives were dull. What was the goal of it all? What decisions were we making that affected the wagon party’s well-being, the life of our friends, our burning young loves, our parents? Our small town, nestled inside a mountain valley, seemed safe. We were sheltered from the immediate danger of the wide-open trail—snakebites, typhoid, Indian raids. The accidental gunshot singing across the prairie. We weren’t, of course, so protected. There were years when it seemed impossible there could be yet another Ashland youth dead. Years with the usual small-town car crashes, the overdoses accidental and not. But there was also the young man whose body was found, decapitated, on the bike path. One can still see, clinging to tele- phone poles or tacked to the co-op’s corkboard, tattered posters pleading for any information concerning the circumstances of his death.

Danger, we didn’t know then, was all around us. So situated—mountains rising to the west, my own home on the edge of town and less than a mile from the Pacific Crest Trail, reaching from British Columbia to the U.S.–Mexico border and bringing with it all kinds of wanderers who wanted to rest a night or two in our peaceful valley—we weren’t strangers to bears rooting around in our trash cans early in the morning. Cougars stalked the forest, taking the lives of more than a few neighborhood pets. Every summer we held our breath against the wildfires that blazed in the south. They licked at our doorsteps. One summer, my grandmother was evacuated from her home. There were weeks we were advised to stay indoors for all the smoke, when the sun singed bright, setting red, redder with the new atmosphere. But we also woke up with deer in our kitchens, which made us think no one could hurt us. Swimming against our perceived safety, we courted the thrill of death. We choked ourselves in the elementary bathrooms until we fainted. We drank from kegs and walked through bonfires at the ends of dirt roads where no one could hear us. We drove too fast. We had bad trips and watched the Technicolor sky from canyon-side boulders. We jumped from steep cliffs to Emigrant Lake. One didn’t make it back out of the dark water. Mostly, though, we survived all the wilding.

When my father died, my mother and I gathered with his best rafting buddies at the edge of the Rogue River. Above the boat launch—below which begins the Wild and Scenic, a section of the Rogue that had no further access for miles and miles; if you put in there, my father would warn, you would be on the river for days—I took the plastic bag from my mother and scattered the ashes. I poured them in at the point where Grave Creek meets the river, so that small, milky eddies formed, swirling in place before descending downriver. A small school of fish began gulping at the mixture. This shocked my mother, at first, before we decided he could be carried further in the depths of their stomachs. It was, in  a sense, a study in impermanence. We had composed no epitaph. While, when we can, we visit Grave Creek on the anniversary of his death, my father lies nowhere. Or, as I like to think of it, he lies everywhere. In the great blue heron flying above us. The leaping trout. The moss on the undersides of the stones.

I wasn’t always so in awe of my surroundings. Having spent most of my youth on a hardwood court—volleyball, basketball, tournaments up and down the coast—I disliked going on hikes with my parents. I was unimpressed by  the flower, the tree, the bird they would point out to me. I didn’t, I realize  now, much like to look. Strange, as my mother was a microbiologist and my father a photographer—both trained to look closely. Perhaps their vision was so exhaustive that I resisted observation for a long time, especially in regard to the natural world. My father refused to photograph people, or nearly anything manmade. I remember stacking rocks—cairns, I later learned they were called— at the beach in Bandon and wanting him to photograph my listing creations, but he never would. He preferred the unadorned, the unaltered, the wild. Now, above my dresser, I have one of my favorites of his photographs hanging. In it, a red holly berry covered in frost. He has zoomed in, blurred the outside world, made each crystal of frost a flake of longing. Nothing stays so intact, so red, so glistening. If one were to touch it, the ice would quickly melt.

It took leaving the country to cultivate wonder for where I’m from. After returning from a semester abroad in Ecuador—with memory card after memory card full of sweeping views from the bus, women at the market in bright dresses, alpaca on a snowy ridge—I stared hard when I approached Ashland. My mother was driving me down I-5, from Portland, and I pressed my face against the window, imagining I was seeing our descent from a haggard bus with no A/C and boxes of squawking chickens tucked under the seats. How marvelous, to try to see the valley for the first time, its orchards and pine trees and Mt. Ashland, overlooking it all, still sporting snow at the top. I would have taken a photograph, surely, of the historic hotel—the tallest building in town—visible from the highway. Or maybe I would have snapped one of the two ponies grazing lazily around a falling-down farmhouse. The valley itself remarkable. How remote the community seemed from the car. How small. It also took my father dying, two years later, for me to truly see him. I needed distance—spatial, temporal, aesthetic.

How do we wipe our vision clean and take it all in again? This is what haunts me still. That each time I look at something—a landscape, a face, a poem—I can never unsee it. It will never again be new, thrilling, dangerous. And so I spend too much time, now, looking. I obsess, stare at the sunset too hard, trying to get it all down, get it right, the light, just like this, just so. I look so hard I can no longer see, where each molecule starts to buzz and take on its own life. Not unlike the pixels on those now-ancient screens. Look at how each Conestoga wagon is made from individual green boxes! How the mountains—purple, snow-topped—seem to move!

The Oregon Trail, though, was a game predicated on not looking. Or on looking askance. The pixels formed rough blocks, abstractions of animals when viewed from our red, rigid plastic chairs. If you brought your nose close to the monitor, though, felt the static buzz against your forehead, went nearly cross- eyed, the pixels pulled apart. Our first lesson in semiotics. Thankfully, we didn’t have to look so close, could gaze, instead, longingly at John Woodley’s dimples. Could sharpen and sharpen the cellophane-wrapped pencils bought from the hallway pencil machine until the tip met the eraser’s metal sheath. Even the hunting scenes were gestural—aim in a direction and you might score dinner. Though the boys beside us squawked their dissent, I didn’t think one needed any skill, per se. It seemed to me a game of chance, random maladies cast upon us by whatever malevolent system we were wired into this time around. A banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, a farmer from Illinois. We gave to these professions our names, the people we cherished. We sized up the situation, as the game prompted, the best we could. We hit enter, followed the directions toward our own manifest destiny. If we were callous in continuing on, in teasing Laura, in our future careless romantic glitches, it was surely because we did not yet know that we, too, were mortal.

More than a decade before my father died, on a hospital cot erected in the middle of our living room, I was already burying him on the frontier. In a bun- ker of a room, crammed together with my fourth grade classmates, we faced over and over the horrors of the trail. Snakebites, gunshot wounds. Measles and cholera. One could even die, we learned then, from exhaustion. Nine years old, we weren’t invested in the pioneers’ lives after which the game was modeled. Sure, we learned how long a party of four could live off of flour, sugar, bacon, and coffee purchased from Matt’s General Store. How many boxes of bullets to buy. We learned the anatomy of covered wagons. But what thrilled us was map- ping our own lives, our own names, over the history that seemed, to us, locked tight. Inevitably, one of the boys would discover he could kill Karen by neglect, would set, at the onslaught of her illness, the rations to Bare Bones. Wouldn’t stop at Fort Laramie to rest. Keep forging ahead, the game prompted, as we watched our little wagon avatar march westward, reinscribing history’s long trajectory, learning this first spark of cruelty when Karen was called over from the other side of the classroom to witness her own funeral. More significant, perhaps, than being taught the vast categories of suffering that would, in the coming years, sprawl out before us—much like the West—we learned to move on. To  Independence Rock, to Soda Springs. To  the Willamette Valley’s  fertile soil our fathers’ fathers’ fathers settled. It was a coarse lesson in grief, but industry, our progeny, the world, were waiting.

We plodded across the screen with too much food, too little. We didn’t rest enough, or we were too slow and got caught in bad weather. We chanced it and forded the river. Our oxen drowned. So did our best friends, our sisters, our fathers. We tried to take good care of them. We buried many along the way.

Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.

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