Wagon trail is rolling back in time
Young students at Swallowtail Waldorf School in Cornelius gazed curiously at the site of an 1883 wagon and mules standing in the middle of their playground on Thursday, Feb. 8 during recess.
The wagon is part of the Washington County 4-H Wagon Train, a program developed for the global nonprofit organization 4-H, which consists of various educational programs that help kids build skills like responsibility, resiliency and hard work. Eighth-grader Grace Clark has chosen the wagon train for her culmination project, where students are to develop a new skill or further one they already have, and carry out a report on what they have learned.
"Wagon Master" Wayne Beckwith said he has been with the program 20 out of the 37 years it has been around. He brought his wagon and mules to give Grace's class a glimpse into the program and the topic of their classmate's project.
The wagon train was originally created because 4-H was looking for "some kind of activity for families that wasn't competitive but yet took advantage of Oregon's outdoors and animals," said Beckwith.
The program started in Hillsboro. According to Beckwith, it is the only 4-H wagon trail in the world, as far as program staff know.
The wagon train takes off on a trek each summer for a week and closely re-enacts the times of pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It is open to both kids in the fourth grade and above, as well as adults.
Participants cover around 70 miles during that week with most people walking, several in the wagons. Each day they walk 7 to 12 miles and then set up camp for the night.
"One day we have what we call a layover day, where we don't go anywhere and we sit around camp and play pioneer games," said Beckwith.
With anywhere from 60 to 130 people, participants are put into "wagon families" who rotate chores like dishes or serving food, and are to operate like an actual family. Positions include the cook, lead support, lead walker, spirit, medic and many more. Participants are also welcome to bring their own horse, donkey or mule if they wish.
Though they try to replicate what it would have been like on the Oregon Trail as closely as possible, Beckwith says they do bring along coolers, portable toilets and have running water.
"When we get to camp, it's not the Hilton, but it would've been considered the Hilton if you were a pioneer," he said, "My great-great-grandmother that came definitely would've called it the Hilton to have what we have nowadays. We are pretty soft compared to what they were."
Nonetheless, it is a week spent completely outdoors where you are expected to travel on nothing but your own two feet.
Beckwith recounted a previous participant who worked for Intel and was very involved with technology.
"On the second day, I asked him how it was going and he said, 'I can't even remember what I do at work, I'm so focused on whether my feet are gonna make it,'" Beckwith said.
He said people seem to find the trek an engaging experience.
"What they talk about nowadays, about being in the present," Beckwith said. "You're going to be forced to be in the present on the wagon train."
This year, Grace will be considered a "swampster" on the trek, whose job is to ride on the wagon and assist the "teamster," who oversees the group of wagons. She will drive all 80 miles.
Last year, Grace went as a walker. So far, she has learned how to plow, how to drive the wagon, how to log, and stitching and leather repair.
The location of the trek is not the same each year. Last year, the trek followed Barlow Road near Mount Hood, which was actually part of the Oregon Trail, but this July, they will be in the Ochoco National Forest in Central Oregon.
The program is only $225 per participant. That fee covers everything, including food.
"It's inexpensive because we are all volunteers, and that's what makes it work," said Beckwith. Scholarships are also available.
The 4-H Wagon Train program offers participants with a unique outdoor experience that transports them back in time.
"If you're going to do this anymore, Oregon is the place," said this year's "teamster" Michelle Blumenthal.
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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