Bicycling the Oregon Trail by Don Weinell, Caxton Press, $17, 216 pages, paperback
Don Weinell grew up in Louisiana, but his roots are Midwestern. He's always had a keen interest in history and also is a long-distance bicyclist.
It was a combination of those two interests that inspired Weinell's great notion: He wanted to bicycle the fabled Oregon Trail from its beginning in Independence, Missouri, to the end in Oregon City, Oregon — 2,100 miles.
Weinell, an environmental scientist at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, works full time. That meant that he could ride the trail only a few weeks each year on vacation.
For five years, he spent his summers on his specially outfitted bike, carrying a solar-powered laptop and pulling a little bicycle trailer with bags to hold his tent and sparse supplies. He mapped out his route in advance to adhere as closely to the original trail as possible, even though it meant some zig-zagging and traveling some pretty lonely stretches of what can only be described as path more than road. Each year he’d end near an airport and ship his bike back home. He reversed the process the next summer.
Weinell kept a log of his experiences along the trail. That record is the basis of this book. It’s not a travelogue; this is the tale of a man who sets out to find the lost history that sits beside the road, the things you miss when you whiz by on an interstate at 80 mph.
The Oregon Trail, Weinell writes, really opened up after the discovery of the South Pass, and by 1836, not only the first male explorers had transited the pass but a couple of women as well.
Weinell began his odyssey knowing this about those who came before him: “So with a rough draft of the trail in place, and with the Rocky Mountains now conquered by wagons and women, all that remained to start the migration was a group of folks crazy enough to give it a try. Fortunately, the United States has never had a shortage of these people.”
Early on, Weinell learned that weather, especially wind, is a factor when traversing the trail. It seems like every time he got up in the morning, he had to ride into a headwind. Good thing he stopped a lot. On those breaks, he found and explored history. He visited long abandoned Pony Express stations, sites where wagon trains were attacked by Indians, places where Indians were attacked by U.S. Cavalry, and fabled river crossings, miles of wagon ruts still visible across prairies and hills.
At the Eubanks Ranch near Oak, Nebraska, Weinell visited a site where a woman named Laura Roper had been kidnapped by Native Americans in 1864. Roper survived the attack and returned in 1929 and drove a metal stake into the ground at the spot where she was captured. Weinell saw the stake (now set into a concrete pad). Making such physical connections allowed the cyclist to achieve the nexus of past and present that was the real purpose of his trip.
He repeated the experience at pioneer cemeteries and, more poignantly, at lonely places beside the trail like the grave of 6-year-old Joel Hembree, who was riding on the tongue of the family wagon and slipped and fell beneath the wheels. The boy was crushed before the wagon could be stopped. His family buried him near Glendo, Wyoming, in 1843. His is the oldest known gravesite along the trail.
Not all of Weinell’s encounters were so somber. He visited an aunt in Nebraska, stopped to watch a group of young cowboys practicing roping with a mechanical calf in Wyoming and met with a Kansas artist who every year paints a mural on a silo depicting Oregon Trail scenes. He saw some wildlife, usually at a distance. But he didn’t see any bears or cougars, and that was just fine with him.
Somewhere near Granger, Wyoming, Weinell was riding in a cold rain, decked out in his rain suit and gloves, when a truck pulled alongside him on a lonely backroad. In an "Easy Rider" moment, the man leaned over and asked Weinell, “Are you crazy?”
Maybe so. Maybe Weinell has that in common with the ghosts he was chasing. Readers can be glad for it. With the occasional wry observation and a clear yet serviceable writing style, Weinell describes a different America from the cookie-cutter interstate towns and theme park history venues that most people see on their summer vacations. You might not be able to get on a bicycle and go there, but reading Weinell’s book is the next best thing.