Owning the Oregon Trail

by Jennifer Rolfs

Owning the Oregon Trail

Back in the late 80s, computers were making their way onto the scene for the general public. My elementary school decided to jump on this educational phenomenon by having “computer time” on the Apples in the library. The state of the art educational software at the time included such classics as the vaguely dirty sounding “Number Munchers,” the entrepreneurial but dull “Lemonade Stand” and the pioneer adventure challenge, “Oregon Trail.”


A recap of the Oregon Trail game to jog your Apple IIe memory:


The year is 1848 and you are about to embark on a 2000-mile journey across North America from Independence, Missouri to Oregon Country on the Pacific coast by way of the fabled Oregon Trail in a Conestoga wagon pulled by oxen. Upon your arrival, should you survive the arduous trek, will be 640 acres of free farmland in the fertile Willamette Valley. If you’re up for the challenge, you start by naming the leader of your wagon team and your team members.


Of course, to fifth graders, the opportunity to name your leader and the subsequent party members led to all sorts of creative appellations—Fish Head, Barbie, the members of New Kids on the Block—all were at the mercy of our frontier prowess.


Getting down to business, the next step is to load up your wagon with supplies (weapons, food, bullets, blankets) and oxen to cart you along disease infested land. These were the dilemmas us fifth graders faced in the library. Do you bring extra blankets to avoid the freezing temperatures or extra food to keep your strength up? Oxen ate up a lot of cash, but the faster you could arrive in Oregon, the faster you could start living the dream. Throughout the course of the game, members of your party could fall ill and die from a variety of wretched ailments such as measles, snakebite, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, exhaustion (now also a common affliction amongst celebrities), and the always giggle-inducing diarrhea. People could likewise die from drowning or a broken leg. Your oxen were also subject to illness and death. When one of your party members dies, a funeral is briefly held, at which you may write a tombstone message (allowing for endless insulting epitaphs), and after which you continue down the trail, laden with grief but also with more food to go around.


You could of course also take advantage of the plethora of wildlife along the way and hunt for your food. This involved shooting bison which were the slowest moving targets and yielded the most food, while rabbits and squirrels were fast and offered very small amounts of food. Deer (in the east) and elk (in the west) were in the middle in terms of speed, size, and food yield; bear were between bison and deer in all three aspects. But you could only carry 100 pounds on your wagon, which the New Kids went through faster than you could say “Endangered Species”.


Through poor planning, miscalculations, and just plain misfortune, Barbie died from a snake bite. Fish Head contracted cholera and began his slow demise, all the while still eating up precious food stock. The oxen couldn’t ford a swollen river, and a New Kid on the Block drowned—it was just Danny, but still. The stakes were high pressure and the Oregon Trail became a Trail of Doom, leaving the hopeful pioneers Barbie and Danny in its wake of death.


I think we, like most kids, relished the doom and gloom of travesty that Oregon Trail provided. Writing the epitaphs on the tombstones imbued a ten-year-old with a prideful power. But as I sat there in the Library (now also called the Media Center, a nod to our new computers), I wanted more. I wanted victory. I wanted to cross our great nation and make it to Oregon, with my pioneering party in tact—no New Kid left behind. I also wanted to prize awarded by our teacher, Mrs. Connell, to whoever could win the game—a shiny new pack of UNO cards!


I started the game one Tuesday by the now extinct task of inserting the floppy disc into the drive—an activity so out of date at this point it might as well harken back to pioneering days. All around me, classmates were setting up their parties for horrific hardships.


But I remember that day was special for me. The air seemed to be a little clearer, the screen, a little less pixilated. A spirit of possibility gripped me; was it the Pioneering Spirit? I didn’t know, but when it came time to buy the supplies out of savings that I carefully had to ration for the treacherous journey to come, I stopped for a moment, staring at the screen. I slapped my hot pink slap bracelet on my wrist three times in quick succession. An idea was forming.


“How many oxen do you wish to purchase?” the game asked.


I went for broke and spent all my money on oxen, and only oxen. I eschewed food, I blew off buying blankets. I left the bullets. And then we were off, my pioneering team going balls to the wall across the United States.


The Oregon Trail masterminds designed the game so that you could go a certain speed with each ox. But there was no cap on the speed. So what if … what if you had twenty oxen, you could go something like 600 miles an hour and get to Oregon in about a day—a supersonic Conestoga wagon. Blasting by the cholera, the rivers a cinch to cross, we only needed enough food for a snack and maybe a light dinner and we were good to go.


“Welcome to Oregon!” I stared in disbelief, pushing my hair-sprayed bangs across my forehead to make sure I was seeing correctly. No one in my class had ever beaten The Trail. But in less than ten minutes, I made it across the treacherous land with the entire party in tact. The UNO deck was mine.


I waited a few minutes, taking a deep breath and eating the tic-tac stored in my Z. Cavaricci jeans. I looked around at my classmates, furtively and carefully trying to shoot a rabbit and avoid contracting measles. Had I cheated? The whole point of the game was to teach schoolchildren about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the trail. The reality did not include a jet speed jaunt across the Oregon Trail where you needed only a granola bar and a seat belt.


I didn’t care. I made it. The New Kids on The Block made it. Barbie made it. I raised my hand. Mrs. Connell came over and looked at the screen.


“Well done! Wow, that was fast! Class, Jenny beat Oregon Trail.”


My part time boyfriend, Joel (a.k.a Fish Head) looked up from his computer confused. A party member had died and he was trying to write the perfect sentiment on his tombstone. He stared at me with something like envy and also respect. In Joel’s mind, and in my classmates’ minds, I had killed the elk that saved my team from starvation. I had cleverly rationed supplies and bravely forded rivers, avoiding venomous snakes and disease.


Well, so what? Did that make my victory any less valid? Barbie could still build her Dream House in the Willamette Valley. If a Conestoga wagon goes 600 miles per hour in the woods, doesn’t it still make a sound?


This incident sticks in my mind for one reason or another. Although winning was sweet, I think it actually did me some harm. From the Oregon Trail victory, I came to the conclusion that, if you thought about anything hard enough, there was some loophole, some shortcut to success. I have never actually participated in criminal activity, but I take shortcuts whenever possible, sometimes at the expense of my own development. Maybe if I had embraced those tough pioneer lessons, had let a New Kid or two get a snakebite or drop of typhoid, maybe then I wouldn’t expect things to come so easily to me, and get impatient when they didn’t. Maybe I would savor the process, not just the result.


But then again, if I did, I wouldn’t have gotten the UNO cards. And I wouldn’t have rested sure in the knowledge that, if you think about things outside the box, you can beat the system and all the diarrhea that comes along with following the same Oregon Trail as everyone else.