Thursday, March 27, 2008

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

It looks like an overgrown path. It's really the wagon ruts left by wagons passing over the Oregon Trail. After so many years, they're still there, worn into the land. Where they pass over public land, you can walk in them.

While in Baker City, we visited the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. It's got life-sized displays and many of the museum displays center around exerpts from the diaries and journals of those who made the long journey. Admission for children under 15 is free, as are school groups and homeschool families.

From The End of the Oregon Trail website:
"They walked for 2000 miles -- men, women, and children by the tens of thousands coaxing their heavy wagons and tired oxen along the rugged, dusty trail from Missouri. With each step, they drew closer to a dream call Oregon. The story of this journey comes alive today through the life-size exhibits and living history at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Set atop the summit of Flagstaff Hill, where pioneers caught their first glimpse of the Promised Land, you'll behold a sweeping vista little changed from 150 years ago. Along nearly five miles of interpretive trails, you'll see actual ruts created by pioneer wagon wheels. "

In some ways it really does come alive. By this visit, my third, I know to avoid the heart-wrenching voice recording accompanying the display of a pioneer mother mourning at the grave of her child killed on the journey. I cannot bear to listen. It's not maudlin or gruesome or frightening for the children. But I can't help putting myself in her shoes when I hear that mother's voice, weeping over her child's grave. Real mothers lost children. Husbands lost wives. Children lost fathers. Wagons broke and oxen wore out and people quarreled. It was an arduous and dangerous journey. The displays are a reflection of real experiences that real men and women, real families, real children had as they made the journey. After a visit to the museum, I find myself reflective, imagining what it must have been like to make the long journey, to risk so much. I wonder what it was these families were seeking. Adventure? A new life? Free land? A better life for their families.
New to our family was the hands-on room for children. The children's room offers a life-sized wagon replica along with large cushions so that children can pack and unpack and repack the wagon, giving visitors the opportunity to experience some of the challenge involved in decisions about what to take, what not to take, and how to fit it all into a limited space. The fine young gents, and even the lovely ladies, spent a good amount of time on this one, packing and repacking. I made sure they included the coffee every time. 'Cause no one wants to make a long trip with Mama if she's doesn't get her coffee.

And, of course, we had to bring plenty of bacon.
There's also a puppet theater with animals we'd see along the trail, a dress-up area with bonnets and aprons and hats, a table with stamps and colors, books to read, and more. Lots of things for children to do, which is important when your facility is a possible stop along a long road trip.
Below, a replica of the mill for what used to be a working mine, just down the hill.
Once you're done inside the museum, you can walk down to the mine itself. The interpretive center has trails to walk in addition to the indoor displays. There's a long walk down to the wagon ruts themselves, about a 2 hour hike down and back, as well as the shorter walk to the mill building.
The picture below is almost exactly what the pioneers saw. It's gray. It's dry. It's bumpy. It's nothing but sagebrush and grass and dust. This is beautiful country. Stunning. But its treasures are more hidden than on our lush green side of the valley. Can you imagine seeing this when you finally reached Oregon Territory, land of promise? Seriously. What would go through your head? I don't think I'd be thinking "Woohoo! We're here!" More along the lines of "You've got to be kidding me." If you look closely at the picture, you can see a faint line, a trail, running through the middle. Wagon ruts again. Still. It takes my breath away, it gives me pause to think that this amazing trek left such a scar on the land that it is still visible.


Tonia said...

The pictures of the trail are great. I'm one of those *strange* :0) people who would love to stand and imagine what it was like to make a journey like that. Thanks for sharing this!

Irie said...

I love the interpretive center and its tales of survival. The new wagon loading area sounds like fun.. for "big kids" too! :)

living in PA said...

Very, very cool! I want to go there.