2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life

When I got my Kindle about a year and a half ago, it wasn’t long before I went about looking for stuff to add to it that wouldn’t cost me much or anything at all. Amazon’s free Kindle store was my first stop, and I’ve managed to find a few classics among the self-help and tacky-looking erotica. My second stop was Project Gutenberg, the open source library that features books mostly available in the public domain. I was less successful with what I found there–mostly old poetry collections and the occasional novel–but I did come across Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. It wasn’t very long and I figured that since I was in the middle of reading a couple of books that were about traveling through that part of the country (in fact, I think I was in the middle of Cross-Country when I downloaded it), I decided that this would fit in nicely with my little project here (which, after this particular post, has only two books left).

The book documents two months in 1846 which Parkman spent on the Oregon Trail, which was the famous 2,300 migration route from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon that thrived through much of the 19th Century. He goes west with a hunting expedition and spends much of the time during this expedition hunting buffalo with a band of Ogala Sioux. And … that’s pretty much it, really. It’s less of a journey and more of what he says the book is in its subtitle: sketches of prairie life. Parkman is pretty descriptive, especially in his detail about the hunting of the buffalo and the relationships his party has with the Indians. He even seems to make the people in his hunting expedition seem like they are characters in a novel, giving the book a little more narrative flair than letting it simply be a recollection of experiences he had along the trail. However, I have to say that I didn’t find it very engaging and by the time the last half of the book was rolling around I was more committed to finishing it than reading it. I did, however, walk away with three things …

First, it took a little while for me to not be jolted by Parkman’s view of the American Indian. He definitely spoke down to them, and seemed to convey the idea that we were conquering them for their own good. Maybe this is just my hangup as someone raised in the late 20th Century who also possesses what I guess you’d call “liberal” political views when it comes to certain parts of American history (i.e., I don’t necessarily see state-sanctioned genocide for the sake of a land grab as a positive note of our history), but I had to try not to be offended. At first, anyway. Then, I kind of read those passages as a historical curiosity of sorts–a gateway into a particular way of thinking that is of a certain time and while that way of thinking is wrong, at least is an accurate illustration (in a way, anyway).

Second, I think that I would have been more into the book had it actually been a full journey down the Oregon Trail instead of his going about 1/3 of the way, hunting, and turning around (according to Wikipedia, even Herman Melville complained that the title is a bit misleading). I got the sense of what it was like to travel, but had this been a recount of a pioneer family or of a group that was determined to reach the west coast, it would have been, to me at least, a little more comprehensive and maybe a little dramatic. Third, and most importantly … I could not stop thinking about the video game. If you were born any time in the 1970s or 1980s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, well …

Not exactly the most exciting thing in the world, yet one of two incredibly awesome educational computer games from my childhood (the other being Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) and one that everybody seems to have played. I’m not going to go on about Oregon Trail for another 1,000 words (mainly because it’s 9:15 on a Sunday night and I want to post this thing so I can cross it off my “posts to write” list), but I will direct your attention to two great essays about it (that are more fun to read than Parkman’s book … which isn’t bad, just works better if you’re studying that era than if you’re looking for a good read). The first is from Will Leitch and his now-defunct “Life as a Loser” column on The Black Table (“Life as a Loser #170: Oregon Trail“):

The best part about the game was that five people went on the trip with you, and you could give them the names of your classmates. Typically, I would name myself head of the family and whatever four girls happened to be sitting around the computer my “harem.” (I’d learned the word on an episode of Nova my parents made me watch.) “We’re all mormons!” I’d say, mixing and matching religions to my whims. And we would plod across the country, stopping in St. Louis (“Go Cardinals!”) to trade for goods and services. And we’d watch while each of them died. Emily was the first to go, from “exhaustion,” a disease we would giggly decipher as code for “too much masturbating.” Others would die along the line, until eventually the head of the family would die, and the game was over.

The other is the essay “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day” by Sloane Crosley from her book I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a book that is through-and-through absolutely hilarious):

A game of moderately tough choices and rawhide, Oregon Trail wound its way through the late 1980s in a very un-’80s-like fashion: subtly. Unlike BurgerTime or Tetris, high-speed programs structured around multiple levels, Oregon Trail slowly moved toward a singular goal. It also had a distinct masturbatory quality. Here was something millions of preteens did, only you wouldn’t find out until much later in life. Something one could do over and over again, with no diminishment of rewards. Apparently many children learned how to play it at school, which strikes me as just plain illegal.

Or if you don’t feel like reading anymore and just want some good video, you can check out this “trailer” for the Oregon Trail “movie”:


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