Thursday, January 01, 1998

Lost Wagon Train - A `Meek` Interlude - Heidi Smith DVM

Ahhhh, home again after a week in the desert! Must say, managing a multi-day (especially after an interlude--I last did Lost Wagon Train in 1995) is an experience all its own. Fun as it was, the shower and clean sheets sure feel good! As with every other ride we put on, this one had its very special moments, and although it is always a relief when it`s over, we brought home our own special memories. Just thought I`d take the time to share a few of them with you ridecampers before I crash for the night....

For those of you who don`t know the history of the Stephen Meek Cut-Off of the Oregon Trail, in brief, it is the story of a group who arrived at Fort Boise and who decided to follow a man named Stephen Meek on what was supposed to be a short-cut and easier route from Vale, Oregon, to The Dalles. Mr. Meek had been as far as the hills overlooking what is now Burns, but was basing the rest of his short-cut on hearsay from other mountain men. The experiences of the folks who followed Meek prove the fact that one can`t always believe hearsay! These hardy souls left Vale around the first of September, 1845, which was one of the worst drought years ever in Oregon. They proceeded up the Malheur River, through bone-jarring (and wagon-breaking) rocks, and finally got to easier going, but the trade-off was a lack of water. Without going through their trials and tribulations in detail, suffice it to say that they had a horrible time, spent two weeks on Wagontire Mountain near some small springs which they dared not leave until scouts found water ahead while the forage for their livestock ran out, had members of their party die, had several more become seriously ill, and had some pretty gruesome experiences getting wagons through areas that one still marvels at how they could manage to do so. The survivors of the party arrived in The Dalles approximately three weeks later than others who had left Vale at the same time and taken the regular route over the Blue Mountains; in addition, they were ill, starving, and pretty well battered from their ordeal in the desert. Our current Lost Wagon Train ride traverses roughly the middle third of their trail from Vale to The Dalles; we start in Burns and end in Alfalfa, near Bend.

This year, we were blessed with the most beautiful fall weather imaginable--we anticipate cold nights in the desert in October with ice on the water buckets (which is why we don`t start until 8 every morning, after the sun comes up!) but indeed the sun DID come up this year, and we had pleasant, warm, sunny days for the entire ride. Can`t ask for better than that! We haul a few miles out of Burns for our actual start, and it always gives me goosebumps to see a group of horses stringing out against the sunrise, embarking on a five- day adventure.

We had some unique experiences this year. On Sunday, one of our riders arrived from Montana to meet a babysitter for her 9-month-old daughter, but the babysitter did not show up! I have always maintained that a ride manager must be a jack of all trades, but arranging last-minute babysitting (let alone how this story turns out) was a new one. My husband Paul agreed to babysit, as he was driving out to do a water set and then tending the vet check, but somehow we missed communicating the fact that he was not going to the start but was heading straight out to deliver water. Hence, as I was walking down the line of trailers while folks saddled up, I encountered mother, baby, and stroller, wondering where Paul was! There was nothing to do but to pack baby Xena, car seat, stroller, diaper bag and all, into my already overflowing Subaru. She and I waved the riders through some of the early gates, and then headed out for a day of adventure together. Of course, Paul was long gone from town with his load of water, and since the drive to the vet check on day 1 is very long, I headed for the next camp and the finish line, baby and all. I was supposed to mark the last bit into the finish line, as the land owner had suggested a change--I was battling darkness and time when I came through to mark the trail, and figured I could deal with the finish on ride day. That is how Xena and I came to be bouncing through a rock field that looked like petrified watermelons about half a mile from camp. Things were simply going too well, so something had to happen. (That is one of the Ride Manager`s Corrollaries to Murphy`s Law, I think.) Sure enough, I ripped a sidewall on a rock. No sweat, out comes the jack, the spare, etc. About then Xena decided to fuss, so I wiped the grime off my hands and fixed her a bottle, which she slurped down while I changed the tire. Other than the fact that one of the lug nuts was stripped and the jack jammed on the way down, it was a routine tire change. (Remember the jack for later reference! For the moment, I simply drove the car off of it.) I probably didn`t manage another 200 yards, uphill into the sun so I wasn`t seeing the boulders clearly, when WHAM! I am stranded on a huge rock! The driver door was pinned up against a huge sagebrush. So--what does a ride manager who is babysitting someone`s nine- month-old infant and who has horses on course and a way into camp yet to mark do in a circumstance like that?? Simple! Sort of. One crawls out the car window, puts all of one`s marking and finish line "stuff" (along with diaper bag, etc.) in the baggage basket of the stroller, installs the baby, and begins the slow and painful process of negotiating the stroller backward over boulders and sagebrush! Can sure say that they designed strollers for city gals. I don`t have kids, but have baby-tended plenty with my nephews and nieces, and am MUCH more familiar with baby backpacks--MUCH better suited to the country woman`s life style! Well, it was a long and tedious trek, but Xena, bless her heart, having just finished her bottle, dropped off to sleep and snored through the entire trip. Heck, she slept through a ride that you`d pay money for at the fair! Needless to say, I then hiked out and marked the OLD way into the finish which was MUCH better, while a grandfather who was one of the drivers entertained Xena for awhile. And of course, all`s well that ends well--Xena was fine, the riders had their route, and when we got a break later in the day, a bunch of us went out and lifted the car off of the offending rock and I drove it back to camp. Xena watched me vet horses all afternoon from her stroller, making appropriate comments about some of them, until her mom came in to claim her. I DID warn Xena`s mother that she had better watch out for signs that Xena might grow up to be a ride manager or a ride vet! Heaven forbid! At any rate, we started 35 horses out in Burns, and 32 received completions at Wagontire.

Day 2 started off with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday for rider Tom Dunn, who turned 73 that day. (Tom unfortunately was only able to complete three days, as his mare Cat Dancer found a rock with her name on it...) The day was fairly uneventful from a manager`s standpoint, with the high point being that there was no longer a hose bib on the well at Dustbowl at the GI Ranch. Again, the jack of all trades qualification for ride managers was called upon. With Rick Forrester providing an extra set of hands, we managed to splice a piece of plastic pipe to the water outlet pipe using a beer can, an obstetrical sleeve, and lots of duct tape. It leaked like a sieve, but the join held up just fine, and it delivered water out through the corral fence to our water tank. Mission accomplished! We fielded 25 horses on Day 2, with 24 completing. Did have to duck out and mark some of the early part of Day 3 the evening of Day 2--among other things, there is a combination lock on Day 3 which must be opened so the riders can get through, so had to open that. Got back to camp at a decent hour, though, and figured all was under control. Right?

Wrong! Along came Day 3. Riders set out from Dustbowl and across Buck Creek, I went out and opened gates on some of the cattle guards on the GI Ranch Road, and we sat around the vet check waiting. And waiting. FINALLY riders started coming in. Seems that one of the GI Ranch employees who had not gotten word that we were coming through had done his job, noticed the gate was not locked, and relocked it! The first batch of riders found a splice in the fence and made it through, but respliced it, not knowing if there were cows in that pasture. The second group was milling around in the same spot when Tracy Epping`s driver, who had gone up that way to hunt rabbits while waiting for Tracy, saw there was a dilemma and came down to help. He opened the splice and stayed there helping riders through until I got word and came back up to unlock the lock again, and helped mend the fence back the way it was.

Day 3 was also the Day of the Matador. One of the GI bulls took a dim view of the riders, and stood in the road in front of Ted and Joan Ruprecht, refusing to get out of the way. Ted, bless him, got off, picked up a rock, and headed for the bull. The bull stomped, snorted, and threw dirt. Ted threw the rock. The bull charged! Joan`s horse turned and bolted, unhorsing Joan, who played dead, and at that point, the bull was thoroughly confused by the outcome of his charge and stopped, thank goodness. Ted and Joan eventually got on and continued on their way, but later riders said the bull continued to challenge others.

Day 3 was also the day for the first of the Fish Creek motor home breakdowns. Donnie Scott was slated to ride Fish Creek`s spare horse Kramer, but sent Darlene Anderson out on him instead, while Donnie worked on the rig. Rick Forrester went back for the Fish Creek trailer, Donnie went for parts, and the motor home eventually rejoined the wagon train.... 29 horses started Day 3, and 28 finished. Camp after Day 3 is at the town of Hampton, which consists of a store/restaurant/gas station, and a couple of houses. Many riders and crew members (ride management included!) treated themselves to meals that were cooked somewhere other than campers, and the restaurant was kind enough to serve hot cider and hot chocolate during our ride briefing. Downright civilized, after camping literally in the middle of nowhere at Wagontire and the GI Ranch.

We had 16 horse-rider teams that made it through the first three days, but then the trail started to take its toll. Three of those 16 didn`t start Day 4, and one more didn`t finish Day 4, diminishing the 5-day possibles to 12. Three more made it through Day 4 but didn`t start Day 5. However, we did field 34 horses on day 4, and 29 completed. Day 4 is the easiest day of the ride, and also has some beautiful scenery as one goes out of Hampton and climbs up toward Hampton Butte. The ride ends just north of Brothers, and once again, civilization in the form of a store/restaurant/gas station was only a mile away. I had left the Day 5 marking to the last, and had two vets to cover day 4 so that I could go out and finish it up. The trail had to score its last-minute hit--wiped out another tire, and--remember the jack from Day 1??? NO amount of lubrication would make it turn, so I was left with the choices of spending the night on the trail and hoping for rescue (and not finishing the marking--NOT!!), walking out (and not finishing the marking--NOT!!) or making the ride manager choice and further trashing the tire as well as the wheel, driving back to civilization, and getting the marking done. Flagged down a passing motorist when I got to the highway, who kindly lent me a jack, and was back in business! Got back to camp a bit later than I had said I would, but still before dark, so all`s well that ends well, right? Bless Trilby and her driver, who thought I was getting a bit bedraggled, and insisted on feeding Paul and me, as well as Dr. Shauna Ault (who had her first experience judging BC and did great), before we had our ride meeting. Several riders commented all week about following my tire tracks and suggested that perhaps I should be making commercials for Subaru... (Donnie Scott got the boobie prize, prize yet to be determined, for most accurately guessing at what point on the Day 5 trail my tire went flat...)

Unfortunately the Day 5 trail requires a lot of water sets, so Paul and I hauled water into the wee hours of the morning, and got back to camp in Brothers at about 2:30 a.m. We were about half dead, but the end was in sight, so what the heck. Like the back of my favorite T-shirt (compiments of Lynne Glazer and the Norco Ride) says--YOU CAN REST WHEN YOU DIE. (Lynne, that has become my official ride manager T-shirt!)

The second Fish Creek motor home broke down on Day 5, but was towed to town and was fortunately repaired in time to join us at the finish. Dot Wiggins went back to Brothers and retrieved the second Fish Creek trailer.

And speaking of Dot--she rode Day 1 and couldn`t go on, but stuck with us all week, helping with timing and PR`s. Thanks, Dot, and thanks also to drivers Andrea Day and Tracy Zebella, who filled in for our missing timer, who was unable to come at the last minute due to family problems.

Day 5 saw 24 riders start on the last push to Bend, up over the ridge and down into civilization. 22 of them completed. Unfortunately, one of the pulls was one of our nine survivors, so we were down to 8 in the end. The Alfalfa Grange never looked so good, and the spagetti feed was wonderful! Thanks to Sharon Poling from Prineville who catered for us and kept the food coming until we were all full. We handed out mugs for each days` completions provided by Karen Chaton (thanks, Karen, and yes, Nikki, I DID remember to give Karen a bad time about making Dream Weaver do a multi-day after promising him that his season was over), and all those who made all 5 days on the same horse received autographed copies of the book TERRIBLE TRAIL: THE MEEK CUT-0FF 1845. In addition to awards for daily winners and daily BC`s, we also had nifty blankets for the overall fastest time and overall best condition. Stay tuned: complete results in a later post!

Thanks to all of you who came, and we sure hope to see you all back next year. We enjoyed it--hope you all did too.

Heidi Smith, DVM & hubby Paul (LWT right-hand man)--Sagehill Arabians (Oregon)

No comments: