Prairie Memories - My Family Travels

Imagine taking in the bustle of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower. Imagine the sights and sounds of a bullfight in Ronda…Imagine sitting in a bonnet and bloomers around a campfire in the middle of the prairie.

Honorable Mention 2009 FTF Teen Travel Writing Scholarship

Spending a week on a wagon train may not be everyone’s idea of a vacation, but my 2008 trip to Jamestown, North Dakota offered more than just a glimpse into the past. It helped me appreciate the joys of simplicity and realize what we “can’t live without”, we really can.

The Fort Seward Wagon Train has been running continually since 1969. Organized by local volunteers, many of whom are descendants of pioneer families, the weeklong adventure provides a unique opportunity for an authentic pioneer experience. The wagon train was established to preserve the history of Jamestown/Fort Seward (1872-1877) which lies halfway between Bismarck and Fargo. Fort Seward was built in the 1870s to protect workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Every June, the wagons depart from the Fort Seward museum, taking an 80-mile route through prairie and farmland to…nowhere in particular.

Our party included 14 century-old wagons of all shapes and sizes. Each wagon “family” consisted of 8 – 10 adventurers who walked, rode with a teamster, or sat in the wagon box, enjoying the expansive scenery. Dressed in pioneer garb, we trudged alongside the wagons on trails through lands that have never been cultivated. We heard no traffic noise — just the wind blowing waves of tall grass. Looking in all directions, we saw no telephone poles or houses, no airplanes overhead and, at night, no city lights — just stars and fireflies. The stillness made me feel very close to the earth, as though I was transported back in time to when buffalo roamed free. Every day, my friends and I walked about 10 miles. No one was “plugged in” to an iPod. We played football, threw horseshoes, skipped stones and checked out the cowboys. We whittled sticks, splashed in the creeks and lay on our backs watching chameleon-like clouds. We held wagon decorating competitions – flowers, cheerful bandanas and state flags adorned most wagons. Our wagon strung up colorful spent shotgun shells we found along the route, like Christmas lights! Children spent hours lassoing each other with rope they made themselves. Little girls carefully constructed dolls from rags or cornhusks. And, of course, there were chores.

Everyone pulled his weight, whether it was building the fire, stirring buffalo stew, watering horses, digging a hole for the “biffy” or washing dishes. No one felt inconvenienced by the lack of amenities: we made do without showers, carried our own canteens and ate meals sitting on the ground. We discovered that bonnets double as umbrellas or sunglasses. Skirts are cooler than pants and are practical for carrying things. Ticks are attracted to light-colored material. Our campfire entertainment consisted of skits, silly jokes and sing-alongs. Old timers shared stories about their families who settled here 100 years ago. We woke up when the morning sun’s warmth hit our tents, and we went to bed soon after sundown, serenaded by the whinnying and shifting horses.

I was reluctant to leave the solitude of the prairie and return to “real” life. In today’s busy world, it is tempting to substitute technology for personal interaction. We forget how to live in the present and to appreciate moments rather than “things.” My Fort Seward Wagon Train experience made me yearn for a simpler life.  For a little while, I slowed down and breathed deeply of a world gone by. If only every summer I could lose myself in time and run barefoot on the prairie.

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