In the beginning, it was a lark,
children ran alongside the prairie
schooner, gathering wildflowers,
shouting to one another, full of
energy and–as my grandpa would
say–piss and vinegar, so that when
the day’s journey was ending and the
covered wagons drew into a circle
as protection from varmints and
Indians, we children were a healthy
exhausted, ready to fall asleep on
my mama’s quilts, that we laid under
the wagon, where we could watch the
fires die down, until we fell asleep.
But on the third day, It began to rain,
a cold, wet, sleety rain that came down
sideways, getting everyone and everything
wet, even inside the prairie schooner.
The baby fretted with colic and my mama
was waspish with my papa. The three of us
children huddled together under a larger
homemade quilt, cranky and irritable
ourselves and we wondered would it
be like this all the way to Oregon?
But on the fourth day, the sun shone
brightly again. I could not tell you the
the names of the territories we crossed
and in my memory, the prairie was
endless–plaint and flat and utterly
boring. My mama found a little notebook
in her reticule along with a pencil; she gave
these things to me to keep a journal, making
observations of the many different kinds of
wildflowers we saw along the way; she
said I might want to take note of them
and on that fourth day I began keeping a
diary in that little brown notebook.
On the seventh day the wagon train rested
even though many of the men wanted to
keep going but it gave the mothers time
to wash some clothing in a nearby river
and the men could repair any of the
harnesses or other things that needed repair.
My mama was disgusted with the muddy river
water that didn’t really clean anything even
though mama brought along a good supply
of lye soap that she learned how to make
from her mother.
Later in the day, we gathered in the
center of the circle and said some prayers
but our group was of many different religions
and not inclined to say another person’s prayers.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into
months; I have thankfully forgotten many of the
incidents that occurred on the trail, some of them
tragic–like the family that lost a little boy
and when they went back to search for him,
he was not there, or another child falling off the
buckboard and under the wheels of the
prairie schooner, crushed to death. Sometimes we saw
Indians off in the distance but they did not trouble us.
Months later our wagon train reached Oregon, where
we were warmly welcomed by pioneers who had gone
before us. And our lives in Oregon – that was another new
beginning. But in my mind I always remember the children
walking and running alongside the wagon trains on that
first day, the beginning of our journey into the unknown.
Sandra Lee Smith
Originally posted January 27, 2012
Updated August 26, 2018