Wagon's Ho! A Covered Wagon Tour of Wyoming
by SHARON MCDONNELL
It’s often said that we can’t know our future until we know our past.
Lurching over wilderness trails and former logging roads, enraptured by the jagged, snow-dusted peaks of the Grand Tetons looming ahead, we weren’t testing the chutzpah of the newest SUV—rather, rolling along in a 19th century version of four-wheel-drive: a horse-drawn, covered wagon.
As modern-day pioneers on a four-day covered wagon trip through northwestern Wyoming, we traveled approximately 12 miles a day on horseback and via wagon through scenic, mountainous country, enjoying a pace that encouraged the kind of connection between Man and nature that must have been experienced by settlers 160 years ago. Around us, the vast, unspoiled landscape provided a majestic moving tableaux.
Chapters from History
Our adventure sought to re-live the journey of thousands of 19th-century pioneers who traversed the country en route to a “better” life in the Wild West. During the 1840s, many of them traveled in large covered wagons called “prairie schooners” along the Oregon Trail, located 125 miles south of our own journey through the more mountainous Tetons. The vast, unorganized land known as “Oregon Country” was later carved into Oregon, Washington, Idaho and — last of all —Wyoming Territories in the 1850s and ’60s.
Our own wagon was authentic but admittedly a lot cushier than pioneers of the Old West would have known. The wooden 15-foot wagon had rubber tires, not wooden wheels, absorbing some of the bump and bustle of the ride. Our seats were foam-padded, protecting our third-millennial posteriors from the aches and pains that inevitably plagued even the heartiest of 19th-century travelers. In addition to these minor comforts, we were spared perhaps the most pressing threats of all: ambushes and wild animal attacks.
Our journey began in Jackson, near the famed Jackson Hole ski area, where our outfitter, Wagons West, picked us up and drove us 45 miles northeast to meet our wagons. The area was named after a notable 19th-century fur trapper, David Jackson, and was first visited by trappers and hunters eager to capture the big game living in its “hole,” or mountain valley. Jackson Hole was settled by just 40 bachelors and two families before a Mormon family of 20 arrived in six covered wagons in 1889.
A century ago, reaching Jackson Hole was no easy feat, and the Mormon pioneers proved their mettle by creative thinking and resilience. The family managed to cross Teton Pass by putting the wagon’s big wheels in front, strapping a log onto the back wheels with a chain, and dragging a tree behind to avoid careening downhill. One man, the adventure-loving Elijah (Nick) Wilson, had run away with an Indian tribe when he was 11, and was kindly returned to his family two years later. Wilson became one of the first Pony Express riders, and the nearby town of Wilson is named in his honor.
Pioneering, 21st-Century Style
Our own journey was less laborious. Two docile white horses, Violet and Velvet, patiently pulled the wooden wagon through the changing panorama of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. With the canvas sides of our wagon pulled back for a glorious view, we passed through hills and valleys carpeted by evergreen Ponderosa and lodgepole pines, spruces and white aspens. Purple fireweed and flame-colored geraniums dotted our trail through waving meadows, the dramatic, 13,000 foot-high Teton range looming ahead. When we drove past fields of waist-high, gray-green sagebrush, I crushed it in my hands, inhaling its distinctive scent, which is, for me, the perfume of the American West.
I’d never seen wilderness like this before — so silent and devoid of human activity. Other members of the group found the experience spiritual. “Some people say there’s no Creator,” marveled Everett, a fellow pioneer, “but look at this.” Not a house, car, person, sign nor store was glimpsed for several days on the backcountry routes we explored. In contrast, when I had visited the Alps, it seemed a village, herd of cattle or splendidly engineered train route was always just around the bend. Here, in the least populated state in the U.S. (less than 500,000 people), we were just a few humans wandering about a vast, wild world.
Our group was eclectic, so it was hard to tell the “city slickers” from the Western hands at first. While our wagonmaster, Vance Bagley, looked like a matinee idol cowboy in his 10-gallon hat, riding boots and fringed leather chaps (not to mention the cleft in his chin, his electric blue eyes and wide grin) — so did most of our group, sporting accoutrements like bandanas and Western-style jewelry. I, however, looked just what I am — a diehard New Yorker whose Pavlovian response to the word “West” is to ask, “West Village or the Upper West Side?”
Of course, the proof of the pudding was how each of us felt astride a horse, since every morning and afternoon we had a choice of riding a horse or in one of the wagons. Our wagonmaster and horse wranglers looked as if they had been astride a horse from the day they were born, but the amateurs among us favored the mild-mannered “101” — a spotted Appaloosa who reminded everyone of a dog in the movie “101 Dalmatians” — and the equally gentle Snowball, a mule. One seasoned rider, Jody, who was planning an equestrian vacation in Ireland as her next trip, pointedly asked for a horse with more spirit and personality.
Down the Gorge
Though relaxing, the adventure had its moments of raw excitement, such as the day when Chad Madsen, the dashing, handlebar-mustached grandson of Wagons West’s president announced, “Today, we’re going on the most popular ride we have, and also one of the scariest. We’ll be at the edge of a gorge at one point. People love it or hate it, but the horse has been through it a million times.”
“You have to trust your horse,” Madsen added. “Just close your eyes,” a helpful voice nearby intoned – though whose I’ll never know, since my eyes were closed just thinking about it. Eyeball to eyeball with the placid 101, I mulled over whether I wanted to entrust my life and teeter at the edge of a cliff with a four-footed stranger I had met just seconds ago. A lover of animals but not a horseback rider, I ultimately demurred. Sorry, 101. Not to worry — the popular beast was instantly snatched up, as if she were the belle of the ball.
Instead, I opted to drive Violet and Velvet and our covered wagon for a stretch through the Mount Leidy Highlands, but when a steep, hairpin-curved trail with an eye-popping view of the valley below appeared (with no railing—naturally), I gladly handed the reins to our experienced driver.
One of our drivers, Darreyl Biggerstaff, confided he had dinner once with Harrison Ford, who owns a ranch in the Jackson area — “Nice guy, no attitude,” he said laconically. The actor recently rescued an ailing hiker in the wilderness with his helicopter, we were told.
Hearty pioneers need hearty food to fuel the fire, and if you think our dinners were limited to franks and beans, think again. Served chuckwagon-style, our food was an unexpected surprise – delicious and abundant. One night we celebrated Thanksgiving-style, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, and pumpkin scones. Lasagna and cheeseburgers were also tasty treats, while desserts like strawberry cheesecake and carrot cake rounded out the grub perfectly. Though usually cooked over campfires in Dutch ovens on these trips, our meals were cooked on propane stoves. All fires had been banned due to the forest fires blazing over much of the West during our visit.
Nights on the Range
While days were spent plodding through magnificent mountain country, nights were spent relaxing and enjoying the star-studded night sky. Until sunset, cowboys strummed guitars and sang plaintive melodies like “Red River Valley,” “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and “They Call the Wind Mariah,” as we sipped our hot chocolate or coffee and gazed at the Tetons.
Early to bed since flashlights supplied the only light, we crept into our sleeping bags in covered wagons or in tents, and were told to prepare for near-freezing cold though it was August. At dawn, our horses — with cowbells around their necks — returned to our campsite after grazing elsewhere all night, and breakfast sounds — and smells — commenced.
Looking around at the several women in our group of 24, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for female pioneers in an era when the West was considered “no place for a lady.” Women proved their strength and fortitude in these remote settlements, though they were unquestionably outnumbered by men. For example, in 1865, eight times more men than women lived in Nevada, while in Colorado the ratio was 20 to 1.
Women at Work
Leading a tough life, those women hunted, built homesteads, cleared land and preserved food, but were also expected to play traditional roles, bearing children and caring for the sick. Seeking to create a “civilized” environment for their families in the West, they often clashed with rough-and-ready male settlers on issues like liquor, gambling and prostitution — all rampant in the area.
It was this kind of assertiveness that eventually earned women in the West the right to vote much earlier than others around the country. While women in the Wyoming Territory won the vote in 1870, the rest of America’s women would not achieve the goal for 50 more years.
Some 160 years after the pioneers began traversing the West, we retraced the trails. Though many things have changed since the days of the Wild West, the silence and strength of the American wilderness still awes, and draws, adventurers into its mysterious fold.
For more information, contact Wagons West — Tel: 800-447-4711, Fax: 307-886-5284; Email:firstname.lastname@example.org; Websites:www.recworld.com/wagonswest;www.huntinfor.com/ww/. Six-day, four-day and two-day covered wagon treks in the Tetons are offered weekly from June through August, at rates from $340 to $865; children under 14 from $300 to $765.
For information on additional programs and operators, see the Activity Index under “Covered Wagon Tours — Wyoming.”
Photo: Wagons West:::::::::