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James R. Stout

The Trail of Life

           As a historian I have had a great interest in certain periods of time in history. One of those is the American pioneer days. I love to find journals and diaries of people who were part of that time period. I also love to explore the published accounts of that day from that day. Here of late I have been reading about the 40 years or so of the pioneers who embarked on arduous journeys such as the Oregon Trail. Did you know that there are still several parts of the Oregon Trail where you can see the wagon ruts? There’s one section where the ruts are up to 5 feet deep and you can go there even today and walk in the ruts. The Oregon trail was about 2100 miles long. The first pioneers to go on that trail did so in about 1840 while the last was about 1880. The peak years were in the 1850’s. Imagine walking much of that journey. The movies and TV shows depict the whole family in the wagon being pulled by a team of horses or mules. The reality was that most of those wagons were pulled by oxen and due to the weight, that they were pulling, all but the driver usually walked. There were other reasons for this too. A canvas was tied under the wagon making a large sling. Those walking would pick up dried buffalo chips and toss them into the sling. On the plains there just wasn’t enough trees to provide wood to burn for cooking at night. But those dried buffalo chips burned quite well and provided the fuel required.

            I recently read an account of a family that came from Pennsylvania. Their journey from Pennsylvania to Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Oregon Trail, was no easy task to begin with, but that only got them to the start of the Oregon Trail. They left a farm that was by all rights a good working farm that provided a decent living. They had a wood frame house with nice furniture, most of which were heirlooms, yet their reason for leaving it all was the promise of a better life in the fertile soil of Northwestern Oregon. They managed to get most of those heirlooms and all of the necessities required for the journey all the way to Independence, Missouri. This was accomplished via boats on major rivers such as the Ohio River. But once they got to Independence, Missouri they were faced with a reality that they had not considered.

            They were informed by the wagon master of the type of wagon needed, a list of supplies required, and the type of animals needed to make the journey. When the wagon master saw what they had brought with them he scowled and said, “You’ll have to get rid of most of that falderal.”

            The father and mother were appalled to hear this. After all, much of these items were family heirlooms. The heavy oak dining table, the equally heavy chifforobe, the crates filled with china, the four-poster bed, and the square grand piano were considered non-essential and too heavy a burden for the oxen that would be pulling their wagon. The mother refused to part with some of these. They purchased a Conestoga wagon, 8 oxen, two riding horses, and the long list of supplies that included such things as 200 pounds of flour per adult, 10 pounds of coffee per adult, 5 pounds of sugar per adult, and a pick-axe, two shovels, a spare wagon tongue, a spare wheel, a wood burning oven, two large barrels to store water, a rifle, a pistol, ammunition, an ax, and various other items that were absolutely required. They managed to get the items stowed in the wagon with little room left inside. The Conestoga was designed to haul up to 6 tons of freight. But that was generally considered the max on a fairly level drive. Once across the great plains, they would be steadily going up and down mountains and hills.

            The day before they left, the wagon master came to check their wagon and make sure that the family had purchased the required items. He looked through the wagon and told them they might get as far as Western Nebraska with their load, but to expect to have to leave items on the side of the trail after that. The parents just didn’t believe that it would be that bad. They cut through a corner of Kansas and into Nebraska and made fairly good time. They had been lucky so far that the typical spring rain had not been as fierce as usual. Still, they found the going to be rougher than they had expected. When they reached the fairly tame passes through the western mountains of Nebraska, they began to get a better understanding of what lay ahead.

            By the time they reached Ft. Laramie, Wyoming they had noticed the increasing amount of debris strewn on the side of the trail. Assorted furniture, broken wagon wheels, entire wagons abandoned due to broken axles, Dutch ovens, and books. Lots of books were discarded due to their weight. Perhaps the most dangerous parts of the journey were the many river crossings. Although the Conestoga was designed to float, the rivers were often swollen and had fierce currents. Many people drowned as well as their oxen when the current tipped the wagon and oxen over. This family had been lucky so far. The family included the parents and four children ranging in age from 5 to 16. But their luck would run out when their youngest child was crushed beneath a wagon wheel when trying to toss a buffalo chip into the sling. The boy died and was buried the same day and the wagon train kept going.

            Before they reached their destination in Oregon, the mother would die from a fever that swept through the train. Twelve other people died of the same fever. The oldest child, a son aged 16, broke his leg when he tripped and fell down an incline while hunting for food. Although he would recover, it caused great hardship to not have him to help with the younger children, chop wood when available, and the myriad of things that he was expected to do. They also arrived in Oregon without many of the heirloom items. The piano was the first to go, then the dining table, all of their books, most of the china, and the four-poster bed. But they reached Oregon and began their new life.

            When I think of those hardships endured and the heartaches that they had, I have to believe these people were indeed a special breed. In our modern existence we don’t really know these kinds hardships. Although there are homeless people and malnourished people in our country, for the most part there is help for them if they want it. I’m not making light of the hardships that some people go through. I’ve gone through some myself. Illnesses, deaths of friends and loved ones, loss of a home, transportation woes, and putting food on the table for your children when money is tight are all real concerns for many of us. I myself have face all of the above in my life.

            As I consider the story of this pioneer family, I realize that there is an analogy that we can consider. As we travel on our life’s trail, we must be prepared to except the hardships that are sure to come. Part of that preparation is learning to let go of things. Perhaps someone has betrayed you. Someone that you loved deeply and trusted completely. Their betrayal can be emotionally devastating. The emotional “baggage” can become a burden that can potentially weigh us down and keep us from making our way on our life’s trail. Maybe you worked hard for years, even decades, for a company and were a trusted employee. Then one day the company is sold, and the new owner comes in and lays-off many long-time employees including you. Maybe you’re 61-years-old and it’s too late to find another job to equal the one that you have worked at for years. But you probably still have many years to live. You could become bitter and carry the weight of bitterness with you, but you could also embrace a new adventure on your life’s trail. The choice is yours.

           The point is that we must learn to let go, to discard the burdens that weigh us down and make our path that much more arduous. I lost my first house due to an economic crisis that deeply involved my job at the time. It wasn’t much, just a 3-bedroom, 1 bath, 1 car garage frame house, but it was my young family’s home. I could have carried that burden around with me for years, but despite the setback, I went back to college, graduated with honors, and 7 years after losing that first house we bought another home. I had a career that I had not considered before and even though at times during the 25 years that I worked in that career I was not satisfied with it, the fact is I earned a good wage, I supported my family, and I was able to retire while friends of mine who were not as fortunate still labor in jobs at an increasingly difficult age to do so.

            Along the way, I experienced a betrayal that rocked my world at the time. My marriage ended after 27 years. But instead of developing a burden due to that experience, I embarked on new adventures that have led me to enjoy life greatly.

            I had to let go of those things. Just like that pioneer family who had to let go of some of those heirlooms in order to keep moving forward, I had to leave those burdens on the side of my life’s trail. It is true that letting go of something can be one of the most difficult things that you will do in life, but speaking from experience, I found that once I let go of something the weight lifted is invigorating and life-affirming. You’ll never completely get over the loss of a loved one, but over time the loss can become less and less painful. A new day can greet you and with it a new outlook on life. I have a dear friend whose husband was paralyzed at the age of 49. He lived for 6 years that way and this friend of mine took great care of him. He was the love of her life. After he passed, my friend went through a couple of years of adjusting to a different life. Then she started to think about the rest of her life. She was only 55 years-old and a vibrant woman of body and spirit. She would always love her husband. They had been married very young and had three boys that she is very proud of. But she was also lonely. About 4 years after her husband died, she met a man that she greatly liked and admired. It took a while to get used to the idea of dating again, but she stepped out in faith and did just that. These two wonderful people were married late last year. My friend will retire later this year and they will embark on many adventures in their years to come. At no time has her love for her first husband diminished, that love will always be there. As hard it as was for her to move on into a new life, she made the choice to do just that. She enjoys her new life, a life that now includes grandchildren, and embraces the adventures that are to come. She could never have done that if she had carried the burden of her loss with her forever.

            So, if you find yourself weighed down by events that once devastated your life, then consider letting go. Give those burdens to God and keep going down your life’s trail.

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