Oregon Trail National Historic Site – the word RUTS is ridiculous in any other context

From the Fossil Beds, we moseyed east, over to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center with the promise of RUTS. Wagon RUTS. From real pioneers. Thousands of them. There are many recommended NPS sites related to the Oregon Trail (thank goodness, right?), but one biggie in our path: the Interpretive Center located near Baker City, Oregon.

Baker City citizens lobbied to have the fancy Center built in their community.

The 10 million dollar center (most locals were quick to either brag or lament the expense) is indeed impressive – high on Flagstaff Hill overlooking the Baker Valley – and the pioneers’ first view of the ominous Blue Mountain range they had to cross, though toward the end (it being Oregon) thankfully, of their journey. Of course the pioneers would not have gone up the hill, they would have gone around it – the easier path. So the high perch of the center itself is designed to give you a view of the trail, not necessarily the view the pioneers themselves would have had. Interesting and smart I thought.
View of Baker Valley and Oregon Trail, including "ruts" from Interpretive Center.

View of Baker Valley and Oregon Trail, including “ruts”, with Blue Mountains in the background. Taken from inside the Interpretive Center. Gorgeous.

Related, when I asked a staffer generally what route the trail took west from the Center, he said “Follow I-84-that was the easiest route than and now.” Logical. So if you want the pioneers’ view, hop on the interstate. : ) If you’d like to learn more from first-hand accounts about this particular spot on the Trail, my brief skim of this guy’s overview and sources seems to square with what we learned at the Center. Fair warning: A lone pine tree meets a grisly end.
The museum displays were the familiar mix of phony/modern/creepy looking mannequins with pained expressions – loss of a child, fear of Indians, uncooperative oxen. Picture Heidi Klum and David Beckham overacting in period costume. (Why didn’t I take pictures???) The building offers a stunning floor to cathedral ceiling windowed-look at the valley – including the RUTS and the rough outlines of what is a mile or so of the Trail (see above picture).
The next section of the museum offered the familiar chronological and contextual panels with many primary sources as well as more than the usual amount of paintings depicting the Trail, which I thought worked well. Lots of audio, and kid-oriented information and activities.
Feminist museum curator sneaks one past the boss!

Feminist museum curator sneaks one past the boss!

My takeaways?…I think it did a good job of showing WHO went – eg farmers, not necessarily merchants. Immigrants. People from the midwest, not the east. Young(er). Also, I appreciated they way they broke down the different geographic parts of the trail. I took pride in the fact that most of the detailed first-hand accounts were written by women (see feminist curator’s take on the left). I really appreciated the last section about what happened when they got to Oregon City. What happened next? Right! Thousands of pioneers came over decades. Weren’t the best claims taken in the first month or so? What then? I am still wondering why estimated numbers of emigrants varied so much from year to year – for example in 1850 very few, while in the previous and subsequent years, lots. We stumped the Sunday staffers with our question on that. Anyone?

Though you can hop out of your car and see the RUTS right off the highway on your way out, the staff said we should take the hike down to them – .8 miles there and back through the same sagebrush the pioneers traversed. It was late in the day, and hot, but we booked it, to avoid getting back before closing time.

It may have colored my “experience” of the RUTS a bit, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with a sense of “x happened right here” that I expected. Maybe it’s just too big an event to get that feeling about. Maybe it was the unseasonably hot weather and the prospect of a mile hike back up the hill. Our water and peanut M&M supply was low. I don’t take this lightly as I am a big believer in the power of “being there” to help you understand history. Nothing alarming, just a little twist on the power, which I will continue to drill down on. Still overall, a really cool place and way to learn about it.

Some young BLM staffers were out front giving a flint knapping demonstration. It’s sort of like knitting we were told (in that it’s repetitive and meditative), but very dangerous as you are using a flint to carve a seemingly impenetrable rock into an arrowhead.

The guy doing the demo said there was an old Indian who came out of the mountains in 19-oh something, and became a sort of artist in residence at a museum in San Francisco, and it’s because of that old Indian that anyone alive today knows anything about flint knapping. Hmm. We asked his wife, who was sitting nearby, if she had any dangerous hobbies, and she said camping, so we quizzed them on places to camp as we headed toward Idaho. Score. See upcoming post on Hells Canyon.

So, just to add some authenticity to this experience, we had our own little pioneer mishap with our trailer’s tongue jack (see similar: tall thin cylindrical thing in the middle with a handle in the pic at right) when we were leaving our campsite that morning. Let’s just say the tongue jack (and trailer) is 50 years old. While Ben was turning it (thank god for the laws of physics) to lift the 4,200 pound trailer so we could place it on the truck’s hitch, it slipped, again, and again. Damn, physics. I of course screamed and

Photo credit: vintageairstream.com

Photo credit: vintageairstream.com

called (not literally as there was no cell service) for AAA, then took a walk, at Ben’s request. He in the meantime pulled out two other jacks (for the car) and placed some legos (not really, but sort of) between one and the trailer tongue, so he could lift it high enough to get it on the truck. There were some rope harnesses involved as well. Sorry, Ben would have killed me if I took an actual picture of it. So we have a new tongue jack, an electric one. Take that pioneers! Off we go to Hells Canyon, then Idaho, a reverse migration?

See you on the trail!

See you on the trail!

4 thoughts on “Oregon Trail National Historic Site – the word RUTS is ridiculous in any other context

  1. I really liked the restoration posts, but I really LOVE the posts from the road — so smart and Real.

    If you bought one of those imported black tube hitch jacks, expect them to last about a year in regular use, remember where you stored that “emergency” manual crank widget and take note of who stocks manual “sidewinder” jacks (Tractor Supply Stores in the SE.

    Have a great journey; we are hanging on every word.

    Al & Patty
    Twobikes + an Airstream


    • Thanks for the input, Al. Yeah, I hear you about remembering where we store the manual widget! Our jack is made by Atwood (made in US of A), so I hope we’ll get better service out of it than only a year … I think it has a five year warranty, but I’ll check. In any event, I don’t think we’ll see the longevity of the original! Thanks for following our journey – maybe we’ll see you on the road. Regards, Ben & Megh


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