Travel: USA/ `Half horse, half alligator, reckless, fearless' - discoveries on the trail to the promised land

Judith Hendershott retraces the route of the pioneer settlers
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The Independent Travel
The stern portrait of my great-grandmother hangs in the stairwell of my London home. She was, according to family legend, a formidable woman, six feet tall, widowed with 12 young children to raise in the wild Oregon country.

Great-grandma Phipps crossed the Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Pacific twice: as an infant in 1857 when she was kidnapped by the Indians and bartered for one of her father's cows, and in 1875 when she helped her widowed father drive the mule train across the prairie steppes. That autumn she reached the southern Oregon valley of the Rogue River - inhabited by Rogue River Indians - and married my great-grandfather. Together they built a large homestead, which I used to visit during childhood summers.

A hundred and twenty years later, my 81-year-old father and I retraced part of her journey, criss-crossing the Oregon-only segment of the Trail - this large state accounts for around 500 miles of the Oregon Trail. We did not trudge on foot 10-20 miles per day but instead drove 300 miles per day in our sleek Japanese automobile, looping round the state. It took the pioneer settlers four to six months to walk the nearly 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri to the "promised land" in western Oregon. It took us five days to drive over high mountain passes, precipitous bluffs, bone-wrenching volcanic flows, and searing sagebrush plains.

Near our campsites we encountered rattlesnakes, deer, coyotes, cougars, eagles, bears and biting flies. We wanted to experience the sort of life and the variety of terrain and animals those hardy pioneers encountered.

We set out from the western terminus of the Oregon Trail in the Willamette Valley town of Eugene, founded by pioneer Eugene Skinner, and headed south to the Gold Rush country of the Rogue River, near the California border. Here in the well preserved frontier town of Jacksonville you feel as if you are on the movie set of High Noon - but it's real. In the Pioneer Cemetery are buried Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Indians, mingling in death as they never did in life.

From here the Trail heads east and north to the Cascade Mountains. This is Twin Peaks country: deep, dark silent woods. We pitched our tent in a public campsite and settled down for the night. Little did we know that there was a loggers' Jamboree (a sort of Highland Games) in the nearby tiny community of Prospect: at 2am we were woken by the sounds of "visitors".

Worn out by their exertions in axe-throwing, tree-cutting and chainsaw- brandishing competitions, a drunken crowd had decided to resolve their feuds in our neck of the woods. Not for nothing did a 19th-century writer describe these mountain men as "half horse, half alligator, tipped with snapping-turtle, reckless, fearless and law-despising".

Our next stop was Crater Lake National Park. This enormous stretch of water was formed around 7,700 years ago by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama. Indian legend tells of the explosion which caused the collapse of the volcano: shamans in historic time forbade Indians to view the lake, and trappers and pioneers did not find it until 1853 when it was discovered by gold prospectors.

From the mountains the Oregon Trail leads to the High Desert country, an immense arid plateau which is mostly populated by cattle, horses and rattlesnakes. Human settlements are sparse here, but one of the most interesting is Sumpter, once a metropolis of about 4,000 brawling gold miners, card sharks, renegades, gunmen and ladies of the evening. In its heyday there were 16 saloons, an opera house, six restaurants, seven hotels - and six churches. At one time there were more than 2,000 Chinese miners living in the vicinity; in the nearby town of John Day you can visit the Kam Wah Chung Museum which served as a general store, office of the Chinese herbal doctor, Chinese temple, and opium den. Tourists from the City of London might like to visit the now-uninhabited mining town of Bourne - its richest mine and best hotel were owned by a London family called the Barings, who made it a practice to clear the dining room of miners before eating.

We finally reached our goal - the actual wagon tracks made by the pioneers - in the north-east corner of the state, near the Idaho border. Outside the town of Baker City, on a sagebrush-covered bluff called Flagstaff Hill is the Oregon Trail Interpretative Centre, an historical time tunnel beckoning visitors into a stunning recreation of life during the Great Migration. It overlooks an immense plain called Virtue Flat, which the pioneer settlers crossed in their Conestoga wagons.

A well preserved segment of the Oregon Trail is set between the Rockies 1,000 miles to the east and the Cascade Mountains several hundred miles to the west. From 1840 to 1870 nearly half a million pioneers travelled the 2,000 miles of Oregon Trail. Over time the wagons, animals and settlers broke down the sagebrush on Virtue Flat and the dusty earth became imprinted by sets of parallel rust cut deep by the wagon wheels.

At the Center, opened in 1992, you see life-size recreations of trail, accompanied by pungent sounds and smells. Interspersed with the "living" tableaux are informative video films and hands-on displays. Outside, there is a trail of more than four miles around Flagstaff Hill, which leads to a series of viewpoints and historic sites travelled by the emigrants.

The loop starts nearly a mile high and descends 372 feet - not for the faint-hearted. In summer the heat is intense: there is not shade or water on the trail. Visitors are warned: "Insects can be bothersome and ticks can be dangerous. Stay on the trail. Be alert for scorpions and rattlesnakes". There are several levels of difficulty and the routes are clearly marked. I opted for "difficult" and set off on the two-hour hike towards my goal: a solitary covered wagon down the hill on the plain. During the course of my walk I was overtaken by a golf buggy driven by an employee of the Center, asking me if I was "all right" and offering me a drink of ice- cold water. Overland emigrants, of course, had no such luxuries. Descending past the Hard Rock Lode Mine and Panorama Point, I finally reached the lone covered wagon at the foot of the hill. It sits in the ruts of the original Oregon Trail, near the granite marker which Ezra Meeker, a pioneer of 1853, created.

Our "trail" home to the Willamette Valley took us across the McKenzie Pass of the Cascade range. My great-grandmother and her father came this way in 1875 over the black lava beds, the remains of a volcanic lava flow from 6,000-8,000 years ago. A bleak sight it is, the black slithering stuff in hardened waves, funnels, ridges and canyons. Here and there is a scrawny pine tree clinging to life. Visible on the edge of the 20th- century road are the remains of the first road to cross this God-forsaken place, the ruts of the old wagon road, used by the pioneers. One can only imagine the gritty endurance of these intrepid people, braving wind, snow, wild animals and Indians, in order to establish their homes in the "promised land".

For travel in July (high season), Flightbookers (0171-757 2000) is quoting pounds 518 on Air Canada from Heathrow via Vancouver, while Airline Network (0800 727747) has a flight from Gatwick on TWA via St Louis for pounds 542 return. These fares include tax.