Wagons Ho!

Morris Carter's voice goes in and out on the cell phone, but it's no surprise, considering where he's calling from. "Right now we're halfway between Lamar and Las Animas on Highway 50," Carter says. "Earlier we were along the Arkansas River." He's speaking from the seat of a Conestoga wagon, and despite the static, the sound effects in the background--a dull thud and clank and the steady clop of horseshoes hitting the ground--are still so clear you can almost feel the wagon shudder beneath you.

Carter is a wagon master, and he's been bumping down the road since Easter Sunday, when his rustic covered-wagon entourage pulled out of St. Charles, Missouri, en route to Sacramento, California, in commemoration of the California gold rush. Along their carefully charted way, Carter and a re-enactor crew are camping out and sharing a bit of the past at living-history museums and other sites able to accommodate their wagons and the horse and mule power necessary to pull them. The train stops Tuesday morning at Denver's Four Mile Historic Park for a welcoming spectacle much like the real thing. After that, they'll mosey on to the National Western Stock Show Complex before setting out for Fort Lupton.

A Wyoming rancher, Carter led his first wagon train, along with his four daughters, in 1989, on a thirty-day trek in honor of the state's centennial celebration. "That's when our first three Conestogas were built," he recalls. Since then, they tackled the Oregon Trail before embarking this year on the gold rush trail--actually a whole series of interconnecting trails.

What does it mean to be wagon master? Anything and everything, says Carter. "I'm actually a 'wagon train captain,'" he adds. "'Wagon master' is a term Hollywood came up with. The captain has the overall responsibilities of the wagon train. My daughter Oneta is the wagon boss; she oversees the movement of the wagons from campsite to campsite. That's how it was 150 years ago, when they did the trail--there was a military kind of organization to it. The boss had about ten wagons, and overall, there was the captain, and then there were trail scouts who went ahead."

The train averages about three and a half miles per hour, slowed by water stops for the horses and daily rest stops at noon. There's no way to get around those--the horses, Carter notes, work harder than anyone in the camp. "Hell," he says, "the wagons weigh five, six thousand pounds each." At that pace, the wagon train, now about 800 miles into a 2,500-mile journey, should reach its destination in mid-September. Of course, weather can slow down the process, and Carter and his group have seen plenty of it: tornadoes, hailstorms, freezing rain, sleet and snow. It just makes a pioneer appreciate the beautiful days all the more.

Hitting the trail is something of a business venture for Carter. He sells travel opportunities by the day to vicarious pioneers and more comprehensive packages to serious travelers, who might bring along their own wagons and teams for a portion of the journey. The train can swell from a minimum of six wagons all the way up to thirty. "Our business is living history," Carter says.

Still, if you're rugged to begin with, Carter notes, it's hardly an effort. Life on a wagon train actually slows everything down. "You really see the terrain and experience it," he says. "Everything is changing. First we went through a lot of ups and downs and hills and hollers in Missouri, then it got flat in Kansas. Now we're starting to see a little sage; we're moving out of the prairie and into the plains."

--Froyd

California Trail Gold Rush Wagon Train, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. May 25, Four Mile Historic Park, 715 South Forest Street, 303-399-1859, www.goldrushwagontrain.com.

 
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