Wagon train takes modern travelers on rugged pioneer journey
LAKE TAHOE – It’s what people don’t see along Highway 50 over Echo Summit that makes a journey by horseback all the more vivid and unforgettable.
And each June for the past 60 years, caravans of men, women and children have taken the six-day, 90 mile organized ride over the pass to the West Slope, experiencing a taste of what many did when they made their pilgrimage to California 160 years ago.
Such was the case on Sunday as the Highway 50 Association’s Wagon Train began its annual trek over the Sierra Nevada pass, with all the rugged Old West richness following behind. This included a dozen covered wagons, 75 horseback riders, two tons of hay and grain for the horses, not to mention several hundred pounds of beans, stew fixings, beef, pork, bacon, eggs and cowboy coffee for the riders.
Not a tennis shoe was to be found on the feet of these 21st century pioneers. All were dressed in traditional heavy cotton and fur-lined clothing and sporting cowboy boots and hats. Though some of it appeared uncomfortable, the garb may come in handy as the Sierra weather has lately been as unpredictable as the disposition of any three-year-old white stallion surrounded by 90 humans.
At an average of two-miles-per-hour the train will reach Placerville on Saturday to celebrate the Gold Rush town’s own Founder’s Day celebration.
As those who’ve taken the wagon train before can attest, the experience itself is the closest organized event of its kind that allows participants to get a feel of what travel over the Sierra must have been like before rail trains and highways.
Sure, the road over the Sierra is paved with asphalt. And, yes, the horses and the dozens who participate each year are guaranteed plenty of food and water, unlike the foraging by humans and animals that went on along the heavily timbered mountain pass.
This is what makes the journey so amazing, said Denise Sloan Smart of South Lake Tahoe.
“The original pioneers didn’t have a paved road. They had to cut trees along the way to make their trails. When you’re on the wagon train, you think about this and wonder how they did it,” Sloan Smart said. “This is an opportunity to think about what they went through and how easy we have it today.”
Yet for any minor conveniences, the Wagon Train tradition remains uniquely rich and authentic in its pioneering spirit as, arguably, any event of its kind in California. Horse-drawn carriages are mostly replicates of 1850s and 1860s travel wagons, complete with hard seats, large spiny wooden wheels that are prone to cracking and splitting.
Carol and Randy Evans of Carson City choose to leave the hard work of break-downs to the wagon owners; instead paying to simply be passengers.
“We’re horse people without the horses,” Randy Evans said.
Admitted Old West history buffs, the couple have made the annual trek a ritual sight-seeing vacation.
“You have time to see and think about what it must have been like all those years ago,” Carol Evans said. “You see things like the way the sun reflects on the Sierra that you can’t see any other time because, chances are, you’re not paying attention.”
Riders also feel every bump and dip along the road as the carriages don’t come with shock absorbers, said Jeanette Smart, a 19-year Wagon Train veteran.
“You see streams you never knew were there; you get to see wildlife that you miss in the car,” she said. “I wish everyone could have this experience. It’s something you never forget.”
This new Old West experience is what prompted first-time riders J.P. Turner of Pollock Pines, and Brittney Hultsman of Cameron Park to sign up as wranglers for the journey. Working directly under Wagon Master Dianna Newborn, the teenagers basically serve as moving ranch hands to the train, fetching food and water for the horses, ensuring they are healthy and nourished.
Admitting they’re not exactly sure how much work is involved over the course of six days, the teens said they remain up for the challenge.
The journey will be a “great way” to experience the outdoors and get a peek into what life may have been like in the Old West, Hultsman said.
Turner said he’s in it for the history and adventure.
“This is something they’ve been doing for 60 years. I hope it lasts for 60 more years, but if it doesn’t I want to be able to tell my children that I was part of a working wagon train,” Turner said.
Veteran Wagon Train rider Ali Chinnow offered the pair some practical advice. “Rest your rear when you can, eat when you can, work hard, be patient, have fun, and if they can do all that and not lose their minds along the way, it’s the perfect invitation for next year,” she jokingly said.
When the Highway 50 Association celebrated its 50th anniversary, it rolled with nearly three dozen wagons and buggies, and more than 100 outriders on horse back from Virginia City, Nev., to Old Sacramento for nearly three weeks, said Sloan Smart.
This anniversary will be a bit shorter but no less fun. The band of rolling historians will end their trek in “Old Hangtown” June 13 with a Wagon Train/Founder’s Day Celebration in downtown Placerville with entertainment that begins at 10 a.m., a chuckwagon cook-off, live music, street vendors, and then the wagon train heads on to the country fair for an evening of barbeque and dancing to live music.
On June 14, they round up the herds, wagons, buggies and camping gear, say their goodbyes and call it a year – until next year, she said.
On Sunday night the riders made their way to Amacker Ranch, with Strawberry, Calif., as Monday’s destination.
For complete details go to http://www.hwy50wagontrain.com.
Here is the rest of the schedule:
Tuesday, June 9
Layover Day at Strawberry
Blackpowder Demonstrations, Tomahawk Demonstrations, Barbeque and entertainment in the meadow
Wednesday, June 10
Strawberry to Kyburz
Potluck supper for participants
Thursday, June 11
Kyburz to Fresh Pond
Evening events hosted by Fresh Pond Trading Post
Friday, June 12
Fresh Pond to Pollock Pines to High Hill Ranch
Pancake breakfast, crafters and entertainment – 10 a.m. at Long’s Shopping Center, Pollock Pines
Evening entertainment at High Hill Ranch: Live band, barbecue, beer and Cowboy poetry contest open to the public
Saturday, June 13
High Hill Ranch to Placerville
Wagon Train/Founder’s Day Celebration All Day event begins at 10 a.m. downtown Placerville including chuckwagon cook-off, street vendors, musical entertainment.
Wagon Train proceeds to Placerville Drive for an evening of barbecue, live entertainment and dancing. This event is open to the public.
Sunday, June 14
Wagons, buggies and horses are rounded up and disbanded for another historical year and gets ready for 61st annual Wagon Train in June 2010.
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