This feature appeared in the March 7, 2016 special travel issue of High Country News:
Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.
“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”
I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.
Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.
The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”
To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?” More…