I’d burnt the bacon. Black smoke billowed into the faces of the dozen hungry pioneers lined up in front of the chuck wagon waiting for breakfast. With five more days on the road, it wouldn’t be the last time they’d get a badly cooked meal by my hand.
“Pitching in is the price of admission,” teamster and wagon train president Dean Sprunk reassured me as he chewed on his bacon. “This ain’t no dude ranch.”
It certainly wasn’t.
I had joined the Fort Seward Wagon Train on their annual adventure aboard 10 canvas-covered, wood-built wagons, roughing it out for six days on the North Dakota prairie alongside 100 other participants. These modern-day wagon train adventures were once common across the United States, but as organizers grow older, Fort Seward is one of less than a dozen that still operate.
It’s also one of the most authentic. Running every year since 1969, the endeavour is non-profit – charging passengers just $450 to cover food, horses and equipment for the week. The aim is to give people the chance to experience the life of a pioneer in the 1800s. Participants are expected to dress in traditional clothing and pitch in on daily chores.
It’s a noble goal. Me? I wanted to play cowboy.
I was raised on a diet of Sunday afternoon Westerns, and this was an opportunity to take part in my own Wild West story. When I arrived in camp on the first afternoon to find men in plaid shirts and cowboy hats and women in gingham dresses and sun bonnets sitting around a circle of period wood wagons, I could already hear the theme tune of Rawhide running through my head. I’d be Clint Eastwood, and almost certainly be called upon to rescue someone from no good cattle rustlers.
But when my newly-met neighbours had to rescue my tent from disappearing into North Dakota’s famous wind, it fast became clear that if there was a damsel in distress, it was me. Hardly the brooding gunslinger entrance I had imagined as the canvas flapped around my face.
Into the west
It seemed that tent construction was just the first lesson. I frantically pulled on my jeans the next morning, quickly learning that wagon trails start early. The banging of pots and pans by teamsters signalled sunrise as the camp gathered for breakfast. Tents were hauled down, horses brushed off and wagons hitched. Our trail boss prowled the wagon circle hustling drivers into formation, before we were set lurching into motion by the holler of “move em out!”.
In the back of the wagons, introductions were readily made and card games were started, although rarely finished as bumps in the road flipped the deck. Our wagons dated from the Old West or were reconstructed, and while the stretched canvas roof offered protection from the weather, there were few comforts. The wooden wheels jarred over every rock and pothole, while the cushions – a modern convenience – did little to soften the rattling ride.
Like the real pioneers, I spent most of the journey on foot. But while they had little choice but to walk because their wagons were packed with food and luggage, I was outside because I wanted to take in North Dakota’s iconic scenery.
In the 1860s and ‘70s, wagon trains crossed this land with settlers hoping to strike gold in the hills of Montana. While the route of the Fort Seward wagon changes each year, stretches of the trail always follow in the footsteps of these pioneers. Our 70-mile loop took us around the Dakota Valley, initially on gravel roads and around patches of alfalfa, but soon turning into wide-open fields where prairie grass stretched as high as your waist and as far as the horizon. We passed unmarked Lakota Sioux burial mounds and found bleached white buffalo skulls.
But where we had a sense of wonderment at the surroundings, the pioneers were filled with dread. At one of the daily lunchtime talks, our resident historian, Richard Gebhart, explained how the prairie was “the most fearful thing most immigrants had ever seen.” There were no trees, no mountains or hills and no landmarks. Where they did find shelter or water, they feared encountering Lakota Sioux Indians; Sitting Bull was just one chief to raid Dakota wagon trains.
Have spade. Will work
As handsome as the surroundings were, this was no sightseeing tour. While some modern wagon trains offer gourmet catering and glamping, Fort Seward is a working wagon train. Apart from the water truck, basic outhouse and ambulance that followed us, the camp was self-sufficient. There was no electricity, so food was cooked on an open fire, and if you wanted to wash you had the choice of a splash from your canteen or a dip in a local creek.
The dozen or so staff – mostly local ranchers who had been taking part for decades – were volunteers. Everyone was expected to pitch in.
Like many participants, Lavon Barth, from Illinois, found the hands-on approach much of the attraction. “My grandmother was a homesteader in Dakota Territory in the late 1800s,” she explained. “I want to experience just some of what she experienced.”
She then nodded at her two grandchildren, 11-year-old Clay and 12-year-old Kyley, busy serving up oatmeal to hungry pioneers. “It’s important that they understand a little of the hardships it took to settle this land. To ride and walk each day, make and break camp and realise that to get stuff done you have to lend a hand.”
I later met Clay sweating over a hole in the ground while holding a shovel most of his size. He was with teamster Sean, who was showing him how to dig a fire pit. I asked Clay if he was having fun. He fixed me with a steely glance. “Fun?” he said. “We have to finish this hole before we can eat,” driving his shovel into the ground with a wide-beamed grin. I volunteered my own dubious sod-busting skills and we three scooped out the dirt. It was hard work, but it made for fast friends and an enormous sense of goodwill.
The heart of the wagon community was the evening campfire, where we sat on hay bales and tucked into hearty bowls of chilli and stew. Some evenings there were short presentations about life in the Old West, but like the real pioneers, we were responsible for making our own entertainment. Most people took a turn to tell a joke, present a skit or sing a song; my cowboy crooning was only a little better than my work with a spade.
Our campsites rotated between farm fields and high prairie, where you had to kick a few rocks and cowpies out of the way to find a good place to pitch your tent. Mostly, we were miles from civilisation, with just the sound of howling coyotes lulling us to sleep.
An adventure ends
The journey was close to complete when I ran into Sprunk again and asked to join him up front of his wagon.
“I don’t have a shotgun, but you’re welcome to take the seat,” he said.
I was introduced to the pair of horses pulling the show, Dan and Duke, before I settled into my spot. I wasn’t settled for long.
As we negotiated the tricky descent into a creek bed, Duke slipped on a rock and the wagon tipped. The noise spooked Dan, who tried to bolt. As the wagon swayed violently, I was convinced we were going to crash onto the bed of rocks below. I did what all good heroes do in moments of danger: I hung on for dear life.
Sprunk, meanwhile, steadied his feet, finessed the reins and shared a few quiet but firm words with Dan, determinedly pulling the team under control. The experience lasted less than a minute, but left me with my heart thumping. I asked Sprunk just how bad that mishap rated. “Not that bad,” he said, before pausing. “Still, it would have hurt if we had gone over.”
Disaster narrowly averted, Sprunk decided it was time to put the reins in my hands. His driving lesson was brief: “pull left for left and right for right”. After a few lurches across the road, I found the wagon surprisingly simple to drive. Having failed at basic tent construction and underwhelmed with my shovelling skills, I was happy to have found a cowboy skill I could master.
“Not bad,” Sprunk rated me, with one eye still on the horses. “You picked it up quickly.”
“Shame I’m 150 years too late for a job,” I joked.
“True,” Sprunk nodded. “You could always join us next year as a teamster.”
“I’m really that good?” I asked, as the strains of Rawhide started up again in my head.
“Sure,” Sprunk replied. “Sure. That, and I probably don’t want to taste your bacon again.”
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