by LAUREL BECKLEY
The Oregon Trail by Portland Center Stage | Flickr
You started from Independence, Missouri. It is 1848.
There should be other starting points, but right now this is the only one. Later, maybe, there will be more places to choose from. More years from which to depart even, as though you are a time-traveling pioneer treating dates like a rolodex, flipping past each one to find the perfect month, the ideal year, the best location.
Unfortunately, in this version you only depart from Independence, Missouri, and only in 1848.
At least you have options on the month.
Okay, not you. You don’t choose anything.
Your fearless leader does. They make all the decisions, and you are along for the ride, whether they decide to leave in March when it is freezing or August when the plains boil and you’re certain to die of exposure in the Rockies. They choose what supplies you bring, how fast you go, how much you eat and they even have the option to rename you.
If you are thinking something sounds strange—yes, it does.
You have made this trip countless times, under countless names.
You only travel one way—west.
Sometimes your name is auto-generated, but more often you are renamed on a whim. You have been called Amy, Sara, Joey, Brace-Face Jessica, Slut McKinley, Mrs. Taylor-Thomas, Poopy McPooppants, lkjlajadf and John, among others.
Less creative but more impactful is their rotating source of income. Your leader changes occupations faster than a chameleon, which means they have somewhere between 1,600 and 400 dollars to their name (yes, the economic make-up of this world is strange but you don’t know any different). Rarely do you have a leader who is a saddle-maker or a merchant—those occupations are worthless. They are always a teacher or a banker or, sometimes, a farmer or a doctor.
You have traveled with quite a few teachers. Those trips are the most trying because each time you feel your leader is driving through the grueling journey with no regard to your health or safety. You are very hungry and tired on those trips, and there is never enough money to take the ferry or buy clothes when your one set is lost floating a river.
Bankers, however, are no better. They dole out money like candy at Halloween—you don’t know what Halloween is, but you once traveled with someone with a similar name, along with Sandy Claws and Father Fartface—and overload the wagon with spare wheels, tongues, axles and thousands of bullets. Even with this display of wealth, you still walk at a strenuous pace and starve on meager rations.
One thing remains constant, however: your leader loves to hunt. You have waited (not patiently because you aren’t patient, you just wait) while your leader wastes fifteen bullets trying to catch one sprinting rabbit. They litter the grounds with the crumpled carcasses of elk, bison, deer, gazelles and bear, killing more than the two hundred pounds of meat they can carry back to the wagon, and you are thankful for each morsel.
If you were a more discerning person instead of a scrape of code, you’d question your leader. But you do not get to voice your opinion. You have no voice. You are made to follow your leader, no matter what.
And so you hold each version of you with pride, determined to fulfill your part and reach the Willamette Valley.
You are part of a great story—one of the fearless pioneers traveling across the rugged country of America to settle in the unoccupied west (if you knew anything, you would question this interpretation of history). You are a patriot taking part in a Great Cause, despite the one thing that has remained constant through each version of you.
You have never actually made it to the Willamette Valley.
You have died of exhaustion, cholera, snake-bite, fever, a broken leg, a broken arm, and you have shat yourself to death with dysentery more times than there are numbers. You have starved from bare bones rations and a grueling pace, where your status lingered on very poor until you drowned when your leader attempted to ford a river that was ten feet deep and 262 feet across. You are always confident your food will not spoil—even though you did not pack salt and the fact it is often July (this might be why you have died of typhoid 1,003 times).
Your tombstones are scattered across the red path of the trail, each death overwritten by another birth, another chance to survive the journey.
But this time you know you will reach the Willamette Valley.
This time, your name is Beth.
This time, your leader is adadfwefg (pronounced Smith as they are English), and they are a doctor.
The journey has not been easy. You have broken three wagon wheels, five axles and someone stole two oxen, but you did not have to wait in the middle of the path for someone to come along to trade whatever was damaged for your one set of clothing or one hundred pounds of food, because adadfwefg has always had spares (and you have two sets of clothes). They even chose to pay for a ferry instead of fording the river or caulking the wagons to float.
Miraculously, no one has died.
While at times your pace has been strenuous, adadfwefg gave you filling rations and copious rest days. They stopped for four days when Joey was bitten by a snake, and another two days when everyone was in poor health due to exhaustion, and again when John broke their leg and then their arm and then had a fever.
They are benevolent, and you would follow adadfwefg anywhere.
You have followed them across half the country, after all.
At the Dalles, adadfwefg chooses the river instead of the tolled Barlow Road, which seems risky but they have not steered you wrong yet. And now you are about to float down the Columbia River.
You have never reached this point in your journey.
You have been everywhere else, and you vaguely remember when life was words and then green on black, but the pixelated wood for Fort Laramie and the far-off mountains you will never reach are all you know now. And now, for the first time, you are so close to the end.
You are hopeful and obedient, and that will never change.
You get on the raft.
The wagon rocks in the waves. The raft jerks down the river, guided by a divine force or someone with a semi-responsive mouse—who’s to tell—and you believe you will finally, this time, reach the Willamette Valley.
You don’t see the rock hidden in the rapids.
You are back in Independence, Missouri. It is 1848.
This time, your leader is a carpenter. They have purchased two oxen, one set of clothing, 100 boxes of bullets and 50 pounds of food. It is August.
This time, your name is Stinky Skunky Funkbutt, and you are about to begin a great adventure.
Laurel Beckley is a writer, Marine Corps veteran and librarian. She is from Eugene, Oregon, and currently lives in northern Virginia with her wife, fur creatures and a collection of gently neglected houseplants. Her debut novel, THAT DISTANT DREAM, is available from NineStar Press and Amazon. She can be found on twitter @laurelthereader and her blog, The Suspected Bibliophile.