I Replayed ‘Oregon Trail’ So You Don’t Have To (And I Brought Beyonce and Ruth Bader Ginsburg In My Wagon)

My absolute favorite thing that happened last week was the arrival of thousands of old MS-DOS games in playable form on the Internet Archive, so in honor of Throwback Thursday, I’m putting that glorious treasure trove to work: That is, I replayed Oregon Trail Deluxe so you don’t have to. Ready for your weekly dose of nostalgia? Because you’re about to get transported back to elementary school, complete with hilariously pixelated graphics and MIDI sound effects.

Initially, I had planned to do a “when feminists play Oregon Trail" piece kind of in the vein of the Cards Against Humanity piece our very own Julie Alvin penned recently — but as I sat down to play the game, I had to revise my idea. Why? Because one of the best parts about Oregon Trail is that it’s pretty much gender-neutral (even if the real life history it simulates definitely wasn’t). Your profession isn’t determined by whether you’re a dude or a woman; your party members’ names can be whatever the heck you want them to be; and once you get beyond that? Gender is inconsequential. You’re at the mercy of the trail, your resource management skills, and luck — nothing more. As such, there isn't really a way to do a "feminist" playthrough of it; after all, dysentery doesn’t care if it kills a party member named George or one named Mary.

So instead, I offer you this: The Oregon Trail Diary of Lucia Peters, Being the Adventures of an Intrepid Group of Famous Feminist and Forward-Thinking Women. I may have accidentally killed everyone (why oh why did I not choose to be a doctor?), but that doesn’t mean feminism is dead — it just means we need to internalize those messages and make ourselves better in the future.

And also probably laugh a lot. Because you guys? I definitely put Beyonce in my party.

Let’s get rolling!

April 1, 1848

Our adventure begins! Some time ago, my closest friends and I determined that it would behoove us to make the long and arduous journey to the Willamette Valley along what’s known as the Oregon Trail. Each of us has become weary of the constant opposition we all face for our independent natures, and we long for a place with fewer restrictions. There are not many lady blacksmiths in the world (and none in Independence save myself), but mayhap there will come a day when we may all practice whatsoever profession we like — regardless as to whether we be man, woman, or neither. This journey may be the first step along a much longer path.

My cohort feels similarly, so we depart together with joy in our hearts. Our fellowship is as follows:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has the strongest sense of justice I have ever seen in a woman or a man; Gloria Steinem, who could teach the leaders of this country something about politics; bell hooks, whose pen is as sharp as her wit (and who assures me that the lowercase letters with which both her name and surname begin are absolutely necessary); and Beyonce, who… well, Beyonce has recently taught me a new word: “Fierce.” Sometimes she goes by Sasha, although I know not why.

We set out today at a strenuous pace, bearing with us 10 sets of clothing, two spare wagon wheels, axels, and tongues (not that I don’t trust in my own abilities to fix anything that might break along the way, but it never hurts to be prepared — and besides, we may perhaps be able to trade them later on), 1000 pounds of food, and an absurd number of bullets. We have hope that game will be plentiful on the trail; letters we have received from those who have gone before us cautioned us never to run out of food. We have all heard about the Donner Party (poor things).

Must go — our eight oxen need minding, and Gloria looks as though she could use some help. How thrilling to be on an adventure with these fine women!

April 9, 1848: Kansas River Crossing

The first week of our journey has gone smoother than anyone could have predicted. On April 5, we arrived at the Kansas River Crossing, and yesterday we reached the Big Blue River Crossing. Both times we opted to caulk the wagon and float it; we have heard of those who tried to ford rivers when the water level was too high, only to find themselves sacrificing several oxen to the cause. We have hunted twice since first setting out — we all proved ourselves to be excellent shots, although Ruth cautioned us next time not to bring down quite so many animals: Our first time out, we shot 828 pounds of meat and could only carry back 200. Ah well; perhaps some other travelers might find the meat useful, provided they get to it before it begins to rot in the sun.

Dare I think this whole journey might be easier than that which we had prepared ourselves for?

April 13, 1848: Fort Kearney

I spoke too soon; Beyonce has come down with the cholera. For all the knowledge we five have between us, we none of us have the skills of a doctor. It just goes to show that no one may carry all the wisdom of the world, no matter who they are. We have reached Fort Kearney and will rest for a number of days in the hopes that Beyonce will gain her strength; we seem somewhat less “fierce” without her.

April 26, 1848

Shortly after Beyonce recovered from her cholera, she promptly broke her arm. None of us have any idea how she managed to sustain it, as she has been able to do nothing but lie in the back of the wagon while we minister to her for the past several weeks; we also slowed our pace to steady, as all of our health collectively seemed to be suffering. We should be reaching Chimney Rock in a few days — perhaps we shall rest upon arrival.

May 26, 1848

Forgive me the length of time between entries; quite literally the only things that have been worth noting each day for nearly the past month have been “no water” and “no grass for the oxen.” We rested for several days at Fort Laramie, but alas, our health did not improve — it feels as if the trail is sapping our energy from our very bodies. Beyonce continues to suffer from ill health — although she was fully recovered from her broken arm two days ago, she contracted what looks like the measles today. Still, though, she attempts to remain “fierce” — I suspect to bolster her comrades’ flagging spirits as well as her own.

June 11, 1848

Although we continue moving onward in the literal sense, I feel for every step we take forwards, we take at least two steps back. Shortly after Beyonce recovered from her measles, bell began suffering from exhaustion; furthermore, Gloria was bitten by a snake during our hunting expedition today. Our supplies remain good — we packed well for the journey and have hunted wisely — but no matter how well-fed we may be, our health continues to suffer through a combination of luck and the difficulty of the trail itself. We also took the wrong oath for several days at the end of May, which certainly didn’t help matters. We arrived at Independence Rock on June 5, however, so at least we can be sure that we are, in fact, back on track.

Ruth tells me I must be strong — and she is right. We are all strong, even when we’ve got the cholera or what have you.

June 22, 1848: South Pass

We have reached South Pass! I believe we are at approximately the halfway point; I grow somewhat weary of the same troubles plaguing us day in and day out (no water. Bad water. No grass for the oxen. Lather. Rinse. Repeat) — but we have come too far to allow ourselves to sink into a torpor. Gloria and bell have both recovered from their various ailments, our health is collectively fair, and we managed to find some wild fruit yesterday, so things, as they say, are looking up. At least our supplies continue to be more than enough for us all; we have not had to use any of our spare wagon parts (nor have I been required to fix anything that has broken); we still have two sets of clothing each; our bullet store should see us through the rest of the journey; and we have all become crack shots at hunting.

We now find ourselves at a crossroads: We can either head to Fort Bridger, or take the shortcut to the Green River Crossing. Given that we have no need to replenish our supplies, we have unanimously voted to head to the Green River Crossing.

July 3, 1848

I do not know how else to put this, so I will simply say it:

We have lost Gloria.

It was the cholera. It happened so quickly: A mere five days ago, she began feeling sickly, and this morning, she was gone. We have taken the day to bur her beside the trail she had so fervently longed to travel. She may never reach her destination, but perhaps she may take comfort in her surroundings: Beautiful, yet sharp — just like she herself.

I cannot help but feel our decision to speed up our pace so as to reach the Green River Crossing more quickly is directly responsible both for Gloria’s death and Ruth’s current case of the measles. We seemed in relatively decent health, but almost the moment we sped up, we all of us began to decline. Slowing down and even resting for three days did nothing to hold back the scythe of death, and now? Now we must bear the responsibility for our actions for the rest of our days.

We carry on, though. Gloria would have wanted us to. There is no point in beginning something if you aren’t going to finish it.

August 1, 1848

We reached the Green River Crossing on July 11 and rested for a day before caulking the wagon and floating it; the crossing went without incident, although our little covered wagon has begun to show some of its wear and tear: The day before we reached the crossing, a wheel broke, and several days after it, an axel followed suit. Not for nothing was I the best blacksmith in Independence, though (skirts or no!); they were relatively simple fixes both, and did not even require the use of any of our spare wagon parts.

Hunting has continued to be plentiful, and by the time we reached Soda Springs on July 28, Ruth’s measles had finally been chased away and Beyonce had both suffered and recovered from a snake bite and a fever. I feel Beyonce has fallen ill more times than any other of our cohort (including Gloria, rest her soul); I am unclear why, but her natural resilience seems to be standing her in good stead over time. One of our oxen has also fallen ill, though. Perhaps the journey has been too strenuous for him, as well.

We will rest, and hunt; then we will continue. We must push onward if we are to each the end of our journey in a timely fashion.

August 23, 1848: Snake River Crossing

Will this seemingly never-ending succession of the same events occurring time after time after time ever draw to a close? Honestly! There are only so many days of “no water,” “rough trail,” and “no grass for the oxen” a person can suffer through before she (or he) almost resorts to the unthinkable out of sheer boredom! Speaking of the oxen, the one who had fallen ill at the time of my last writing never fully recovered; sadly he passed on ten days past. Our wagon feels somewhat asymmetrical now, given that we have only seven oxen left — but it will have to do.

We passed Fort Hall uneventfully on August 6, and now we find ourselves at the Snake River Crossing. Ruth, bell, and I have opted to do what we always do: Caulk the wagon and float it. Beyonce, unfortunately, is in no state to contribute to any discussions, as she has both broken her arm and gotten bitten by a snake. I have no idea how she managed to do both. Again.

August 27, 1848

I should not have been so hard on Beyonce at the time of my last writing, for we have sadly had to bid farewell to her. The snake bite is what did for her in the end, although we had hopes that a few days’ rest would help; alas, it did not. What makes it even worse is that we are approximately three-quarters of the way through the journey — maddeningly close, and yet not close enough. We have all attempted to channel our “fiercest” selves as we press on. For Beyonce.

September 11, 1848

I can hardly believe this, but there it is: We have lost bell, as well. Like Gloria, it happened quickly — too quickly. She began showing signs of dysentery on September 5, and now she is gone. Only Ruth and I remain, although with only two of us, the journey seems almost to have lost its point.

No. Mustn’t think like that. What would bell say? Or Beyonce, or Gloria? Shame on me. I have always maintained that it isn’t necessarily the destination that matters, but the path you take to get to it. I cannot abandon my principles now; my friends would be so disappointed in me.

September 18, 1848

At this point, I can hardly count myself as surprised by what I am about to report — but that does not make it ache any less: I am the only one remaining of our brave fellowship who set out from Independence so many months ago. Typhoid fever struck Ruth down last night, and this morning, she wouldn’t wake. There wasn’t even any time to rest in the hopes that it would help her heal; she was just there one day and gone the next.

So many lost. So many gone. So many dreams that will never be achieved. One cannot help but question what it is all for.

But at least we tried. We tried, and that counts for something.

I press on, alone.

October 23, 1848: The Dalles

Looking back over the past month, I can hardly believe I made it this far. After burying the last of my compatriots in the ground, the following things occurred:

  • A thief stole eight sets of clothing (although at that point, it wasn’t as if I needed them anyway);
  • I developed a fever;
  • I was bitten by a snake;
  • I contracted measles;
  • Heavy fog impeded my journey;
  • The trail became impassible for several days;
  • I passed Grande Ronde and took the trail to the Dalles;

And now I find myself with yet another choice on my hands — although this time, I have no voice to follow except my own: Do I take the Barlow Toll Road and travel for longer? Or do I raft down the river, which is quicker but more treacherous? I can hardly bear another day on this trail alone, so I will opt for the river. Wish we luck.

October 28, 1848: The Willamette Valley

Almost seven months to the day, and I have reached the end of the Oregon Trail. The Willamette Valley is as beautiful as we thought it would be, although only time will tell if it will offer the opportunities for which we had hoped.

My rafting skills leave something to be desired; I hit several rocks and lost a good deal of the substantial supplies I still had. 

But I arrived with five oxen, one wagon, several spare wagon parts, a goodly amount of food, quite a lot of bullets, one spare set of clothing, 180 dollars (not an insignificant amount!, and — of course — my life, which is nothing short of priceless.

Although my heart is heavy remembering my fallen comrades and knowing they are not here with me to see it, I carry with me all the lessons they have taught me over the years. They have all left journals, as well; perhaps their ideas may be put to good use in this new place. We are still so young as a people, after all, and with so far yet to go. Who knows where the future may lead us?

Until then, I remain faithfully yours.

Thus concludes the Oregon Trail Diary of Lucia Peters, Being the Adventures of an Intrepid Group of Famous Feminist and Forward-Thinking Women. In retrospect, the game is incredibly repetitive — but you know what? You never really forget how to play it. It’s still sort of a fun way to pass the time, and if you’re into the nostalgia movement, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.

A word of advice, though: Be a doctor. That was always my profession of choice when I was a kid, mostly because there was a higher probability that I wouldn’t kill everyone in my party if I went for a Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman kind of thing. I’m sorry, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, and Beyonce. Really, really sorry.

Images: Lucia Peters/Oregon Trail

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