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North Bend Eagle



The path of pioneers:
Travelers camp in NB while tracing Mormon Trail

by Nathan Arneal
published 6/03/09

Around 2 p.m., the horses and wagons pulled into camp at North Bend, dusty from a hot day on the trail.

The trail they were following would eventually lead them to the Great Salt Lake basin. And yes, this is 2009, not 1847.

Getting to know the horses
Jaxon Wietfeld gets to know Rainbow, one of the horses making the trip west.

Thursday night Danny Van Fleet and his group of modern-day pioneers camped overnight on the NBC practice fields. The group is tracing the Mormon trail from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The trip is being broken up into four summers, with this year’s section taking them from Council Bluffs to Ogallala.

“The original trail is probably somewhere between Highway. 30 and the railroad tracks,” Van Fleet said. “We’re within three to four miles of it at all times.”

While they are retracing the trail of the early Mormon pioneers, they aren’t totally recreating the experience. Many of the wagons have modern rubber tires, while participants sleep in climate-controlled campers at night and carry cell phones.

While authenticity is not the main goal of the trip, each participant has his or her own reasons for making the journey. About half of this years approximately 25 travelers participated in the first leg of the trip last summer. What keeps them coming back?

“I think insanity,” Van Fleet said with a laugh. “Everybody thinks this is such fun, but it’s a lot of work.”

That work begins at 4:30 a.m., when the cook begins work on breakfast and riders begin chores to taking care of the horses. Breakfast is served at 6, and the camp meets at 7 for a prayer and to hear the plans for the day. Shortly after that, the group leaves for the next night’s campsite in pickups pulling horse trailers and campers.

Singing cowboy
Bill Craven entertains the trip participants as well as visitors from North Bend.

Once the modern day vehicles are dropped off at the next campsite, the group returns in a shuttle bus to the previous night’s camp where they mount their horses and wagons and hit the trail 1840’s style, sticking to gravel roads as much as they can.

Tracey Purlee Winbigler, a grad student at Western Illinois, is using the trip as an internship and research project. She referred to the camp as “the motherload of happiness.”

“Just walking in silence through the countryside on your horse or wagon enjoying the sound– it’s just like meditation,” Winbigler said. “It feels really American.”

This is the second time Van Fleet has made the journey west. The first trip, in 1996 and ‘97 which also included an overnight stay on the fields of North Bend Central, changed his life. After reaching Salt Lake, the former Catholic moved there and converted to the Mormon faith, making the trip even more special this time around.

“I wasn’t really a history buff until I did this in ‘96 and ‘97,” Van Fleet said. “Now I’m always interested in reading anything I can about pioneer travel. I decided before I get too old, I better try it again.”

Many local citizens stopped by the campsite Thursday afternoon and evening to visit with the travelers and to take inspect their wagons and horses. A few youngsters even got to take short rides on the horses. Visitors were treated to cherry and blueberry cobbler and the strains of cowboy singer and guitarist Bill Craven. Volunteers from the North Bend Chamber of Commerce served the travelers refreshments upon their arrival at NBC.

The school also opened its doors to let the travelers use its locker rooms and showers, a highlight for many of the participants after a day of hoofing it on gravel roads.

“That’s one of the worst parts about horse trips, (lack of) showers,” Larry Hanson of Minnesota said. “I have one in my trailer, but it’s nice to have a good hot one.”

Friday morning the group set out for their next campsite in Schuyler. The plan has them reaching Ogallala June 28. Van Fleet pointed out that every hour a car drives on Highway 30 is equivalent to about four days in a wagon.

Because of the time commitment involved, many of the journey’s participants are retired.

“I’ve lost four wagons from last year because of health problems,” Van Fleet said, “but some of them are getting their knees fixed and promise they’ll be back next year.”

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