Book Review: Wagon Wheels (Candy Moulton and Ben Kern) : WW

Wagon Wheels, by Candy Moulton and Ben Kern, High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyo., 1996, $14.95 paperback.

She has sat under blistering heat, silently enduring the endless miles of the Oregon Trail. She has finally crossed the great expanse of South Pass, but there is still a long road ahead. Now, cold mud sucks at the wheels of the wagon, and the hard wooden wagon seat jars her very bones. The relentless wind blows its gales of misty midsummer rain. What does she do now? Does she weep for her old home in the East? Stoically sniff the sage? Or just die of despair?

None of the above. Instead she steps down from the wagon, gets in her truck, drives into Farson, Wyo., and has a hamburger and a large ice-cream cone.

This is the kind of juxtaposition the reader comes to expect in the story of a 1993 trek across the old Oregon Trail with the Sesquicentennial Wagon Train. The book contains a number of diary entries from the original “overlanders” and early explorers, ranging from site descriptions to poetic observations of the country and people. Author Candy Moulton, who researched trail history for her Roadside History of Nebraska and Roadside History of Wyoming books, provides plenty of historical insight. Ben Kern, who had the lead wagon on the 150th anniversary trip, kept a diary that provided details of daily departures and camping sites. Forty-nine photographs and maps illustrate the journey.

Wagon Wheels provides a summary of the Western migration over the northern trails through the plains, deserts and mountains. Cholera was one of the big 19th-century problems that modern-day travelers did not have to contend with.

Moulton, Kern and friends, unlike the emigrants during the great migration, did not have to bury anyone along the way. But there were enough shared difficulties–as well as enough shared scenery (Chimney Rock, Register Cliff, Independence Rock)–to make the frontier experience come alive. Adding to the book’s appeal is a treasure of a foreword, “The Great Medicine Road,” by historian and author Kathleen O’Neal Gear. The poetically written scan of the events of the late 1800s clearly sets the horizons for enjoying Wagon Wheels. Rats (aficionados of the old trails) will appreciate Earl Leggett’s re-enactments of carrying Willie Keil’s casket from Missouri to Oregon.

Joe D. Megeath

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