Eastward Ho – A Retracing of the Steps of Early Settlers
July 1, 1976, my husband John and I headed south from Garrison, NY to join the Bicentennial Wagon Train. Wagon trains from all parts of the nation would travel east to reenact the westward movement of the early settlers. We would all meet at Valley Forge by July 4 to celebrate the 200 year birthday of America.
The ride began on a Thursday, and John had just finished three grueling days traversing the five boroughs, trying to sell steel that nobody wanted. Clients were out of town for the Fourth, and the steel business was slacking. He was frustrated and exhausted.
“I got into Brooklyn,” he said, “trying to find the Tyler Company, and I went around in circles, around and around. Brooklyn’s a war zone anyway, but New Yorkers are not kidding when they say, ‘You can’t get there from here.’ I finally stopped and cried and pounded the steering wheel.” I laughed but I knew John had reached his limit because he could find just about any location in any city without a map. “I hate New York,” he said.
I had not told him yet that my job had lost funding, and I would be unemployed in thirty days. My worry? How to pay for the house we had just bought.
Luckily, saddling up always gave John and I both new energy. John had ridden since he was very young in his native Michigan and he was fearless on a horse. I too rode the country fields in Oregon, bareback and flying. When I met John in Oregon, we immediately went out and bought horses, a lifelong desire for both of us. Later, when we got married and moved, we shipped them to New York.
“Hopefully, this ride will take our minds off the hectic week,” I said to him. “Back to the simple life before steel loads and traffic.” And mortgages, I thought.
We had trailered the horses from Garrison, NY to a meeting place near Brewster where we would meet the wagon train from Albany. Our friend, Joe, would take the truck and trailer back home and would pick us up at the end of the ride.
“Now John, no shenanigans,” Joe said jokingly. “No riding your horse into the house.”
“ Me? Do something like that? John said. “Never! I was a little drunk when I tried to ride my horse into the house.”
“We know,” I said. laughing.
Joe helped us pack our bedrolls, raincoats, and food supplies into one of the designated wagons. We saddled up our mounts, Raja and Se Se, and lead them to the starting point. A woman in a colorful pioneer dress and bonnet came over to greet us.
“Welcome to the Bicentennial Wagon Train. I’m Betty from New Rochelle. Are you with a group?”
“No,” I told her. “We’re independents. From Garrison.”
“Well, we are happy to have you with us. My family is driving the wagon you have your belongings in. Let us know if we can help you along the way. Will you ride all the way?
“We’re planning on it,” I said, “if it isn’t too hard on the horses. Or us.”
A man with a goatee, mustache and silver hair with a riding crop in his hand sauntered over to us.
“Please meet George, our wagon master,” Betty said. “These folks are from Garrison, George. Here to ride with us all the way.”
As we chatted with Betty, we heard shouts down the road. Horsemen and women in groups rode toward us shouting “yahoo!” The wagons rumbled along between riders. Women and girls in festive dresses and bonnets peered out of the wagons. Little boys ran excitedly alongside. We could see the care taken to include all the pioneer trappings, right down to buckskin shirts and moccasins and old pots and pans hanging from the wagons. We caught a glimpse of what it must have been like to cross this country with nothing but a wagon, horses or oxen, a few supplies, and a rifle.
“You know what?” John said. “I should have lived then.” He turned Raja around and cantered over to join the men riders in the line. .
George shouted “Westward Ho!” and the wagons began to roll. Actually Eastward Ho, I thought, since we were back- tracking the early route west to new lands.
Some how I pictured us riding peacefully through the back country. To my surprise, we traveled on roads with cars, trucks and even trucks loaded with steel. We were to ride most of the way on well traveled secondary roads all the way to Valley Forge.
I shouted over to John. “Hey, I was wrong. We did not escape steel trucks or New York traffic after all.” He waved back at me, but he was immersed in the moment, and didn’t seem to care.
The traffic came alive as drivers in those cars and trucks waved, hooting and hollering as we passed by. “Wish we could go with you!” some cried. “Watch out for wild animals and Injuns!” said someone. Some hung out of their windows snapping photos of the wagons and the riders. We enjoyed the celebrity and posed and waved. After all, the past was being reborn. Riders and wagon drivers shouted “woo hoo” all the way down the road.
We traveled on the road from Brewster into New Jersey. All the way, we encountered present day traffic.
Luckily, they let us pass safely. We tried to ignore that modern conveniences such as station bathrooms and 7-Elevens not present in colonial days made us less than pioneers. Natives of the areas made sure watering troughs were there for the animals. Filling up with water was too important to pass up these stops. We were children of convenience – something the settlers suffered to give us.
Back on the road, and at times out of sight of modern life, we felt like true pioneers as we plodded along. Trying to imagine two hundred years ago as the horses snorted and the wagons rumbled, we merged into a body with a mission: to reach a destination as the settlers had long ago. We sang patriotic songs. We recited poetry. We fanned ourselves in the midday summer heat. The men told tall tales of the West.
George rode up beside us. “Think they had these mosquitoes back then?”
“You bet they did. And the heat too.” said Georgia from her wagon.
After more than seven hours of travel, the two oxen pulling the Conestoga wagon began to give out. As we reached a steep hill, the men had to dismount and gathered to help push the wagon up a steep hill.
Mr. Stills, the owner of the oxen, said, “These boys are not going to make the rest of this trip.”
“Hank Edwards has a draft horse breeding farm not too far from here,” one of the men offered. I know he’s waiting for us to come through. I’ll call and see if he can bring us two of his strong ones.”
George rode past the wagons letting us know it would be some time before the draft horses arrived. “Please take this time to rest under the trees in that field over there,” he told us. “The oxen are out of shape, having never pulled a Conestoga in their lives. Not as hardy as the animals of old.”
We also were beginning to feel the fatigue of the ride and we were grateful for the reprieve. That way, we didn’t have to admit we were no real pioneers. As we sat under the trees, John joked with the men and traded horse stories. The ladies gave me a rundown on how they made their dresses and bonnets, and how they found the authentic accessories and wagon supplies. It seemed we fell into the separation of sexes of 100 years ago. One of the gentlemen riders got out his guitar and started singing early folk songs, including the old traditional ballad, The Street of Laredo,” one of my favorites. Some of us sang along.
Once the draft horses were hitched up, we headed on for two more hours to camp. About sundown, we moved into the camp prepared for us, weary but loving the experience. Se Se and Raja looked a little worn, but I was proud of how they had held up so far. Arabian horses are known for their stamina, and John and I liked to brag about it.
“Best horse breed ever,” John said.
“Sturdy.” I said. “Great endurance.”
But Se-Se and Raja never traveled more than fifteen back home so they were a little untrained for long distance travel. Se-Se put her head on my shoulder and sighed.
We tethered the horses and unrolled our bedrolls to set up our overnight camp sites. When the wagons circled as in days gone by, we began to really feel like pioneers. A camp fire was built in the middle of the wagons, and many of us joined in for camp food. We talked about the hardships pioneers must have experienced to go forward into wilderness for what they hoped would be a future of prosperity and freedom.
At the campfire, John and I met Mike from Buffalo who John took a real liking to. They shared horse adventures and Irish blarney like they had known each other forever. Mike broke into a loud and raucous version of “Oh Susannah,” and the campers sang along.
Finally, we were all tuckered out and travelers faded away from the camp fire to their sleeping sites outside the wagons. Mike came over and by flashlight and moonlight managed to set up his camp next to us.
As late darkness set in, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be on the watch for hostile strangers or wild animals in the pitch black night. I conjured up fearful scenes of Indians attacking or bandits sneaking up on me, and yet, lying there under the stars, I felt as the pioneers might have, that nothing was more beautiful than a sky full of stars nor more peaceful than the deep silence.
John and I were so tired from the long ride, we fell asleep quickly under those stars. I hoped his snoring would not arouse either the wild beasts or the peaceful settlers around us. I drifted off thinking about how, as a kid, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories of life on the prairie. As a child, I wanted so badly to join the Ingalls on their adventures west. In the dark, that night under the stars in New Jersey, I could fantasize that I indeed had.
I thought I was dreaming when I heard the sound of hoofs pounding. For some reason, I did not sit or stand up at the sound. I lay flat, half awake, trying to grasp what was happening. As I looked up into the stars, the shadow of a horse sailed directly over my head and thundered away across an adjacent field.
“What the hell was that?” John shouted, rising up out of a deep sleep and sitting up straight in his sleeping bag.
“It was a horse and it just leaped over us,” I announced to John and several others who were now awake. “It took off that way,” I said, pointing into the darkness. “Luckily he was a fair jumper and missed clipping us with his hooves.” I shuddered at the thought of a 1000- pound of horse tripping and falling on us.
By then Mike was awake and he and John starred at each other in the moonlight, wondering what to do.
Mike said, “Are you up for going after that hombre?” to John.
John said, “Sure. Get your rope and a flashlight and let’s go.” John and Mike untethered and bridled their horses – no time for saddles - and rode off into the dark in the direction of the runaway horse. Mike looking a little strange with a headlamp attached to his head. Luckily, the stars and moon were so bright, they could almost see without it. I worried though about the many gopher holes in fields – especially at night.
“Be careful!” I shouted as they disappeared.
“What’s up?” George, who must have heard the commotion, came over carrying a kerosene lamp, to check if we were all right.
“Runaway horse,” I said. “My husband and our campsite neighbor, Mike, just took off to find it.”
“Well, I hope they know what they’re doing in this unfamiliar territory.”
“I think so,” I told him, not knowing for sure what expertise Mike had with horses. I knew John had retrieved horses in all the places we had lived. One or more often found a loose spot in the fence and took off, usually in the middle of the night. Neighbors in Garrison knew well the sound of John’s bellowing into the night, calling his horses’ names.
After we waited nervously by the wagon master’s lamp light, a few people wakened. “Hope they don’t get lost,” said a bystander.
“ Well, if they do, I guess they’ll find us in the morning,” I said.
After about thirty minutes, John and Mike appeared, leading the renegade horse and handed him to George.
“He wasn’t far away,” John said. “Came right up to us when he heard the other horses.”
“He’s a pretty little maverick,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “That’s Old Jasper’s Morgan. Thanks, fellas, for braving the dark to find him.
John and Mike looked tired but proud of themselves. “Not a problem,” John told him.
“Do it all the time.” Mike gave John a look like he was telling another Irish tall tale, not knowing that John indeed did do it all the time.
“That crazy steed escapes anything he’s tied to,” George said. “I’ll get him back to Jasper. And this time, I will do the tying up.” Sleep tight, all. I can’t imagine this happening twice in one night.”
The next morning we ate breakfast at the campfire. News of the runaway horse made the rounds and John and Mike were labeled heroes as the horse rescue was our most excitement to date.
“Nice work, men,” Jasper thumped them each on the back. “Thanks a million.That varmit could be all the way to Kentucky if ya leave him long enough.”
Mike and John shoved and punched each other on the shoulders, making fun of each other. But I could tell they loved the attention.
“Don’t let it go to your heads, boys,” I said as I headed for the campsite to pack up.
We saddled the horses and went on down the road. John and Mike and I rode side by side, laughing about their escapade.
At the end of our second full day, John said, “I think I’m ready to go home.”
“But what about Valley Forge? And the celebration? I asked.
I was disappointed to hear that. I had myself pumped up to go all the way and hear the shouts and singing near where the nation began. But I saw the horses fading, and my butt was beyond sore, so I said ok.
At the next watering stop, John called Joe to come and get us. We gathered addresses and made promises to write and send photos.
Georgia said, “I’ll send you photos of the Valley Forge and Philadelphia celebrations.”
“That would be great, Georgia,” I said. “We want to be a part of that.”
We thanked her and bid our new friends farewell. As they clip-clopped on down the road, John and I sat under a tree, sipping Gator Ade and talking over the trip.
John stared off into the distance. “Ya know, I couldn’t help thinking during this ride how tough those pioneers had it,” John said. “It was life and death for them. I mean they didn’t have a 7-Eleven every ten miles. And they weren’t just play-acting like we were.”
“Yea,” I said. “They cleared the way, broke the trail, so we would have lands and houses and freedom.”
We sat not talking for a while.
As I watched Joe drive up with the trailer, I said to John, “and if the early settlers could endure great hardships and a rugged ride to break ground for us, we can go home and handle a little traffic, job challenges, and taking on New York City.”
John looked at me for a minute, putting his arm around my shoulder said, “Yea, we can. Let’s go home, cowgirl.”