The Greatest Heroes in American History – Parents of the Oregon Trail

There is perhaps no more dreaded part of a parent’s life than spending an extended period of time in a car with your kids. Even if you tailor the entire experience around their enjoyment, the best you can hope for is that it isn’t terrible. Don’t you dare hope for actual enjoyment. If you plan your drive time around naps, meals, and bathrooms breaks, pack plenty of books, toys, and snacks, and even if you let them pick what to listen to on the radio – the odds of reaching your destination without issue are not great.

On a recent trip to my in-laws (a normal 2.5 hour drive across Michigan), the drive became a mix of closed lanes, bathroom breaks, and tears, many tears, that stretched to over 3 hours. My three kids each took their turn, tagging in and out along the way to make sure there was at least one kid crying at all times. It was easily the worst care ride we’ve ever had with them. I should say that for the most part my kids do very well in the car, and hopefully this trip will prove to be an abnormality and not a new trend. I credit part of their car ride track record to the fact that I’ve refused to let them watch anything. They get no screens in the car. I have no great reason for this other than the fact that I didn’t have anything like that when I was a kid, and I did just fine. Kids today have it so easy, amiright? While modern convenience has made travel easier for kids, the biggest beneficiaries have been the parents.

When I was little, we loaded up the Dodge Caravan and drove to Florida. It look 3 days. Our only source of entertainment was a box of books and games my Mom packed and whatever was going on outside my window. Spoilers – trees! God have mercy on my parents.

Every advancement in child’s mobile entertainment and comfort has also advanced the sanity of parents. We’ve never had it so good. Which got me thinking about parents of olde, and the fact that the greatest heroes in the history of America are the parents of the Oregon Trail. I mean, sure, the men who stormed the beach at Normandy are up there. But how many times did somebody ask them for a snack, but not that snack, something else?

There was an estimated 40,000 kids who made the great trip West. There was an estimated 7,543,345,123 utterances of “We’ll get there when we get there.” The average trek took 5-6 months. That’s over 150 days. As entertaining as ball-on-a-string-on-a-cup and stick and hoop are, those parents never stood a chance.The amount of a times a snack would be asked for and denied boggles the mind. “If you eat all the hard tack now, we won’t have any for later!” How many siblings were poking the other one? Talking to the other one? Heaven forbid, looking at the other one?

Though I suppose the bright side is that they probably didn’t have too much time to be bored with all the walking to do. That’s right. Riding in the wagon was for if you were sick or hurt, otherwise kids walked. The only thing more pleasant than a tired, hungry child is a tired, hungry child with blisters on their feet. I’ve had my kids complain that Crocs made their feet hurt. They never would have made it out Missouri.

So now that the kids are hungry, tired, and cranky, let’s get them to do chores! Common tasks for kids included herding animals, fetching water, gathering firewood, and collecting buffalo chips. I have a hard enough time getting my kids to pick up stuffed animals off of their bedroom floor, and these parents had to get their kids to pick up animal doo-doo.

But hey, it wasn’t all fun, games, and feces for parents. They also had the base line task of just keeping kids alive. If the video game taught me anything, it’s that you will die of dysentery. I mean, with all the buffalo chip collecting kids were doing, it was a matter of when you’d get diarrhea and vomiting, not if. I got super annoyed when we had to get off the highway so my daughter could stop to pee in a Walmart. Can you even imagine the bathroom breaks involved with dysentery. “We just stopped so you could go back at the big pine tree, we’re not stopping again! You’ll just need to hold it until we get to that big rock or we’ll never get to Oregon!”

Not to mention the deadliness of the mundane. About as many people died from being run over by a wagon that died from scurvy or freezing to death. How many blankies do your kids insist on bringing in the car ride? Kids today, with their ample amounts of vitamin C and protection of exposure.

So while 3 hours in a minivan with little people who want more fruit snacks was not the most fun I’ve ever had, nobody got typhoid, and I’m grateful for that.

Western expansion is often overly romanticized, and a great many sins are glossed over in the name of going west young man. However, it did produce the greatest American heroes – parents who managed to get small people from once place to another without the aid of a screen, or juice boxes, or books, or Raffi, or anything. Anything at all. Other than the ever-present threat of death and disease. Maybe on our next car trip I’ll give my kids a ball-on-a-string-on-a-cup and tell them to deal with it. Either that or a super soft and comfy pair of jammies so they fall asleep in their air-conditioned car seat. Could go either way.

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