All American Wagon Train Across America
Longtime Wagon Master Ben Kern plans an epic wagon train ride across the USA.
by Angela Calabro
Road-trips have always been a classic American experience. Yet, how often when you think of a road-trip do you think of people in Civil War era clothing in wooden wagons pulled by a team of mules traveling through rivers, around canyons, and over thousands of miles unpaved wilderness? Not the type of road-trip you had in mind? Well, now imagine you were Trail Master Ben Kern. This man has navigated a variety of trails that crisscross the country in the past decade with groups of people who are just as dedicated to preserving the authenticity and historical accuracy as he is and are just as excited about it.
Ben Kern leads the wagon train leaving Ft. Hall on the Goodale Cutoff, an Oregon Trail shortcut. In the 1800s, travelers headed toward Fort Boise would often take the Goodale Cutoff.
When I first got on the phone with Ben Kern and main Dutch oven cook Lefty Olsen, I was slightly intimidated by their vast amount of knowledge of American history and the West. After a few minutes into the conversation, it became clear to me that these friends share a deep passion for educating and sharing their great knowledge with anyone who is interested. Kern has traversed the country for the past few decades and has been on trails where he camped near the Laramie River and even had the wagons hitch a ride on the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, one of the last riverboat ferries to cross the Mississippi River. He has followed the Mormon Wagon Train route, Cherokee Trail, and countless others.
Wagon train on a barge crossing the Mississippi River.
The Wagon Train crosses the Green River, the chief tributary of the Colorado River.
This year he would like to begin a trail that goes from Benson, North Carolina to Beatrice, Nebraska following the Trail of Tears, a forced migration in 1838 of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole Nations. This wagon train vacation trail ride is scheduled to begin March 19, 2012 and finish on July 1, 2012. The next leg of the trail will start in Beatrice, Nebraska and go to Fort Hall, Idaho, following the Oregon Trail. The dates for this trip have not yet been announced. Kern says it will be the the first organized wagon train to go coast to coast across the U.S.A.
The Wagon Train at Independence Rock, a key landmark for pioneers as they made their way across the American frontier.
The combination of these two trails along with each participant’s dedication to historical accuracy, even concerning clothing, food, and bathing will make this journey newly historic for different reasons then when it was originally traveled in the 1800’s. As part of the adventure, wagon goers will be dressed in period clothing that reflects the lifestyles of the time.
Along with the cotton canvas tents that will be staked into the ground and the washboards that they will be using to wash their linens and clothing, the group of twenty-five or so travelers will be fully indulging themselves about as far as you can get into a time machine where wooden spoke wagons are the best form of long term transportation.
What separates this wagon train from other companies is this component of historical accuracy and a “go all the way or don’t go at all” attitude that has been pulling in adventure lovers and American history fans from big cities, rural towns, and other countries alike to ride with Kern.
The wagon train on the CherokeeTrail near Colorado.
As the conversation progressed, Kern very casually mentioned that he has experienced several runaways where he had to catch up to the rogue mules and attached wagons. Possibly my favorite story was that of a relatively new team of mules in Topeka, Kansas. On a rainy, wretched evening hitched up to a wagon, the team suddenly got scared. They ran under the awning of the entrance to a museum and nearly entered the front door. Somehow, they managed to turn at the last minute, run over a teepee, and finally, chased by Kern on his solid and well seasoned horse, ran into a back pasture where they eventually slowed down enough so that he could catch them!
Ben Kern, Wagon Master, with his mule.
A fascinating detail for participants in Kern’s upcoming western adventure is the rare opportunity to sleep under the stars. As an avid camper and outdoorswoman, I have always been tempted to just throw my sleeping bag on the ground and sleep looking up at the sky. However, I am also a New Yorker and as such have an innate fear of this possibly not being the safest idea for a multitude of reasons.
When Mr. Kern and Mr. Olsen described to me how they make a circle with the wagons and surround it with a portable electric fence circle, I instantly pictured myself finally being able to safely sleep in the middle of the great unknown, whether on the ground, under the wagon, or actually inside the wagon itself. In my opinion, this sounds like the quintessential experience of the great American West-- to see it in its purest form as the Western settlers must have seen it.
The wagon train traveling through St. Joseph, Missouri.
As we began to discuss the intricacies of the journey, I learned about bathing, water consumption and preservation and nutrition. Bathing is done when a water source such as a lake or river are available, which also doubles as a tub where everyone can scrub their clothing on a washboard and then hang everything out to dry. However, since they can experience anything from a tornado to a snowstorm to blistering heat, the team must be ready to be flexible and accommodating.
Believe it or not, this was the first day of summer on the Cherokee Trail in Colorado.
When it is to dangerous to light the charcoal, wood, or propane fires in dry fields where open fires are absolutely not allowed, the group must be prepared to eat cold beans, breads, and dehydrated foods. Since they want to be authentic even with the food, the breads and pies are homemade and the beans have to soak in water before they are ready to be eaten. The menu consists of a multitude of foods, such as sausages that are put through a hand grinder in order to be properly put together, cabbage, homemade barbeque sauces, salad and dressings, and real potatoes. They have learned that it is also important to carry back up “ready to go” food such as cans of beans, Idaho potatoes, and even Spam.
Along with the troop of wagons, there is a water wagon that has about thirty gallons of drinkable water for cooking meals and drinking. The water wagon is placed between the stock and cook wagons and the water is run into pails in order to ensure proper rationing. The water wagon is refilled regularly along with the one thing many of you are probably curious about… the portable toilets!
Ox team on the Oregon Trail, a historic east-west wagon route.
The toilets go right along on the trail with the rest of the group and are cleaned out daily. The trail master has organized beforehand each and every stop the train will be making and approximately what time it will be arriving there. There are many reasons for this but one of them is that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) require one potty per fifteen people and that they be cleaned out daily so when they arrive at each destination around 10am, the maintenance team is there ready to sanitize and clean the toilets.
The only time they deviate from the train is if there is a river that the group must cross, in which case the toilets take a different route that will follow a road and avoid the river or lake altogether. This small but immensely important detail proves how intricate each and every detail of the entire journey must be planned and organized before they set out.
Wagon train on the Overland Trail, also known as the Overland Stage Line, a stagecoach and wagon trail during the 19th century.
None of us really know what it was like to be on those wagons with the courageous original American settlers, but the All American Wagon Trail, under the guidance of Wagon Master Ben Kern gives a unique chance to travel some of their routes clear across the country from North Carolina to Nebraska. Folks brave enough to challenge themselves with this once in a lifetime opportunity will experience something unforgettable. When they left the East Coast and traveled to the West, the original settlers did so for various reasons, yet the basic idea of going on a quest to discover what else is out there in the world and leave all that is familiar to you holds just as much mystery today as it did then.
Learn more about Ben Kern's All American Wagon Train - East Coast to West Coast - and how you can participate.