On a recent weekend, a group of reenactors gathered to bring to life the Oregon Trail -- that 2,000 mile route from the Missouri River to the great Northwest. But instead of going back to the 19th century, this group took its inspiration from a more recent era.
In 1972, Don Rawitsch was working as a student teacher. And he faced the challenge of teaching his class about Westward expansion.
“Back at that time, students learned history by reading big thick history textbooks," says Rawitsch. "And that has limitations.”
So like those early pioneers, Rawitsch decided to strike out from familiar territory. He left the textbook behind, and forged a new path: The Oregon Trail. The video game.
“It maybe was the first application that put you into a story," he says. "So you’re not viewing pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail from high above the scene — you’re right in the middle of the scene.”
And on a recent Saturday, at Salem’s Willamette Heritage Center, more than 50 people found themselves right in the middle of the scene in a whole new way.
The Oregon Trail Live — taking video game edutainment into the real world.
“I knew that the 11-year-old version of me would be angry if I missed this opportunity," said Shelly Bowers. "So here I am. Oh, the trail’s starting!” Many of the people here — like Bowers — grew up playing Rawitsch’s game. They’ve driven in from all over Oregon and Washington to reenact it. They’re dressed in bonnets, and fake moustaches. And some like Jason LeRoy, have homemade t-shirts with quotes from the game.
His t-shirt said, “you have died of dysentery” in 1980s computer font.
With a whip crack the teams are off.
Players earn points by reenacting challenges from the game. In a fashion. Like the original pioneers, teams have to ford the rapids -- which turn out to be roller derby girls whacking them with blue foam pool noodles.
And to emphasize the real danger of the trail, team members bury their dead. Which are paper dolls. In a sandbox.
Writer Kelly Williams Brown came up with the event last year, when she was working as a reporter for the Salem Statesman Journal. Like many twentysomethings, she grew up on the game.
“I remember when Facebook first started, the most popular group was 'I tried to ford the river, but my effin’ oxen died.' And the fact that an in joke from a computer game from 15 years ago would command that sort of loyalty made me think well, there’s an opportunity to do something really fun here.”
Of course the real Oregon Trail didn’t make you try to float your wagon in a plastic kiddie pool.
But Sam Wegner, the Willamette Heritage Center’s director, says that unexpected challenges were part of the journey.
“You have to understand that these people, they laid everything on the line to go 2,000 miles," he said. "And you’ve got to come, and you’ve got to stake out the claim, and you’ve got to prove it up, then you’ve got to make your life here.”
And as teams work toward their mock homesteads -- and the rain rolls in -- it’s clear that pioneering spirit is still strong. Even in the celebration of an old video game.
“That’s the hardy stock that’s right here, right now," Wegner said. "That’s what makes us the great Northwest.”