Archive for Thursday, June 25, 1998

PIONEERING YOUTHS TO RETRACE ROUTE OF OREGON TRAIL

June 25, 1998

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— A group of blind youngsters is preparing to travel the Oregon Trail.

Thirteen-year-old John Kitchens stood on the banks of the Wakarusa River and listened as the wind rustled the leaves of nearby trees and the muddy waters lapped against an overhanging rock bluff.

Did it sound the same in the 1840s when immigrants traveling the Oregon Trail drove their wagons or waded across the river at the site now known as Bluejacket Crossing?

Kitchens and three of his Kansas State School for the Blind classmates stopped Tuesday at the Gage family farm to touch the ruts cut into the ground by the wagons traveling the Oregon Trail and to learn about the steep crossing that caused problems for so many of them.

The students and four adult leaders will start Friday on a weeklong trip that will follow the Oregon Trail from Independence, Mo., to Scottsbluff, Neb. This week, the group is preparing for the trip by camping out, riding in horse-drawn wagons, measuring a 500-foot-by-30-foot wagon rut in a Kansas City park, visiting Haskell Indian Nations University to learn about American Indians who lived along the trail and visiting the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka.

``It's been very interesting,'' Kitchens said, adding that he's keeping a daily journal of the trip. ``The best part was the thunderstorm.''

Heather Phagan, 14, wasn't so sure about that.

``We were out in the rain with two leaking tents,'' she pointed out.

Eleanor Craig, a former teacher who now works for Accessible Arts, is one of the trip's organizers and leaders. She followed the Oregon Trail twice in the 1970s.

``We're doing a lot and having lots of experiences not dependent on what they read or see,'' she said. ``The past means the most when we can identify with it.''

In the last four years, Mary Gage said 10 to 15 groups of sightseers have come to the family farm to take a look at the Oregon Trail ruts and Bluejacket Crossing. With the inclusion of the crossing in Gregory Franzwa's new book, ``The Oregon Trail Revisited,'' she expects a greater number of people to make the trek.

``People have just gotten to know about it in the past few years,'' she said.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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