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Covered wagons bounce along as teams of horses and mules pull them across the prairie, over the rocky terrain and through water. Green flowing grasses blanket the ground and blue forget-me-nots line the clear, babbling brooks. People on horseback trot along as the landscape changes from flat, lush pastures to dangerous, steep bluffs.
It was like a scene out of the 1800s.
But the pioneers in this scenario were participants in last month’s Cheyenne to Deadwood Wagon Train and Trail Ride, featuring a group of Miller family members, including Leonard Miller and Melanie Miller from Neligh, and Pat Miller and Bethany Miller and her children Gemma, Kinley, Charles and Sloane, all of Elgin.
The five-day journey, sponsored by the Days of ‘76 Museum, started near Four Corners on the Wyoming border and ended at Deadwood, So. Dak. Their group traveled with about 30 wagons and at least 40 on horseback, Pat said.
“It was the old Cheyenne to Deadwood stagecoach trail,” Melanie said.
The Millers heard about the experience through one of their cousins who posted it on a family Facebook page.
“It was completely Luann, my husband Jim’s cousin,” Pat said. “We have a Miller family Facebook page that’s private to us and she put on there trying to get a bunch of us to go last winter. And once I decided I was retiring, I’m like, ‘Hmm, I could go on this now.’ And that got Melanie involved and then at the last minute, Bethany.”
Bethany said when there was a late cancellation, she decided to go.
“t was enough money that you definitely thought twice about it,” she said. “Then when Luann was like, ‘Somebody backed out, you can have their spot. I was like, well, how do you say no to that?’”
Since children were admitted free, Bethany was able to take all four of her children along as well.
There were 29 family and friends in the Miller group, which was part of an even larger group, totalling nearly 300 people from all over the United States. On this trip, all of the Millers were descendants of four brothers, Lyle, Paul, Harold and Berle.
“As I was getting ready to leave, somebody said, ‘Remember the Oregon Trail game? Nobody ever lived through that,’” Pat said with a grin.
Fortunately, this modern-day wagon train didn’t have any serious problems along the way, she said, but they did have to contend with severe weather at times. The second day of the trip, it started raining, and then the rain turned to hail.
“You have these huge draft horses attached to wooden wagons,” Bethany said. “And what happens when the horses get spooked and they’re attached to your only means of transportation for the entire trip?”
Pat said it was “pretty exciting.”
“They could’ve pulled it apart,” she said. “So there was one person stationed with each team, holding them down in the hail. And we didn’t know it was coming. So they didn’t have their rain gear out. I happened to have a raincoat in my little pack, but it was just a windbreaker thing. We just got soaked. Here were these guys that stood with the horses and they were just drenched to the skin. The ones with the riding horses took them into the trees because that protected them from the hail. We were in the wagons and it blew the hailstones halfway down the wagon. It seemed like it lasted forever, but it was like 3 minutes of hail. It felt like 3 hours. It just hailed and hailed.”
There was another instance when the horses started getting restless and things got a little exciting again.
“Every horse had their squirrely moments and our horses, kind of on a hill, started jackknifing,” Bethany said. “All of a sudden they were on the side of the wagon. There were all these kids on there with me. I was trying to decide if you go out, which way do you jump? Because I think the way you would have rolled, you would have gone over the edge of the hill. Thankfully, somebody got out and grabbed their harnesses and settled them down. That’s all they needed.”
A typical day on the wagon train involved less excitement and one where everyone had their roles to fill. They woke early in the morning in their tents and campers, grabbed a cup of coffee and got to work.
They said one group rolled ahead with their vehicles to the next site and were then bussed back. Another got the horses fed, watered, harnessed and hitched. The other group made lunches and ensured there were enough snacks and water for the day.
“Of course we did some peanut butter and jellies and stuff like that, but it was neat because some of us made fruit leathers, canned meats and things like that,” Bethany said. “Things like they might have had.”
By mid-morning, the wagon train was ready to hit the trail. People rode in covered wagons or rode on horseback. The path varied from dirt roads to cowtrails to paved roadways, but the route was largely cut through privately-owned land.
“I would say it was about 90 percent on private land,” Pat said. “They told us one of the reasons the fee was fairly high was because they had to pay right of way access through these lands.”
During the day, they stopped for short periods along the way, mostly water breaks for the horses, and arrived at their next destination around 4 p.m.
“We thought, ‘Oh, we’re here early,’ but it was always shocking how much time it took to get the horses harnesses off, get them watered, get them hay,” Melanie said. “And set everybody’s tents set up.”
Bethany said that’s why the catered meals in the evening “were a God-send.”
“We would eat by 5-5:30 and go to bed early, like 8-8:30, we were tuckered out,” she said.
Pat said they usually dressed in layers, with tank tops, sweatshirts and jeans due to the cool mornings. However, on the final day, they looked like true pioneers traveling on a wagon train.
“The last day, on our descent into Deadwood, we were all dressed to the hilt in period costumes,” Bethany said. “But nobody got to see us because all the rain flaps were down on the wagons because it was raining so much.”
She said she felt like they “got a really good taste of what a wagon train would have truly been like” and was glad her children could experience it. The kids loved making prairie dolls out of fabric strips with a walnut for the head and hand-grinding the coffee beans.
“That’s what I wanted my kids to experience, going without things,” Bethany said. “We had to adapt to our situations the entire time. That was a really great experience for them.”
Melanie said the interesting thing was, no one tired of it.
“It was essentially the same thing day after day, but with different scenery and different terrain, but it never got old,” she said.
Pat said she “just felt like this was a once in a lifetime thing.”
“Because I don’t know if (Luann) will actually do it again,” she said. “And it was just something I needed to experience once. I looked at it as an adventure. I didn’t look at it as a vacation as much as it was an adventure. Now, I had a camper to sleep in, so that’s how much I adventure.”
Melanie agreed that it was “totally a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I don’t have horses,” she said. “I’m never going to spend that kind of money on something like this. The fact that Lu was so incredibly generous to invite us on her bucket list adventure, for me, I just had to go. And for me it was just about family.”
Bethany said “the scenery and working together to get to the end” were her favorite parts.
“It was kind of like a mini survivor,” she said. “We got to take more than one item, but I thought it was pretty awesome.”
Pat said she used to “play wagon train” when she was a child, so it was like fulfilling a childhood dream.
“That’s a little known secret,” she said. “I would get on my bed and imagine it was a Conestoga wagon. I would bring all my dolls and we were headed across the prairie.”
Pat said when she asked the children on the trip what their favorite part was, one of them answered, “Getting to know my cousins.”
“That tickled me to pieces,” she said. “For me, I think it was being unplugged for six days. It was just really nice. Not getting up and watching that 7 a.m. news and going, ‘What is going on in this world?’ Not worrying about anything, but just how to eat and how to sleep and just being apart from the world a little bit.”