I was in elementary school when I first started playing Oregon Trail at a friend’s house. When our families got together, we would filter into the computer room, sometimes all four of us (including our brothers). We would fill our wagon with people, ourselves, and any other friends we wanted to take along for the virtual journey.
Usually, we started in Independence Missouri, and it was there that we purchased our wagon, animals and supplies. Sometimes, when in a hurry, we went for a package deal, but more often we went into one of the little stores and selected our list of supplies with care, thinking about what we might need to trade, or what illnesses we had experienced before.
This took some time.
As we traveled the trail, we would talk, and watch as our wagon made it’s way through all kinds of terrain. The days passed quickly, with little notes about morale, food and water levels and progress made.
Finally, I got Oregon Trail at home and I would sit for hours, filling my wagon with myself, my crush du jour and whatever fictional characters I wanted along. (At one point, I had Lord Peter Wimsey on the Oregon Trail with me).
I had learned a few things from playing with my friends, and now that I got to move the mouse, I knew to check the water levels and then decide whether to caulk my wagon and float or ford the river. I knew that it was handy to have a milk cow and some chickens. I knew that I needed to buy a lot of laudanum.
As I watched my progress, I listened for the two dramatic notes that would tell me that something was different and needed my attention. I think that if I heard those notes today, they would still send a little unpleasant thrill through me.
It could be an illness of some kind, ranging from dysentery to snakebites and everything in between (administer laudanum). It could be, just as suddenly, a death. This was when I wished that I had given my wagon-mates anonymous names. It was appalling to find out that Anne of Green Gables had died of exhaustion.
Hunting, though it was thought to be one of the most enjoyable parts by many, often took on a desperate tone. Often I would wait until I was nearly out of food (I wasn’t very good at that part of the game). Usually, this would result in my injuring a bear (and being subsequently mauled) if someone wasn’t injured by a gunshot.
Though I played the game regularly for years, I can still count on two hands the amount of times I actually made it to my destination. As I recall, it was rather anti-climactic. I thought there should have been a party or something. After all, I didn’t die the way I had so many times before. Didn’t that count for something?
Oregon Trail seems to be one of those shared experiences of my generation. They make t-shirts that say “You have died of dysentery.” There are plants that I know are poisonous because of Oregon Trail. I think about the game with fondness from time to time, and I’m potentially more aware of the geography involved.
But there are some bittersweet thoughts as well. Oregon Trail taught me that the people you’re traveling with can be taken from you at any time. There are jokes on the internet, talking about the times when a character recovering from dysentery would suddenly die from a snakebite, leaving you to write a short message on their tombstone and conduct a make-shift funeral. I watched all of my favorite fictional characters, my friends and the crushes who didn’t know I existed, die in tragic, unexpected ways. Da-DUM.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally learned the true character of laudanum. It is a tincture of opium, and the version I was virtually administering was likely mixed with whiskey. Brené Brown said, in her first TED talk, that you can’t selectively numb, and I didn’t. I numbed indiscriminately, whether my friends were crushed by a wagon, weakened by a fever or nearly drowned.
I no longer sit for hours watching my wagon make progress, holding my breath, waiting for those two staccato notes. I no longer keep laudanum in my stores to be pulled out when tragedy strikes. But I do walk through life, never knowing what is going to happen, painfully aware that not every fork in the road or imminent need will come with corresponding music and a handy multiple choice window.