I had the wonderful fortune of being able to get away last weekend with some girlfriends, an event that hasn’t happened since before the kids were born. Aside from the luxurious option to sleep past 6:15 am, I was also free to follow the drift of adult conversation from one topic to the next, never once having to stop to pick graham cracker mush out of my hair, or rescue a baby who had gotten stuck under the dog.
After many rousing talks about current events, of course the conversation landed on pioneer women. Because of course. I thought back to a book I read a few years ago about pioneer women’s diary entries as they crossed the Oregon Trail. These women were tough in a way that I hope no one ever has to be again.
There was a slim window of time when it was safe(r) to leave the East Coast for the West. Families would pack up and westward ho just after the spring thaw, and if they didn’t get killed by stampeding buffalo or cholera, they’d make it across country before the first punishing snows of winter.
It didn’t matter if you were eight months pregnant, or had a sickly mother, or were the sole support for your widowed sister. If your husband said it was time to go, you packed up your meager possessions and hit the dirt road. These diary entries tell tales of giving birth in a rickety wagon because your husband didn’t want to stop for a night. Or burying your toddler on the side of the trail, then immediately leaving the little grave behind because staying meant probable death.
The book tells of how odd and uncomfortable life on the trail was. Women had to conjure meals from scant ingredients like prairie
grass or buffalo roadkill. Or gather together to shield a woman in a wall of skirts so that she could pee or tend to her monthly needs away from the men on the trail. Which seems kind of silly, considering these were the same men who saw her breastfeed every few hours, bobbing up and down on the wagon, still bleeding from childbirth, and still expected to do the wagon train’s laundry by the creek that evening.
Women today are wusses. I include myself in this lump of worrying ninnies. Life has gotten so comfortable for us middle-class, educated women that we whine about how hard it is to find time to watch Real Housewives or find a decent jog bra. I can honestly say that I have never feared for my life while sleeping under a covered wagon, wolves howling in the distance, terrors in every shadow. I am spoiled.
Tough-as-leather pioneer women: when you look down upon us from that big campfire in the sky, try not to judge us too harshly. You fended off bears with knitting needles and a stern eye so we don’t have to. And for that we give you hearty thanks.