Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Independent Wagon Train offers camaraderie, adventure

Ten wagons make trek from Fairfield to Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

The 10 wagons of the Independent Wagon Train come down Warm Springs Road into Ketchum. Eight of the wagons were pulled by mule teams. The wagon train made a six-day trek from Fairfield to Ketchum over Dollarhide Summit last week. The sun shines at the end the wagon train's journey Thursday. Express photo by Rebecca Meany. Forrest "Tee" Hurd, Jim Super's right-hand man and unofficial social director, reads a story to wagon train participants while dinner is being prepared. Express photo by Rebecca Meany. Dusty boots and strong coffee are reminders of the day's activities. Express photo by Rebecca Meany. Photo by David N. Seelig

Deep within the Smoky Mountains, far away from questioning voices and skeptical eyes, a legend was born.

Years ago, Joe Adams, traveling via wagon train, passed through the old silver mining community of Carrie Town.

While Adams was there, an accident took his finger. The dirt of Carrie Town encased the digit for years, only to reveal it to its rightful owner as he passed through again last week.

Later, a small group sat around a fire, inspecting the dirty gray bone.

"It really is a finger bone," said Jim Super.

His tone was convincing, and the four fingers on Adams' hand lent credence to the story.

But the laughs shared among the travelers as they changed the story's details threw the tale into doubt.

"We just gotta get our story straight so it can become a legend," said Forrest "Tee" Hurd.

The eighth annual Independent Wagon Train, hosted by Jim Super of Super Outfitters of Sun Valley, set up camp in Placer Creek Wednesday, Aug. 31.

The night's chill plucked off most of the group, who one by one escaped into their wagons and tents. Few remained to question the tall tale.

The 10-wagon train trundled in to Ketchum the next day, rounding out a six-day trek that covered the 70 miles separating Fairfield and Ketchum.

The journey serves both to re-create the challenging trek made by teamsters and ore wagons during the late 1800s and to celebrate the area's history.

"You go through cattle grazing (country), Carrie Town, and old sheep camps," Super said. "All the economies of westward expansion. It gives some of the people a feel for what it must have been like and gives people the opportunity to learn from other people."

Wednesday evening's levity came not just from the camaraderie engendered by a warm fire, but from relief.

A couple of days earlier, one wagoner took ill with heart problems.

As soon as he revealed his suffering to others, he was whisked away to the hospital.

"There's no exceptions for medical emergencies," said Super's right-hand man, Forrest "Tee" Hurd. "That's why I drive that pickup."

Norm and Mary Jo Steele, of Lancaster, Calif., had a brush with a panic that must have paralyzed pioneers and miners.

Unlike early travelers, however, the Steeles' fears were alleviated by modern medicine.

Norm Steele was treated for heart palpitations and low blood pressure caused by altitude and stress.

Gary Super and Glenda Adams stepped in and drove Steele's team over 8,700-foot Dollarhide Summit. Wednesday, Steele was able to rejoin the wagon train.

"Just think of the people who were up here 100 years ago," Mary Jo Steele said. "They couldn't go 30 miles to a hospital. When you're sitting there with a spouse who's in trouble, you just let them die. You just have to respect what they did."

Group cohesiveness is fostered not just by challenges, but by the actions of Hurd.

Besides acting as Super's assistant, he takes it upon himself to lead trust-building games, as well as be a storyteller and jokester.

"See how tight these people are?" he asked. "Look at them telling stories. These people didn't even know each other Monday."

A few early-trip scuffles were smoothed over, and now the group was operating in harmony.

"They start out from different backgrounds but they all learn to trust each other," Hurd said. "That person might be holding your wagon from going over the mountain. You've got to learn to trust. You have to be a team."

Participants are souls who have similar interests, Super said, but they come from different social and economic backgrounds.

The majority of his wagon train participants are repeat attendees.

"A lot of wagon trains go 30 miles a day and you just have this marathon going on," Super said. "This is a laid-back wagon train. It's not about how far you can go, it's about the people that are there. Even though you're traveling the same route, every wagon train is different ... the mix of people and the skill level."

Judy Uhrich, of Paul, Idaho, was spending her second year on the wagon train with her husband, Gary, in a sheep camp.

Last year, some idle moments prompted her to jot down a poem about the group's experiences.

"They just expected one this year about the funny things that happened," she said. "Practical jokes are played. Everybody laughs at you or with you. But everybody's a good sport."

She reads the day's entry to the fireside gathering each night, and at the end hands out copies to fellow participants.

Veterinarian Linda Carpenter, of Washington state, will count four trips with Western wagon trains this year.

A pair of Amish-trained Haflingers, brothers McKenna and Michael, pulled Carpenter's hickory trail wagon. The wagon was built for modern-day travel, with rubber tires and hydraulic brakes.

Other travelers were enjoying the trip from an outsider's perspective.

"They're my sister's horses and my sister's wagons and it's my sister's sport," said Carolyn Wrage, of Napa, Calif. "I'm the movable hitching post. I do throw some hay at them—always wrong—and I do get the brushing job."

Wrage has traveled with other, larger wagon trains, but said Super's is unique.

"This one, you get to know people's stories real quick," she said. "Especially when you're a snoop like myself. They're just fascinating people."

Discovering personalities and uncovering stories isn't the only draw for Wrage.

"The benefit I get out of it, well, look at this countryside," she said. "And the food's been unbelievably good."

The sisters were accompanied by trainer Carol O'Conner, who hails from the Seattle area.

Out of the 10 wagons on the train, all but two had mule teams.

O'Connor said mules are the preferred animal for wagon trains because they're stronger, more sure-footed and have better night vision. Their backs are straighter and can better accommodate saddles and packs.

"The mule has tremendous strength," O'Connor said. "They are a pulling animal, a mountain animal. They're mentally different from horses. (When spooked), a horse runs. Mules will turn and fight. They analyze problems. They're actually an upgrade from a horse, especially for draft work."

Although Jackie Montgomery, who lives in the Hagerman area, has been on three other wagon trains with Jim Super, she counts this one as one of her most triumphant.

She underwent a kidney transplant in August 2004, but is back doing what she loves.

"Everybody's helped make it where I can be here," she said.

Her participation has been welcome in many ways. This trip, she arrived with a pick-up truck full of produce from the Hagerman Valley.

"That corn is out of my garden," she said, pointing to diners' plates.

Everyone contributes in his or her own way.

"You can't be on one of these things without learning," Montgomery said.

One participant has more knowledge than most when it comes to wagons.

Legendary Joe Adams, of Paul, has built nearly 15 wagons himself, two of which were on the Independent Wagon Train last week.

One was a sheep camp Adams copied from one his neighbor had.

"I just drew a diagram and went to work," he said.

The chuck wagon has John Deere running gear that dates back nearly 100 years.

"The rest of it I built from scratch," he said. "I had to make all the iron, everything, to complete it."

The labor of love is all part of what some call a hobby, and others call an obsession.

"Us die-hards die hard," Montgomery said.

"We'll be wagon trainin' up there," she said, lifting her head to the sky.

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