Reading the West & On the Trail 30th Edition
In the spring 11 years ago some of my wagon train buddies were setting off following the California Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, and I intended to travel with them part of the way. I had been writing articles for the Fence Post off and on ever since the publication first began, and pitched the idea of a regular column following those wagon train travelers. I named it “On the Trail” because that is literally where I would be and what I would be writing about.
For four months, I wrote something for every issue of the Fence Post. They were all stories about our experiences traveling by wagon for over 2,000 miles. Admittedly I was not out there all the time, but I had regular contact with the wagon master, Ben Kern, and could keep up-to-date with the train, and the adventures in going to California. I traveled with them in Kansas, and Nebraska, in Wyoming and Nevada, and was on hand for the end of the journey in Coloma, Calif.
When that trip ended, so did the column … for four months. And then in January of 2000 I approached the idea with Fence Post Editor Chuck Ballou of writing the column regularly. It would not always be about a wagon train, or even a trail, but might include stories of people in the West (and elsewhere), and general history. I could not imagine writing one article a week, though, so we settled on every other week for a submission.
And so for the past decade I’ve written this column, plus my other column, “Reading the West,” every other week. I have occasionally pushed my deadlines to the limit (just ask any of the editors I’ve worked with), but had not missed one until just this past month when I had a computer crash and simply couldn’t get things in on time.
While most of my pieces have dealt with the people and mainly the history of the West, once in a while I’ve ventured a bit farther afield. I wrote about the Natches Trace after a trip to Tennessee, and just this summer wrote about the Cumberland Gap and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after another trip to Tennessee.
I write books and for many other publications including nationally distributed magazines and I can unequivocably say that I get the most feedback to my work from articles that appear in the Fence Post. I’ve been at meetings and events across the West and had people say to me that they read me in the Fence Post. They recognize me particularly when I’m wearing my old black hat. Once when doing research for my Roadside History of Colorado book, I knocked on the door of a rural couple and I had my hat on. An elderly man opened the door and said, “Hey, I know you. I’m reading your column in the Fence Post!”
Sure enough, when I joined him and his wife in their living room, there was the Fence Post open to “On the Trail.”
I think my favorite story from a reader relates to my work in writing and producing the documentary “In Pursuit of a Dream” for the Oregon –California Trails Association. (See http://www.InPursuitOfADream.org). For the film we would take 24 students out on the Oregon and California Trails to travel for two weeks by wagon train. We had done some casting for students to take part in the filming across the country, including in the Denver area.
In making our final casting selections the director and I decided on one girl from the Windsor area. I called to tell her she had been selected, and her dad got on the phone. He quizzed me about the trip, how long it would last, what it would entail, and other specifics. I could tell he was hesitant to allow his teenage daughter to go on a two-week trip with people he did not know.
But as we visited he realized I wrote the “On the Trail” column. And then he told me, he knew I understood wagon trains and said he would trust me with his daughter. Having Mikayla on that trip was important for the film, and I’m surely grateful that her dad read the Fence Post!
I’m actually writing this particular column while I’m “on the trail” in Montana … so watch for stories from this neck of the woods before long. And I’m also planning a special trip soon that is pretty far afield from my regular territory. So keep reading the Fence Post and “On the Trail.” I enjoy sharing my adventures with you.