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Character Study: The Oxen, the High-Maintenance Travel Companions From ‘Oregon Trail’

From wandering off to getting stolen by thieves in the night to drowning in a river, these swole beasts are simply a reminder of the tolls of adulthood

Jeremy Berger

The year is 1848. You’re over being a corn farmer in Illinois. And after a few intoxicating whiffs of patriotism and tall tales, you are suddenly drawn to Manifest Destiny like a mall-goer to an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels cart. You dream of claiming a bountiful notch in the hillside of the Willamette Valley, where the federal government is giving away acres of land. To make the trip, you acquire several trusty oxen to pull your covered wagon 2,000 miles through the northwestern countryside. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot—especially with those oxen.

The Oregon Trail was ostensibly created to teach eighth graders about the grueling life of a 19th-century pioneer, but its most crucial lesson was that oxen are terrible at staying alive. Whoever coined the simile “strong as an ox” never witnessed six of them absolutely eat it while fording the entirety of your family and life’s belongings across a 4-foot-deep river.

Like fine vintage wines and Deadhead concert bootlegs, each of the many iterations of the Oregon Trail are artifacts of a generation’s technological and cultural upbringing. The initial version, made in 1971 by a trio of student teachers in a janitor’s closet, was a text-only journey that required participants to input their decisions via a teletype computer and wait for a response on a roll of paper. By 1985, kids could watch the shadow of their wagon moving forward via pixelated travel screens on Apple II computers. By 2009, players were being told they’d “died of dysentery” on the 3.5-inch screen of an iPhone. But no matter what rendition of Oregon Trail a person played, the oxen remained. They appear, large and relaxed like overfed cats, in each checkpoint’s picturesque scene. They are at the center of trades on the route. They quite literally pull the game forward.

More than anything, though, the oxen are a constant reminder of the pioneer’s finite resources. Both a crutch and a curse, they are the pioneer’s gasoline. According to the owner of the local general store, “a team of oxen to pull your wagon” is an Oregon Trail must-have. And, much to the chagrin of the budget-conscious farmer, the same store owner also charges $40 per pair, or yoke, and—deploying the same tone a waiter at a tapas restaurant uses to pressure you into ordering more food—recommends at least three yokes for a westward journey. The lowly farmer has no choice but to forgo sets of clothing that could keep his family warm for . . . some especially buff cows. And that’s just the beginning.

Within the first few paces of the journey, the oxen present a handful of problems. For one, they move at a maddeningly slow pace. A few frantic tap dances forward, and then they stop; a few more and then one of them decides to wander off, and a whole day’s worth of valuable travel in the moderate month of May is lost. Deeper into the trail, they reveal themselves to be needy eaters. They require a constant supply of fresh green grass and if they don’t get it, they’ll die out of spite. Starvation, yes, but mostly spite. That is, unless thieves don’t steal them first.

Finally, there’s the water. Longtime travelers of the Oregon Trail know that placing faith in a few yokes to carry a family across even the most peaceful of rivers is like playing Russian roulette with their firstborn. Despite being expensive to own and maintain, oxen can’t plow through anything beyond a shallow pond. And if forced, they will unceremoniously drown and—as their last act of service—take a pioneer’s entire chance at survival down with them. The oxen kindly ask that the pioneer instead waste valuable travel time by caulking his wagon and floating it across the ford, pay an additional $5 ferry fee for a much longer journey, or tap into an already scant supply of clothing to hire a Native American as his guide. If and when the pioneer must make his final crossing at the Dalles, over the treacherous Columbia River rapids, the oxen sprawl out on his makeshift raft like they’re on a novelty pool float, prone to falling off with even the slightest bump on a stray rock.

I still remember my exasperation with the Oregon Trail oxen as I navigated the pixelated Northwest on my mother’s Apple II computer. As an 8-year-old, I could only assume that the nuisance of these big, dumb farm animals was the sunk cost of being an early American trailblazer. Decades later, I fired up the game up on the Internet Archive for this assignment and realized I had a whole new set of words and experiences to make sense of their role in the game. The first time my oxen drowned during a river crossing, the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song began to play in my head, and I suddenly understood them on a deeper level. They are the automated Comcast attendant when you’re having internet problems. They are the DMV employee who, after hours of waiting in line, said you didn’t bring the correct proof of residence to renew your driver’s license. They are the bottom of a grocery bag falling through when you’re halfway up the stairs to your apartment. The oxen in the Oregon Trail, to put it plainly, are the sunk cost of adulthood.