Laughing on the Trails

Amusement battles boredom and hardship

Those who traveled the road west experienced a full measure of discouraging hardship and threatening danger. But that is by no means the entire story. More frequently than latter-day folklore suggests, boredom was punctuated with amusement and burdens made lighter through laughter.

Mrs. Virginia Ivins accompanied her husband while he went fishing for speckled trout for supper, but by her own admission she “talked so much that he became disgusted and sent me off.” The enterprising Mrs. Ivins, however, “fixed up a thread and pin hook, and to my great surprise caught a lot of little beauties before he had a bite.” There is no record as to which of them cleaned and cooked her catch!

William Johnston stopped at Deer Creek to do his laundry, but forgot to bring his soap from camp. Instead of leaving his clothes on the bank while he went back for the soap, he put “the garments in the stream. . . (and) secured them with care by putting on top some boulders of goodly size…” Upon his return, “a considerable part of the clothes was gone,” a situation which he attributed to “what might be thought to be a hole in the wash tub.” Mr. Johnston resignedly philosophized that “It was a loss not easily to be borne, but there remained, nevertheless, some consolation; disliking laundry work, I had less of it to perform.”

Intrepid hunters stalked wild game to furnish meat for the members of the wagon train. One Mr. Belden overdid it somewhat. Moving away from the rest of the party, he tied his horse and quietly crept away in pursuit of a buffalo. So single-mindedly did he stalk his prey that he neglected to fix in his mind the point at which he left his horse. As a result, “he was not able to find the same place again and consequently lost his horse.”

David Leeper’s party enjoyed a modest celebration at Independence Rock on July 4, 1849, during which they utilized “the river water for camp purposes.” On July 5, in the process of breaking camp, to their “chagrin and disgust,” they discovered “the putrid carcass of an ox steeping in a brook that discharged into the river a short distance above where we had been using the water.”

Historian Robert Athearn has suggested that “To laugh at the seriousness of the situation was. . . (westerners) best answer to the problem.” If that is true, then we can thank thousands of foot-sore pilgrims for spreading this capacity for laughter from the Coasts of the Nebraska to the Pacific shore.