For my eighth birthday, I received the Oregon Trail computer game. At the time, the family computer, that still made awful dial-up noises, was in my purple and white bedroom at the top of the stairs. I was never destined to be a “gamer girl” and quite frankly it showed from an early age. I sucked at every game. I really sucked at Oregon Trail, but in true millennial fashion, I did at least try my best. It felt like my responsibility to guide my team from Independence, Missouri to their new lives, but I often spent too long thinking about the interpersonal relationships of my fictional wagon mates and they quickly met their fates every time.
Like many eight year olds, I did not accept defeat gracefully. I instead took matters into my own hands. I loved playing house. I kept a trunk packed full of costumes at the foot of my bed. So I put on an apron and fashioned a bonnet out of a silk scarf of my mother’s and set off on building my own little prairie world. My white carved trundle bed from Costco was my horse and wagon. I would drape the footboard in a quilted pillowcase and call it my saddlebag. I would tuck knickknacks inside for safe keeping along with the biscuits I would beg my mother to bake for me. I would request that they be wrapped in wax paper and referred to only as hardtack.
The pull out mattress was my wagon frame. I would pile as many of my worldly possessions as my skinny arms could wrap themselves around on top of it precariously. Then I would set off for a new life. I don’t remember who my fictional companions were—maybe the sisters I never had, a family dog that would sleep by my side at night to keep me warm, or a spinster aunt with remarkable sharpshooting abilities and a dry wit.
Regardless, I was the one in front. I was the lookout, the forager, the fighter. No one died of dysentery on my watch. No one ate poison berries. We always found a nice plot of land near running water and made our home happily.
But in reality, nothing is ever as easy as it is when you’re eight and sitting on your trundle bed. I moved west to Illinois from Massachusetts when I was 18. It’s the farthest anyone in my family had ever moved without intention to return. I took a plane and not a team of oxen. I moved into an apartment downtown with paper thin walls and mysteriously stained carpeting–so I took part in no log cabin building. No one in my life has yet to die from dysentery, but my parents did leave after a couple of days.
Striking out on your own was never going to look as dramatic as pulling out of Independence with all of your belongings, but the moment you have your first college meltdown, drunk in a vaguely familiar stairwell, and realize that you’re fending for yourself, it feels just as monumental.
My college best friend gave me the best present eight-year-old, Oregon trail loving, me could ever ask for. During spring break of my sophomore year, he gave me the west. Our road trip spanned 16 states in 7 days. We nearly spun off the road in a late March snowstorm in Minnesota the first day and I was ready to call it quits, but no one ever builds a life for themselves by turning the wagon around.
As we neared the end of our great adventure, we inexplicably ended up watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. I found myself in tears. I thought about everything that got me to that point. I thought about all the living that I had done. I thought about moving far away from home and I thought about playing Oregon Trail in my purple and white bedroom at the top of the stairs. And while I was unabashedly crying, sitting at the edge of the Grand Canyon next to my best friend, I kind of felt like a pioneer.