We started playing Oregon Trail in earnest after the 2016 elections. Something about the dysentery, the cannibal-inducing privation, and the more than two thousand miles of travel across treacherous rivers and mountain chains appealed to us in those early weeks. We play Oregon Trail on Friday—“Villain Friday,” my wife calls it, the one day of the week we take a break from lesson prepping, teaching, reading, and writing to rest. Songbirds migrating across the ocean have been spotted taking refuge on cargo ships and tankers when they need to refresh before the next stage of their journey. Friday is our floating barge.
If you’re American and you came of age in the nineties, as I did, you probably know Oregon Trail, the computer game that purported to teach schoolchildren about the perils of early nineteenth-century westward expansion. As a third grader, I thought the language of the game was tantalizing, mysterious. Dysentery, drought, yoke. Caulking a wagon? It sounded dirty. Dying of exhaustion on the trail? It sounded fun. Super Soakers and laser pointers paled in comparison. Decades later, I couldn’t resist; suffering by proxy of an educational computer game was still “hella” cool in all the ways my third-grade self was not.
I introduced the game to Adele, my Belgian wife, within a week of the election, considering it to be another brick in the proverbial wall of her American education. Where mac and cheese in a box and the American health-care system had failed to impress her, punk rock, cheesecake, and Oregon Trail did. At first, she made the classic mistakes—overhunting bison, forgetting to purchase an extra wagon axle, hightailing it across the Blue Mountains in blizzards—but soon she caught on. Sometimes our wagon party consisted of our family members: the two of us, our cat, our two tortoises. We did what we could to tip the balance in our favor. We rested. We celebrated the windfall of fresh fruit. We held funerals for the dead. I insisted we take a day off on my virtual birthday, imagining us in bonnets and gingham garb, perhaps starving or on the eve of catastrophe, pausing on our route to sing “Happy Birthday” while rattlesnakes circled the wagon.
On less generous Fridays, like the Fridays we read about refugees being denied sanctuary in our country or the days we fretted over the delayed arrival of her green card, certain presidential cabinet members found themselves wagon-bound for the Willamette Valley. Because I am not above petty revenge, oh, what tribulations, what calamities befell them! Adele, who was a fluent English speaker but made the occasional slips typical of non-native speakers, compelled them to ride out of Independence, Missouri, at a “gruesome pace” when she meant “grueling.” I never corrected her.
“Gruesome” was their virtual migration, though it was not as gruesome as the emigrant’s frontier experience or the immigrant’s experience today. I appreciated Adele’s accuracy. Even in her lapses, she’s usually on point, precise. Gruesome seemed appropriate given the context. Constitutionally, she’s Belgian through and through: dry-humored, tenderhearted, and honest in the matter-of-fact way that sometimes gets her in trouble with Americans. Just as my American pluck and optimism often reads as lunatic to the average European, Adele’s apparent inability to be equivocal when the situation calls for it can be a liability in the United States.
A couple of years ago, on a routine trip back from a visit with her mother in Belgium, she was stopped and interrogated by American border control. In her universe, a green card, passport, travel itinerary, boarding pass, a plain yes or no to yes or no questions, and a lack of knives or explosives should be license enough for re-entry home. But the border patrol agent apparently did not agree. He interrogated her for hours, probing for ever more detailed answers about me, her teaching, and her research. He was less than sympathetic to the practiced elevator speech she’d mastered about her research on the 1968 Chicago riots. All the agent heard was “I study riots,” and his inner stormtrooper flipped. But Adele, like her nineteenth-century pioneer avatar, always blazes her own trail.
Sure, the American frontier has closed and it’s a different time: the scenery has changed, the “howling wilderness” too. The “free” land for which pioneers wagered their lives once meant agricultural land, a chance for a new life, although—it somehow still needs to be said—at the cost of Native Americans. Today, “free land” or the “land of the free” is an increasingly hollow rhetorical flourish.
“Freedom” usually turns to mud in my mouth when I try to use it in earnest. Adele is not my wife’s name. As a gay immigrant, she’s too worried about possible reprisal to be free even with her identity these days.
Finding “freedom,” uncritical catchall that it is in this country, is not the objective of Oregon Trail. The story of Oregon Trail is one of limits reached and recognized. The lesson is not just about forward momentum but also about stasis. What one comes to value in Oregon Trail are community instincts, the group’s ability to read the first signs of danger: to absorb and respond to the first inklings of ill health, negotiating between the demands of expediency and rest. You can travel westward one day, feeling fine, and the next day you can wind up with cholera. Survival, we learned, depends on listening to our own instincts. And sometimes it depends on getting lost, on losing ourselves to a reality where we can be what we are at heart: women on the loose. Loose women. A frontier is a battleground. We knew this when we fell in love but could not marry. We knew this four years ago, when the law first let us. We knew this when we—leaders of our own wagon party—first struck out.