The Saragosa Stage, Hell on Wheels
It was a busy day. I was eating lunch at my desk as I pounded the keys. The whole week had been crazy. One more day and I could ease into a relaxing weekend. I had just taken a bite of my apple when the boss walked up to my desk.
“What do you know about stagecoaches?” he asked.
I took a quick swig of coffee to clear my throat. “Saw a really nice one when I did the Saragosa story. Thought I'd hitch a ride but didn't get the chance.”
“Well then I've got good news for you, Scott.” The boss handed me an assignment slip and continued. “Seems the owners of that very stage are looking to bring some publicity to Saragosa. They've organized a fifty mile stage line along the same route as the first stage line in Oregon. It ran between Linn Cities and Tuality Plains in 1846.”
I searched my mind and came up blank. “Linn Cities and Tuality Plains? I've never heard of either one of those cities?”
My boss had been doing his homework. “That's what they went by back in 1846. These days they're better known as West Linn and Forest Grove.”
He handed me another slip. “This is your ticket and directions to the staging area. It's this Saturday. There were only ten tickets available and they weren't cheap. I expect a good story from this. Don't let me down.”
“I'm on it, boss,” I replied as he headed back to his office. Seems my plans had just changed. A relaxing weekend was now a working, but hopefully fun weekend.
It was 5:00 am on a chilly Saturday morning in mid-June. As per my instructions I arrived at a trailhead just outside of Forest Grove. The route had been well planned. The stage would travel along a stretch of old and unused county roads, skirting the hills to the south and the valley to the north. The stage would stay off the blacktop for the full length of the route.
It would be a full twelve hour day and there would be three stops, one every three hours, between start and finish. Lunch would be served at the mid-way point. Passengers were to arrange their own transportation home from West Linn.
I was the last to arrive. A photographer was snapping photos and a group shot was suggested before we boarded. I had little time to get acquainted with the people I'd be riding with.
There were ten passengers. Four women and five men. One of the men I recognized from another publication. Of the remaining four, one was dressed for the part, complete with cowboy hat and boots. One was a middle-aged overweight gent. He wore a suit and tie and seemed to be constantly complaining about one thing or another. The third was a nervous type who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and didn't say much. The forth turned out to be the honorary Mayor of Saragosa who had come along for the ride.
The women were interesting. One clearly looked out of place. She wore stretch pants and high heels. Two seemed very business-like. There for a story and not much else. The fourth didn't look like she wanted to be there at all. She looked like she had a hell of a Friday night. My guess is she would rather be sleeping it off in a warm bed, not out here at 5am in the cold morning chill.
The stagecoach was the same one I had seen at Saragosa. A pretty thing all freshly painted and shined up for the occasion.
After some last minute instructions from the driver, we loaded up. The Mayor would sit in the 'box' with the driver and the man riding shotgun. The other nine of us would be inside. We lined up and one by one stepped into the coach. The driver stuck his head through the open window across from the door and helped us get situated.
It didn't look big enough to hold us all and I was beginning to wonder if someone might have to be left behind. I was taking up the rear and I sure as hell didn't want it to be me. The first six made it in just fine. That's when things slowed down.
“OK,” spoke the driver. “This is a genuine reenactment. As you can see, there are three seats in this coach. One on each end and one down the center. There's three people to a seat. It's tight, but we will all fit. Slide together, get to know your neighbor and make room for one more person on each seat.
The nervous smoker went it. The fat man was in front of me. He was next. He stuck his head into the coach and abruptly stopped as he tried to make up his mind where to sit. There were only two places left and neither one of them looked big enough for him.
“How in the hell am I suppose to fit in here?” he questioned.
“You'll fit. Trust me, you're not the first group to climb in here,” the driver replied.
The fat man made his choice and stepped in. He squeezed into the last remaining side seat and I was left with the bench in the center.
“See, I told you we could do it. Now hang on, we'll be out of here in a minute.” The driver walked around and closed the door, then stepped up to take his seat in the box. “It's tight. think we may have oversold our tickets,” he commented to the men next to him. “Lets get this over with.”
Everyone smiled and waved to the photographers as the stage pulled away.
The ride was uncomfortable from the beginning. I had a leather strap to hang onto, but nothing to lean back on. There was no leg room. Everyone was crammed together like sardines in a can. I felt sorry for the others in the seat with the fat man. Fortunate it was the skinny woman in high heels and the cowboy. It only took an hour before the fat man started to complain.
“I can't believe I paid good money for this. I plan to ask for a full refund when this is over.”
“I have to pee,” one of the women chimed in.
The woman in high heels directed a comment to the fat man. “You have no right to complain, mister. Look at me. You're sitting on my hip.”
The cowboy suggested that she could sit on his lap if she liked.
She gave him a look.“Ya, right. That might be fine for you, at least for the first hour, then what?”
“Well, then we could trade places,” he replied with a wink.
Heels reached back to slap him but I grabbed her arm. “There's no room in here for that,” I remarked. “We still have a long way to go so let's try to make the best of it and enjoy the ride.”
“Oh, the voice of reason,” fats sarcastically replied.
“That's me,” I retorted. “I try to make the best of a situation, unlike some.”
We finally made it to the first stop. There was bitching and moaning all the way, but no casualties. We all stepped out thankful to to be able to stretch our legs. An outhouse was waiting. There was a table set up with snacks and water. We eagerly dug in while a new set of horses were hitched up.
The chain smoker looked like he was going through withdrawals. He sucked down two smokes in less than five minutes.
One of the women spoke up. “Hey driver, How long do we have before you cram us back into that thing?”
“Call me whip,” replied the driver. “Historically, you would have about ten minutes while the horses were changed out. I'll give you twenty.”
“You're too kind,” replied the cowboy.
After the horses were swapped out, Whip asked us to load back up. We changed things around as best we could and I finally got a back rest. The next stage of the route went a little smoother. There was some small talk and we all got to know each other a little better. All was well until the smoker couldn't take it any longer.
Without a word, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it up.
“What in the hell do you think you're doing,” demanded the business type women sitting next to him.
“I have to,” replied the smoker as he inhaled deeply.
“You blow that smoke out in here and I'll rip your lungs out,”
She was serious.
The smoker didn't believe her. He exhaled and went for another draw. The business woman slapped at him and knocked the cigarette from his mouth as she grabbed for his collar. The cigarette landed in the cowboys lap. He jumped up and hit his head on the roof.
It looked like mayhem was about to ensue. But the cowboys head hurt more than his need for getting back at someone and he sat back down to nurse his wound. Seeing someone had been injured, the business woman let loose of the smoker. She made some threatening comment and turned her attention to the cowboy.
It took about one minute before we all began to smell smoke. We had lost track of the cigarette.
The smoke was coming from the cuff in the smokers pants.
Someone came up with a bottle of water and we quickly doused it. The coach was filled with smoke and tempers were reaching the ignition point. Thank God for good timing. We had reached our lunch stop.
We were only at the half way point. I seriously began to wonder if I could end up with a story of murder and mayhem before we reached the end of the line.
As soon as we crawled out of the stage, cell phones appeared. Some were checking messages and I'm sure a few were filing their complaints. There was a pickup and horse trailer at the stop. A couple of men worked at changing out the stock while we ate a good spread furnished by a local catering company. We had a half hour to eat, stretch our legs and do our business.
When it was time to load up, the guy I knew from another publication and the woman with the hangover refused to board. They had had enough. While we ate they had made arrangements with the catering driver to give them a lift into town. Their stories would be incomplete and I'm sure their bosses would not be pleased.
Apparently the smoker couldn't take it either. He had arranged to ride topside for the final two stages. There was no room in the drivers box so he literally sat on top of the coach. He wasn't much for talking but he must have had a way with words. At least now he could suck on his Camel straights without anyone trying to cram it down his throat.
We boarded and made fats take the middle bench. It was good to have the extra butt room, but it didn't do much for our legs. The third run went without a hitch. Tempers had calmed some and I focused more of my attention on the terrain and less on our misery.
Turns out the cowboy was a wealth of knowledge concerning the 'Concord' coach we were riding in. He assured us the smoker would be fine topside. It was a normal overflow area back in the day. This was a once in a life time adventure for him and he was happy to be along for the ride. We took full advantage of what he knew and scribbled copious notes.
On the fourth and final stage we were in the sun. With no air conditioning, all we could do was sweat. Some of us more than others. The 'sardines' were beginning to get ripe. To add insult to injury, for about an hour we hit a dirt road that kicked up a lot of dust. We dropped the leather window covers. It didn't help much. We were all choking and coughing. Our sweat was getting muddy. By the time we reached the end of the line we were all a stinking mess.
I have come to the conclusion that we have become soft over the years. We take our modern conveniences and cushy transportation for granted. The western pioneers who rode these coaches put up with many hardships on a daily basis. They were used to it. It was a normal part of their lives. For them, the stagecoach was a modern convenience. It was their cushy transportation.
I'm tired and sore. I'm dirty and I stink. I need a bed and a bath. I'll find a hotel in West Linn and make my way home in the morning.
Twelve people started out on this adventure. There would be twelve different stories to tell. I certainly had mine.
© 2018 Scott Gese