The Oregon Trail and Great Distances

Editing of the last chapter of the book is in sight! 3 months writing, 13 months editing, whew! Here is the kick-off to ‘Chapter 8: The Scale of Things’. A nod to all my gamer friends:

The Oregon Trail was a popular video game when computers were just becoming available to the public in the 1970s. The most popular version of the game later arrived in schools on the Apple II in 1985. The game helped to raise awareness of the actual Oregon Trail in the United States which spanned from the eastern state of Missouri to Willamette Valley in Oregon. The trail extended about 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) at its peak use in the mid-1800s with over 412,000 settlers, traders, miners, and others using the trail to access rich farmlands and growing towns along the upper west coast.

A half century went by before the Oregon Trail was completed and used regularly. Traversing the trail could take as long as 170 days, especially when traveling with children and heavy belongs that slowed down progress. If you were a pioneer in charge of exploring the west coast for farmland, the trail could be traversed in as little as 120 days. Completing the route today would take (also with considerations of sleep and other needs in mind) 14 days by pedal bike, 3 days by car, and a brisk (though still arguably just as uncomfortable) 4 hours by plane.

The trail was extremely dangerous, even at its peak upkeep in the mid-1800s. The most dangerous part of the trek were the many rivers wagon parties had to cross. For every river traversed, another threatened to tear out a wheel axle, drown the helpless that fell off and were dragged under current, or cause illnesses and frostbite along rivers high in the mountains. Food had to be hunted and eaten on the spot before it spoiled. On many occasions, threats from Indians or even other wagon parties could spell doom for those traveling alone.

Initial expeditions and journeys into new lands are nearly always a dangerous task, especially when the distances involved open up the opportunity for accidents, disease, and death to occur with no help in sight. As we advance in our knowledge of the dangers and ways to mitigate them, we not only create a safer path for others to follow, but faster to traverse as well. Airplanes are not only the safest way today to get from Missouri to Oregon, but by far the fastest. Every technological advance humanity has made over the last two centuries has brought us one step closer to that four hour reality we enjoy today.

Outer space will provide a new frontier in exploring vast areas that are orders of magnitude in scale beyond the travel times of the Oregon Trail. The moon is on average about 384,400 kilometers from Earth, or about 120 times the distance of the Oregon Trail. Light travels at the blistering speed of 299,792 kilometers per second, yet it would still take over a second to reach the moon. Using the latest in-use rocket technologies, the fastest we could get to the moon is about three days. We could get there in a quick eight hours or less though if we didn’t care to slow down or stop for a visit.

Three days is just a long weekend, which doesn’t sound so bad for traveling to such a cool place as the moon, until you scale distances up in magnitude. Using planetary gravity to slingshot a spaceship to higher speeds by hitching a ride around another planet’s gravity field, it still takes about ten years to get to the furthest planet in the solar system–Neptune. At Neptune’s closest approach to Earth, which is 4.3 billion kilometers away, it is a mind boggling 1.3 million times farther than the length of the Oregon Trail. Without rest and at the modest pace of 25 kilometers per hour (wagon speed), it would take 53,000 years to reach Neptune.