If a chicken crosses the road to get to the other side, why do covered wagons slide straight down a hill?

If a chicken crosses the road to get to the other side, why do covered wagons slide straight down a hill?

Actually, the question a Mail Tribune reporter asked of an old-timer some 50 or 60 years ago was, "Why did pioneers slide their covered wagons straight down a steep hill and not just drive them back and forth in switchbacks until they reached level ground?"

"Too much strain on the downhill wheels," said the aging expert. "You'd likely snap your axles in two."

That was critical knowledge for an emigrant wagon train crossing over the Cascade Mountains on the way to the Rogue Valley.

Not long after passing Klamath Lake and slowly climbing westward up Parker Mountain through heavy timber and rocky ridges for hours, pioneers came to the first of several canyons that brought everything to a temporary halt.

"After climbing this mountain and following along its summit for a mile or two," remembered Orson Stearns, "the road suddenly seemed to drop down over its summit nearly perpendicularly into the dark depths below."

Stearns had made the trip from Illinois as a 10-year-old in 1853.

The sides of the canyon ran a quarter-mile down to Jenny Creek and, at its lower end, sloped at a steep 45 degrees.

Drivers unhitched their oxen from the wagon, leaving only two of the animals attached to the yoke at the front.

"They cut down small trees and fastened them to the hind axle of each wagon," said Stearns.

The small trees kept the axle from rotating so the wheels would slide, not roll, down the slope.

With chains hitched to the hind wheels and wrapped around a thick tree, the wagons were lowered, "plunging into the darkness below."

The men had a difficult time holding the wagons back and had to be sure the wagon yoke didn't push or pull against the oxen and force them into an unsafe downhill pace.

One by one, they reached the creek, crossed over, and after traveling another mile, drivers hitched up a full team. With another rope or chain attached to the wagon, they pulled them straight up and out of the steep canyon.

"Up over the canyon's rim," Stearns said, "they came out into an open prairie surrounded with groves of small pine trees. This they learned was Round Grove Prairie. They made camp, turning the tired cattle loose for a well-deserved meal of fresh grass."

It was an exhausting day with everyone tired from the strenuous trek. As the sun set, supper was prepared and quickly eaten.

The next morning, before beginning the all-day climb to the summit, breakfast was intentionally late, giving weary oxen extra time to nibble on those "luxuriant grasses."

At the summit, Stearns said, "the road seemed to drop down again steeply into another canyon."

This was the Keene Creek Canyon, its sides shorter than the ones at Jenny Creek, but its slopes much steeper.

Once again the wagons were unloaded, animals unhitched and the slide downhill begun.

Children were the first to reach the top on the other side.

"Where's the Rogue River Valley?" they asked.

"Settin' down yonder," said a man, his finger pointing through the haze. "That's your new home."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.