Historic wagon train adventure

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 4, 2003

starting off at Vidalia riverfront


Don McCraine

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The Natchez Democrat

Today, traveling westward from the banks of the Mississippi River at Vidalia to the Sabine River at Toledo Bend might take a couple of hours by car.

But the journey by wagon was a much longer and more arduous adventure for those who settled Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase 200 years ago.

On Monday, a group of modern-day mule skinners will retrace their ancestors’ route as the El Camino Real Trail Ride gets underway.

The modern-day wagon train will leave the RV Campground on the Vidalia Riverfront at 9 a.m. Monday, moving along on U.S. 84 at twice the 19th century speed limit.

&uot;Our forefathers traveled at about 2 miles per hour. We’ll be traveling four miles per hour,&uot; said event organizer and trail boss Murle Cheatwood of Saline.

Some of the women will wear period dresses and bonnets at the beginning of the ride. Cheatwood’s wife, Dianne, will be the only woman driving a team of mules.

&uot;It’s OK as long as they

behave,&uot; she said.

The Cheatwoods have been planning the event since January to coincide with other celebrations marking the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

&uot;I’ve been wanting to do this for years to honor the trail our forefathers blazed,&uot; Cheatwood said.

Participants started arriving in Vidalia Friday, trailering covered wagons, horses and mules &045; some traveling from as far away as the Smokie Mountains in Tennessee to take part in the ride.

Riders will take two weeks to cross central Louisiana, arriving at Pendleton Bridge on the Sabine River on Sept. 13.

Cheatwood, who has been building wagons and trail riding since the 1970s, also organizes a yearly event to help raise money for St. Jude’s Childrens’ Hospital. &uot;When I was a kid, we farmed with mules and wagons for survival. But we’re doing it for enjoyment now Š It’s our hobby,&uot; Cheatwood said.

Equipped with radial tires, bunk beds, bathrooms and barbecue pits, these wagons are much more comfortable than the ones seen in western movies.

&uot;We’ve gone from the Model T to the Cadillac of wagons. We’re really roughing it,&uot; joked Darrell Pellerin, a Lafayette Parish native who has ridden in trail rides with Cheatwood for 15 years.

Pellerin said trail rides give him a sense of satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere in today’s world.

&uot;This way, you get a real feeling of how life should be. It’s our way of chilling out and relaxing. And there’s no better people than wagon people &045; they’re always willing to help each other,&uot; he said.

Cheatwood said city and parish officials all along the 170 mile El Camino Trail have lent their support to the event. &uot;All of the mayors, the sheriffs, the chambers of commerce Š They’ve all been so helpful. We couldn’t have done it without them,&uot; Cheatwood said.

Lt. Governor Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander will join local politicians to speak at the park Monday morning before the wagon train leaves.