Hafis Bertschinger, holding the book he wrote about his experience traveling the Oregon Trail on horseback 35 years ago. He starts his journey on June 27. Staff photo by Rick Poppitz
Special to The Gardner News
Thirty five years ago Hafis Bertschinger came to Gardner, where the trails divide, and traveled the 2,170 mile Oregon Trail on horseback. He kept a diary along the way that eventually became a book titled ‘With a Horse Called George Along the Oregon Trail.” Bertschinger is an artist and native of Helvetia (Switzerland).
Today, less than two months shy of his 85th birthday, he has returned to the USA to do it again – but this time he will undertake the journey by bicycle.
Bertschinger was in the USA for a short period of time in the early 1980’s, teaching art appreciation at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, Ark. He had read a well known book called “Sutter’s Gold,’ published in 1926 by French author Blaise Cendrars. The book details the life of immigrant Johann August Sutter, who immigrated from France to New York in the 1830’s, and eventually made his way to California, where he claimed land in the Sacramento Valley. When gold was discovered on that property, Sutter became one of America’s first multi-millionaires.
That book inspired Bertschinger to undertake his previous trip on the Oregon Trail. He bought a horse and named it George, after the last name of the man who sold it to him.
On April 29, 1982, he and George began the journey just outside of Gardner at the Gardner Junction, where the Santa Fe, Ore., and California trails split.
The Oregon Trail goes through the northeast part of Kansas, into Nebraska and continues through Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.
“It took me exactly four months to do it and finish it, with a healthy and happy horse at the end. At the beginning, it started with great difficulty, but finally we ended it happily,” Bertschinger recalls. “Now as an old man, I’ve come back to your country, which has changed dramatically in many ways, to redo the whole thing on bicycle.”
Bertschinger reveres the human-animal connection he made with the horse on that trip.
There was abundant rainfall in the spring of 1982 and plenty of grass for his horse to eat along the way. He said many of the farmers he met along the way in 1982 were very generous in feeding him and the horse.
“Most people think this is the biggest thing, to feed the horse and feed yourself. But grass, there was enough. And the farmers tried to feed my horse too much. I had to stop them. I had to learn that on the way. More than half a pint of barley was fantastically dangerous – the horse became crazy, too much energy, he wanted to run and was full of farts,” he says with a laugh. There were many difficulties – his horse got stones in its shoes several times and was spooked by snakes on the trail at other times.
Bertschinger says he learned that easier is not necessarily better and a steady pace of about 20 miles a day was what was best for him and the horse.
He also remembers the many people he met along the way on that earlier trip and says he hopes he will find some of the same farmers still living and where they were 35 years ago. He hopes some will remember him.
He has traveled the world in his lifetime and experienced many things in many places, but the journey alone on the Oregon Trail holds a special meaning to him.
“All my life I’ve been a traveler, a nomad. I’ve visited all the continents, and I’ve realized that life is nothing but a journey”, he says. “But this place, especially because of the horse, became so special to me that I’m repeating it.”
Asked why he’s chosen to do it by bike this time, he answers, “I want to earn it.” Asked if he’d like a bike with an electric assist motor, he emphatically says no.
“I’m going to really pedal this, every meter of it, and suffer, and sweat. I’ve been asked ‘how will you cope with the heat?’ I answered that I’ll try to do with it. I’ll let it do what it can to me and what I can do to it.”
He said he was not sought sponsors or publicity and is unconcerned whether anyone knows about this adventure or not. He wants to do it for his own reasons – partly just because he can.
Although he wishes to travel alone for the majority of the trek, he says he would enjoy having other riders join him at the start, for the first ten miles or so, to kick off the trip.
On Saturday, he bought a bicycle at a second hand store. He still needs some accessories for the bike so he can carry a small tent and some minimal supplies. He says he traveled very light the first time and will do the same again.
“I don’t need much. I live on water and perhaps some tea and dry bread. Most people need much more and some security”, he says.
He’s riding a bike this time instead of a horse, and also will be carrying a cell phone with a camera for taking pictures and some video journaling. He’ll spend a few nights in motels where he will sleep in a bed, which he did not do at all the first time, and take a shower – but that’s about the limit of modern convenience he will allow himself.
He mentioned a ‘lust for life’ that propels him. He’s says he’s still working out the meaning of life.
“I think my lust for life is also my dissatisfaction with having been unable to understand anything of what life is. But this [questioning] kind of pushes me on and on and on. I paint in colors, and call it spunk, or symphony of life , or something like that. It doesn’t really give answers. It’s not a happy ending song, it’s still a big question mark, but being still at it, asking and wondering, that’s why I’m still walking,” says Bertschinger.
Hafis Bertschinger, the lifelong artist, sees the most beautiful art in the the landscapes and nature, which he finds everywhere he looks on the Oregon Trail. It’s special to him. He looks forward to the trip and seeing things that may have changed, as well as things that will always be the same.
“The most beautiful part is Wyoming and Idaho, the fantastic landscapes there”, he says.
After 50 years together, his wife Mara died seven months ago. A documentary film about the couple, titled ‘ Hafis and Mara’, was made by German filmmaker Mano Khalil and released in 2018. There’s a trailer for the film on YouTube and description on IMDb. Bertschinger has a son and two grandchildren in their mid-twenties.
While discussing his plans at the Old 56 Family Restaurant in Olathe, he orders apple pie a la mode.
“Hot apple pie with ice cream, this is the best American something I can remember,’ he says as he takes the first bite.
Hafis Bertschinger will turn 85 on August 12, 2018 and should be somewhere near the western end of the Oregon Trail on his birthday.
After he completes the trail again, he plans to celebrate by visiting Yellowstone, which he has been to several times before and calls “the most striking park in the world.”
Bertschinger will start on this journey from the Gardner Junction historical park at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 27.