When I think "Oregon Trail," I think of people barely surviving on meager rations as part of a dehumanizing ordeal. That does make the phrase an appropriate name for our food-stamp program, but I find it hard to believe the Department of Human Services shares my sense of irony. Do they? —Julia F.
As a freelance writer in the Internet era, I am, of course, rich beyond the dreams of avarice. However, the tattered wretch whom I employ to fish dirty C-notes out of my gold-doubloon-filled swimming pool assures me you're right: The card that poor folks use to purchase their daily hardtack and suet does bear the "Oregon Trail" name.
I don't think you should read too much into this, however. I'm sure the folks who came up with it just thought "Oregon Trail" was a resonant phrase that (a) contained the word "Oregon" and (b) included a nod to the state's history. (The analogous card in Louisiana is called "Louisiana Purchase.")
The real issue here is: Why do you take such a dim view of the Oregon Trail? I suspect the answer has to do with that damned game.
Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. The Oregon Trail computer game was played in elementary schools throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, where it convinced three generations of American children that the Oregon Trail was largely a matter of starving to death, drowning in rivers and—all together now—dying of dysentery.
Granted, this impression is pretty true. (It would be even more true if real wagon trains had been commanded by 9-year-olds, like they were in the game.) But that's history for you—miserable, cold, and flecked with diarrhea. If we only named things after happy stuff, the Sept. 11 Memorial would be called "Hello Kitty Fun Park."