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A Guide to prairie schooner sojourns

The covered wagon didn't die with America's Manifest Destiny. The vehicle is back, carefully dusted, sometimes rubber-tired and modernized to carry an ever-growing number of nostalgic dudes on vacation. They trek 10 miles a day, with nights spent in the wagons, tents or under the stars. Routes parallel the Oregon Trail, Pony Express lines or other paths 19th-century migrants were probably only too happy to forget. But in the de-jounced wagons, the journeys are practical for even small children and those physically unable to backpack or ride a horse, and thus they provide an ideal family adventure.

The prairie schooner revival began with Ruth Hefner of Wagons Ho in Kansas, a dynamic, 60ish former country schoolteacher and grandmother of eight, who got the idea while on a state centennial committee in 1961. She and the covered wagon outfitters who came after her share a love of Western history.

Mornings on wagon treks sometimes begin before dawn as wranglers, spurs chinking, prepare cooking coals for breakfast. Horses whinny in anticipation before hitting the trail. A throaty "Wagons ho-o-o!" from the wagon master dispatches the caravan. The teamsters in turn slap the reins down hard on the backs of their teams. "Hi ya, hi ya!" The horses strain, snorting softly, blowing the billowing dust out of their nostrils. One by one, the wagons lurch into motion toward the distant horizon, traversing gravelly slopes, mud flats, barely discernible tracks that wind around brush clumps, or passable dirt roads over timbered foothills, with snow patches still visible in June. However comfortable the updated wagons are, the experience is still primitive enough to make the easy-riding tenderfoot ask himself or herself: Back then, would I have survived? That new awareness is worth the price of the trip. Herewith a selection of wagon tour operators:

Pioneer Adventures is run by Jerry Bestpitch, 30, a wagon master, blacksmith, wrangler and former member of a rodeo team sponsored by the U.S. Navy (seriously). Trips follow historic trails through mountain scenery from Jenkinsen Lake above Sacramento to Kit Carson Pass in the Sierra, a route traversed in 1854 alone by 800 wagons. Bestpitch also runs horse pack trips from Tahoe to Yosemite National Park. Weekend trips in groups of five wagons or more, June through August, are $125 per passenger including meals. Longer trips can be arranged. (J.B. Ranch, Box 288, Elverta, Calif. 95626, 916-991-3386)

Honeymoon Trail Inc. was founded by Mel Heaton whose great-great-grandfather was an English handcart pioneer who pulled his belongings across the plains. Trips run between Pipe Spring National Monument, Ariz, and the Fort Laramie movie outpost in Kanab, Utah. An early-September pageant trek follows an old wagon trace dubbed Honeymoon Trail by young Mormon couples on their way to be married in the St. George, Utah temple; it ends with a parade for St. George's Dixie Roundup and Rodeo. Rafting down Colorado River rapids can be added. May-October; two days, $140; five days, $280; wagon trek and river trip, $765. Special rates for groups and children. (Honeymoon Trail Inc., Moccasin, Ariz. 86022, 602-643-5584)

Wagons Ho is directed by Frank and Ruth Hefner with painstaking attention to historical detail. Kansas women have even run up pioneer dresses for female trippers. Mrs. Hefner washes out axle grease and stains incurred by stream-fording or standing off attacks by (hired) "Indians." Local farm wives prepare snacks of beef jerky and iced lemonade, and a Pony Express rider delivers mail at a gallop. Showers with sun-heated water are provided in the evening. The trail follows part of the Pony Express route and a Butterfield stage route, which ran from St. Joseph, Mo. to Denver. June-August; three days, four nights, $432. Group and children's rates. (Wagons Ho, Inc., Ouinter, Kans. 67752, 913-754-3347)

The Oregon Trail Wagon Train, operated by Gordon Howard, pushes through prairies close to the grassed-over ruts of the Oregon Trail. The wagons skirt Chimney Rock, a landmark outcrop that signaled to pioneers the beginning of the foothills of the Rockies. Scotts Bluff, another landmark, looms in the distance. Wagons, wood-wheeled and iron-tired, are authentic, says Howard, "except for our potty wagon, which has a chemical toilet on board." Pioneer dress is encouraged. Travelers can dabble in pioneer crafts, such as wool carding, or in pioneer antics such as cow-chip flipping, a Frisbee-like game played by pioneer children sent out to gather fuel. June-Sept.; three days, four nights, $295. Group and children's rates. (Oregon Trail Wagon Train, Route 2, Box 200B, Bayard, Nebr. 69334, 308-586-1850)

Dakota Wagon Train treks across South Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation in the heartland of the Sioux Nation. The wife of cowboy organizer Maynard Sogge is the great-grandniece of Sitting Bull. At night wagons are circled along the Grand or the Cheyenne tributaries of the Missouri for horseshoe pitching, fiddle or harmonica solos, hoedowns and Indian dances, or tales of local history. Prairie dog villages and antelope are glimpsed along ridges. Some trips coincide with a-local rodeo or Indian powwow. June-August; three days, $305; five days, $385; six days, $425. Group and children's discounts. (Dakota Wagon Train, Box 587, Evanston, Ill. 60204, 312-973-7231)

Wagon Train Adventures takes travelers over Nevada's Forty-Mile Desert, dreaded by the 49ers, or near the Carson River and Lahontan Reservoir not far from Carson City. The high point may be the sight of wild mustangs on a far hill; for a California couple last year, it was getting married on the trek: The wagons were decked with white and blue paper bells. A trip can be combined with a cattle drive, roping and branding events. April-October; prices start at $65/adult/day, less for children and groups. Rates drop if you bring your own horse, says owner Dean Calkins, an ex-rodeo star. He provides the hay. (Dean Calkins, C-Bar-D Ranch, Box 902, Fallon, Nev. 89406, 702-867-2477)

Teton Prairie Schooner Holiday is a family-run outfit, tracing back to Bill Thomas' great-grandfather, who hauled the first Jackson, Wyo. settlers over Teton Pass in six Studebaker wagons in 1889. Rubber-tired Conestoga replicas ply back roads of the Wyoming-Idaho Targhee National Forest, between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The loon and trumpeter swan may wheel over mountain lakes. Trips, says Thomas, "are designed to be a wilderness learning experience as well as a vacation." June 15 through Labor Day; five days, $325. Children's rates. (Bar-T-Five Outfitters, Box 2140, Jackson, Wyo. 83001, 307-733-5386)

Wagons West was organized by L.D. Frome, a veteran pack outfitter and explorer of old Wyoming wagon roads. His trip follows backwoods roads and pioneer trails through piney foothills, past grassy meadows and mountain streams in view of the Tetons and Wind River Mountains. The rubber-tired Conestogas ascend to 9,000 feet. The sight of elk or moose is not unusual by day and coyotes howl at night. An extra $15/day/person rents a horse for the trek. A trip can include a visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, or rafting down the Snake River. May 25-Sept. 4; two days, $140; four days, $250; six days, $350. Group and children's rates. (L.D. Frome, Outfitter, Afton, Wyo. 83110, 307-886-5240)

For a wider sampling of comparable trips, check the guidebook Adventure Travel, available at 36 East 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10022, $9.45 postage paid.

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