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Hitting the History Trail

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In true pioneer spirit, 12 California students recently gave up the creature comforts of the 20th century to re-enact a forty-niner's search for gold.

Last fall, students at Monroe Elementary School in Madera began studying a diary written by William P. Huff, a prospector in 1849. Mr. Huff wrote his 300,000-word journal during his grueling 900-mile trek from eastern Texas to the San Gabriel Mission in central California.

While Mr. Huff never found gold, his dramatic account convinced a history teacher at Monroe, Bill Coates, that his 6th graders might learn more if they hit the trail along with the books.

While Mr. Coates scouted out the trail with National Park Service rangers in December, his history class built two covered wagons for the January trip. A Texas rancher descended from the prospector was so impressed with the effort that he donated four mules, two cowhands, and boar and deer meat for the 20-day trip.

The team of 10 boys and two girls were chosen for their high grades, but they would also be tested for endurance. Their abbreviated version of the original journey took them over 450 miles, from Nogales, Ariz., across the Colorado River through the California desert and north to their hometown in the San Joaquin Valley.

The junior trailblazers found a new appreciation for the hardships of one-horsepower travel. They drove the wagons, fed the mules, rustled up dinner, braved swollen rivers, rattlesnakes, and prickly cactus, and survived perhaps the greatest hardship known in modern times: no bathroom facilities.

"They got used to it,'' Mr. Coates says.

Dude ranchers no more, the students, with the assistance of the University of California at Berkeley, will publish Mr. Huff's diary later this year along with a collection of their own campfire journals. ws--S.K.G.

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