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The long, sometimes treacherous 19th century Westward trek of covered wagons is deeply embedded in American legend, folklore and sense of national identity. Thousands of pioneers, for example, braved the perilous Oregon Trail. Now, to salute the Western settlers, Americans representing all 50 states are replaying history in reverse by forming Eastbound wagon trains. They are set to arrive in Valley Forge, Pa., July 3. The following day, President Ford will address the passengers in the 60 official wagons and approximately 2,000 other travelers. The Pennsylvania Bicentennial Commission sponsored an official wagon from each state, plus ten escort wagons. Wagon trains originating in Elaine, Wash., Pomona, Calif., Houston, Fort Mandan, N. Dak., Atlanta and Augusta, Me., are bound for Valley Forge fueled by horse and mule power, as well as a resurgent pioneer fever. TIME Correspondent Madeleine Nash caught up with a contingent of wagons at Tecumseh, Mich., and found spirits high. Her report:

Day breaks wet and chilly, with the sound of harness bells and calls of “Wagons ho!” The teams—matched pairs of Belgians, palominos and Arabians —walk out briskly, followed by Shetland ponies and mules. Hitched to faithfully copied new versions of Conestogas and prairie schooners, the animals are pointed toward Petersburg, Mich., some 20 miles southeast. Fringe-topped surreys and jerry-built vehicles of varying durability fill out the party. The passengers are instant minor celebrities in each small town they pass. Villagers look, wave, offer plates of homemade cookies and other food, and sometimes get bitten by the bug and join up. The historic sort of leisure exerts a unique pull on the mind. Wagonmaster Keith Kreykes, 52, a cook, in the course of the journey has headed up as many as 48 wagons carrying up to 150 people. “You forget what day it is, and you forget the time pressure,” says his wife Gale, 54. “You can live each day to its fullest.”

The 4-m.p.h. clip, on highways and convenient side roads, leaves time for savoring the sights and smells of roadside flowers, corn-and wheatfields, and taking in the brassy greetings of small-town high school bands. Any number on the train started out in the far West. “My great-great-grandmother walked from Iowa City to Salt Lake City pulling a handcart with four children in it,” says Ed Porritt, 41, an artist from Green River, Wyo. “I think about that and get out of the wagon and walk every time I can. I figure I’ve walked 1,300 miles.” Pat Doran, 62, a Blaine riding stable operator, is footing most expenses himself, and, like many other nonofficial drivers, is getting additional money from local groups and private donations. Tom Keen, a Walla Walla, Wash., construction worker, took up his wife Pat’s challenge to build his own covered wagon; the couple sold their two cars, trailer house and furniture to finance the trip.

There are hardships, just as in the frontier past. The Blaine train, which started out last June and later merged with the Kreykes party, has suffered two deaths from heart attacks and one when a gasoline tank exploded in a truck hauling animals and hay. There have been frequent alarms over runaway horses; once, when frightened horses sent an antique Conestoga crashing into a parked car, train members worked late into the night to repair the wagon. But roughing it is not quite as arduous as it used to be. Portable toilets are stowed away in some wagons, and one couple exchanged its old-style version for a home-built model complete with rubber tires, hydraulic brakes and a padded car seat.

As the train wends its way East, some members drop out and others join up—with increasing numbers deciding to stick it out all the way to Valley Forge. “It’s infectious,” says Al Mavis, 56, who escorted the train across Illinois. “This is the real Bicentennial. You can hardly goto bed at night because people stay to sit around the campfire and sing.”

The rigors of the journey have made many travelers take a respectful look backward.

When Doran had to use a pickup truck as a brake to help his 14-mule team ease his wagon down a particularly steep section of the Cascade Mountains, he confessed, “I’m not sure I could have been a real pioneer.” But subtle inner transformations and revelations are what make the journey deeply satisfying, even for a nonparticipant. Sarah Versteeg, 70, of Romulus, Mich., watched the passing train with undisguised wonder. “I wanted to see how my grandmother traveled,” she says. “I remember her telling me how the roads from Pennsylvania to Indiana were so bad that they milked the cows in the morning, put the milk in barrels in the back of the wagons—and in the evenings they would find butter.”

The Augusta, Me., train first awed onlookers, then got a rousing cheer from crowds after it survived (with no wounded reported) a mock Indian attack as it crossed the 3-mi. Tappan Zee Bridge at Nyack, N.Y., en route to Valley Forge. The bridge’s traffic was slowed as motorists paused to gawk at the unique delay in their usual morning rush to work—U.S. history was taking up two full lanes.

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