Wagon, Roll! Like Pioneers of Old, the Demarco Family Heads West with Hope

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Trundling westward on a Missouri highway, the strange apparition seems caught in a world and a time of its own. While cars and semis thunder past, a covered wagon creaks along, drawn by an old-fashioned farm tractor with a man dressed in boots, jeans, plaid shirt and hat at the wheel. Traveling at 10 mph behind the wheezing engine of their 1948 Allis-Chalmers tractor, Tom and Pam DeMarco are headed to California in pursuit of a dream. They missed the great wagon trek to the West by a century or more, but these modern-day pioneers share the same goals—a job, a home, a future.

Packing their belongings in the home-built wagon, the DeMarcos and their five children left Kipton, Ohio, last July 15. By late September, having averaged 25 miles a day, they had put some 590 miles through four states behind them and were nearing St. Joseph, Mo., a traditional gateway of the westward migration in the 1850s and still a critical juncture for the DeMarcos. They must decide between a more southerly route, using parts of the old Santa Fe Trail, which has few drawbacks, and the northern route, through part of the Oregon Trail and the Sierras, where the onset of winter weather could make travel treacherous.

High adventure though their odyssey may be, the DeMarcos embarked on their journey partly out of necessity. Tom, 37, was a self-employed woodworker who specialized in restoring old homes and antique furniture, but in economically depressed Kipton, he could find few customers. By last summer, he admits, the family had less than $500 and "some debts we couldn't dig ourselves out of. Our lives were at a stalemate. Things weren't working out or improving, so it was time to grab fate by the neck and shake it."

They had long thought about moving to California, where Tom figured he could find more demand for his woodworking skills in the Redlands-San Bernardino area. Okay, but why the anachronistic travel mode? That started partly in jest, Tom says. "Pam jokingly remarked that since we couldn't pay for conventional transportation, why not travel west in a covered wagon? The idea hit me with a flash of illumination. It was what I had to do."

"Both Tom and I are drawn to things from the past," Pam, 30, explains, and so they prepared accordingly. Tom built the wagon himself from 160-year-old floorboards taken from the attic of their home. Unable to find original blueprints, he relied on historical photographs. He obtained a set of circa-1900 wheels that had been stored in an abandoned railway depot. Meanwhile, Pam cut and sewed the canvas covering for the wagon and made many of the period costumes—long dresses and suspendered pants—that they would wear on the journey. "You can hardly get in the mood for a trip like this in designer jeans and miniskirts," reasoned Pam, who studied diaries of pioneer wives while Tom pored over maps of the Old West for possible routes.

In their hankering for authenticity, however, the DeMarcos did not shuck their common sense. During a trial run shortly before their departure, one of the two horses that Tom had bought to pull the wagon bolted. Fortunately, Tom was able to jump free before the wagon tipped over. Thus chastened, he traded in his horses for a vintage tractor at a Ford dealership. Similarly, when Pam discovered that the canvas cover of the wagon leaked in the rain, she lined the inside with plastic. In addition a foam mattress was installed to soften the floor of the cramped interior. "It makes it tough to walk when you're moving," Pam says, "but it's more comfortable for sleeping and safer for the kids."

Another characteristic shared by Tom and Pam DeMarco is a fierce need to take control of their own lives. The son of an industrial engineer and a hospital worker, Tom grew up in Parma, Ohio. Glenn Field, a childhood friend of DeMarco's, remembers him as a "fellow who always wanted to do and learn something different and, because of that, he refused to be categorized into the cliques at school. Though people didn't always like him, Tom had supreme confidence. Once he makes up his mind, there isn't anything he can't do."

After graduating from high school, Tom served two years in the Air Force and was married briefly. (A son, Chris, is now 15 and lives with his mother in West Cleveland.) Tom drifted from job to job and, as a practiced guitarist and occasional songwriter, dreamed of a place for himself in the professional music world. He met Pam, the daughter of a manager for industrial real estate and a teacher, in a Cleveland club in 1977, and they married less than a year later. As their family expanded, their finances grew precarious. For Tom and Pam, a need to pick up roots and start anew became compelling.

So far the DeMarcos have weathered their journey well, despite their self-imposed living conditions. The 13-by 5 ft. interior of the wagon is crammed with neatly stacked laundry, camping gear, a stockpile of nonperishable foodstuffs and household furniture, including a crib and a chamber pot in a wooden enclosure. Parents and kids (Danielle, 8, David, 5, Marissa, 4, Martina, 3, and Marielle, 1) have developed a daily routine, rising at 7:30, eating breakfast and hitting the road around 9. "We ride for two or three hours," says Tom, "break for lunch, go for another three hours or so, then stop for dinner and the night." Meals are eaten by the side of the road or in restaurants, and overnight stays usually mean camping out or bunking in budget hotels. "There's not much privacy for me and Tom," says Pam. "Everyone's tired at the end of the day."

On many occasions along their route, hospitable strangers have assisted them. Churches have raised money for them, kindly people have taken the family into their homes and given them food and clothing. "Most of us don't have the courage to pack up everything and attempt something like this," says T. J. Banes, public relations manager of the Indianapolis Zoo, where the DeMarcos stayed for a weekend. "They're wonderful people," says Edwina Teubner in Chapin, Ill., who, with her husband, hosted the DeMarcos over the Labor Day weekend. "The children will learn more from this trip than they will from any textbook," says the Rev. Kenneth Schamber, a Lutheran pastor in Hannibal, Mo., who sheltered the family overnight.

On reaching St. Joe, Tom DeMarco decided on the southern route that will take them through Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona before reaching the California destination. "We'll avoid snowy weather and pick side roads through a lot of towns, so we'll have places to stay and won't be isolated for long stretches," he says. "Our objective is to travel to California unharmed, not to define our world by this trip." As of last week, they were near Liberal, Kans. Tom figures they will reach their destination by late December or perhaps January, and then get settled, find work and put the older children in school. Oh, yes, there will be one other bit of business to take care of. "I promised the kids a trip to Disneyland," Tom confides, "and a chance to meet Pee-wee Herman."

—Dan Chu, Sandra Gurvis in Cameron, Mo.

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