It's 1845, and three couples in rickety covered wagons are headed west on the Oregon Trail. To lead them they have hired Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a cocky mountain man who has wooed the wide-eyed couples and the one child aboard with tales of his many accomplishments, his knowledge of the Indian tribes and his "let's do this" bravado.
But as Meek's Cutoff begins, things are not going well. The pioneers look exhausted and confused, their animals tired and sick. Any doubt about their grim situation is clarified once the boy scratches the single word lost on a sun-bleached boulder.