The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck
Pub Date: June 30, 2015
I never had the opportunity to go on Trek while I was in Young Women. I’ll no doubt get the chance later in life if I get a calling in YW or have kids who go on Trek, but right now my outdoorsy adventures have been Girls Camp and exploring historic sites with Civil War reenactors. I did play a heck of a lot of Oregon Trail back in grade school, so my primary association with the Oregon Trail is “caulk the wagon!” and “David has died of dysentery.”
So I was delighted to hear about this book being published! The author, Rinker Buck (what a fabulous name!), is a curmudgeonly unemployed journalist leaving middle age who decides he’s going to take a covered wagon and a team of mules and retrace the pioneer’s trek along the famed Oregon Trail. Because why not?! This is a total nerdfest for history buffs! His younger brother Nick (the epitome of a kind of redneck renaissance man) joins him on the journey, along with Nick’s smelly but lovable dog Olive Oyl, and Buck not only recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the trek West, but also gives robust histories of various aspects of pioneer life and the Oregon Trail, like the breeding and raising of mules, how the pioneers packed their wagons, the variety of covered wagons, and recounts a number of biographies of colorful pioneer characters.
Speaking of colorful, I should warn you that the language in the book is a little blue. Buck’s brother doesn’t have much of a filter, and Buck isn’t all that much better. So if that’s really going to bother you, maybe pass this one along, but I found the history and the story arc of the journey well worth it. There’s also two chapters where he talks about the Mormon migration and visits what sounds like a multi-stake Trek. It might be best for some to skip those chapters because he’s pretty sarcastic in tone, and though he gets some facts right in his history, it’s through a very skeptic lens. But he does thank the LDS Church in the acknowledgements for help with his research.
Throughout the story, Buck recalls a similar endeavor he made with his father in 1958, heading from New Jersey to Pennsylvania in a covered wagon. On the back of the wagon his father made a sign that told any impatient motorists that they were going to “See America Slowly” and to pardon the delay. I love that. My great-grandparents raised sheep for a time, and one of the favorite places to play when we were kids was in the old sheep wagon parked in the back of their house. It was basically a primitive RV in the form of a covered wagon, and just delightful (but not much fun to sleep in when you’re a seven-year-old used to air conditioning and nearby bathrooms). Buck shares a number of memories of that trip and of his father, seeking some reconciliation with their rocky relationship. It’s very clear where the Buck brothers get their personalities, and reaching the points in the narrative where Buck talks about his father were highlights for me.
Another thing that struck me and the author is how incredibly friendly people along the route were. They were delighted to see a Real Covered Wagon pass by, and offered advice, places to stay, food, wagon repairs, and loved on the mules. You get a real sense of the kind of America we all want to experience.
This is a highly entertaining travelogue of two middle-aged guys with a fierce determination to travel the route of their pioneer forebears. And though they never got to actually “caulk the wagon,” they do run into some dangerous and nerve-wracking situations that will keep you moving along with them. If you’re looking for a book that gives some nitty-gritty details about pioneer life, and are really into Trek, this may be a fun read for you.
Readalikes: If you’re a fan of history buffs going on journeys, I highly recommend Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. While both are obviously Civil War-centric, the authors do describe a past America, correct common misconceptions, and see how much or how little certain aspects of American life have changed in 150 or so years.