The Orgeon Trail by Rinker Buck, review by Shirley Wells
“See America Slowly” could be the unofficial mantra of Rinker Buck, who inherited this philosophy from his father who loaded his large family into a covered wagon and rambled across New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the summer of 1958, “the dream summer of [Rink's] youth.” Many decades later, after chancing upon some of the original wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail in North Central Kansas during a journalistic research trip, he decides to follow in his father's footsteps as he attempts a feat that hasn't been accomplished in a century: traveling the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way in a covered wagon.
And seeing the country slowly is just what Buck and his brother Nick do as they recreate an authentic Oregon Trail crossing, traveling 30-40 miles a day in a covered wagon across six states for four months in the summer of 2011. The Buck brothers are accompanied by three often cantankerous mules (Jake, Beck, & Bute) and a Jack Russell terrier (Olive Oyl). Using St. Joseph, Missouri, as their “jumping off point,” they ambitiously set out on a 2,100 mile trek to Baker City, Oregon. Although more than 600 miles of original wagon ruts are still evident, the Bucks discover that much of the trail has been consumed by highways and crosses private lands. They also learn that the Oregon Trail was never just one single path westward; at times it could be as much as twelve miles wide as travelers spread out in order not to choke in each other's dust or to hunt for game. During the peak migration years of the 1840s-50s, more than 400,000 pioneers in about 60,000 wagons followed the Oregon Trail across the country, one of the greatest land migrations in history. The pioneering spirit that moved Americans westward united the coasts, doubled the size of the country, and laid the groundwork for the railroads.
Filled with historical information as well as personal details, Buck's memoir of this modern-day reenactment is filled with lyrical descriptions of the countryside and heartwarming tales of lasting friendships that were formed. But “Even more beautiful than the land that we passed, or the months spent camping on the plains, was learning to live with uncertainty.” Buck seems to want to prove to himself that he can control his obsessive tendencies and tackle other personal issues from his past, and the long days spent on a wagon seat amid the repetitive clopping of hooves provides a perfect setting for self-analysis.
The problems of the early pioneers (broken wheels, too many and then too few provisions, dangerous thunderstorms, runaway mules, etc.) often become Rinker and Nick's problems, sometimes in ways that would have made most of us immediately admit defeat. We sense Buck's determination and will to succeed, perhaps even before he does: “We are all a lot more capable of conquering obstacles and fears than we think.” The brothers' skills complement each other with Rinker doing a great deal of research and planning as well as providing the finances to buy and outfit the wagon and the mules, while Nick possesses a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as an amazing mechanical aptitude. And Nick, a natural-born storyteller, makes friends everywhere they go, often forging relationships that prove to be essential. Buck acknowledges that “...our covered wagon trip was not so much an adventure shared by two brothers but a display of the communal ingenuity and hospitality still to be found in the American West.”
Filled with much humor and insight, The Oregon Trail is a significant work of history and a moving personal saga, one that chronicles both the significance of the rich history of the Oregon Trail and the courageous perseverance of the people—past and present--who followed it westward.
Rinker Buck will be at Watermark Books at 6:00 p.m. on July 10th for a reading and signing of The Oregon Trail: An American Journey.