Longtime journalist Rinker Buck, suffering from a late-middle age slump, got a wild idea. He would travel The Oregon Trail the way the pioneers did in the 1800s. He would outfit an authentic covered wagon, hitch up a team of mules and traverse the country, starting at St. Joseph Missouri, traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho and ending in Oregon. This being the 21st century, he would have to figure out how to deal with the freeways, shopping centers and homes that had been built over the old wagon ruts, but he was determined to do it. The result is Buck’s new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, published this year by Simon and Schuster.
Rinker Buck had planned to go alone, but when he asked his brother Nick for help getting ready, Nick insisted on going, too, and bringing his little dog Olive Oyl.” Both men were dogged by demons from their past and sought the “Oregon Trail Cure.” The result is a tale that’s a blend of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. It’s funny, poignant and suspenseful. The Bucks have their share of mishaps, along with a big dollop of luck, and I find myself riding with them all the way, falling in love with the men, the mules and Olive Oyl.
Of course in modern times when a covered wagon shows up on the road, people lean out of their minivans to take pictures with their smart phones, but there are still long passages of pastures, mountains and deserts with no one around for miles. Their days on the trail fill the brothers with a joy I can feel right through the pages.
Buck writes in an easy-reading style that carries the reader along. When justified, he lets the f-bombs fly. When they screw up, he says, “I really screwed the poodle this time.“ But he also describes the scenery in lines that sound like poetry. Throughout the book, he includes information about all aspects of the pioneer journey. We learn about mules, wagons, the people who died on the trail, and the entrepreneurs who gathered at the “jumping off” places to sell the travelers all kinds of necessities and junk for the journey. We learn about the Indians and the Mormons and the big role they played on the trail.
They had their share of adventures, but of course the Bucks’ trip in 2011 wasn’t as rugged as it might have been back in 1850. They had planned ahead and had contacts waiting for them. They had transcontinental communication as long as they could charge their cell phones. Trail enthusiasts rushed to help them, feed them and honor them as celebrities. They were unlikely to catch cholera or smallpox. There were no Indians. But there were still long sections with dust, mud, broken wheels, no cell phone reception, no water and nothing but Hormel chili to eat. They could have called it off at any time, but they didn’t.
Most of my ancestors came from Europe. They either came directly to California by boat, took the train across, or traveled up from Mexico with horses and wagons when the Spanish ruled the land. There’s one branch of the family that might have crossed the country by wagon, but I haven’t found any information on that yet. Me, I’d never have made it out of Missouri. As soon as they told me I’d couldn’t take all my stuff and couldn’t have iced tea with my lunch, or maybe not even have lunch, well, I’d be going home. I like my creature comforts.
My husband, our dog Sadie and I did our own migration from California to Oregon, detailed in my book Shoes Full of Sand. We did it in a Ryder Truck. On a freeway. But there were breakdowns, hunger, heat, and desperation. For all three days. And sometimes all we had to eat were donuts. I retrace that trail several times a year in my Honda, and I keep meeting new Oregonians who have followed the same path, perhaps completing the migration that began long ago when their ancestors moved to California. We’re all pioneers in our own way.
Read this book. It’s great.