- The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
Can there be a more iconic American image than that of a pioneer wagon crossing the Great Plains? For Rinker Buck, someone who “brakes by rote at every historical marker” (5), the answer is an emphatic no. Inspired by a monthlong family covered-wagon trip in New Jersey and Pennsylvania led by his eccentric father when he was a child, Buck reveals that as a result of that journey “travel became my endorphin” (12). Along with his brother, Nick, and his charming terrier, Olive Oyl, the threesome set out to make the first authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail in over a century, from Missouri to Oregon, on a restored Peter Schuttler wagon pulled by three mules. A sign on the back of their “Trail Pup” (a short auxiliary wagon hauling additional supplies) proclaimed their mission: to “see america slowly.”
Reflecting the author’s voracious reading of Trail history, the account is replete with excerpts from nineteenth-century pioneer journals as well as facts and myths of The Trail. There was never a single Oregon Trail, Buck points out, with hundreds of “cutoffs” and “shortcuts” pioneered over the years. It was the Schuttler, not the Conestoga, wagon that was the preferred vehicle of the westward movement, for its ability to better withstand the rigors of the wildly varying trail conditions. The pioneers typically began the journey with excessive gear and superfluities, leading Buck to observe that the emigrants were the “greatest litterbugs in history” (114), jettisoning all kinds of items along the way. After the Mormon hejira began in 1847, trail conditions improved and the continental crossing became more efficient with the development of supply outposts—even as the Mormon handcart disasters of 1856 and 1857 cost hundreds of followers their lives because of late starts and early winter storms. And while much has been made of the “rugged individualism” of the pioneers in setting out on a 2,000-mile odyssey, Buck agrees with many western historians that without community efforts in helping fellow emigrants to cross raging rivers and rugged boulder-strewn canyons, most families would never have been able to make the crossing on their own.
Covering on average around five hundred miles a month, the [End Page 124] brothers in their “plodding social observatory” (136) comment on modern-day rural America, offering both sobering as well as reassuring testimony. In Kansas and Nebraska they are struck by how many children are being raised by their grandparents, apparently the toll taken by the meth epidemic battering the Plains. Yet a consistent theme during the entire crossing is the sheer generosity of rural residents, whom the author affectionately dubs “trail family” (171): complete strangers consistently offering them shelter, food, and much-needed tools for mechanical fixes when their Trail Pup breaks down. It turns out that there are a good many “rut nuts” (4)—private citizens who live along the route of the Oregon Trail and try to preserve and mark the original traces. All told, there are more than six hundred miles of the original trail still in existence.
The most touching aspect of this marvelous piece of travel writing deals with the author’s family history. On the surface Rink and Nick could not be more unlike: Rink is college-educated and sophisticated, Nick a self-taught handyman and recovering alcoholic whose language is crude and abrasive. The author is careful to a fault, his brother a careless risk-taker. Together the Buck brothers are a “case of collaborating dna presenting symptoms of incurable bipolar disorder” (205), and at the outset the author realizes that to achieve their goal of crossing the Oregon Trail “my job would be to suppress myself as much as possible, to manage the trip by never appearing to be a manager” (46). Indeed, some of the book’s funniest moments occur when the brothers are faced with various trail challenges and Nick fearlessly overcomes them while his brother nervously anticipates disaster.
What unites them in the...