In 1958, when he was eight years old, Rinker Buck’s larger-than-life father took him and several of his ten siblings in a covered wagon from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. So his decision to recreate a modern-day covered wagon trip across the Oregon Trail didn’t seem as crazy to him as it might to most of us. However, as a lover of history and a former player of the classic video game of the same name (I died from dysentary more than once), I knew I had to read The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. What an adventure!
Rinker Buck (right) a reserved bookish fellow who likes his creature comforts, and his less-refined and extroverted brother Nick (on left) who can fix almost anything, were unlikely yet perfect traveling companions. Rinker did all the preliminary research and Nick agreed to be his trail hand, as long as they could bring his little dog Olive Oyl. Together they found three mules, a fitted-out covered wagon and then mapped out the 2000-mile trail over which no one had traveled for more than a century. Just as 400,000 pioneers before them had done, they jumped off at St. Joseph, Missouri in the early spring and reached Oregon by August. One of the most amazing facts to this reader, is that there are still deep ruts in the land left by those earlier travelers.
As he narrates their epic quest, Buck interweaves stories about the earlier pioneers who had to deal with dysentery, cholera, small pox, angry Natives or raging rivers. And even though part of the Oregon Trail has been paved over, the Buck brothers still had to deal with broken wheels, runaway mules, barbed wire fences, steep canyons and bad weather.
Along the way, however, Rinker and Nick discovered that small towns out West still have public corrals, where they were able to bunk down at night, and they attracted lots of friendly locals who offered advice, food, a dry bed or parts to repair their equipment. The brothers called these folks their trail family and figured they were meeting some of the nicest and most generous people in America. Plus, the landscapes through which they traveled were open and spectacular.
So if you love history, travel and adventuresome writers, you will love this book. Not quite as funny as Bill Bryson, but equally entertaining and enlightening. It made me appreciate all our ancestors did and how little they had to do it with. Highly recommended.