Rinker Buck’s latest book chronicling his brother’s and his trip across most of the Oregon Trail on a Schuttler covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules, deserves a place among the excellent biographies and travel books of recent years. Spurred by the memory of his experience as a boy of traveling from New Jersey to Pennsylvania with his father on a horse-drawn wagon, Buck seizes at the “crazyass” idea of following the Oregon Trail, used by the pioneers from the late 1830s through the 1870s. As soon as his brother Nick learns of the idea, he drops what he’s doing and signs on, and the zany combination of the two of them are on their way, along with Olive Oyl, Nick’s Jack Russell terrier. The trip succeeds, not without plenty of adventure and mishap along the way, thanks to the complementary personalities and skill sets the two bring to the endeavor. It’s the Cisco Kid and Pancho, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Butch Cassidy and Sundance all over again, and the book works largely because of the diverse characteristics and eccentricities of Rinker and Nick Buck. They argue and they laugh, and they somehow pool their abilities to make it more than two thousand miles through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho into Oregon, spending four months in the doing.
Learning the differences between Conestoga and Schuttler Wagons; how to care for, hitch, and drive a three-mule team; and the details of following the remains of the Oregon Trail may not be everyone’s passion, but Buck’s explanations are clear, well-supported by clearly labeled line drawings, photographs, and maps.
Into his chronicle Buck inserts a great deal of the history of those who explored the Oregon Trail—the missionaries like Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, the Mormons, the 49ers, and others seeking religious freedom. He sheds needed light on the negative impact of the white settlers on the Indians whose way of life was destroyed in the process of mass western migration of the nineteenth century. But he also rhapsodizes over the gracious hospitality and support Nick and he were afforded at every turn.
Though much of the journey was spent rolling over paved roads days at a time, there were enough hair-raising adventures along the way to make the account exciting to read, among them precipitous climbs and descents, sudden and violent storms, bridge and river crossing, wagon accidents, and one not-so-friendly landowner. Their stops along the way provide the reader with vignettes of small town life in that part of the country, enough to make the reader want to travel America just the way Rinker and Nick Buck did it.
Buck credits one of his editors for encouraging him to develop his complicated relationship with his father as the trek continues. It’s a good call as in the father-son memories Buck recounts we see so much of what drives the author to make this trip, so much of what has formed his personality, and how following the Oregon Trail provides Buck with a greater appreciation for his dad. It adds flavor to what could so easily have been simply a dry travelogue.
Rinker follows in the footsteps of Richard Ben Cramer (Joe Dimaggio: The Hero’s Life); Lauren Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit and Unbroken); Stephen Ambrose (Undaunted Courage); Candice Millard (River of Doubt; Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey); Daniel Brown (The Boys in the Boat) and others whose works provide both stirring accounts of American icons and thoughtful studies of American history. Buck’s additions to the genre are a self-effacing, saucy sense of humor, and the often-raucous bi-play between his brother Nick and himself, as the two wend their way westward from Missouri to eastern Oregon.
Few who read the book will choose to buy and outfit a covered wagon, find a team of mules, and spend four months clopping along remnants of the Oregon Trail. But most will agree that following Rinker and Nick Buck in this chronicle of their odyssey is time well spent.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015