Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck
Simon & Schuster: 6/30/15
eBook review copy, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451659160

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck is a very highly recommended account of two brothers traveling along the Oregon Trail today.

Author Rinker Buck, his brother Nick and Nick's “incurably filthy” Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl traveled over 2000 miles for four months along a route that was the Oregon Trail. They went from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, through six present-day states, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, in a covered wagon pulled by three mules named Jake, Beck, and Bute. In the fifteen years before the Civil War 400,000 pioneers used the trail to emigrate west. The last documented crossing was in 1909, so this trip was a historical reenactment or at least a taste of what happened during the great exodus west.

All it took to spark Rinker Buck's decision to travel the trail was learning from Duane Durst, an administrator from the Kansas Historical Society, that the 2100 mile length of the trail has been "meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail. Except for two bad stretches of suburban sprawl around Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Boise, Idaho, most of the rest of the trail is still accessible along remote farm and ranch roads in the West." Rink decided he had to travel the trail, and do it in as authentic a manner as possible.

If a travelogue of his adventures on the Oregon Trail today wasn't enough, Buck also includes a plethora of additional information on a wide variety of topics related to the trip. We learn a great deal about mules, wagons, the pioneers, cholera, marking the trail, plants along the way, burials along the trail, and the Mormon experience, to name a handful of topics. Buck also talks about a trip his family made in 1958. At that time his father decided to take his family on a month long "See America Slowly" vacation. They traveled in a covered wagon from central New Jersey across the Delaware River to south central Pennsylvania on a month long trip.

On the back of the wagon for this childhood trip his father had a sign made that said: "We’re Sorry For The Delay—But We Want The Children To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY New Vernon, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Lancaster, Gettysburg, Penna." For their new trip Nick had taken the board to a sign painter in Maine for the similar messaging he considered appropriate for our trip. Painted on the back of the original sign was the new one: "We Are Sorry For The Delay, But We Want To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY St. Joseph, Ft. Kearny, Scott’s Bluff, South Pass, Farewell Bend."

Buck is a perfect writer for this harrowing adventure. As he writes, "Only a delusional jackass, or someone seriously off his medications, would pull off the road at the Hollenberg Ranch one fine summer afternoon and concoct such a preposterous scheme. But you can’t save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me." He's a great story teller and includes a lot of self-deprecating humor along with all the additional support information. Even while letting us in on the mishaps and failures of the present trip, he includes references to past experiences and stories from his childhood, and manages to tie the two experiences together.

After spending my early years in Nebraska, I learned about the history of the Oregon Trail every year of elementary school. It was fascinating to read this account of the trail today and the hazards crossing it. The year Rinker and Nick undertook this adventure was also a very wet year, with lots of rain, thunderstorms, and flooding, so it was not an easy year to travel the trail. I had to laugh at the fact that: "The brisk and incessant prairie winds of Kansas and Nebraska were one of the most persistent obstacles to travel that the pioneers complained about in their journals." I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Simon & Schuster for review purposes.

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