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Books

Rinker Buck’s Amazing Journey Chronicled in ‘The Oregon Trail’

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Many Americans are fully aware of the rich history of the Oregon Trail. A new book attempts to shed light on some of the more obscure parts of the trail’s history and to illustrate the struggles that the pioneers on that expansive road encountered on their difficult journeys.

Rinker Buck, author of the new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, discovered that the last crossing of the trail had been in 1909. He decided then that he wanted to tell the story of the trail. He saw the gap between the story he had learned as a child, what the real story was then and the realities of the country now. The author also decided that he would traverse the trail himself in a covered wagon. Although he’d grown up on a horse farm and during his childhood had traveled with his family in a similar fashion, he wasn’t entirely sure how practical the journey was. But he and his brother set out anyway.

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“There were times when I felt like, ‘Wow! I’m someone who is way off his medications.’ It was a dream, and I knew I could plod the mules along every day and make my 20-25 miles. But the disparity was that you get out there and realize that it’s sometimes 50 or 60 miles along this very dusty trail in Nebraska and very hot Wyoming before you find water,” he says. “The mules were sometimes more cantankerous than I expected. If we’d known all those things that would make it difficult, if we knew the perils of the trip, my brother and I probably never would have left.”

Early on in the research process Buck knew that he would need someone to help him along the trail and decided to invite his brother Nicholas. Despite coming from the same bloodline, the two men are in many ways remarkably different. Taking the journey together despite those differences is one of the plotlines that thoroughly enhances the book.

“My brother Nicholas is an excellent horseman,” Buck says. “He can fix anything, he’s very, very rugged and wants to push ahead every day. He’s very profane and so forth. I’m a little more refined, college-educated; I was the one who knew all the maps and all the history and that sort of thing. What I learned on the trip was that I just had to suppress my character as much as possible. Good management, good leadership, being sort of trail boss of the trip was not really not asserting myself as much as I might have in another situation.”

The 2200-mile trail begins on the Great Plains and runs west, through Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming before finally ending in the state that shares its name. Buck found that there were disappearing strands of history along the trail. More than once he notes that practices were adopted on the trail for reasons that cannot be explained through history books. Changes occurred, but the people behind those changes left little or no documentation as to why. This too became one of the more fascinating elements of the story for its author.

“I think the unanswered questions of history, the ones you can’t securely answer, are a lot more interesting than the ones where we feel we know the answer,” Buck adds. “For instance, I have long chapters in the book about the history of the mule and the history of the covered wagon. We actually know very little about the exact provenance of the covered wagon. It was not recorded at the time because everybody had a farm wagon and it was literally the farm wagon on the plains that was adapted for use, that became the prairie schooner, to cross the plains to the frontier. But no one bothered to record it in much the same way that people today probably don’t know the history of the computer and how it occurred because you’re just using it every day. In the development of the wagon for instance we don’t really know when brakes were added, we don’t really know who developed the hoops and the canvas top and that sort of thing. It was just something that happened over time.”

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Author Rinker Buck

Buck admits that seeing the country from a covered wagon—moving at a pace much slower than the average person is used to—had a weighty emotional impact.

“The emotions are much stronger because you’re surrounded in a sensate way, in an environmental way by the actual sights and smells and the taste of the dust. If you first see the mountains of Colorado or Mount Hood from a speeding car, you’re going along at 60 or 70 miles per hour, it might be a hot summer day, the air conditioner is on, somebody else is probably in the car, the radio is on or whatever,” he says. “You’re in this isolated cocoon and you don’t really experience all of the elements, all of the sensations of nature. In a covered wagon, every blade of grass jumps up at you and you can smell it as well as see it. There’s dust. There’s heat. The wind is extraordinary. I learned on this trip how physically exhausting and soporific the wind can be. We went through wildflower fields where the fragrances were so strong that it was almost intoxicating. The scents of the sagebrush on the high plains—it’s this mixture of sort of cinnamon and moth balls. Because you’re moving so slow and because you’re sitting out in the open air you are embracing nature, you are surrounded by nature in a way that you would never be in a speeding car.”

The list of things that surprised Buck as he made his journey in 2011 and meditated upon American myths is long and varied and he’s quick to point out that many people today might be surprised at the role that the government played in encouraging the pioneer spirit when the Oregon Trail was the interstate of the west.

“We teach in the schools, probably incorrectly, that rugged individualism is what created America. Well, there really was a lot of government help. Most of the cutoffs were built by the government, the U.S. Army, as soon as the trail began to be passed by thousands of immigrants every year built forts,” he says. “So it’s important to understand what your country really is as opposed to the myths you were passed down in an eighth-grade sociology class.”

Rinker Buck reads from The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey this evening at Watermark Books.