Rinker Buck’s “The Oregon Trail” is a rollicking account of the author’s 2010 trek across the country, retracing the steps of the Oregon Trail pioneers. Buck will appear Tuesday July 28 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘The Oregon Trail: An American Journey’
by Rinker Buck
Simon & Schuster, 450 pp., $30
First there was de Tocqueville, trekking a newborn land. Later came Steinbeck, Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon, famously describing their own journeys around the country. And now comes Rinker Buck with his own westward-ho version of same, “The Oregon Trail: An American Journey.”
The straight-ahead title scarcely does justice to this rollicking good read, a book that’s as much fun as the Brothers Buck seem to be as they travel from Missouri to Oregon by covered wagon.
During the summer of 2010, Buck and his brother Nick, an accomplished horseman and mechanical wizard, retraced the steps of the pioneers and another latter-day trail blazer, Ezra Meeker, who came up with the idea for the “Meeker Markers” that can be found all along the route.
The author of “The Oregon Trail” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday July 28 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The book is an exercise in self-discovery and an overstuffed suitcase of information that packs in pioneer history, the mechanics of pioneer travel (harnesses, wagons and the critters to pull them), a sense of the landscape, contemporary American culture and the particular dynamics of one family, the Bucks, who are a story unto themselves.
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The inspiration for the trip was the inventive summer vacation Buck’s father, an impresario of the first order, organized when Buck was a boy, taking the family by covered wagon from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. But that was a walk in the park compared to the four months the author spent traversing the Oregon Trail — a route of “broad, maddening vagueness” that stretches over 2,000 miles through the vast and often unforgiving West.
This was the same path that hundreds of thousands of people — Buck’s estimate is 400,000 — followed during the 15 years before the Civil War. Their story comes alive in these pages as we learn about them, their reasons for taking the Trail (financial desperation, religious freedom) and the immense commercial enterprise their exodus produced.
It was a definitive event, Buck tells us, a release valve for ethnic tensions and a move that helped establish the American character as individualistic, resourceful and tough in adversity — all qualities that Buck and his brother required to conquer what is at some points a fast-moving freight corridor and at others an isolated obstacle course through the Rocky Mountains.
On the interstates, he faced the hazards of Winnebago drivers (“himbos”) who pulled alongside with cameras clicking, potentially spooking the four-footed engines. In the mountains and high desert, where cellphone service is spotty, he encountered the same deadly perils as the pioneers: the potential of getting lost or running out of water.
To prepare for his quixotic quest, Buck invested $30,000 in equipment, including the cost of three mules and a smaller wagon that was pulled behind the main one to hold more provisions. But his most valuable asset, both from a practical and writerly point of view, was his brother, who served as a robust, profane and colorful Falstaff to a self-doubting prince.
“Boss, chill,” Nick advises in one of his more printable moments. The author, meanwhile, describes himself as “cautious, skittish, cerebral.”
But that self-description may be relative. The book’s strength is Buck’s superlative ability as a taleteller (trail-teller?). Its weakness is Buck’s use of superlatives that challenge credulity, such as his claim that the pioneers created “the largest single land migration in history.”
He suggests that he’s the first since Ezra Meeker in 1910 to retrace the pioneers’ route by covered wagon, when in fact there was a 1993 caravan that made the trip, according to press reports and the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Mo. Buck’s exuberance exceeds his scholarship, but — based on how he describes the raucous, creative family from which he springs — he comes by it naturally.
And so: Ride ’em, cowhands, this book is a keeper. Observant, conversational and often funny, “The Oregon Trail” makes for a satisfying trip.