The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015)
During the summer of 2011 Rinker Buck, his brother Nick, and Nick’s dog Olive Oyl drove a mule-drawn covered wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon. It was the first covered wagon crossing of this historic route since Ezra Meeker’s journey in 1909.
In his book Buck gives readers an adventure story filled with close calls, unexpected encounters with places and people, equipment failures, and tension between the brothers. Less determined and resourceful travelers would certainly have been deterred from completing the journey.
The book is also a fact-filled history of what is probably the greatest land based migration in human history, when 400,000 people made this pilgrimage across what was called the great American desert. Before, during, and after his crossing, Buck immersed himself in literature about the Oregon Trail: journals of the pioneers, modern histories, and descriptions of the trail itself and sites along the way.
Despite their upbringing in suburban New Jersey, the Buck brothers had significant experiences in early life with horses and mules and with their family had made a covered wagon trip into Pennsylvania. Buck’s research, also reported in his book, included literature on the breeding, care, and driving techniques related to mules.
The book describes candidly the complex relations of the two brothers who from childhood through middle age had developed in markedly different ways. Throughout their adult years, they had lived apart, and their relationship was fraught with tension. Although they found ways of living and working together throughout their trip across the plains and mountains of the West—and could never had made the trip without each other—they parted at journey’s end still facing life in different ways but with a new sense of acceptance.
Rink dedicates the book to “Nicholas McMahon Buck, who got us there with rare gumption and skill.”
With these complex and intersecting narratives, The Oregon Trail is a long book. Its narrative drive is fired by the dream that came to Rinker Buck at the restored Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express Station maintained by the Kansas Historical Society. Describing that occasion, he writes about the “preposterous scheme” that he concocted.
“But you can’t save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me. Already, powerful forces were drawing me west. I felt an irresistible urge to forsake my life back east for a rapturous journey across the plains” (p. 8).
Usually when I read a book, I take notes along the way, partly to help remember ideas and insights, partly to use in my ongoing work as religious historian and contemplative cyclist. The Buck brothers’ “new American journey” was too interesting an adventure story for me to break the momentum with note-taking. A second reading will allow me pay more attention to Rink Buck as historian and interpreter of the American journey.
Although Buck is aggressively hostile toward religion and religious practice, his interpretations of the Whitman Mission and Mormon activities in the West are useful additions to the literature about their respective roles in shaping western culture. One of the pages I flagged uses colloquial language to describe the human condition that usually is obscured by traditional religious terminology.
The two brothers are talking about earlier times in their family’s life when things had not gone well, and Rinker reports that “over the next few days, I was occasionally moody” because of this remembered history. Trying to be helpful, Nick declares—in his own crude way—that Rink is fucked up, but not any more than the next guy, and that “nobody ever really recovers from anything.” Then comes a remarkable description of what theologians entitle original sin.
“’You’re probably right,’ I said, to which Nick responded: “There’s no fuckin cure for any of us, Rinker. Get into it dickhead. I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up, okay? Fucked up is normal.” Rinker then adds his reflective response. “Nick was right, I decided. Fucked up is the universal condition of man” (p. 196).
For me, the most surprising aspect of this book is that one person stands out as exemplar of all who made this epic journey across the west: Narcissa Whitman, who lived America’s “national irony to the fullest.” He describes her as the “proud, self-important evangelist from the Finger Lakes, incapable of getting along with the Cayuse,” and as “the brave, adventurous woman galloping sidesaddle up South Pass.” We don’t have to choose between these two identities because “Narcissa Whitman was both” (p. 414).
At the end of the summer, Rinker Buck not only had had a great journey and understood America more clearly, but he was at peace with his past.