Mule days Rinker Buck recounts his covered-wagon journey across the country in
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
The last documented year a team of riders and mules crossed the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon was 1909. A century later, writer and explorer Rinker Buck learned the astonishing fact that nearly the entirety of the historic pioneer trail remains passable. So in June 2011, Buck and his brother Nick, well into their sixties, took it upon themselves to hitch a team of Percheron mules to a restored 19th-century covered wagon, with which they would spend the next four months navigating the 2,100-mile long passage from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast. (Though to be fair, the brothers’ journey spanned from Kansas to Baker City in Eastern Oregon, where exhaustion and falling autumn temperatures cut their journey short.)
“I’ve always been interested in the Oregon Trail. I wanted to be able to tell its history from the perspective of someone actually riding the trail,” Buck told
Pasatiempo in a phone interview. The story of the Buck brothers’ journey and the larger history of the Oregon Trail are told in The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey (Simon & Schuster). Released earlier this year, the travelogue and historical yarn spent several weeks atop the
New York Times best-seller list. Buck will read from the book and talk more about his unusual pilgrimage on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St.).
On his journey, Buck was accompanied by his brother Nick, a skilled horseman with experience leading a team of draft mules. As outlandish as their journey may have been, it was not the first time Buck had embarked on an arduous voyage with a sibling. Buck’s 1997 book, Flight of Passage: A
Memoir (Hachette), looks back to 1966, when Buck and his brother Kern, having learned to fly from their father, became the youngest pilot duo to fly across America, swooping from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub they restored themselves. Nor was the Oregon Trail the first time the brothers traveled by covered wagon. When they were young boys in 1958, their father led the family on a horse-drawn covered wagon trip across the far length of Pennsylvania. As their hand-painted sign on the wagon read, the father wanted the boys to “see America slowly.”
Clearly, it’s a vision of life that both brothers continue to realize, even at an age when most others have settled into retirement. “The childhood wagon trip was the kind of thing you don’t forget. It stays with you,” said Buck.
That early trip ignited Buck’s lifelong passion for American history as it was experienced by everyday people. “In a way, the book is my own work of revisionist history,” he said. “I became really interested in the Oregon Trail as actual history, not the book one. We don’t teach kids real history — how life was really experienced.”
Though the trail remains accessible, the landscape has changed considerably. Many of the wagon-rut roads have since been repurposed into paved roads
and highways. In revisiting the historic passage, Buck estimates that 60 percent of their journey followed paved roads, while the remainder involved driving mules down dirt paths and stretches of desert wilderness largely unchanged since the heyday of the trail in the 1850s.
Making their way down steep inclines with a mule team was taxing; the brothers had to constantly employ and adjust a trailer brake to make sure the weight of the wagon did not overpower the animals. Just to meet basic needs, the wagon had to carry more than 100 pounds of grain, several bales of hay and as many gallons of water as the wagon could stand. Repairing wheel axles was a weekly, if not daily, task.
“It made me rethink what are the simplest things in life,” Buck said. “Just to find water once, we had to go 45 miles pushing mules across the desert.”
The two brothers set off with modern conveniences such as GPS, flashlights, fresh fruit, and vege-abandoned tables. But they soon their digital maps, the flashlights quickly broke from the constant bouncing, and to a pair of men exhausted after a day’s travel, cans of chili heated over a burner proved more convenient than chopping and cooking. “At one point, my brother and I looked at each other and said, ‘No one would do this if they didn’t have to,’ ” Buck said.
The author said his personal experience demolished a popular notion held by some historians — that Oregon Trail riders were enacting some Manifest Destiny impulse to make sure the United States was spread sea to sea. “The reality was, in the 1830s, America was broke. Half the banks had failed, and the country fell into a depression that lasted 10 years,” Buck said. “Baptists were splintering, people were leaving the Episcopalian church to attend more evangelical-like services. There were these religious battles that got really vicious in small towns. And they were all fights over minor doctrinal issues like how to baptize.”
Broke and beset by schisms, these migrants would even carry their religious battles on the road. “You would read their journals, and there’s entries from a single sect of Baptists on the trail who have been traveling all day, tired and thirsty,” Buck said. “But they reach a camp at night and travel more miles just so they don’t have to camp next to Methodists.”
The Oregon Trail also jump-started economic development in a country racked by economic depression. According to Rinker’s research, Sears, Studebaker, and John Deere all have their origins as wagon builders whose primary customer base came from the 400,000 settlers who used the trail to settle the West in the two decades before the Civil War.
Unlike the original settlers, Buck and his brother did not have to contend with diseases like typhoid and dysentery. His book also recounts how so many travelers met their end, being crushed beneath wagon wheels and drowning in rivers. It was not uncommon for migrants widowed on the trail to meet others and remarry, often in group ceremonies, by the time they reached Oregon. So the lessons Buck learned from his unusual journey were not just historical; they also came from developing a personal attitude toward life and change that is increasingly lost to history.
“We pushed mules almost two thousand miles to learn something more important,” writes Buck in The Oregon Trail. “Even more beautiful than the land that we passed, or the months spent camping on the plains, was learning to live with uncertainty.”
The Bucks’ father pulling the family wagon across the Delaware River in 1958; top, the Bucks on U.S. 36 in Maryville, Kansas; all photos courtesy Rinker Buck and Simon & Schuster