Mule days Rinker Buck re­counts his cov­ered-wagon jour­ney across the coun­try in

The Ore­gon Trail: A New Amer­i­can Jour­ney

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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

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