Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

I’ve wanted to read this book for months – actually for over a year now.  I first spotted the hardcover at the physical Amazon bookstore in the University Village here in Seattle, but it was too pricey for my budget, so I reserved it at the library.  It was taking so long to work its way through the reserve list that I gave up on it.  Then I found and bought a used copy at the annual Friends of the Library book sale.

When I first started reading it, several things reminded me of the travel memoir A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  First of all, both books deal with long journeys along historic trails. Bryson attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and Buck decides to retrace the Oregon Trail that the pioneers used to settle the west from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, using a team of three mules and a covered wagon.  Secondly, both authors have sidekicks that add comic relief to their adventures.  Bryson has his friend Stephen Katz, an overweight recovering alcoholic who “looks like Orson Wells on a bad day.” Buck has his brother Nick, a boisterous, foul-mouthed recovering alcoholic who is nevertheless congenial and endearing.  Both books intersperse the modern exploits of their characters with extended researched sections describing the places they are going through and their history.  Finally, both books chronicle multiple misadventures as the authors find out that their travels don’t exactly work out how they thought they would in the planning stages.

Admittedly, Buck’s journey is much more ambitious than Bryson’s.  Bryson merely had to pick up some camping equipment and food and set out hiking.  He was out of shape and had to adapt to the rigors of the trail, sure, but it’s a fairly simple process to continue to put one foot in front of the other.  Bryson, in fact, eventually is forced to compromise; he does not walk the entire trail, but at a certain point abandons his vision and merely drives in and walks the trail at various spots.  Buck, on the other hand, puts together an elaborate setup of three mules, a covered wagon, and a pup-wagon he has custom-made to follow behind and carry extra supplies.  He has to constantly study multiple maps and adjust his course, as the modern Oregon Trail is beset with obstacles such as fences across private land and interstate highways.  Despite all of the difficulties and problems they encounter, Buck and his brother persevere and make it all the way to Oregon – an extraordinary feat.

The book is very entertaining; it kept my interest throughout.  It’s full of fascinating information and anecdotes.  The descriptions of the arguments and reconciliations between Buck and his brother Nick, as well as Buck’s reminiscences about his wagon travels as a child with his father, add depth to the narrative.

As I read, I found myself recalling my own travels around the world that I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  I also took off on the road to fulfill a personal vision.  However, the comparison breaks down early.  I left almost broke, hitchhiking and taking odd jobs along the way for pocket money. Buck, on the other hand, invested a great deal of money in his rig and the mules before he ever started, and had an endless supply of finances to make repairs and buy supplies as they went along.  That’s one thing that occurred to me: the original pioneers may have been poor struggling farmers seeking opportunities in the west, but following the Oregon Trail in modern times is a rich man’s game.  You have to have a lot of disposable income to make it work.

Still, I’m thankful that Rinker and Nick Buck made the trip so that I can follow along vicariously.  It’s not the sort of trip that I would make, at least not by covered wagon.  I can imagine myself following the route in a camper, perhaps, but that’s a completely different sort of journey.  Back in my hippy traveling days, I was young and strong and I could endure almost anything.  Now, I move more slowly and have to pace myself.  Books like this allow me to accompany others on exciting adventures that I would otherwise be unable to undertake.

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