The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

3.9 15
by Rinker Buck

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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • #1 Indie Next Pick • Winner of the PEN New England Award

“Enchanting…A book filled with so much love…Long before Oregon, Rinker Buck has convinced us that the best way to see America is from the seat of a covered wagon.” —The Wall Street


#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • #1 Indie Next Pick • Winner of the PEN New England Award

“Enchanting…A book filled with so much love…Long before Oregon, Rinker Buck has convinced us that the best way to see America is from the seat of a covered wagon.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Amazing…A real nonfiction thriller.” —Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books

“Absorbing…Winning…The many layers in The Oregon Trail are linked by Mr. Buck’s voice, which is alert and unpretentious in a manner that put me in mind of Bill Bryson’s comic tone in A Walk in the Woods.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

A major bestseller that has been hailed as a “quintessential American story” (Christian Science Monitor), Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail is an epic account of traveling the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules—that has captivated readers, critics, and booksellers from coast to coast. Simultaneously a majestic journey across the West, a significant work of history, and a moving personal saga, Buck’s chronicle is a “laugh-out-loud masterpiece” (Willamette Week) that “so ensnares the emotions it becomes a tear-jerker at its close” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis) and “will leave you daydreaming and hungry to see this land” (The Boston Globe).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An incredible true story . . . Weaving a tale somewhere between a travelogue and a history lesson, Buck traces the iconic path literally and figuratively as he re-creates the great migration with his brother and a Jack Russell terrier.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Excellent . . . An amazing cross-country journey . . . Rinker and Nick Buck’s conquest of the trail, the achievement of a lifetime, makes for a real nonfiction thriller, an account that keeps you turning the pages because you can’t conceive how the protagonists will make it through the enormous real-life obstacles confronting them.”
—Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books

“Enchanting . . . Interspersed with the story of his westward journey, Mr. Buck entertains and enlightens with discourses on American history and culture. . . . He has delivered us a book filled with so much love—for mules, for his brother, for America itself. . . . Long before Oregon, Rinker Buck has convinced us that the best way to see America is from the seat of a covered wagon.”
—Gregory Crouch, The Wall Street Journal

“Absorbing . . . The many layers in The Oregon Trail are linked by Mr. Buck’s voice, which is alert and unpretentious in a manner that put me in mind of Bill Bryson’s comic tone in A Walk in the Woods. . . . He’s good company on the page, and you root for him. . . . He’s particularly winning on how, as he puts it, ‘the vaudeville of American life was acted out on the trail.’ . . . This shaggy pilgrimage describes a form of happiness sought, and happiness found.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Awe-inspiring . . . Charming, big-hearted, impassioned, and a lot of fun to read . . . If Buck doesn’t quite make you want to hitch up your own wagon, his rapturous account will still leave you daydreaming and hungry to see this land.”
The Boston Globe

“A remarkable saga . . . Thanks to Buck’s utterly engaging voice, infectious enthusiasm, unquenchable curiosity, dogged determination and especially his ability to convey the interaction of two brothers (and three mules), all of whom pull together despite their strong but profoundly different personalities, the saga becomes nothing short of irresistible. . . . This tale of brotherhood, persistence and daring so snares the emotions that it becomes a tear-jerker at its close.”
—Rosemary Herbert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A laugh-out-loud masterpiece . . . Alternately harrowing and exhilarating . . . The book is an unremitting delight.”
Willamette Week

“Interwoven in Buck’s adventure tale is a fascinating history of the development of the trail, its heyday, and the colorful characters that made the journey. . . . Whether their primary interest is American history, adventure travel or a captivating memoir, readers are sure to be delighted by this humorous and entertaining story that allows us to believe that Walter Mitty–like fantasies can indeed come true.”
—Associated Press

“A quintessential American story . . . The Oregon Trail attains its considerable narrative power by interweaving pioneer history with Rinker-and-Nick-and-mules interpersonal strife with poignant memories of the author’s father, who took his own family on a covered wagon journey through New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1958. . . . This makes The Oregon Trail a rare and effective work of history—the trail stories of the Buck brothers bring humor and drama, and the pioneer biographies supply a context that makes every other aspect of the book snap into sharp relief. . . . The experience of The Oregon Trail stands squarely opposite much of what is modern—it’s slow travel with poor communication, it places struggle before comfort, and it represents a connection with history rather than a search for the newest of the new. In that sense, you’d think the book would be slow-paced and fusty, but it’s really something else: raw, visceral, and often laugh-out-loud funny. For anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing America slowly from the back of a wagon, The Oregon Trail is a vicarious thrill.”
—James Norton, Christian Science Monitor

“A trip back in time . . . Buck brings the land to life in a richly researched book that draws heavily from journals kept by the pioneers and their memoirs. . . . His exploration of America and himself is a joy to read.”
USA Today (4 out of 4 stars)

“What a way to spend a summer! Rinker Buck lived the dream of countless red-blooded Americans. . . . The Oregon Trail is must reading for anyone in love with the West.”
—Jules Wagman, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“This book is a keeper. . . . 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. . . . Observant, conversational, and often funny, The Oregon Trail makes for a satisfying trip.”
Seattle Times

“An entertaining and enlightening account of one of America’s most legendary migrations. Even readers who don’t know a horse from a mule will find themselves swept up in this inspiring and masterful tale of perseverance and the pioneer spirit.”
Publishers Weekly

“Astonishing . . . By turns frankly hilarious, historically elucidating, emotionally touching, and deeply informative . . . A crazy whim of a trip on a covered wagon turns into an inspired exploration of American identity.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This smart, endearing book is not just about a picaresque and probably ill-advised adventure; it’s a story about us—who we are and how we came to be that way. As he makes his two thousand-mile pilgrimage by cussed mule across the dusty continent, Rinker Buck finds his way deep into our nation’s DNA.”
—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Americana

“How lucky we are that Rinker Buck and his brother, as stubborn and endearing as the mules they drove, undertook this patently imprudent journey—so the rest of us could sit in our easy chairs and tag along for the wild and woolly ride. Along the way we learn a little about mule breeders, tongue relievers, cholera, cattle guards, and littering, 1850s style—and a lot about the enduring essence of the pioneer spirit. Part Laura Ingalls Wilder, part Jack Kerouac, The Oregon Trail is an idiosyncratic and irresistible addition to the canon of American road-trip literature.”
—George Howe Colt, National Book Award finalist for The Big House

“Buck’s lean prose, historical insight, and penetrating curiosity elevate The Oregon Trail into an instant classic that deserves a place on your bookshelf between Bryson and Horwitz. A master storyteller and dogged reporter, Buck gives substance to an unrelenting wanderlust that is the envy of anyone who has ever dreamed of lighting out for the territories.”
—Bob Drury, coauthor of The Heart of Everything That Is

“Once you start reading this book, you will not want to stop. With wonderful writing, colorful characters, and a deep understanding of history and the human condition, Rinker Buck delivers a richly rewarding portrait of the Oregon Trail, past and present. Using humor and compassion, he creates a compelling, page-turning saga of the American experience.”
—Eric Jay Dolin, author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire and Leviathan

“Romantic . . . Compelling . . . The Oregon trip is fraught with mishaps, near-death experiences, and plain bad luck. But there were also angels along the way helping them get through.”
Library Journal

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…absorbing on shifting levels. Fundamentally, it's an adventure story, one in which the Rink brothers find themselves in some legitimately harrowing situations involving cliffs, rivers, runaway mules and low water supplies in the desert. Mr. Buck is also a capable historian, and he delivers concise primers as he moves along…The many layers in The Oregon Trail are linked by Mr. Buck's voice, which is alert and unpretentious in a manner that put me in mind of Bill Bryson's comic tone in A Walk in the Woods…he's good company on the page, and you root for him. Mr. Buck doesn't oversell what happened out on the trail…But he collects his share of transcendent moments and near disasters, which have more in common than you might imagine. This shaggy pilgrimage describes a form of happiness sought, and happiness found.
The New Yorker
Praise for Flight of Passage:

“This is a funny, cocky gem of a book.”

John Berendt
“Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage is an utterly captivating true-adventure tale and at the same time a winsomely told memoir of a teenager coming to terms with members of his family. I found it absolutely irresistible.”
Hampton Sides
“This smart, endearing book is not just about a picaresque and probably ill-advised adventure; it’s a story about us—who we are and how we came to be that way. As he makes his two thousand-mile pilgrimage by cussed mule across the dusty continent, Rinker Buck finds his way deep into our nation’s DNA.”
The Chicago Sun-Times Henry Kisor
“A terrific book . . . Huckleberry Finn meets The Spirit of St. Louis.”
USA Today Bob Minzenheimer
“My favorite book of the year . . . It reaches beyond its personal story to deal with the terrible beauty of families and with the larger world.”
The Newark Star-Ledger Jack Elliot
“This is more than a flying adventure—it is also a warm, affectionate account of an unusual family, with characters presented as if they were created by a master novelist.”
Bob Drury
“Rinker Buck has a gift most writers would kill for—when he sets out on an adventure, in this case a 2,000-mile covered wagon trip across the West, he takes you with him. Buck’s lean prose, historical insight, and penetrating curiosity elevate The Oregon Trail into an instant classic that deserves a place on your bookshelf between Bryson and Horwitz. A master storyteller and dogged reporter, Buck gives substance to an unrelenting wanderlust that is the envy of anyone who has ever dreamed of lighting out for the territories.”
Library Journal
Award-winning journalist and author Buck (Flight of Passage) has ostensibly written a book about his experiences retrekking the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, MO, to Baker City, OR, in a mule-drawn covered wagon with his brother Nick and Nick's dog Olive Oyl. As romantic as the adventure sounds, this is not a casual summer endeavour—don't try to imitate it. There's a second, parallel story, a description of another covered wagon trip he took at age seven in 1958 with his father and siblings. The family set out from central Jersey across the Delaware River to south central Pennsylvania for a monthlong "see America slowly" expedition. This adventure, tamer than the Oregon one, is now as much a part of Buck as his DNA. The Oregon trip is fraught with mishaps, near-death experiences, and plain bad luck. But there were also angels along the way helping them get through and guiding Jake and the other two mules. The parallel story is, at times, more compelling than the contemporary one, and the book could have been cut by a quarter and still be a solid read. It shouldn't take longer to read the book than to actually cross the Oregon Trail. VERDICT Recommended for folk interested in the Oregon Trail, pioneer history, or mules. [See Prepub Alert, 2/23/15.]—Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-05-06
A crazy whim of a trip on a covered wagon turns into an inspired exploration of American identity. Journalist Buck (Shane Comes Home, 2005, etc.) chronicles his summerlong journey across the "Great American Desert" in a covered wagon, an arduous, astonishing journey that traced the same exodus of more than 400,000 pioneers across the Oregon Trail in the 15 years before the Civil War. The author and his brother had the knowledge and wherewithal to make such an ambitious journey largely because of their upbringing in rural New Jersey, where their father, a Look magazine editor and former pilot, kept horses and wagons and took the family of 11 children on a similar, though shorter, journey into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1958. Once Buck realized he could not manage three mules and a wagon all by himself, he enlisted his big, enormously capable brother, and the two procured the authentic 19th-century Peter Schuttler wagon and three specially bred American mules (each with its own wonderfully eccentric personality) and all the necessary equipment for breakdowns and repairs. The preparations were daunting, and Buck fascinatingly walks readers through all of them, all with an eye to how the early settlers made the actual journey, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley, Oregon: 2,000-plus miles of carefully plotted trail, encompassing high desert and mountains, rivers and shaky bridges, thunderstorms, scant water, and patches of no road. Throughout, the travelers were, by necessity, required to frequently jettison supplies. "See America Slowly" was the theme of the men's boyhood trip, a theme resurrected sweetly for this one. The journey encouraged delighted observers to shelter and feed the men and mules, often in the towns' communal rodeo grounds, and allowed the brothers to reconnect over childhood memories and with the American land they cherished. By turns frankly hilarious, historically elucidating, emotionally touching, and deeply informative.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Oregon Trail

  • I HAD KNOWN LONG BEFORE I rode a covered wagon to Oregon that naïveté was the mother of adventure. I just didn’t understand how much of that I really had. Nicholas and I realized before we left Missouri with the mules that we would be the first wagon travelers in more than a century to make an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail. But that was never the point for us. We pushed mules almost two thousand miles to learn something more important. Even more beautiful than the land that we passed, or the months spent camping on the plains, was learning to live with uncertainty.

    The trip was my idea, and I fell into it in my usual barmy way. A few summers ago, while taking an afternoon off from a story I was working on in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I stopped on the road near a stout granite monument that marked a set of wheel ruts disappearing northwest across the plains.

    Oregon Trail
    Overland Trail
    60 Rod S-E

    Enchanted by the idea that I could step from a modern paved road onto the tracks of the nineteenth-century pioneers—not to mention walk all the way to Oregon—I paused just long enough to grab a water bottle and a brimmed hat from my car and set out along the ruts, heading west. It was a beautiful, breezy day, with sprays of yellow coreopsis blooming above the grasses and meadowlarks bobbing over the hills. The old ruts sloped over several gentle rises, past clumps of cottonwood trees and low shrubs at the watercourses, and handsome timber bridges that crossed two streams. The expansiveness of the landscape was hypnotic and physically exhilarating, and after the first mile I felt as if I were levitating on the plains. The distant hills of Nebraska seemed to draw my vision hundreds of miles away.

    A few miles up I stopped to admire the view after climbing a steep rise. The valley below was one of those dreamy western vistas out of an Albert Bierstadt painting—a U-shaped canyon framed on one side by a large stream and on the other by green and brown hills. In the middle, a tidy group of shingled rooftops glowed orange in the sun, surrounded by browsing cattle. I walked down to the stream, where a sign announced that I had reached the old Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station along the Oregon Trail.

    The restored ranch and Pony Express station are maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society, and at the interpretive center there, built near a modern parking lot, I learned about the place. Gerat Hollenberg was a German immigrant who had first crossed the Oregon Trail during the 1849 California Gold Rush. He made a small fortune in the northern California gold fields, then lost it in a shipwreck off Florida, and was drawn back to Kansas in 1854 by his memories of the beautiful prairie and dreams of founding a business along the busy covered wagon trail he had seen five years before. At the time, marginalized American farmers “westering” for cheap land in the Northwest, religious zealots, and just dreamers in search of adventure were flooding across the Kansas frontier, and in peak years as many as fifty thousand covered wagon immigrants spent the summer crossing the Oregon Trail and its two main tributaries, the California and Mormon trails. Entrepreneurs intent on profiting from this traffic were building a network of “road ranches” along remote stretches of the trail, providing a kind of early log-cabin convenience store for the passing wagons. Hollenberg selected a site along Cottonwood Creek to attract pioneers who needed to water their draft animals and replenish their drinking barrels at the end of their first week crossing the prairie, and apparently he chose well. The trading post and wagon-repair shop he built on the plains—later, his wife added an outdoor kitchen and sold hot meals—were quickly heralded in published trail guides as the last major layover until Fort Kearny in Nebraska, two hundred miles away.

    I was intrigued by one display at the interpretive center, lying flat in a glass case. It was a facsimile reproduction of a journal entry made in May 1850 by an Oregon Trail pioneer from Indiana, Margaret Frink, describing the scene from the rise above the river that I had just left. Today, the Hollenberg Ranch sits on a lonely, deserted spot on the hilly plains, with only the green vastness of the prairie grasses, and the mosaic of yellow and purple flowers climbing the low rises, filling in the view. But Frink’s 1850 journal entry described a starkly different place, a scene that could only be imagined 157 years later, looking out over the empty hills.

    In the afternoon we came to the junction of the emigrant road from St. Joseph with our road. . . . Both roads were thickly crowded with emigrants. It was a grand spectacle when we came, for the first time, in view of the vast migration, slowly winding its way westward over the broad plain. The country was so level we could see the long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles. It appeared to me that none of the population had been left behind. It seemed to me that I had never seen so many human beings before in all my life.

    That was the moment when I first felt the rush of a dream about the Oregon Trail, but the thought quickly passed as I moved on to the other exhibits. They were mostly reproductions of paintings of the Kansas hills during the 1840s and 1850s, when dust billowing up from the wagon trains created a haze all the way to the horizon, collections of old wheel hubs and shards of harness unearthed during archeological digs, and a description of the ranch’s use as a Pony Express station and stagecoach stop in the 1860s.

    The site administrator from the Kansas Historical Society, an elderly man named Duane Durst, stood behind the counter as I walked through the museum entrance. Duane was talkative and obviously lonely, glad to have some company for the afternoon. He was a retired farmer and feed mill manager from the nearby town of Washington, Kansas, who had spent most of his life studying the patchwork of nineteenth-century “feeder trails” in eastern Kansas that led to the beginning of the main Oregon Trail nearby. This network of roads was called the “junction country” of Kansas, and in many spots near Durst’s farm, the remnants of the old wagon ruts are still visible in unplowed pastures and stream crossings. He was exactly the kind of walking database I enjoyed meeting on such a day, and I was quickly drawn in by the details he shared.

    The feeder trails that moved northwest through Kansas and then disappeared beyond the Flint Hills all emptied into the original Platte River Road, as it was initially called, the main fur-trapping route to the Rockies that passed through the Arapaho and Sioux tribal lands in western Nebraska in the 1820s and 1830s. Renamed the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, the route spanned some 2,100 miles from jumping-off towns such as St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, following the great river valleys of the West through five present-day states—Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Unlike the image projected in Hollywood westerns, where covered wagons are pulled by attractive teams of matched Percheron and Belgian horses, oxen and mules were the preferred draft animals, Duane told me. Horses require too much forage and they couldn’t take the heat and the long stretches between reliable sources of water. Many more immigrants were dispatched by shooting accidents and wagon crashes than were killed by Indians, and the river crossings were often treacherous in the spring, costing many pioneers their lives. But by the fall, families regrouped. At major stopovers like Soda Springs in Idaho, or Farewell Bend in eastern Oregon, the long wagon trains paused while partners widowed by the rivers remarried, and the festivities often lasted for three or four days.

    My curiosity was aroused by another detail that Duane shared. Pulling from his wallet a laminated ID card, he told me that he was a twenty-five-year member of the Oregon-California Trails Association, the main preservationist group for the trail. Duane described himself as a “rut nut,” and his commitment to the group was pretty typical. Over the past twenty years he had rescued several Oregon Trail markers and monuments that had been overrun by farming and other development, relocating them closer to traveled roads where they could be seen. He had helped design and build a visitors’ center at the Hollenberg Ranch and created Oregon Trail education programs for local schools. An Oregon-California Trails Association newsletter that Duane gave me described how the group’s volunteer work crews fanned out on summer weekends across broad expanses of the West, restoring mile markers along the trail, checking fence lines for land encroachments, and preserving trail grave sites in Wyoming and Nebraska.

    Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me as I listened to Duane. I am an obsessive-compulsive reader and a history junkie. I brake by rote at every historical marker, I buy out museum bookstores, and for years my interest in colonial forts and Shaker villages so exhausted my two children that they are now permanently allergic to the past. I can tell you, right down to the hour, everything that happened at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first week of July 1863, and each setback that Franklin Roosevelt endured during World War II feels like it happened to me. Frequent summer junkets to Montana and Wyoming had convinced me that I knew a lot about the American West. But now, on a perfect Kansas day, at an exquisite historical site, I was listening to a rut nut empty his brain on the Oregon Trail, and I realized that I didn’t know a thing about it. How could I have missed so much about so iconic an American experience?

    And what Duane told me next seemed even more astonishing. Today, almost the entire 2,100-mile expanse of the Oregon Trail—even where it has been covered over by modern highways or railroad tracks—has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail. Except for two bad stretches of suburban sprawl around Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Boise, Idaho, most of the rest of the trail is still accessible along remote farm and ranch roads in the West. In western Nebraska and central Wyoming, where the trail runs through relatively undisturbed federal lands or immense private ranches, there are still more than six hundred miles of original wagon ruts, just like the path I had hiked that day. The dreamscape chain of natural landmarks and river views that the pioneers saw—Signal Bluff and Chimney Rock along the Platte, Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater, Rendezvous Point at the Green—is all still there, virtually intact.

    When Duane began describing the trail, he handed me a foldout map published by the National Park Service, and I followed along as he spoke. End to end, the map stretched almost four feet across the counter, depicting an immensity of terrain, almost completely devoid of urban development, from the banks of the Missouri River at Kansas City to the end of the Columbia River gorge near the Pacific coast. The colored terrain shadings on the map looked like platters holding a giant smorgasbord of geology—plains, bluffs, high desert, and dramatic river gorges—along the route west. To me, the Oregon Trail had always been just another historic nameplate, like Manassas or Pikes Peak, but now the map in front of me was opening it up like a tableau of the enormous energy of the American experience. The visual prompt of the map was irresistible, and I formed a strong mental image as I looked out through the paned windows to the endless plains beyond the groves of cottonwood trees that curled along the floodplain of the Little Blue River. In my mind’s eye, a dusty two-track trail curved northwest into the mystery of Nebraska, and then disappeared into the snowcapped rim of Wyoming’s Medicine Bows.

    The map, the hypnotic Flint Hills rising and falling all around me, the peaceful surroundings of the ranch, seemed an invitation to ramble. Who wouldn’t, given the chance, want to ride the trail end to end? Wanderlust has always acted like amphetamine for me and I could not prevent my head from making the next leap.

    St. Joe to Farewell Bend in Oregon in a covered wagon. More than two thousand miles of open country to cross. What a dream.

    “So, in other words,” I said to Duane, “somebody could still do it. The whole trail.”

    Duane looked at me quizzically, as if I were asking a question that he’d never heard before. The modern trail, he explained, mostly existed as a tourist attraction. Families driving west in their RVs—headed for Yellowstone or Glacier National Park—stopped out of curiosity when they saw signs identifying Oregon Trail sites. Most of them just wanted to quickly read a brochure and then find the next campsite with a cable TV hookup.

    “But you could do it,” I said. “The trail is still there.”

    “In theory, yeah, I suppose,” Duane said. “But it isn’t going to happen.”

    After poking around the grounds and the Pony Express station for a while, I stepped back inside to say good-bye to Duane, and then hiked back east across the rise. The words of Margaret Frink had stayed with me, and I stopped at the top to look back. It was tempting to look across the hills to Nebraska and imagine long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles, with men hollering at teams, whips cracking, and hundreds of wheels raising dust, while outriders galloped through the grasses to flush up game. At this time of day the river bottoms all the way to Nebraska would be obscured by gray clouds of smoke, as the pioneers stopped their trains for the night and cooked deer steaks and prairie chickens for their evening meal. But the plains were quiet now, the air crystalline. The cedar roofs of the Hollenberg Ranch, lit pink and amber by the falling sun, were all that I could see.

    It was almost dark by the time I got back to my car. Dusk is my favorite part of the day, a time for expansive thoughts, and as I drove south my mind wandered back over the ruts and the vision of a journey that I had seen on a map at the Hollenberg Ranch. I dreamed about it all the way back to Topeka. Buy a team of mules and a covered wagon, jump off from St. Joe, and then spend an endless summer rusticating way out there, revived all day by the clangor of harness chains, the scent of mules sweating, and the vast soulful horizons of the West. I would camp at night at old pioneer stops and Pony Express corrals, soothed by the rushing waters as I fell asleep beside the Sweetwater or the Platte.

    It was a completely lunatic notion. Except for the occasional faux reenactments staged for tourists by Wyoming outfitters—modern-day “pioneers” are trailed by convoys of sumptuously appointed RVs, and pampered at night with portable showers and catered meals—no one traveled more than sixty or seventy miles of the trail today. I would later read, in a history of the trail years and the subsequent homesteading period in the late nineteenth century, that “the last documented crossing of the trail occurred in 1909.” Just to reach my rendezvous with dementia out along the banks of the Missouri River, I would spend two or three days driving west from my home in New England with my gear loaded into a pickup. Then I would spend four months, via covered wagon and mules, crossing what nineteenth-century travelers called the “Great American Desert.” Across the high deserts of central Wyoming and Idaho, I would have to cover stretches of forty miles or more without water. And why did I think that the notorious and often fatal obstacles that the pioneers faced—mountain passes strewn with lava rock, hellacious winds and dust storms, rattlesnakes, and descents so steep that the wagons could only be lowered by ropes—would miraculously vanish from the trail for me? Only a delusional jackass, or someone seriously off his medications, would pull off the road at the Hollenberg Ranch one fine summer afternoon and concoct such a preposterous scheme.

    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.

    •  •  •

    The contagion of rogue travel started early with me. I was raised during the 1950s and early 1960s on a ramshackle old horse farm in New Jersey. My father, a magazine publisher in New York City, was boundlessly energetic and inventive, devoted to what he considered the pressing entertainment needs of his eleven children. While the rest of the country raged over Pontiac tailfins or played golf, we chased around the menagerie that my father had slapped together from a nineteenth-century dairy—barns converted to horse stables, chicken houses and goat pens, a collection of more than twenty-five antique carriages and wagons, and a large stone patio and picnic area set under giant shade maples, where my father entertained the lovable drunks from his local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. We drove to church every Sunday in a four-seat surrey pulled by a team of matched bays, and sleighed into the toy store in town in December to pick up our Christmas presents. On lazy summer nights, my father loved nothing more than loading his children and all of our neighborhood friends—there could be twenty kids or more—into the dilapidated yellow school bus that he had purchased at a junkyard for such outings. Then we drove down to the Dairy Queen in Bernardsville and gorged on ice cream sundaes.

    Over the winter of 1958, brooding in front of his fireplace one night, my father announced that he was bored with the school bus. As a family, he thought, we needed an experience that would draw us together, something that would engender in us the spirit of the American pioneers. I don’t have any idea where this notion came from. But the top-rated American television show that year was NBC’s Wagon Train, starring Ward Bond, and we were all fans. We didn’t consider it outlandish when my father told us that, for our summer vacation, we were going on a covered wagon trip to Pennsylvania. It would be a combined camping and coaching expedition, with stops along the way at historic sites like Valley Forge and Gettysburg that my father wanted his children to see.

    My father had a knack for making the complex seem simple, and we were relaxed about our preparations for the trip. One January weekend that year we drove down to the Pennsylvania Dutch country in Lancaster County and made arrangements with our regular Mennonite wagon builder, Jonas Reif, to convert a large farm wagon with hoops and a canvas top. We bought our draft horses, a team of Percheron-Morgan crosses named Benny and Betty, from Jonas’s son-in-law, Ivan Martin. My father, my older brother, and I spent a few delightful Saturday afternoons that spring banging around the barn with rusty hammers and saws, modifying our rig with racks for cooking pots and pans, hooks for water buckets, and a drop-down chuck wagon table for cooking meals. My father was a former barnstorming pilot and World War II flight instructor who had lost his left leg in a bad air crash in 1946. He stowed his maps for the trip in an old woolen stump sock that he placed underneath the wagon seat. With shoelaces, he hung a compass and a clock from the hoop over the front seat.

    We clattered down our drive early one Saturday morning in July that year, bound for Pennsylvania, and that was a beautiful junket for a father to share with his children. I was seven years old and our covered wagon trip was the dream summer of my youth. In those days New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania were still undeveloped, and we drove down through the green farmlands of Somerset and Hunterdon counties on quiet state highways or dirt roads, camping at dairies and state parks. In the mornings, while the waters of the Delaware or the Schuylkill river gurgled past our campsite, my father would rise at dawn and cook up a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and home fries over a wood fire, while my older brother and I fed and watered the horses. Along the cool, shaded lanes of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, we sang songs together to pass the time, and took turns learning to drive the team. On warm afternoons the bumping of the wheels over gravel roads and the rhythmic clopping of hooves made me sleepy, and I loved stretching out in the back of the wagon and napping on a bale of hay.

  • Meet the Author

    Rinker Buck began his career in journalism at the Berkshire Eagle and was a longtime staff writer for the Hartford Courant. He has written for Vanity Fair, New York, Life, and many other publications, and his work has won PEN New England Award, the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award, and the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award. He is the author of The Oregon Trail as well as the acclaimed memoirs Flight of Passage and First Job. He lives in northwest Connecticut.

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    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
    WesternWrangler 10 months ago
    For history buffs, the book started out promising. Buck is a fine story teller and writer, but practically ruins his work with his rantings and opinions. I loved the history, and delighted in reading it, but was equally disgusted and repelled by being forced to read his rants mixed in. The book details Buck and his brother's recreating the Oregon Trail experience by traversing the trail in a covered wagon, with much help and some tribulations along the way. I found the history of the trail, mules, and wagons very interesting. I didn't find Buck's own introspection, and self analysis and father issues, all that interesting. But, I understand, it was a compelling reason for him to set out on this journey so realize it's necessary to include. It's funny how he talks and talks about his dad, and their issues, but never mentions mom at all. I found his "writing voice" to be condescending, arrogant, and he comes across to me as pompous. He has a very expansive vocabulary, given you have to pause to look up a word meaning every two to three pages, yet he can't seem to write without expressing the "G darn" or "F word" sentiment at least a few times every couple of pages. Some have recommended this book for school age children.. I don't see how, given the extensive language. Sadly, it was totally unnecessary to the telling of the tale. Buck also can't help but express his ingratiating political views at every opportunity. Some of these opinions, he even wrongly expresses as facts. I'm ok with an occasional opinion or statement but his are to excess, and please refrain from expressing them as facts, when they are but opinion. He rants and raves about others as well. If you've ever watched FOX news, driven an RV, taken a picture, served in the military, watch TV, are, heaven forbid a law enforcement officer (he has particular disdain for them), of Christian, believe in a higher being, or are Mormon, (another very sore spot with Buck) then at some point you come under his fire, as one who is causing all the ills of the world, or at least of Buck's world. He shares his disdain of conservatives, and then proceeds to embark on a two thousand mile journey through predominantly conservative areas with the idea he will seek their help and indeed rely on their hospitality to complete his journey! For example, in one instance, he blasts cops, and then a few pages later admits that one saved his behind! I almost quit reading at several points because I was becoming so disgusted. Not with the history, not with the journey, but with the author's opinions and rantings. Indeed take them out of the book, and you'd probably cut it in half. But, I stuck it out to the end. It was gratifying to know they made it to Oregon (it's debatable as to whether they actually completed the trail, since the trail had no definitive ending point), but the ending felt kind of forced. Almost like well I've written 300+ pages so need to wrap up. The end. That's what if kind of felt like to me. He concentrates much more on Kansas and Nebraska than the rest of the trail. I was troubled he wrote a historical book, yet seemed to seldom credit others. In fact for a historical, non-fiction book, one would expect some type of bibliography. He does touch on some of his sources in his acknowledgments, but there isn't any definitive bibliography, as one might expect. Bottom line, I liked the history parts, but can't get past the author to recommend reading the book.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    It held my attention and the writer close to D,McCollough in his ability to tell a great story. I believe this should be on every high school reading list. And I promise you will really will think it is worth every penny spent. Can't wait to hear you agree!
    MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
    I should be upfront and say that this review of “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey” may be skewed because the author, Rinker Buck, did something in writing it that I have always wanted to do. He took a piece of history, researched it, and then set out to live it. This is basically a historian’s dream. There are actually two parts to the book: the journey itself and the history of the Oregon Trail. I’ll begin with the journey. The time and effort Mr. Buck took in researching and developing his plans for the trip are astounding. Quite a bit of time went into planning the journey to avoid modern civilization as much as possible, and even the wagon was purchased in Missouri and authentic. The author has a true way with words. The descriptions of the scenery along the way are breathtaking, and the stories of what happens along the way make you feel as if you are riding along shotgun. Conversations with his brother add a very real familial element to it all. The only downside is it can drag a bit at times, but then again, I’m sure the journey did as well. The second part of the book is the history of the original Oregon Trail, and as I said above, it is thoroughly researched. This part could have stood on its own and still been a fascinating read. None of it is dry, as some history books tend to be, so it is actually perfectly suited for someone who wants to sneak in a little actual American History with a good story. Sort of the way you can trick kids into eating peas by pureeing them and dumping them into something better. (Not that I myself have an aversion to peas or history.) “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey” is an excellent book from both a historical and an autobiographical standpoint, but it’s more than that. It’s a good and entertaining story for high schoolers and up. Even those who don’t like nonfiction or history will like this one. This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
    Anonymous 6 months ago
    This book was informative and interesting, however Rinker Buck's characterizations of RVers and law enforcement was both vile and uneccessary. That part of his storytelling just about ruined the book for me.
    Anonymous 4 months ago
    If you want to learn about a modern adventure involving history and life this is a great true story.
    Anonymous 10 months ago
    Ive learned about the oregon trail in school but is it good
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    LET 'ER BUCK, RINK! Too many of these stories would be just telling it like a travel log. This book isn't about that at all. You've got the story of disappearing American history here, told against the back drop of the tale of 2 brothers. Certainly enough meat to chew off the bone all the way across our nation. Told wonderfully. Faultlessly researched. One comes away wishing for more of a national monument for this treasure, but, such is progress, much of it is already gone. It leaves you a little sad, but, you know, it's good to think of all the cowboys still around!!
    YoyoMitch More than 1 year ago
    The day Rinker Buck stopped in the Flint Hills of Kansas to read a trail marker about the Oregon Trail was a definitive moment. In less than a year, he would begin a journey to travel entire 2000 miles of the trail, from St. Joe, Missouri to Farewell Bend, Oregon in a covered wagon; the first time in a century that such a wagon had traveled that route. This particular model of wagon as a restored Schuttler Wagon pulled by three mules (Jake, Bute, Beck); Mr. Buck, his brother, Nick and Nick’s Jack Russell Terrier, Olive Oyl, take the journey every boy (and many girls, I am sure) dreams of – four months of camping, few showers, eating the things your mother would forbid and discovering that history really did “happen.” Along with experiencing the fun of this adventure, the waggoneers had the thrill of: broken axle 40-miles from the nearest town, a wagon wreck that led to the loss of their water, their mules running away. By their arrival at the ¬¬¬¬“jumping off place" the Buck brothers had traveled like true pioneers and both were then reluctant to leave the trail. The author is a self-avowed “over-preparer,” he spent the year leading up to the trip reading the journals of the 19th Century travelers of the trail. Much of the book is his giving the background he discovered in that research. From the wagons used (“Prairie Schooners” are the things of movie lore), to the mules (George Washington was the first to develop “American” mules), to The Trail (actually many different trails leading the same direction) and a wealth of other history is included in this reflective, often exciting, frequently comical memoir. In lesser hands, this could be dry, “over factual” and boring, Mr. Buck causes these particulars to breathe life into what he, Nick, Olive Oyl and the reader are getting see and experience from the seat of a wagon. It is the kind of book I had difficulty putting down and when I was not reading it, I was thinking about what I have read. As he traveled, Mr. Buck appeared to be working out some issues with his (deceased) father. Many of his musings about his reflections (of his father, life and his living) are angry; some are comforting all were astonishingly transparent. He considers are religion, his “getting” religion when he needs it (although he reports seeing any need for religion to exist), and police officers among other moments that are not as intense as these as he allows The Trail heal him. The language these brothers use toward each other is not gentle or used in polite society while being the kind of speech only siblings that deeply love each other use and still be friends. There were moments in this book that I could feel the jolts of the wagon. Their crossing of California Hill is one of the most nerve-racking events I have read. The tedium, precise movements of the mules required to summit the hill, the knowledge that the some of the wagon wheels were dry rotted as were some of the wheels used a century earlier (“we were just like the pioneers traveling in the 1800’s”) as they climbed the rocky, historically deadly, hill caused my heart to race. Their journey down that same hill was even more cause for apprehension. California Hill is but one of the exciting events they encountered. They met a lot of people who became their
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Awesome!!! I also like cows.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Name:Jesse Age:15 Side:LIGHT
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Got the book. Still reading My husbands grandmother first time I met her. Told me the most wonderful story of her peeking out the back of her parents covered wagon. She must have been very small cos she was very old when I heard the story over 30 years ago.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Love it but reviews uh
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    YES!I want to be in!My name's Foxface,and tell me if you need my rp bio!~Foxface