More than 150 years ago, thousands of settlers set off across the American west, traveling in wagons and carts from Missouri to Oregon. This migration is one of the pillars of the American story (if you’re white) and is still used as a byword for endurance. In, 2011, Rinker Buck decided to do what the pioneers did so many years ago. He would, with his brother, Nick, travel with a team of mules and a wagon along the more than 2,000 mile path the pioneers blazed. The Oregon Trail documents their journey: the highs and lows, the accidents, the people they met, and Rinker’s meditations on American history and culture.
Each chapter of The Oregon Trail sees them advancing, day by day, across as much of the original trail as they could find. Nick and Rinker are an odd couple, even though they’re brothers. Rinker is a control freak who occasionally gets into trouble because of his overthinking. He often describes himself as a classic trail greenhorn. Nick is a mechanical genius who tends to just give things a try, despite the risk. Rinker includes several of their fights in a striking move of emotional honesty. In spite of those fights, they are a great team. Rinker has plenty of book learning to help them navigate their way across the sprawling trail, while Nick is a gifted mule-skinner (mule driver) who keeps the wagon rolling in spite of the hard trail. Rinker also devotes plenty of time to talking about their three mules, who we get to know almost as well as the Buck boys.
The history lessons start right from the beginning of the book with the story of Narcissa Whitman and her husband, who were the first known white settlers to make it to Oregon in a wagon. Buck often quotes from pioneer journals to illustrate the hardships of the train and the mindset of people who would pack everything they own into a wagon (possibly sold to them by hucksters), hitch said wagon to a team and travel far away from everything they knew. Buck gives time (if not equal time) to the Native Americans who already lived there, shares his dislike of Mormons, fumes about parts of the trail lost to development, and waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of the little-visited parts of the trail that he and his brother travel over.
My first memories of the Oregon Trail came straight from the old Apple II game, in green and black. As I listened to Buck narrate his book, I often had little flashes of memory about members of my party dying of dysentery or trying to shoot squirrels with pixels. Now that I’ve experienced Rinker and Nick’s Oregon Trail, I feel like I’ve come to know the trail a lot better. Reading the history gives us the facts, but hearing about Rinker and Nick hurtling down hills or looking for water for their lively team of mules makes the whole journey seem that much more tangible to the imagination. I’m very glad I picked it up–though I wish I’d read it instead of listening to it. Buck reads his own book with an odd, staccato cadence reminiscent of Christopher Walken. It was weird.