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The Oregon Trail: A new American Journey
by Rinker Buck (Simon & Schuster)

AUTHOR RINKER BUCK DESCRIBES himself as a “divorced boozehound with a bad driving record and emerging symptoms of low self-esteem.” His brother, Nick, is a former ski instructor, part-time actor and carpenter. In the first pages of his book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Buck (rightfully) wonders why two middle-aged men decided to spend four months, side by side, on a butt-breaking wooden seat maneuvering a covered wagon, pulled by three mules, from Missouri to Oregon.

His audacious plan was to follow as closely as possible the old Oregon Trail, the 2,000-mile route by which thousands of American settlers migrated west in the 1840s and 1850s. As Buck notes, “Naiveté is the mother of adventure.”

Readers can be glad the two men went to the trouble, as The Oregon Trail is early American history packaged as an entertaining travelogue. Buck extensively researched the history of the Oregon Trail, which, he writes, was “originally called the Platte River Road and was a main fur-trapping route to the Rockies that passed through the Arapaho & Sioux tribal lands in western Nebraska.” It wasn’t just one distinct route but veered off in different directions, depending on the destination of the homesteaders, becoming, for example, the California Trail for those wishing to head south and toward the coast.

According to Buck, “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 stretches now preserved as a National Historic Trail. Except for two bad spots of suburban sprawl around Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Boise, Idaho, most of the trail is still accessible along remote farm and ranch roads.” And that’s the way the brothers trundled through the West. Rinker usually slept in the wagon or on the ground while Nick bunked in barns (with owner permission).

The original trek was arduous and dangerous, of course, what with mountain and river crossings, bad weather and disease. We get a sense of the hardships suffered by the settlers because the Bucks experienced a few themselves during their summer sojourn, including bad storms, the daily feeding and care of the mules, wagon breakdowns in the middle of nowhere and getting lost. There was no knowing what was around the next bend. Going up and down steep mountain passes with poor braking was risky, but Nick’s driving skills spared the pair from any disasters.

Buck weaves his not-always pretty personal story into the history of the trail, and the trip, and the combination buoys this book. He is not afraid to show the reader his flaws—and when he and his brother finally reach Baker City, Ore., he does not pretend to be a changed man. But the odyssey did have its benefits: “My habitual impatience was suspended to deal with frustration after frustration on the trail…and I indulged in a wonderful summer of romance and grit.” Put the soundtrack to the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove on a music device, and read.

—Clarke C. Jones

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.