The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.
Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.
Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”
Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.
But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”
Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”
I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.
Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.
After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.
RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”
An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)
Her writings were published and “created a sensation… even as far away as London.” She wrote of an honest love growing between her and her husband, which helped make her popular. Even before starting the trek, she had ridden horses sidesaddle, a “potent” image of freedom for women in the 1800s. An “endlessly repeated” passage from her writings was:
“It is astonishing how well we get along with our wagon where there are no roads… easier traveling here than on any turnpike in the States… Our manner of living is far preferable… I was never so contented and happy… Neither have I ever enjoyed such health.”
So early in the westward movement, their encounters with Native Americans were “invariably friendly.” Indian children helped them get wagons and mules across rivers and “young braves completed fiercely to be on the team that carried the white woman across to the far banks.”
There was trouble, of course – broken axles, fierce winds that lasted for days, and abandoned gear. Buck describes leaving four bags of excess supplies from his own trip on the steps of a church – hoping the duplicate coats, pots, and other “prissy” paraphernalia would contribute to their next rummage sale. This paralleled the pioneers, who marked the way to Oregon with a linear dump of debris. Merchants at starting-towns in Kansas even sent wagons after a pioneer group to collect, haul back, and resell the supplies they quickly abandoned along the trail! One pioneer wrote that instead of washing his clothes, he simply chose new items from the endless supply along the way.
The Mormons were a significant group on the old Oregon Trail with both successful and disastrous companies making the crossing to Utah. Mormon interest in their history continues today and overshadows other historical groups. “Today, there are about five times as many Mormons reenacting the trail every year in Wyoming as there were… in the 1850s,” camping on land purchased by the church or leased from the federal government. Many of the traditional place names have been replaced with the Mormon-preferred names.
Today’s trail is sometimes marked by adversity. Buck noticed, on dirt roads in rural areas, children who came from scattered homes to feed carrots to the mules, were living with grandparents. “‘You’re going to find a lot of families like ours,'” one man told him. “‘It’s meth. Meth and the recession…’ Dealers prey particularly hard in high schools and community colleges.” The increase in grandparents raising their children’s children is confirmed by census data.
But there are also times when they rested for a day or two at the public campground and corrals common in small rural towns and created a community festival with their presence. Buck didn’t think a trip to Wal-mart would ruin the spirit of his trip.
The Oregon Trail is a Best Seller on Amazon with hundreds of reviews averaging four stars. Buck hits the right balance of history and personal experience for his readers. As you can tell from this lengthy report, the book is chock full of stories and history. Take your time and enjoy.