Books

Enjoy a modern storyteller’s covered-wagon adventure out West

What was a bad year for travel writer Rinker Buck serendipitously became the impetus for a wonderful book for us history buffs. Reeling from the one-two punch of his kids growing up and his marriage ending, Rinker Buck sought his sure-fire cure for all ills — traveling — and decided to re-enact the trip our forefathers undertook on the Oregon Trail.

Initially waffling over the advisability of such an endeavor, he realized it was too late to back down, for, “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.”

His Oregon Trail saga is a fascinating day-by-day narrative that is part travelogue and part autobiography. His insatiable curiosity with the past provided the parameters for re-enacting as closely as possible the pioneers’ trip. And so, on a young Kansas morning, Rinker, his brother, Nick, and Nick’s “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl, set out to spend four months covering 2,000 miles, to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Rinker is no stranger to a peripatetic lifestyle, having caught the wandering bug at age 11, the year he and his siblings accompanied their father on a “see America slowly” vacation via donkey cart. He recounts, “Because of my memorable summer as a child riding in a converted covered wagon in Jersey, ‘Travel became my endorphin.’ ”

Buck’s entertaining and colorful writing will make you laugh out loud as the brothers drive each other crazy with their idiosyncrasies. They each brought skills necessary to their trip’s success, although it was apparent they each counted the other’s contribution less important than his own.

Along the way you’ll meet the people responsible for maintaining the Oregon Trail for future generations — the open-hearted ranchers who offered accommodations and respite from the jarring ride — and enjoy the offerings of small-town America. You’ll also become reacquainted with names from long-ago history lessons such as Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, the Pony Express and Chimney Rock. The logistics required to plan and carry out a trip of this magnitude were fascinating.

His knowledge of history and research is incredible, and he arms us with ammo like this for the next round of Trivial Pursuit: most travelers heading west in the 1800s used donkeys, not oxen, to pull their wagons; the trail saw more than 400,000 people in the second half of the 1800s; and Boise has the dubious honor of being one of two places whose urban growth has almost obliterated the Oregon Trail.

Buck’s passion for history is evident and lends readability to his wisdom that would be envied by other writers of history. Don’t be put off by the length, it will not drag, and, too soon, you’ll be turning the last page.

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