This entertaining, often enthralling, mix of history, humor, travelogue, family memoir, and no holds barred social commentary reminds me of my favorite Bill Bryson books–especially A Walk in the Woods about Bryson’s (mis)adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail. When Rinker Buck discovered that large stretches of the Oregon Trail still exist, he had romantic visions of a back to basics journey across the western half of the continent and began obsessively and meticulously preparing for a mule-drawn covered wagon trip along the old pioneer route. Since he was divorced and his daughters were grown, why not? Rinker planned to go solo, but even replica wagons have breakdowns, so fortunately for both him and his readers Rinker’s handy, force of nature brother insisted on coming along too–a brusque, big-hearted, syntax challenged, mechanically gifted giant of a man who has some resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hagrid.
Rinker blends the fascinating if fraught history of the mass migration westward into the story of his own journey. Pioneer journals were his guides, and the sections devoted to their lively accounts of trail travel were some of my favorite parts of the book. Rinker also writes movingly about his father, an adventurous, family-centered man who inspired his trip. I found the chapter about the surprising (to me) importance role of mules in 18th and 19th century America–starting with George Washington as a savvy land speculating donkey importer and mule broker–utterly captivating, and it’s a good example of the atypical historical perspectives and insights that make this book so riveting.
But The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is as much about the modern day West and its people as it is about the past, and as an Easterner I learned a lot–Rinker, his brother, and their mule team often spent their nights in open publicly maintained corrals where teenagers gather to hang out and practice rodeo skills, not something we encounter here in the Boston to Washington megalopolis. The writing about the actual trip is detailed but evocative, so I felt like I was watching the scenery and riding along in the covered wagon myself. I wasn’t quite so interested in the wagon maintenance aspects of their journey, but I’m sure those sections will delight some readers.