Who among us has not suffered the trials of the Oregon Trail? Not the actual Missouri-to-Oregon journey by covered wagon, of course – but rather the ordeal of being tested on our knowledge of the often dry and seemingly obsolete stories of migration and national progress.
Beyond the 8th-grade essays, however, there is a complicated Trail story of pain, adventure, death, cultural conflict, and spiritual struggle, the bones of which still litter the harsh landscape that separates the Midwest from the West Coast.
In the hands of writer Rinker Buck this quintessential American story rushes forth with the raw power of a flooding river. Buck has coupled the tale of the great migration with a contemporary covered wagon journey, undertaken by himself and his irascible, resourceful, often hilarious brother Nick. The author's trip is taken sans the usual fleet of support vehicles and with the help of a skittish three-mule team that is endearingly loyal and effective whenever it's not actively putting everyone's life in danger.
The Oregon Trail attains its considerable narrative power by interweaving pioneer history with Rinker-and-Nick-and-mules interpersonal strife with poignant memories of the author's father, who took his own family on a covered wagon journey through New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1958. Buck cuts from trailside graves to Mormon origin stories to daunting, profoundly physical Trail challenges without skipping a beat – his command of language is strong, his ability to juggle many mutually supportive thoughts stronger still.
This makes "The Oregon Trail" a rare and effective work of history – the trail stories of the Buck brothers bring humor and drama, and the pioneer biographies supply a context that makes every other aspect of the book snap into sharp relief.
Buck's perspective is salty and irreverent. He's not afraid to throw rocks at established Trail legends and shine a bright light on the murder, theft, confusion, culture clashes, and desperation that often marked the passage west. At the same time, he brings in a great many primary and secondary sources to bear on the Trail's story, crafting vignettes of the resourceful (and often tragic) figures who made the trek in the 19th century. There are parallels aplenty between the Buck brothers and the original pioneers: both groups are over-provisioned, under-prepared, and working with untested mules and frustrating machinery against the vast and sometimes treacherous landscape.
The sheer physicality of Buck's wagon trip is the heart of "The Oregon Trail." Many passages – never dull – illustrate the sometimes hair-raising difficulty of maneuvering thousands of pounds of wagon, gear, people, and animals across rugged terrain. Here's Buck maneuvering the wagon down a ridge:
"The mules were even farther below us now, but I didn't dare look forward to judge the slope. I had to lean way out on the brake handle to see the tug chains, and then look straight back for the cart. Brake and release. From nowhere, aspen branches suddenly appeared, whipping my face. I felt a bump from behind and quickly looked back. I had jackknifed the rig with the brake and the right wheel hub of the cart was scraping the cliffs."
The experience of "The Oregon Trail" stands squarely opposite much of what is modern – it's slow travel with poor communication, it places struggle before comfort, and it represents a connection with history rather than a search for the newest of the new. In that sense, you'd think the book would be slow-paced and fusty, but it's really something else: raw, visceral, and often laugh-out-loud funny. For anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing America slowly from the back of a wagon, "The Oregon Trail" is a vicarious thrill.