A few years ago I discovered that I am what is called a “rut nut.” I had known for a long time that the ruts of long-abandoned trails and historic highways fascinate me. In western North Dakota, at the grassy, overgrown rise where Fort Union, a fur-trading fort near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, used to stand, I had walked the rut of the short trail that once led from the vanished fort’s front gate down to the former shoreline where the steamboats had docked. That short rut excited my imagination more than the whole immense reconstructed fort that later went up (erasing the rut) on the site.
In Siberia I found horizon-reaching ruts of the ancient Sibirskii Trakt and saw in my mind the shackled exiles and imperial couriers and Chinese tea caravans that had once passed by. And in Wichita, Kansas, some friends had shown me sites on the old Santa Fe Trail, regretting that a good set of trail ruts outside of town were now off-limits because the rancher who owned the property had grown tired of the “rut nuts” leaving his fence gates open. Hearing the term for the first time I knew it meant me.
Rinker Buck, the author of four previous books of nonfiction, is a rut nut of the first order who has taken that particular passion about as far as one can. In his excellent new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, he goes from daydreaming about some ruts he happens upon in Kansas to buying a covered wagon and three mules and traveling the trail from Missouri to Oregon. In certain less-populated parts of the West, hundreds of miles of the original Oregon Trail still remain more or less as the emigrant wagon trains of the nineteenth century left them. Rinker and his brother, Nick, accomplished the first wagon journey over the trail since 1910 when Ezra Meeker, an advocate of its preservation and historical recognition, performed the feat with an ox-drawn wagon.
Books of this kind follow a rule of nonfiction, perhaps the most basic of all: Do it, then write about it. If what you achieve is daunting and difficult and remarkable and maybe also dangerous enough, the book you write will be mostly written in the doing. Conquer Gaul; then, if you say, “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” you’ve earned the generalization. Rinker and Nick Buck’s conquest of the trail, the achievement of a lifetime, makes for a real nonfiction thriller, an account that keeps you turning the pages because you can’t conceive how the protagonists will make it through the enormous real-life obstacles confronting them. Whether this enterprise would succeed was in doubt in Buck’s mind, and justifiably…
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