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 so, at several points along the way.
I don’t know whether America still faces west, but it used to. Pressures on the population—financial panics, the growth of cities, scarcity of unclaimed farmland—regularly put whole counties and districts into westward motion. In the early 1840s emigrants from the East bound for Oregon began to use a trail that led from points in Missouri to the Platte River, then along that valley to the Rocky Mountains, which their wagons could cross at South Pass, the easiest route over the Continental Divide, near present-day Lander, Wyoming. During subsequent decades thousands of wagons followed that route every year, sometimes branching off and making roughly parallel trails. On the other side of the Rockies the Oregon Trail joined the Snake River valley, which it followed toward the Columbia River, whose valley took it almost to the Pacific coast. The Oregon Trail continued to be used even after the railroad spanned the country in the late 1860s on tracks that sometimes covered parts of the trail. Interstate Highway 80 occupies parts of the former trail today.
In the Ohio town where I grew up, most kids I knew left it, and most went west. It still seems to me the more sensible direction to go. Going east seemed like working backwards. Many TV shows in our childhood were about the West. Gunsmoke, set in Dodge City, Kansas, during the years of the open range, survived to be the longest-running series of the day. The show Rinker Buck especially remembers was Wagon Train, about a covered-wagon caravan across the plains.
He thinks that show may have influenced his father, Tom Buck, an eccentric magazine executive and writer, to take Rinker and his siblings on a trip in 1958 from their New Jersey farm through rural Pennsylvania by covered wagon. The family expedition got attention, including a photo feature in Look magazine. That 1958 covered-wagon trip is the deep foundation for the Buck brothers’ transcontinental journey. As reenactors, mule handlers, and intrepid adventurers the sons do the father proud.
Buck’s discussion of the necessities in the construction of a trailworthy wagon—not a show wagon, for short and easy sections of the trail or for parade jaunts during rodeos—preserves important information only a few others still know. In Jamesport, Missouri, Buck spends a day in an Amish wagon expert’s shop fashioning a “tongue-reliever,” a long-forgotten modification that keeps the weight of the wagon tongue off the draft animals’ shoulders. It involves a chain and a spring. No wagons go such long distances anymore—e.g., to Oregon—so that kind of accumulated fatigue is not a problem.
Even better is the information about mules. I had not known that George Washington was the nation’s premier mule breeder, responsible for the introduction of the larger and stronger mules derived partly from Spanish stock that spread eventually all over the frontier. Buck chooses mules of that heritage rather than easier-to-manage oxen because mules are faster and will allow him to keep to the schedule he has worked out. The three he buys, Jake, Bute, and Beck, become as much a part of the journey as the two brothers and make this an animal story as well. The exquisite control required to handle a three-mule team as it pulls several tons of wagon through all kinds of circumstances takes experience and skill possessed by almost nobody. That’s where Nick Buck comes in. He happens to be one of the best mule drivers in the country, winner of prizes in the art, and his brother knows that he will need him for the journey.
Neither of the brothers is a young man. Both have been through a lot. Nick has had an unconventional and sometimes chaotic life and is laid up with an injured foot before the journey begins. Rinker’s marriage has ended, and he has left his job at the Hartford Courant, which he says has been turned into a crummy paper by a billionaire owner. (In an earlier book, Shane Comes Home, about the first US casualty in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Buck thanks the Courant for the patience and guidance its editors gave him in writing the piece that became the book.) Nick, the mule driver, is less educated than Rinker, who is more the worrier and organizer. Early on, Nick tells his brother that he will call him “Boss,” and he wants to be called “Trail Hand.” This assignment of rank holds throughout and keeps things clear between them. That they stayed friends during the hard journey and after shows how emotionally wise the brothers are in their later middle age.
This is the second book that Buck has written about an amazing cross-country journey with one of his brothers. In 1966, when Rinker was fifteen and his older brother, Kernahan, was seventeen, they flew across the country in a Piper Cub they had restored themselves. That trip became the subject of Buck’s first book, Flight of Passage, a memoir published in 1997. Tom Buck, their father, had been a daredevil barnstorming pilot in his younger days and he features prominently in Flight of Passage. The emotion Rinker expends in talking about his father in that book clears the slate for this one, allowing him to concentrate more on the here-and-now of the trail. The earlier trip may also have helped him in knowing how to work with and write about a family member.
Anyone who wants to report on the modern-day West has to spend a lot of time in cars and motels. Buck’s means of transport removes him from that constraint and allows, at four miles an hour, a fine-grained view of the country. As the wagon travels county roads in places where the actual old ruts aren’t available, people in the houses it passes come out to chat and to feed apples to the mules. Buck notices that many of the family groups consist of grandparents and grandchildren, and he soon realizes that he’s seeing up-close the result of rural America’s crystal meth epidemic, which has landed the kids’ parents in rehab centers or jail.
Others who take interest in the wagon’s progress are trail aficionados like Bill Petersen of Minden, Nebraska, president of the Nebraska chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, who began acquiring his expertise when he took the OCTA’s Rut-Swale Identification Certification Course (ruts are the tracks clearly cut by wagon wheels; swales are the wider, more deeply eroded swaths through which people traveled; that there even is such a thing as a Rut-Swale Identification Certification Course will be welcome news to less-schooled rut nuts like me). Petersen has erected his own trail markers along the Platte and is eager to share his knowledge with Buck. The wide, shallow Platte and its soggy margins provided the perfect habitat for the bacteria of Asiatic cholera, and many emigrants died from the disease on that part of the trail. Buck refers to emigrant journals for descriptions of the disaster that cholera often wrought, and he finds graves, aided by a book called Graves and Sites on the Oregon and California Trails, coauthored by Randy Brown, another local expert who visits the expedition.
When the Bucks reach such famous dicey places as the crossing of the Big Blue River or the south-bank-to-north-bank crossing of the Platte, one can picture a ghostly audience of old-time travelers watching and wondering how they will handle them. They go over the Big Blue on a bridge, though the mules don’t like the junction plates linking the road with the bridge structure and must be coaxed across. When the wagon gets to California Hill, the first steep ascent in western Nebraska, Rinker wants to go around but Nick takes it head-on. The trail is so precipitous and the likelihood of falling so present that Olive Oyl, Nick’s dog, cowers under the wagon seat in terror.
They don’t cross the Platte until Casper, Wyoming, and again use a bridge. In that state they meet Mormons who are on pilgrimage retreats along the trail where their church has identified holy sites as a part of the founding story of Salt Lake City. Buck states his conviction that all religions, including the Roman Catholicism he was brought up in, are equally nonsensical. He objects to the Mormons’ influence on certain sections of the trail as a violation of the separation of church and state that an overly compliant Park Service has gone along with. The sight of thousands of Mormon youth encamped in parks along the trail alarms him.
But when the wagon reaches its most difficult ridge crossing yet, the Bucks meet a young Mormon couple, Sam and LaVora, who are hiking the ridge and looking for a spiritual sense of what their pioneer ancestors endured. The couple offer their help. The wagon starts up the incline, “axle by axle,” the mules focused and intent. Positioned as instructed by the driver, Sam and LaVora stand at the switchback turns to give him targets to aim for. When the wheels stick at big rocks, the two help the wheels over. Finally the Bucks are at the top, exhilarated. Rinker says those must’ve been Mormon angels who guided them. Nick says, “Well, I happen to believe in all that shit. Those people were angels. You don’t have to be some Bible-whackin birdbrain from Alabama to believe in angels.”
Buck’s is not the first book to be called The Oregon Trail. That well-known classic, written by the historian Francis Parkman in the late 1840s, describes his western journey of 1846. Parkman did not travel on the trail past Fort Laramie, east of the Rockies in present-day Wyoming, and his book concentrates instead on the weeks he spent living with a band of Oglala Sioux in and near the Black Hills. Travel along the trail does not figure prominently in Parkman’s account. Compared to Buck—I turned from one to the other as I reread them both—Parkman does not shine as a human being. Though it may be hard to picture the Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin as a wild kid, Parkman was in fact almost that on his journey, made when he was twenty-three. He has the swift, violent opinions of youth, often describes people he encounters as “repulsive,” shoots buffalo right and left, leaves them to rot, and so on. His views of Indians are generally as contemptuous and cruel as one might expect for his time, or even more so.
Buck says he loves “crazyass passion,” but as he travels the trail he comes off as the opposite of wild. A sane grownup, he judges and acts with caution, deliberates, puts himself in other people’s shoes. One of the main subjects that he has written about is community. An earlier book, First Job, described the group of dedicated newspaper people he worked with on The Berkshire Eagle. His book about the young soldier killed in Iraq explored in detail the coming together of Marines, family members, and townspeople as they honor the death. In the reporting, Buck became another of the mourners; age and life experience have bolstered his crazyass passion with patience, social skills, empathy.
Riding in an antique and picturesque vehicle, as he does, sometimes becomes a performance. Everybody wants to see the guys in the covered wagon. Luckily, Nick is good at obliging the curious with stories and songs. The emigrant wagon trains had lots of hands to move the wagons through rough places; the Bucks’ wagon, though solitary, is hardly alone. All along the way people bring food for them and their mules and provide the brothers with places to camp and showers and rides to repair broken equipment. They are welcomed almost everywhere they go. The scene with the Mormon couple stands out because Mormons are the only folks about whom the author expresses some reservations. And then Sam and LaVora prove to be helpful allies, even angels.
Why, given Parkman’s much less agreeable personality, is his book great? For starters, nobody could depict the West in its vastness and its tiny details better than he. Many accounts tell of the items of furniture that proved too much for the emigrants to carry and ended up being dumped by the side of the trail. Here is Parkman: “One may sometimes see the shattered wrecks of ancient claw-footed tables, well waxed and rubbed.” Only he would notice that heartbreaking hand-polished gleam. He travels with his friend and cousin Quincy Adams Shaw, but he knows Shaw’s measure, and when his companion hesitates to join him on his search for an Oglala village Parkman does not blink. Instead, with a possibly untrustworthy French-Canadian guide, Parkman goes off on his own, despite also suffering from a case of dysentery so severe he can barely ride and fears he will die. He wants to find an Indian village so he will be able to write with more authority about Indians in his contemplated history of France and England in the New World.
Wobbling and ill on a horse that’s also sick, he somehow finds the village, lives in the teepee of a leading Oglala called the Big Crow, recuperates, goes on buffalo hunts, observes the Oglalas’ daily life—all this in 1846, two decades before the relations of the Plains Sioux with the whites deteriorated to open warfare. When Parkman saw the Oglala, the man who would become the greatest of the tribe, Crazy Horse, was still a boy. War parties that planned to go against the Snakes during that summer did not materialize and Parkman was disappointed that he never got to accompany Indians at war; but then again, neither did any other white historian.
As emigrant traffic on the Oregon Trail grew, the highway tore through Plains Indian life. The buffalo became scarce along the trail and in time divided into northern and southern herds, and tribes like the Arapaho and the Cheyenne also split into northern and southern branches. When the government set up reservations for Plains tribes it was careful to put them far to the north and south of the trail route, which had become the country’s main east–west avenue. The Union Pacific Railroad had followed that route, and the generals wanted to keep the Indians well away from the railroad. Today no Indian reservations are near the old trail, so it’s not surprising that Buck meets no Indians on his journey.
Indians figure in his account at the periphery, sometimes out of focus or only by omission. That is, he is weak on Indians. When he describes the admirable accomplishment of Narcissa Whitman, missionary wife of missionary Marcus Whitman, who crossed the plains and mountains while pregnant and had a healthy baby in Oregon the next spring, he doesn’t mention Sacagawea, westward exploration’s most famous new mother, who gave birth two months before setting out with Lewis and Clark (thirty-one years before Narcissa Whitman) and carried her infant with her across similar terrain. Buck tells us that “Black Hills” was a common geographic term “formally assigned” to that feature, presumably by white people; the Sioux say the hills had that name long before white people came. And his characterization of the Powder River War of the mid-1860s as ending in an Indian defeat is wrong. Under the leadership of Chief Red Cloud, the Sioux and Cheyenne beat the army decisively in that war.
He does, however, include the fate of Narcissa Whitman, whose mission to the Cayuse Indians failed but whose commercial enterprises with her husband in Oregon succeeded, bringing more settlers, thus angering the Cayuse, who eventually killed her and her husband and children. Subsequent acts of ruthlessness toward Indians would be explained by politicians and generals, over and over, as having been justified by what happened to the Whitmans.
The pivotal moment in Parkman’s book occurs when he leaves Shaw to search for the Oglala. In Buck’s, the crisis is similar but the result is the reverse. Nick, who had planned to leave the journey and go back to Maine for a theatrical production he promised to be in, decides instead to stay with his brother and see the journey through. Rinker’s gratitude for this act of generosity is extreme and touching. He knows that without Nick he would have no trip, and no book. Parkman is on a young man’s brave and heedless adventure into something that nobody like himself has ever experienced before. Buck’s adventure is more inward—a deepening of his understanding of himself and of his brother, and also of the mules, whose complicated minds he is eventually almost able to read.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the brothers get to Oregon; the title tips us off to that. When they finally do part, Buck describes the scene:
Nick was fidgeting with his fingers, drumming them on the Toyota steering wheel.
“Oh, fuck, Rinker. I hate saying good-bye to you. Can I just say that I’ll never forget this trip? I mean, I’ll always be the guy that drove team all the way across the Oregon Trail. Thank you. Ah, shit, I don’t even know what I’m sayin here. What am I sayin here? Thank you, Rinker. I would be dead right now if I was home in Maine and you hadn’t let me come along.”
My heart was skipping with roller-coaster emotions and I could feel my eyes fill with moisture. I hated it when Nick ignored his own contribution and heaped all of the praise on me.
“Nick. I’m going to say just one thing. You stayed with me at Shickley. I’ll never forget that and I couldn’t have crossed the trail without you.”
Rinker Buck has written an Oregon Trail that can be read alongside Francis Parkman’s, and that is saying a lot.