Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

I love to read. Ask Michelle, and she will tell you I am reading all the time. Hell, I will spend an hour with her in yarn store, or Nordstroms as long as I have a book on the kindle to read. For the record though, she NEVER spends that much time in Nordies, but a good yarn store….

That being said, I usually limit my book reviews on this blog to bike books, for obvious reasons. I am making a rare exception for this book. Why? It was just THAT good! It got my first 5 star rating in quite while…

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I first spotted this book in the airport on the way to Spokane earlier this year. It intrigued me enough to take a picture of it so I could later download it to the kindle.

Rinker Buck is a history buff. I’ve never met the man, but from his own description, and that of his brother, and covered wagon buddy, Nick, he is very much a bookish nerd. (Maybe that’s why I liked him so much, we have that in common.)

One of his favorite fields of study is the wagon trains of the old west on the Oregon trail. He had read journal after journal of those who took the trail, and went to many a visitor center to learn about it. At one of the centers he learned that there were still long stretches of wagon ruts from the 10s of thousands of families that crossed the plains in the 1800s. More importantly, they could be followed across the same plains today. (with a few detours onto the paved roads.)

From that bit of information, Rinker decided he wanted to drive a team of mules pulling a covered wagon across the Oregon trail for the first time in over a century. Unsupported by vehicles! Crazy? Maybe but as he says in the book:

I believe in crazyassed passion. It was crazyass passion that dug America’s canals, flung the wagons west, built the railroads, and propelled the God-fearing to their death in Cold Harbor and Shiloh. My father’s generation gave great crazyass passion surviving the great depression and then fighting a noble world war. Brandy and words mixed with Winston Churchill became the crazyass passion that saved the last free country in Europe. Crazyass passion threw Herman Melville to the seas, Jack Kerouac to the road, and Wilford Thesiger across the sands. My corporeal self would be driving the mules across the plains, but it was crazyass passion that would deliver me to the trail.

Crazyassed passion has taken that bike and I MANY places, I can relate!

His plan was to go it alone. Who cares if he had never driven, or cared for mules before. As a kid his dad and taken the family on a covered wagon trip along the east coast with horses. This was all on roads, going from town to town, and dad did all the work, but Rinker was sure he could do it.

Luckily, Rinker has a kid brother Nick who DOES know mules, can fix anything (VERY luckily), and who invited himself along. It is not a spoiler to tell you without the two of them there together, the trip would not have happened nor been successful.

But, this is not just a book about the trip….  Rinker is one helluva a story teller. Interspersed with the trip I learned many things!

The first millionaire in Chicago was a wagon maker who designed and manufactured many of the wagons the 49ers and the settlers going to Oregon. Honestly, I never really gave a thought to where the wagons came from.

Prior to reading this book I would have bet big money that the pioneers used Conestoga wagons to travel the prairies! Turns out this is not so, the Conestoga was used primarily on the east coast to haul freight. It was too big and ungainly to go across country.

I did know that oxen or mules were much preferable to horses (contrary to the old Wagon Train tv show I watched as a kid with Major Hale). What I did NOT know was that the big mules used to pull the wagons all descended from a Mammoth Jacks (very large male donkeys) that George Washington imported after the 1700s.

OK, wait a minute, after reading the above, I am making this sound boring as hell! It is not! I feel like I got to know the true heroes of the book the Mules.  There was big and powerful, yet gentle Jake, Crazy Beck and prom queen Bute. These three pulled a covered wagon and an additional cart towed behind over the rockies from Missouri to Oregon. Time and time again, when Rinker thought the trip was doomed, and Nutty Nick said “I can do it.” These three mules, pulling with both heart and muscle, got that damn wagon wherever it needed to go.

I learned about rivers, trees, landmarks, and tribulations the pioneers experienced on the trip across the nation. Plus the contributions the Mormons gave to the westward migration.

The magic of the book is the story telling ability of Rinker. You can feel his stress, laugh at the comments Nick makes, and pull with the mules as they strain to get the wagon over a hill. I very much envy those who saw the wagon, and I love the fact that small town America and local cowboys went out the way to help these two. I won’t lie, I was bummed when the trip was over and was worried what would happen to the mules!

The one line that sums up this for me, and tells me it is truly a monumental accomplishment comes from Nick when Rinker said, that the trip was over. (I apologize for the language, but I promise you will love Nick if you read this) Nick’s reply the trip pver comment was. “Yeah, but not really. I’ll be bullshittin about this fucker for the rest of my life!”

I look back at my adventures, in the mountains and on the bike. I will tell my stories to anyone who will listen. (My new hires hear them in every class!) Mine don’t hold a candle to this adventure.  2000 miles, all powered by 3 mules, and memories that will live on forever.

These are two crazyassed people, but their passion got them across. I recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story!

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5 Responses to Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

  1. sarburch says:

    Anyone who uses the world crazyass as an adjective for the word passion has my attention. This book is on my to-read list. Thank you for the recommendation!

  2. Please, tell us what DID happen to the mules?

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