Everything but the dysentery: Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail

Last year, Boss Fight Books put out an open call for submissions. Being the nerdy would-be writer sort I am, I jumped all over that opportunity. But what game would I write about? Out of all the various video games I’ve played, what could I sink my teeth into long enough to write a 160 page book about?

And then, it hit me. The Oregon Trail.

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Always caulk the wagon.

I had a three part plan for the book. The first would be to talk about the game, the second would be to talk about the history that it was based on, and the third part would center around a road trip from Missouri to Oregon, comparing and contrasting the experience of the original pioneers to what things look like in the modern day.

Thing is, Rinker Buck beat me to that last part, at least. And he went in an actual wagon.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is Buck’s travelogue of his journey from St. Joseph Missouri to Baker City Oregon. Again, I should note, in an actual covered wagon, pulled by actual mules. It’s a crazyass (one of Buck’s favorite words) idea, the sort of grand adventure definitely worth writing a book about. And so begins a tale of three mules, two brothers, and one small, cheery dog, setting out on the open trail.

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Buck’s book is a fascinating read. Buck’s a solid writer, and it helps that he has a wonderful story of adventure to tell. On top of that, Rinker Buck is accompanied by his brother Nick, who has the sort of outsized personality (not to mention the mechanical skills to keep the wagon repaired) that’s prefect for an adventure such as this one. And it certainly is an adventure, as they must deal with rough terrain, western thunderstorms, broken wagon wheels, harsh desert, and more.

Buck goes into the history of the Oregon Trail, peppering his book with his first-hand accounts as well as the occasional historical tidbit. For example, the famed Conestoga wagon wasn’t the brand of choice for most of the settlers. Another early tidbit goes on about how George Washington himself was a key figure in early American mule and donkey trading. Or, in more practical terms, Buck describes how rigging and driving a team of mules is far different from riding a singular horse.

One of the biggest takeaways from The Oregon Trail is that making such a long journey was ultimately always a group effort. The stereotypical image of the singular American pioneer family, and even the gameplay of the Oregon Trail video game make it seem like the journey west was a singular endeavor, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of the obstacles early settlers faced would be impassible for single wagons to handle. The Buck brothers have a slight advantage of modern roads (in places, at least), but one of the real assets to their trip is the hospitality of nearly everyone they meet on their journey. With the exception of one irate asshole in Wyoming, the Buck brothers are universally greeted with warm welcome and eager help as they make their way from town to town, campsite to campsite.

This gives Buck ample opportunity to praise western hospitality, as well as the many people he meets during the trip. Of course, he also finds the opportunity to direct his ire at targets like organized religion, historical revisionism, and anybody who drives a massive RV.

The book runs into a slight snag every couple of chapters, when Buck starts waxing philosophical about his relationship with his father. On the one hand, I understand Rinker Buck’s unique upbringing played a major part in who he is, and why he decided to set off on a crazyass, 2,000 mile adventure. On the other hand, the ‘sightings’ Buck has of his father along the trail come off as kind of self indulgent. It feels like these parts are more for Buck’s benefit than ours. Or maybe it’s just me being an insensitive brute; I’m a lot more interested in the physical struggles presented by the trail, rather than a neurotic east coast writer’s emotional distress. (Seriously, how many old-white-guy midlife crises have been put to page by now?)

Thankfully, Buck typically has better things to worry about than these emotional flashbacks. When he sticks to the actual crossing of the trail, either in his wagon, or describing the journeys of those who came before him, Buck has a compelling story to tell. My only other real complaint would be a lack of pictures. I don’t need a fully illustrated book, of course, but a few choice pictures of Buck’s ramshackle wagon or some western landscapes would have been a nice touch.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey gets optioned by Hollywood one of these days. You know, for one of those “based on a true story,” inspirational-ish, Oscar-bait flicks. Put some appropriately grizzled actors in a wagon (maybe, like, Sam Elliot and/or J.K. Simmons), shoot some gorgeous landscapes, add swelling orchestra, and they’d be set. Of course, transcribing this book to a generic feel-good road trip movie would be doing it a disservice.

In any case, I enjoyed reading about Buck’s Oregon Trail adventure, and even better, I learned some new stuff while reading it, so bonus. It was enough to make me vaguely think about going on some westbound road trip adventure myself (even if I’m not planning on traveling by mule). And heck, Buck doesn’t mention the Oregon Trail video game even once, so maybe I’ve still got the chance to hammer out a history-adventure-travelogue of my own.

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