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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

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In the bestselling tradition of Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz, Rinker Buck's "The Oregon Trail" is a major work of participatory history: an epic account of traveling the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way, in a covered wagon with a team of mules--which hasn't been done in a century--that also tells the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, and its significance to the country.

Spanning 2,000 miles and traversing six states from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon Trail is the route that made America. In the fifteen years before the Civil War, when 400,000 pioneers used it to emigrate West--historians still regard this as the largest land migration of all time--the trail united the coasts, doubled the size of the country, and laid the groundwork for the railroads. The trail years also solidified the American character: our plucky determination in the face of adversity, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Today, amazingly, the trail is all but forgotten.

With "The Oregon Trail "he seeks to bring the most important road in American history back to life. At once a majestic American journey, a significant work of history, and a personal saga reminiscent of bestsellers by Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed, the book tells the story of Buck's 2,000-mile expedition across the plains with tremendous humor and heart. He was accompanied by three cantankerous mules, his boisterous brother, Nick, and an "incurably filthy" Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl.

Along the way, Buck dodges thunderstorms in Nebraska, chases his runaway mules across miles of Wyoming plains, scouts more than five hundred miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, crosses the Rockies, makes desperate fifty-mile forced marches for water, and repairs so many broken wheels and axels that he nearly reinvents the art of wagon travel itself.

Apart from charting his own geographical and emotional adventure, Buck introduces readers to the evangelists, shysters, natives, trailblazers, and everyday dreamers who were among the first of the pioneers to make the journey west. With a rare narrative power, a refreshing candor about his own weakness and mistakes, and an extremely attractive obsession for history and travel, "The Oregon Trail" draws readers into the journey of a lifetime.

451 pages, Hardcover

First published June 30, 2015

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About the author

Rinker Buck

6 books176 followers
Rinker Buck began his career in journalism at the Berkshire Eagle and was a longtime staff writer for the Hartford Courant. He has written for Vanity Fair, New York, Life, and many other publications, and his stories have won the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award and the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award. He is the author of The Oregon Trail as well as the acclaimed memoirs Flight of Passage and First Job. He lives in northwest Connecticut.

Follow him at Facebook.com/RinkerBuck.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,972 reviews
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,633 followers
November 28, 2015
This was such a fun travelogue. Rinker Buck got the wild idea to buy some mules and a covered wagon and ride halfway across the country, following the old Oregon Trail route that hundreds of thousands of pioneers crossed in the 1800s. He started his nearly 2,000-mile journey in Missouri, crossed into Kansas and Nebraska, trekked across Wyoming and Idaho, and finally arrived in Oregon.

It was a completely lunatic notion. Except for the occasional faux reenactments staged for tourists by Wyoming outfitters — modern-day "pioneers" are trailed by convoys of sumptuously appointed RVs, and pampered at night with portable showers and catered meals — no one traveled more than sixty or seventy miles of the trail today. I would later read, in a history of the trail years and the subsequent homesteading period in the late nineteenth century, that "the last documented crossing of the trail occurred in 1909." Just to reach my rendezvous with dementia out along the banks of the Missouri River, I would spend two or three days driving west from my home in New England with my gear loaded into a pickup. Then I would spend four months, via covered wagon and mules, crossing what nineteenth-century travelers called the "Great American Desert." Across the high deserts of central Wyoming and Idaho, I would have to cover stretches of forty miles or more without water. And why did I think that the notorious and often fatal obstacles that the pioneers faced — mountain passes strewn with lava rock, hellacious winds and dust storms, rattlesnakes, and descents so steep that the wagons could only be lowered by ropes — would miraculously vanish from the trail for me? Only a delusional jackass, or someone seriously off his medications, would pull off the road at the Hollenberg Ranch one fine summer afternoon and concoct such a preposterous scheme.

But you can't save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me. Already, powerful forces were drawing me west. I felt an irresistible urge to forsake my life back east for a rapturous journey across the plains.

I think it's amazing that sections of the original trail still exist. Rinker first stumbled on it while working on a story in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Before setting off, he spent months reading about the history of the trail and planning the trip, and eventually his brother, Nick, also decided to go along for the ride. Some of the funniest parts of the book are the interactions between the brothers. They frequently bickered and tried to one-up each other, as siblings tend to do on family trips.

In Maine, Nick was known for fastidiously building mansions and reconstructing burned-out summer camps in record time, but that was when he was working for someone else. On his own time, he sank boats, stripped gears pulling swimming floats from rivers, and wrecked wagons and sleighs. Essentially, crossing the Oregon Trail together, we were a case of collaborating DNA presenting symptoms of incurable bipolar disorder. I proceed with an abundance of caution and prefer not to be dead. Nick is thrilled by danger and proceeds with an abundance of risk.

There are some great bits of American history told in the book, including stories about missionary Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to cross the Rockies, about the rise of mule trading in the Midwest, and about cholera outbreaks along the Oregon Trail. Reading it, I was reminded of some other good travelogues, including Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, in the way the author weaved in interesting stories and facts along with his personal journey.

There were also some emotional sections of the book as Rinker reflected on his complicated relationship with his father, and memories of a similarly rustic trip his family took when he was a boy.

"Pioneering spirit" is a phrase that was used a lot in my family while I was growing up in the 1950s, and it probably explains, too, why I was so drawn to covered wagon travel. I am emotionally connected to my past as a covered wagon traveler — a time when my father was so strapping and young, fun-loving and emotive, a man so wonderful to love. He was a nonconformist in a rigidly conformist age, but I've often felt since then that there was a logic behind his eccentricity.

I listened to this on audio, which was vastly entertaining, but I also enjoyed flipping through the print version because it has some great photographs and other illustrations. I would highly recommend this book to those who enjoy amusing travelogues or anyone interested in pioneer history.

P.S. Don't tell my dad, but he's getting this book for Christmas.

Favorite Quotes
"I do not believe in organized religion, herbal remedies, yoga, Reiki, kabbalah, deep massage, slow food, or chicken soup for the soul. The nostrums of Deepak Chopra and Barbara De Angelis cannot rescue people like me. I believe in crazyass passion. It was crazyass passion that dug America's canals, fun the wagons west, built the railroads, and propelled the God-fearing to their deaths at Cold Habor and Shiloh. My father's generation gave great crazyass passion surviving the 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 on the road, and Wilfred Thesiger across the sands. My corporeal self would be driving mules across the plains, but it was crazyass passion that would deliver me to the trail."

"Perhaps, on a covered wagon trip, there were no mistakes. Only luck and persistence counted."

"That night we were exhausted, filthy, sunburned, and covered with trail grime, and I felt stiff from my runaway drubbing by the mules. But our daily routine was exhilarating. The trail had turned me into an exuberant workaholic. Rise at dawn and carry water and feed for the mules, harness and hitch, walk or ride on a wood Shuttler seat all day, carry more water, then lug the heavy harness again, wash the mules, cook diner, and snake a hose across the ranch to refill our barrels at night. Unload and repack the wagon, every day. The endurance required should have been too much for us, but across these Nebraska plains endurance just began more endurance. Even the smallest decisions seemed momentous now. I was too tired and sore after dinner to wash our dishes and instead collapsed, with my clothes and boots still on, into my wagon bed. Fuck the dishes. Fuck hygiene. We've done seventy miles in two days. The dishes could wait until the morning."

"I don't ever want to go back home," Nick said. "I want to live out here in the wagon for the rest of my life."

"It was early August and we were halfway to Oregon. We had survived peril after peril and I knew we could make it the rest of the way by the fall. It didn't matter anymore how many mistakes I made. It didn't matter that, to Nick, almost every decision I made defined me as a college-educated jackass with nonexistent mechanical skills. The whole trip was just one long collection of mistakes, and, to put mule shoes in Oregon, I had to be willing to make them."

"The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.
Profile Image for Bookworm.
1,818 reviews58 followers
March 8, 2016
Didn't die of dysentry, but nearly died of boredom. As someone who, yes, played that 'Oregon Trail' game, I was so looking forward to this book. Man decides he wants to travel along the Oregon Trail? In an actual wagon pulled by mules? Sure, why not?
Sadly, this book really, really, REALLY needed a better editor. It's a story of the journey, the history of the Oregon Trail, a memoir of working with his brother (who came on the trip), various reminisces of his father (who used to do somewhat similar things). It's too much. Unfortunately the author doesn't stick with just one thing. We spend several pages on the types of mules. We are treated to digressions about wagons and the quality of materials people had. We get snippets of what he remembers about his relationship with his father.
Quite frankly, I really didn't need all of that. Or at least, not in this quantity. It might have been better if the book had been divided up into chapters by theme: the animals, the wagon, the trail itself, etc. There are some really great passages: such as when he discusses how in the early years, travelers could easily survive by picking or using the discarded materials from the wagons who were further along the trail. Game was plentiful and it became a sort of system where some could very likely pick up what they needed on the trail. Or be suckered by a savvy merchant who picked up the discarded items and upsold them to travelers.
THAT is what I wanted to read about. I really wasn't interested in his digressions about his family. Some of it was interesting, but I wanted to drop the book when he talks about watching his father give a speech and Howard Zinn is in the audience. Other reviews disliked the discussion of politics and the profanity (neither of which I strictly minded) but when it derails from the main point of the book, it's frustrating. I'm sorry, but this wasn't the book to work out your issues over your dad.
There are some good historical discussions and information in here, but unfortunately like the 49ers of old, you'll have to really sift through the other stuff in order to get to it. I had really been looking forward to this story about THE OREGON TRAIL, but sadly this book is not it. Library for sure.
Profile Image for Mauoijenn.
1,127 reviews108 followers
March 17, 2015
The Oregon Trail makes me immediately think of...

but let's be serious. It was a big deal to earlier settlers. A lot of them didn't even make it to the end. Fast forward hundreds of years and two brothers embark on a great journey. Covered wagons, mules and nothing but history awaiting them. Reding about their trip across the same trail settlers took and stopping to soak in the rich history was an excellent read. I learned a great deal, I had no idea about and the pictures of some of their stops was a nice touch. I enjoyed this and hats off to you two men for all the hard work.
Profile Image for Morris.
964 reviews160 followers
July 15, 2015
I should be upfront and say that this review of “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey” may be skewed because the author, Rinker Buck, did something in writing it that I have always wanted to do. He took a piece of history, researched it, and then set out to live it. This is basically a historian’s dream.

There are actually two parts to the book: the journey itself and the history of the Oregon Trail. I’ll begin with the journey. The time and effort Mr. Buck took in researching and developing his plans for the trip are astounding. Quite a bit of time went into planning the journey to avoid modern civilization as much as possible, and even the wagon was purchased in Missouri and authentic. The author has a true way with words. The descriptions of the scenery along the way are breathtaking, and the stories of what happens along the way make you feel as if you are riding along shotgun. Conversations with his brother add a very real familial element to it all. The only downside is it can drag a bit at times, but then again, I’m sure the journey did as well.

The second part of the book is the history of the original Oregon Trail, and as I said above, it is thoroughly researched. This part could have stood on its own and still been a fascinating read. None of it is dry, as some history books tend to be, so it is actually perfectly suited for someone who wants to sneak in a little actual American History with a good story. Sort of the way you can trick kids into eating peas by pureeing them and dumping them into something better. (Not that I myself have an aversion to peas or history.)

“The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey” is an excellent book from both a historical and an autobiographical standpoint, but it’s more than that. It’s a good and entertaining story for high schoolers and up. Even those who don’t like nonfiction or history will like this one.

This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Howard.
325 reviews227 followers
June 26, 2022
“When I strike the open plains, something happens. I’m home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea, it’s the grand passion of my life.” – Willa Cather, (epigraph to The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey)


Journalist Rinker Buck has long possessed an adventurous soul. When he was fifteen and his brother Kern was seventeen, they bought a 1946 Piper Cub plane for $300 and rebuilt it in the family barn. With Kern, already a licensed pilot at the controls, and Rinker as his navigator, they flew from New Jersey to California in 1966. According to Rinker, they did so even though their plane had no lights, no starter, no battery, and no radio.

Nevertheless, they set a record for being the youngest aviators to fly coast-to-coast. Rinker wrote about it in his first book, Flight Passage (1997).

He writes, that by 2011 “I had become that familiar subspecies of the North American male, the divorced boozehound with a bad driving record and emerging symptoms of low self-esteem. I knew that I had to escape again – this time in a big way.”

His solution was an energizer resorted to by many – a road trip -- but not your normal road trip. He decided to retrace the Oregon Trail – but not in a normal way. He decided to make the journey the way the pioneers did, in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules.

Originally, his plan was to make it a solo trip, but when a younger brother, Nick, heard about what Rinker was up to, he demanded that he be allowed to go along. He didn’t think one person could make such an arduous journey without someone to share the driving and care of the mules. But most of all, he knew there would be breakdowns, perhaps in the middle of nowhere, and somebody was going to have to improvise solutions to get moving again.

Although both brothers had grown up on a horse farm, Rinker did not possess the practical knowledge that would allow him to rebuild worn-out brakes or a broken wheel. There was an added plus to having Nick on the trip that even Rinker had to concede: Nick was one of the great team drivers of his generation.

Rinker knew he needed Nick, but Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, the Odd Couple, was an apt description of their divergent personalities. Rinker was a bookish and tidy man while Nick was hands-on and untidy. Plus, Nick suffered from an attention deficit disorder, which he readily admitted, while Rinker was an obsessive-compulsive organizer.

Rinker writes, “Over the years I had devised an elaborate syllabus of coping techniques for spending time with Nick…. One of Nick’s better qualities is that his short attention span does not permit him to hold a grudge for more than five minutes.”

Out of necessity, Rinker reluctantly relented and invited Nick to accompany him on the trip. It would be a journey of about two thousand miles, in a covered wagon pulled by three mules that also had different personalities, just like the two men who would be driving them. And oh yes, Nick insisted that his Jack Russell Terrier, Olive Oyl, be allowed to go along.

It would take four months to travel from St. Joe, Missouri, one of several Oregon Trail jumping-off sites, to the final destination in Oregon. A sign would be attached to the back of the wagon which said “See America Slowly.”

That’s the set-up and only the beginning. The reader gets a lot in this book. It is an adventure story, a travelogue, and one long history lesson with interesting information about covered wagons, mules, and famous people such as missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, scout and entrepreneur Buffalo Bill Cody, and the Mormons and their trek to Salt Lake; and such landmarks as Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Scotts Bluff, and South Pass; important rivers on the Trail, especially the Platte; the initial good relations between the pioneers and the Indians; and much more.

And here is Rinker Buck's dedication of the book:

"This book is for my brother, Nicholas McMahon Buck, who got us there with rare gumption and skill. Among New England horseman, he has long been known as one of the great team drivers of his generation and he affirmed this -- and more -- crossing the Oregon Trail."

I look forward to Rinker Buck's next book. It will be about a flatboat trip down the Mississippi River. Adventure must be in his DNA.
Profile Image for Jaylia3.
752 reviews129 followers
May 10, 2015
This entertaining, often enthralling, mix of history, humor, travelogue, family memoir, and no holds barred social commentary reminds me of my favorite Bill Bryson books--especially A Walk in the Woods about Bryson’s (mis)adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail. When Rinker Buck discovered that large stretches of the Oregon Trail still exist, he had romantic visions of a back to basics journey across the western half of the continent and began obsessively and meticulously preparing for a mule-drawn covered wagon trip along the old pioneer route. Since he was divorced and his daughters were grown, why not? Rinker planned to go solo, but even replica wagons have breakdowns, so fortunately for both him and his readers Rinker’s handy, force of nature brother insisted on coming along too--a brusque, big-hearted, syntax challenged, mechanically gifted giant of a man who has some resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hagrid.

Rinker blends the fascinating if fraught history of the mass migration westward into the story of his own journey. Pioneer journals were his guides, and the sections devoted to their lively accounts of trail travel were some of my favorite parts of the book. Rinker also writes movingly about his father, an adventurous, family-centered man who inspired his trip. I found the chapter about the surprising (to me) importance role of mules in 18th and 19th century America--starting with George Washington as a savvy land speculating donkey importer and mule broker--utterly captivating, and it’s a good example of the atypical historical perspectives and insights that make this book so riveting.

But The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is as much about the modern day West and its people as it is about the past, and as an Easterner I learned a lot--Rinker, his brother, and their mule team often spent their nights in open publicly maintained corrals where teenagers gather to hang out and practice rodeo skills, not something we encounter here in the Boston to Washington megalopolis. The writing about the actual trip is detailed but evocative, so I felt like I was watching the scenery and riding along in the covered wagon myself. I wasn’t quite so interested in the wagon maintenance aspects of their journey, but I’m sure those sections will delight some readers.
Profile Image for Jennie Menke.
272 reviews190 followers
June 4, 2017
No offense, but, MY GOD, I wanted this book to end. And it just wouldn't. It went on and on and on and on. I listened to it on Audible and the reader was just fine. Initially I really liked the book. As minutes turned to hours and hours turned to days, though, I just really started to dislike (intensely) the author.

The information on the trail and wagon travel is mostly interesting and well researched. If that's what the book stuck to, I probably wouldn't quibble. However, there were several things that bothered me enough to mention here.

1: The author seems to love and hate his father at the same time. After basically eulogizing his father as a saint, he suddenly switches to a lost little boy and alludes to certain of his behaviors as "intense" and "crazy" and "intolerable" without ever explaining them. He talks and talks and talks about his relationship with his father. He -- not once, unless I am mistaken -- speaks of a mother until nearly the end of the book. In fact, it bugged me so much that I googled the guy to see if I could discern any information on his family. I gave up. But near the end of the book I believe the word "mother" is mentioned, so I concluded he did, indeed, have a mother -- who barely registered a single tick on his Richter Scale. What does that say about someone who literally does not mention the existence of a mother when describing (a lot) his childhood? I know, so what? But it bugged me a lot.

2: The author is unpredictable. Sometimes he was nice to people and sometimes he was mean and it was seemingly without any predictability. He rips on the Mormons one day and seems to worship them the next. He dismisses Christian and other religions as stupid. Concerning all topics: he is simply right. They are wrong. Black and white. No gray. I would venture that most people feel this way. I mean, yeah, I think I am right about ___(fill in the blank___), but I am self-aware enough to understand that fallibility is possible. He seems not to be.

3: The author is long winded. This needs no explanation. I can't imagine a reading audience wants to hear the same story retold 16 times, e.g. some version of: "they said it couldn't be done.... (add 1 hour of reading to detail the full story of how he achieved the impossible)... and I did it. Man, am I great."

I'm glad it's over.
Profile Image for Cher.
800 reviews274 followers
March 26, 2016
2.5 stars - It was alright, an average book.

I mostly enjoyed the author's account of his journey along the trail, especially the parts about the mules and dog, but the multitude of tangents varied greatly with how interesting they were (or were not). Also could have done without the author's numerous political and societal opinions, which make you question his ability to intelligently research and assimilate other material used for the book.

If read as a light-hearted memoir instead of a factual nonfiction book, it's not bad. While the brother will be off-putting to some due to his colorful vocabulary, I found his interjections of humor refreshing in what otherwise could be dull at times.
Favorite Quote: The contradiction of being able to see the modern world more clearly from the vantage of a nineteenth-century wagon appealed to me. Seeing America slowly was, in a way, like eating slow food - I wasn't covering much ground in a single day, but I was digesting a lot more.

First Sentence: I had known long before I rode a covered wagon to Oregon that naïveté was the mother of adventure.
Profile Image for Linda.
1,408 reviews1 follower
January 5, 2017
Well into middle age Rinker Buck, his brother Nick and his dog Olive Oyl decide to see the American West in a covered wagon. That's correct, just like the pioneers did back in the day. I found this book to be fascinating, entertaining, informative and funny. What a wonderful way to learn American History! I know some readers found it boring, not me, I felt like I was on a great adventure. Traveling 2000 miles at age 60 is unimaginable for me, you have to be tough! Mr. Bucks writing lets you experience trail life in the comfort of your home. He said you have to have "wild ass passion and persistence", I bet you do! I enjoyed this book immensely. There are some wonderful pictures and drawings also.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,464 reviews9 followers
July 19, 2016
I had thought this book would be as enjoyable as A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, with both authors challenging themselves to complete two very different historical trails along with their similarly crazy and risk-taking cohorts.  I am a walker,  so I could somewhat empathize with Bill Bryson, and he's at least  entertaining.  But...

I can't begin to imagine Rinker wanting to spend $30,000 to get together a three-mule team and a covered wagon to make all the progress of an ant inching along on the old Oregon Trail,  suffering through cold winds, torrential rains, blinding sandstorms,  and flashbacks to his dead father.  And that was just in Nebraska.  It was his father who put this bug in Rinker's ear to want to  do this; they made a covered wagon trip as a family when Rinker and his brother Nick  were children.  Happy times, but now Rinker suffers  from some father issues, which I felt was too much information, just not interested. Anyway, I  have driven through Nebraska several times and find it the most boring state imaginable, so reading about them taking weeks to get through it wasn't  exactly pleasurable.  (No offense to you Nebraska folks--there are parts of my own state I'd say the same  about.)  But after chapters on the history of mule breeding  and wagon wheel building, the Nebraska chapters finally get you through to the book's midpoint.  Finally.

And then it gets kind of good!  Their lives, including the mules and the dog, are in danger more than once and a genuine camaraderie is formed.  This is why I  hate to not finish  books; sometimes the best is yet  to come.

The best parts were  the good people they met along the way, strangers who opened  their homes and shared meals and more with them.   Also the history and suffering of past travelers.  The making of wagon wheels... I could do without.  And the author is a Wallace Stegner fan, so he must be a good guy.  Mixed feelings on this one, a very slow start, but very educational and I'm  glad  I finished it. Probably  learned some things I never expected to.
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
611 reviews93 followers
October 26, 2022
The Oregon Trail is a smorgasbord of a book. It’s a travel book, it’s a history, and it’s a family saga. While telling an incredible tale of the first covered wagon crossing of the entire Oregon Trail in a century, it chronicles the history and importance of the trail as the highway of history’s largest overland migration. Along the way it fills us in on incidental histories — mule breeding, wagon building, etc. The author also relates his family history — his eccentric father who took his family on covered wagon vacations along the East Coast in the late ‘50s, sparking a lifelong interest that culminated in this journey and book.

Rinker Buck is a great storyteller. He ties present to past, explaining the central importance of the Oregon Trail to America by demonstrating with his own trip what an arduous accomplishment navigating it was. He uses his family drama, both his clashing and bonding with his brother along the trail, and his personal struggles with his father’s ghost, to illustrate the struggles of pioneer families taking to the trail and facing the unknown.

If you are looking for a book with a tight focus, keep moving. This is definitely a book for generalist, not specialists. If a bit of salty language offends you — if a goddamn here and a fuck there gets your panties in a twist — maybe you should reread Little House On The Prairie instead of something earthy and real like this. But if you want to experience an amazing journey full of drama, humor, history, and not a little eccentricity, Buck’s book hits the bullseye.

Profile Image for Anna.
1,207 reviews19 followers
September 10, 2015
3.5 A detailed account of a modern trip on the Oregon trail, with a lot of historical info sprinkled along the way. The descriptions of life on the trail both now and in the past were fresh and fascinating. I could feel the tension in the more difficult parts of the trail. I would have given this a full four stars except for chapters 20-22 which the author describes as "a long section expressing ambivalence about the Mormons." He gives a decidedly biased history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which I am a member) and the Mormon trail which is fine as this book is written as a personal travelogue not a definitive history of the Oregon trail but he made so many blatant mistakes in "explaining" Mormon culture that could easily have been checked and corrected that I began to doubt the veracity of his research as a whole. The author also comes across here and in other places in the book as something of a bigot. Otherwise an enjoyable book. Won this book through a goodreads giveaway.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,781 reviews213 followers
November 18, 2017
In 2011, author-turned-mule-skinner Rinker Buck decides to emulate his father to “See America Slowly” in crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon. Back in 1958, his father had taken the family on a similar briefer journey through Pennsylvania, leaving a lasting impression on his son. His relationship with his father is a recurring theme.

Fortunately, Rinker is joined by his brother, Nick, and his brother’s dog, Olive Oyl, who make critical contributions to the journey. Buck researches the trip thoroughly, then purchases a period-authentic Schuttler wagon and a team of three mules. The mules become characters in the book, each exhibiting a unique personality. The pioneer spirit is evident in this journey through mutual reliance and the kindness of strangers. A combination of memoir, history, and travel tale, the over-2000-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon is replete with camaraderie, humor, breakdowns, danger, and slaying a few personal demons.

The variety in subject matter is amazing: from the history of mules, to wagon craft, to irrigation theories, to the 19th century pioneers’ diaries, to public corrals, to descriptions of the terrain, to the hospitality offered them by people thrilled to be part of the process. Obstacles along the way were plentiful, and no matter how much planning was done, a certain number were unforeseeable. It was important to be able to adjust to whatever challenges were presented, and the author covers these in an interesting manner.

Even though history is covered in good measure, I suggest reading it as a memoir since the author inserts a good amount of personal reflection on his relationship with his father, asserts many strongly held opinions, and includes a significant amount of profanity. I found the book fascinating, albeit a bit repetitive, and learned a great deal about the history of the pioneers. Recommended to readers of Western U.S. history, fans of memoirs, and those interested in travel or journeys.
Profile Image for Kristin.
142 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2016
So having grown up in Portland, this book of 2 modern day brothers crossing the Oregon Trail together was an easy add to my list. It got a 5 for historical writing, sentimental brotherhood, humor, general pioneer enthusiasm, and childhood stories. It got a 3 for the 96 excessive and unnecessary f-words. Still I stuck with it and would have suggested it to others until he got to the Mormons. Admittedly I don't read anti-Mormon literature, which I would surprisingly characterize this as. I expected negative stories about Joseph Smith, but his inaccurate portrayal of the man led me to think the author had somehow been personally offended by Smith in another lifetime. It all smacked of grudge writing and he became a completely different author for this part of the book. As progeny of the people who joined the church as "converts ripe for the picking in Scandinavian slums" and also many other pioneer groups, including those who struggled and died in the handcart journey, this book does a huge disservice to educated readers everywhere. That anyone else who struggled along the trail was adventurous and industrious, but the Mormons had showers along the way is such a double standard. After spending the first half of the book lamenting care and management of pioneer trails by anyone, much less the government, highlighting a few retirees who are tirelessly spending their years trying to hold back the sands, I was surprised he was so vitriolic about the Mormon Church preserving a portion of the trail, for everyone. I'm sad the book took this turn, I love his idea and execution of the undertaking, I think it just goes to show we all, myself included, see what we want to see.
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,209 followers
March 4, 2020
At first, I wasn't sure what to make of this tale of two oddball brothers recreating the Oregon Trail passage via covered wagon. Buck's book certainly isn't perfect, but when it was all over I was sad for it to end, so I guess they won me over. 4 stars + 1 for that sweet sweet emotional connection
Profile Image for Stuart.
Author 2 books147 followers
April 7, 2015
This book is a lot of fun. Two brothers take a mule driven covered wagon from MO to OR. It's like Prairie Home Companion's Dusty and Lefty come to life.
Profile Image for Donna Davis.
1,746 reviews234 followers
April 30, 2017
Buck is a journalist and author who replicated (to the extent possible in modern times) the covered wagon crossing of the old Oregon Trail, much of which still contains the original wagon ruts. A creature of the Pacific Northwest myself, I thought I had the whole Oregon Trail story down cold, but I learned a lot from Buck’s wonderful memoir, which threads his own experience with the historical information he gleaned from a variety of sources into a fluent, fascinating, accessible yet hyper-literate narrative. My great thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available to the public in August of this year.

The germ of Buck’s idea to travel the old Oregon Trail in a covered wagon came from a favorite childhood experience. Buck’s father took his large family on a covered wagon vacation during the late 1950’s. They traveled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is one of the author’s fondest memories. His brother Nick, who sounds like a real character, decided to join him on this adventure, and their skills complemented each other wonderfully in most instances, with Rinker having done a great deal of research and put up the considerable sum it took to buy the wagon, the mules, and so forth, and Nick having a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as tremendous mechanical aptitude in general.

Our author is one hell of a writer. His down to earth metaphors made his story accessible for modern people. For example, he says that the Conestoga wagon was the semi truck of the mid-1800s while the prairie wagon used by most families, which was made by Sears Roebuck, Studebaker, and John Deere, were more like the station wagon. The whole narrative is peppered with this sort of figurative language, and it’s both amusing and helpful. And I loved seeing the ways in which the problems of the early pioneers often became his problems also, sometimes in ways that would have halted an ordinary traveler right then and there. But Rinker and his brother are serious badasses, and they kept on going.

Think for a moment how high up the driver’s seat on a covered wagon is, for example, and how immensely soporific the repetitive clopping of hooves are on a very warm spring day. There is no safety belt; there is nothing whatsoever to keep a man from falling off and being crushed beneath the wagon.

Narcissa Whitman, one of the early settlers who together with her husband, founded the Whitman mission in Eastern Washington (part then of the Oregon Territory) made the trip on horseback. But she had no safety belt either.

The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, did a whole lot of it on foot and pushing carts; those that lived through the experience populated Utah. But I agree with Buck that Devil’s Gate was not solely part of the Mormon experience, and President Bush had no business turning federal park lands over to the LDS Church. Frankly, it steams my clams all over again just writing about it…moving on.

I also have one small bone to pick with Buck’s research, though it isn’t enough to lop a star off my rating: he says that the 400,000 pioneers that crossed the Oregon Trail was the greatest overland migration in history. To be fair, when he wrote this, it was widely accepted as truth. But in 2010, Isabel Wilkerson documented an overland migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern Industrial cities and also to California between 1915 and 1970. The Oregon Trail, then, may be the second largest, but not the largest.

I also might have liked to see a citation accompany controversial facts tossed in, such as the claim that it was covered wagon makers, not Henry Ford, who started the mass assembly line. Generally I liked the flow of the text made possible by avoiding footnotes, but if one is going to butcher a sacred cow, one should back the assertion with a source.

But all these things are minor compared to the value, both in education and entertainment provided by the story of the brothers’ modern day reenactment, which is nothing short of spellbinding. I had just begun it when I came down with a case of flu, and I can’t tell you how comforting it was to curl up under my covers with my glass of orange juice and this book and immerse myself in their journey, which commenced in Missouri and like the original pioneers, continued across six states. And although I have never done the trail itself (and if I were to do so, I’d be one of the Winnebago set that made him half-crazy with their giant rigs that spooked the mules and their never-ending cameras winking at him and blocking his way), I have driven through all of the states he crossed through except Kansas.

It was useful to have traveled through most of the region that Buck described, yet his descriptions were so palpable that I think even if you have never been there and never plan to, you will see much of it in your mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what is the most remarkable part of this wonderful memoir: the novel aspect of the covered wagon trip during the 21st century, or Rinker’s voice, which switches seamlessly from that of historian, to that of family member with family issues, to that of the humorist who can appreciate life’s ironies even in adverse circumstances. All I know is that you don’t want to miss out on this one. What a terrific story!

Post script: I ordered 2 hard cover copies of this one to give as Christmas gifts this year. So many different kinds of people will enjoy it; history buffs, but also people-persons, travel buffs, and anyone with a strong sense of humor and a love of good books. This is only the second time I have done this after 200+ galleys read.

Profile Image for Carin.
Author 1 book102 followers
September 18, 2015
Could not be more in my wheelhouse! A stunt memoir! Set in the American West! Bringing to mind tales of Laura Ingalls Wilder! And it's funny with a cranky old guy as the author's companion a la Bill Bryson! I knew this book would be a hit with me from the moment I heard about it.

Rinker visits an Oregon rail museum and decides to travel the full length of the original trail (which, granted, has many spurs and shortcuts and alternates so it's hard to figure out exactly which route is the "official" one but that's also good because significant parts of it were paved over and are now interstates, so he needed some alternatives.) This isn't as insane an idea as it would be for you or I as he grew up in Amish country (although not himself Amish) and one summer when he was a kid, his father decided to take his whole family on a wagon trip, so it's not a surprise that the companion who eventually volunteers is his brother, Nick. He and Nick are like Oscar and Felix, which is good because they balance each other out well. They buy a wagon (and a Rinker-designed mini wagon trailer) and three mules and they start in Missouri.

Along the way they encounter many of the identical obstacles the original settlers did such as steep narrow roads over mountains and boulder-strewn areas, but they don't have to deal with malaria and other illnesses. They are unlikely to die along the way (which many, many settlers did. There is an entire book published that identifies every grave site along the route.) but they also don't have any help portaging over the extremely steep runs, like the original settlers would have. Along the way we are entertained by tales of many of the original pioneers who made their way west, with Mr. Buck taking great care in presenting stories of resourceful and hardy women travelers as well as men, many who often paved the way for other women to come west. He did a vast amount of research and reading of original sources, which is seamlessly woven throughout the story of his own trip. Naturally there does get to be a bit of repetitiveness to it, but not in a bad way. Instead, it echoes what it must be like to sit on a hard wooden bench and stare at sage grass and mules' behinds for entire days, weeks on end. The Buck brothers meet interesting characters along the way, and it's crazy how nice and helpful people are. Who knew that there are public corrals in nearly every small town in the West?

If you like travelogues, American history, or just hearing a good story of an adventure, this is a fun book. Well-written and entertaining, I dare you to not also learn a great deal along the way.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews108k followers
July 1, 2015
In the spirit of recreating historic journeys, like David Grann does in Lost City of Z, Rinker Buck traveled the two thousand mile stretch famously known as the Oregon Trail. (No, it wasn't just a computer game.) It may sound easy to traverse a trail with today's automation, but Buck and his brother did it the authentic way: in a covered wagon. Along their journey they encountered many of the same problems as the settlers back in the nineteenth century, such as wandering mules, driving rainstorms, and desperate searches for water. Buck tells their trail tale with great humor and a lot of history. And it made me want to play the game again. "Your ox has wandered off - read books for three days."

Tune into our podcast all about new books, All The Books: http://bookriot.com/category/all-the-...
Profile Image for Jay Schutt.
245 reviews79 followers
May 27, 2017
Very well written. Part travelogue and part history lesson. The author takes us along on a recreation of a covered wagon trip along the old Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Oregon. With his brother and his dog and three varying personality mules, he meets many helpful hands and trials and tribulations along the way. I enjoyed this one very much.
Profile Image for Fred Forbes.
953 reviews48 followers
August 12, 2017
Actually, let's award 5 stars twice. Once for the book, once for the trip.

As Johnny Carson often said when he was hosting the Tonight Show and sidekick Ed would deliver some factoid "I.Did.Not.Know. That!" Said that to myself a lot going through the story of Buck and his brother ordering a wagon and a set of mules and setting off to cover 2,000 miles of the Oregon trail. What does George Washington have to do with mules? Why are mules infertile?

Also wondered "Did I ever know that?" as Buck retells the history of the trail and the 400,000 pioneers who made the trek in the mid 1800's.

Fascinating details about the logistics and mechanics of the undertaking and some interesting folks who assisted along the way made this an interesting read.

Also interesting content on his family history and the personal dynamics of his relationship with his brother.

I noted that the great majority of readers on Amazon give this a 5 star rating but there were a number of one star ratings so I jumped in to to find the source of their misery. Turns out for the most part they are god-fearing conservatives who feel that Buck is a foul mouthed, Eastern liberal with far to much disdain for religion, the occasional over bearing law officer and his tendency to go "potty mouth" when he encounters difficulty. While not a big fan of profanity in writing myself, I did not find the use overdone and I certainly did not feel he was ungrateful for the assistance provided to him so must be a matter of perspective.

For lovers of history, road trips and the dynamics of relationships this will prove to be an impressive read.
Profile Image for Amy.
390 reviews41 followers
November 27, 2016
Rinker Buck has been "crazyass" passionate for years about wagon travel and the Oregon Trail. In fact, he took a wagon trip with his father and several siblings when he was a kid. They had a sign affixed to the back of the wagon stating, "We're Sorry For The Delay - But We Want The Children To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY". What follows in this book is Buck's actual wagon journey he takes on the original Oregon trail.

Buck, along with his brother Nick, a custom built wagon and three mules make the trip beginning in Kansas and ending in Oregon. Along the way, they meet several obstacles but more often than not, they are accommodated by people excited or moved by their trip and more than willing to help out however they can. Along with his description of their trip, Buck shares historical stories and facts about the trail, efforts for its restoration and his own personal stories regarding his coming to terms with his difficult father who has already passed (a bit out of place in this book, but interesting nonetheless).

Also included are in depth looks at the trail gear they used and how they acquired it. There are several drawings depicting said gear and a few drawings of significant landmarks they passed on the trail. What's missing are actual photos of their trip. There are a couple (including the ones on the inside covers of the book) but with so many people taking their photos as the wagon passed or stopped and even a photographer on board for part of the trip, I'm surprised they didn't make the book.

While bravado seems to be a part of the way Buck writes, I was not a fan of some of his broader generalizations. In different parts of the book he castigates religious affiliations, law enforcement and even RV owners. His comments may have been an attempt at humor or a very real aversion, but lumping everyone into the same pot seems to be antithesis to what he experienced on the trail. And while he does thank certain individuals for their help, it doesn't erase the earlier mocking comments he made about their particular "group".

There was a surprising revelation for me while reading the book. Those that made the original crossing (out of necessity) had hundreds of others to help them when they had to make particularly hazardous crossings (a flooded trail or steep descent) but were also prone to disease and dwindling resources (as a direct result of the number of people). Buck and his brother did not have others on the trail to follow (they got lost several times) or to assist with breakdowns or descents. However, there always seemed to be people available to help with a surplus of aid and support vehicles and farms at their disposal. The two crossings (old and new) can't really be compared. The intent, stakes and results of both crossings have nothing in common.

At the end of the day, the story IS the journey and everyone's is different. Had Rink's brother Nick been a writer, I wouldn't mind reading his version of the crossing as well.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Cheryl .
9,051 reviews391 followers
April 3, 2019
So much testosterone.
I added the illustrator credit as the drawings are wonderful.
I hope that the audio book is good for my husband to read.
The acknowledgements at the end are long; presumably in there is a hidden something akin to a bibliography, but I really would have like a list of Rink's favorite references.

I almost want to give this book five stars: it is "amazing" and there is plenty here for a variety of readers, whether into travel, memoir, history... and I do highly recommend it to anyone even a little bit curious about any aspect of it... but somehow I just can't round up from 4.5 stars.

I guess I'm just a bit too put out by all the macho posturing, the need for spelling out the word instead of just f* despite how often it's used.... And what's the deal with all the insults and prejudices expressed against so many people including Amish, Mormons, RVers, himself... the only ppl he admires are his brother & cowboys and that attitude gets old, whether it's sincere or persona for the sake of humor.

Need to research, but Buck says Henry Ford did *not* invent the assembly line, as I was taught in school. Maybe he vastly improved it? Maybe he deserves no fame for it?

Cattle guards were a big problem as the mules wouldn't cross them. Seems they didn't consider blindfolds, blinkers, tarps...?

One thing I feel I should have been at least vaguely aware of before but was a brand-new concept to me... the transfer of lumber. The wood was milled in the north and east. The wagons were made closer to the jumping off points. Many of the wagons made it to lesser-timbered regions of the west, and places that had not mills yet. Much salvaged lumber was reused several times by the new settlers and by entrepreneurs.

Profile Image for Charlie.
346 reviews21 followers
June 10, 2015
This book starts out slow. Not too slow - it's the build-up process of the Oregon Trail. I usually don't like all this build up stuff. I wanted to get into the meat of the 1840s and 1850s trek to Oregon by covered wagon. But as I read the story all this build up made sense.

It's about the OLD trail and the OLD-NEW trail. This journey is about Rinker Buck and his brother Nick. They travel the whole course by a replica of the old covered wagon, that they built and had basically the same problems as the original pioneers. Can you believe that? It's true - overplanned and underplanned on some things - accidents - water shortage - delays and much more. They traveled from Missouri to Oregon - several thousand miles.

Back in the 1840/50s they traveled in groups so that they can help each other. Rinker and Nick didn't have that luxury, but they did have friends thru the use of cell phone contact and computer contact before the trip began.However, for the most part they made friends along the way that helped them with shelter,meals and food for the three mules.
Rinker does an excellent job in his research of the old Oregon Trail and inserts it in the story as they travel along some of the same ruts/trails that remain today.

I would highly recommend this book if you have any interest at all (or don't) about the OREGON TRAIL. AND you know how siblings can be at times when you are together too long. Over 4,000 settlers tried this trail and today only 2 did it much the same way.
A great story.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,362 reviews103 followers
February 27, 2023
“Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”

“Seeing America slowly was, in a way, like eating slow food-I wasn't covering much ground in a single day, but I was digesting a lot more.”

Looking for the perfect end of the summer reading adventure? Boy, do I have a pick for you. Rinker Buck decides to ride the entire 2,000 mile Oregon Trail, in a covered wagon, pulled by mules. Something that has not been attempted in over a century. He takes along his shabby, profane but mechanically inclined brother, Nick and his Jack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl. (Nick reminded me of Bryson's friend Stephen Katz, from A Walk in the Woods. Just not as broad).
You would think traversing the trail in modern times, would be a tad easier but the Buck brothers encounter, the same problems that the original pioneers did: wicked storms, runaway mules, lack of water, various break-downs and intense desert heat.
Rinker also adds many historical elements to the narrative, that identifies with the Oregon Trail, making this an ambitious and informative read.
It is all told in robust prose, filled with humor and insightful observations about America now and then. The added bonus was how good the people were, across the country, supporting the brothers, on their journey, reminding us how caring and decent, Americans can be.

Come on! Take this ride. (In the comfort of your own home, of course).

**2nd added bonus: this was great on audio too, narrated by the author.
Profile Image for Carol.
6 reviews2 followers
October 1, 2018
I was SO disappointed with this book. I loved the idea of a modern day crossing of the Oregon Trail and reading along with that adventure. There are portions of that in the book but they are far too few and far between--instead we get long political & personal rants along with long segments that wander off into unrelated or tangentially related subjects (like mule husbandry for instance.) The author comes across as very arrogant and mean-spirited as he disparages people of all different backgrounds--organized religion (Mormons in particular), Tea Party types, RVers, those with "rugged individualism", minivan drivers, policemen, etc. And then there's the language...the book is laced with F-bombs throughout, and other profanity.
I wanted to like this book. I have long had a fascination with pioneering--I grew up on Little House on the Prairie (books & TV show), played The Oregon Trail regularly at school, and more. Last summer I finally got to walk 40 miles of the trail with youth from my church. What an amazing experience that was to be there and walk in the footsteps of the many who came 150 years before! I had hoped to catch some of that spirit in this book but sadly it wasn't there and instead I came away feeling not just disappointed but offended.
Profile Image for Jenna.
60 reviews
February 4, 2016
nobody died of dysentery. two stars.

i wanted to like this book so, so much. i love oregon trail history! and there was a lot of great information about pioneer life and tidbits from old journals and stuff. i actually liked the part about the history of mule breeding. but it read very, very slowly, and Buck is not a great storyteller. i also suspect he is an unreliable narrator. his rants were super condescending, there's a part where he talks about how Americans could benefit from turning off the TV and reading a book about American history. which, okay, sure. but... if i am reading that sentence.... i'm reading your book, and now i feel insulted. the book could have used stronger editing as well. there was the story of the journey, and the history sections, and the memoirish digressions about his childhood/father, and those sections never blended together cohesively.

i loved Nick and Olive Oyl though. five stars for them and the mules.
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