The Oregon Trail, IRL

A strange new book tells us exactly what it’s like to head West by covered wagon today. (You might fall in love with your mules.)

Oregon Trail illo.

Illustration by Ed Luce

In December 1788, a few weeks before the Electoral College convened to elect him as the United States’ first president, George Washington wrote to British agriculturalist Arthur Young. In his letter, he laid out a majestic vision: He wanted to breed a superior animal from specimens sent to him by the king of Spain and the Marquis de Lafayette. “I hope to secure a race of extraordinary goodness,” Washington wrote, less fussy than a horse and more suited to work. Within a few years, he said, “I intend to drive no other in my carriage.”

His sights were fixed on the humble mule. In the post-Revolutionary War years, Washington was a land baron of such vast wealth that, in the new travelogue-history hybrid The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, author Rinker Buck argues we should compare him to Donald Trump. Washington sought to use his bestial bounty from overseas royals to breed a new line of mules that would dwarf other North American varieties and press on into the frontier (particularly the parts he owned).

The Oregon Trail cover.

An offspring of a male donkey and female horse, mules do not occupy an especially cherished place in the American imagination today, but they did in the 19th century. Washington’s mules, originally sired by the accurately named Royal Gift, would first be dubbed American Mammoths. As Buck tells it, their name shifted along with America’s westward movement, from the Kentucky mule and Tennessee mule to, in the 1840s, the Missouri mule.

As the breed became more coveted, it also became big business, leading to genetic chaos and schemes to get rich off mule-hungry pioneers. Though historians and erstwhile computer games agree that oxen pulled more covered wagons across the trail, Buck—with great bluster—argues that wagons and mules were a transformative economic force invaluable to the nation’s westward expansion. History’s vain gatekeepers ignore this plain truth, Buck writes, because “it is a lot more prestigious for professional academics to sound learned about Sen. Thomas Hart Benton or the Missouri Compromise than to actually know something about America’s basic means of transportation for a century.”

Buck’s dogmatic, at times unhinged devotion to mules turns out to be a great gift to his book. The Oregon Trail follows a modern covered-wagon trip he took with his brother across the entire 2,100 miles of the trail in the summer of 2011, charting more or less the same path that sent some 400,000 migrants west before the Civil War. Buck chooses three elfin-eared mules from an Amish farm for his journey, and they immediately become the book’s most mysterious and vital characters. Part folksy road-trip memoir, part carefully revised history of the trail, Buck’s book actually works best as a ruminative and weirdly moving story of a man and his mules. The mind of a mule, we learn, is a fragile, fractured, yet bracingly resilient place. Alas, much of the book is also devoted to Rinker Buck’s mind, which proves considerably less rewarding to unpack. Spending the miles with this man makes you feel for the trail pioneers who got stuck riding west with their ill-tempered great uncles all the way to Oregon.  

Buck got the idea to travel the trail as he spoke to a Kansas Historical Society administrator, who told him that the paths all the way from Missouri to Oregon have been carefully documented and marked, and are still largely passable, with only a few suburban obstacles along the way. You can almost imagine the boyish gleam in Buck’s eyes as he begins to fantasize about a trip in a covered wagon. As a boy, he traveled in a similar wagon with his father and siblings in a jaunt from New Jersey to Pennsylvania that looms nostalgically over the entire book. First convinced he should go it alone, Buck eventually enlists his younger brother Nick, a hardscrabble character from Maine who quickly becomes the trip’s foul-mouthed provider of gruff wisdom, wagon maintenance, comic relief, “pioneering spirit,” and mule whispering.

Back to those mules. Buck assembles a team of three for his wagon, and as he enters a Missouri farm to meet them for the first time, his devotion to the creatures takes on an instant spiritual dimension. Rarely have crossbred livestock seemed so magical. Buck describes his “heart throb” when he first sees Jake (“beautiful, imperturbable”), the team’s steady center, along with two other, slightly more skittish members, Beck and Bute. Each time Jake buries his head into Buck’s armpit or we spend a few more pages deciphering the mules’ careful deliberations along the trail, their equine majesty becomes more and more infectious. The book describes how the relationship between wagon drivers and their mules developed along the lonely journey, where complex partnerships formed and the animals became bonded to the particular cadence and unspoken communications of their driver. In this case, those duties fall largely on Nick, whose oration Rinker records at length and offers up in repeated assaults of quoted dialogue (sample passage: “Girls! Let’s Go, Girls! Yo, Step Lively Now. Girls! Beck! Bute! Jake! Girls, Girls, Girls! Rah, Rah, Rah! Go! Go! Go! Oh, Girls, We’re Going to Hiawatha! Don’t Be Sissy, Girls! Go! Go! Go!”). At some point along the trail, Bucks begins miming human voices for his mules. He quotes those, too.  

Rinker Buck.

Photo by Robert Mitchell

Buck forges a genuine intimacy in these passages, and it’s the closest his book comes to evoking the haunted presence of the pioneers as he travels from Missouri to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. During this period, we also spend quite a bit of time inside Buck’s head. There we become acquainted with his relentless self-doubt and regret—over flaws in the wagon’s construction, over his father, over his foolhardy brother—and any mishap along the trail quickly sparks a grim ritual of agonized penitence and eventual self-redemption. He frequently reminds us that his “crazyass passion” led him to embark on the trip in the first place, gamely acknowledging his naiveté may have also played a role. Yet one longs for this droll self-awareness in later passages, when Buck compares his novelty trip to the deadly passages of 19th-century pioneers. Praising the “harsh determinism” of the trail after it claims some of their wagon’s wheels, Buck writes puzzlingly that “taking on a covered wagon trip in 2011 wasn’t any different than taking one on in 1850.” This observation comes a few chapters after Buck describes cholera epidemics, the trail’s patchwork of shallow graves, and a child whose head was crushed by a wagon. Meanwhile, the morning after his mishap, he calls up his wagon-maker in Kansas on his cellphone to let him know he needs new parts.   

Buck’s tone-deafness also extends to people he encounters along the way, particularly those not far from his own age. When elderly couples in oversized RVs show interest in the wagon along Kansas and Nebraska freeways, getting closer than he would like and taking cellphone photos, Buck bitterly decries their “adventure in bad taste,” ridiculing old men in “veterans’ ball caps and baggy cargo shorts with suspenders.” It’s hard not to get the sense this is another example of the same disdain that he directs at himself. The villainous “road geriatrics” travel the country to satisfy an impulse that seems not too far from Buck’s own.  

Still, other times, Buck writes The Oregon Trail with a genuine sense of wonder and curiosity, charmingly spiked with zany colloquialisms (“theological ziti,” “crazyass” everything) and an ethnographic interest in the present-day America he surveys. Buck’s contemporary characters—an old couple raising grandchildren after their son can’t overcome a meth addiction, the graceful teenage horsemen of Wyoming—are often vividly drawn around the book’s edges. And his armchair historian thrives with the right inspiration. He’s compelling on the trail’s darker past, especially the pioneers’ early contact with western Native American tribes and the long and bloody Mormon history on the trail. The latter is enhanced with some sweet and funny encounters with 2011 Mormons, who have now cast some infamous Oregon Trail landmarks as genteel places of pilgrimage.

But if the book is partly powered by the American pioneer canon’s enthusiasm for discovery, its emotional core owes more to the conventions of the memoir. Just as Rinker and Nick’s covered-wagon trip channels the childhood vacation they took with their father, so too The Oregon Trail echoes Buck’s 1997 book Flight of Passage, his best-known work. The earlier book recounts a cross-country trip he took with another brother when they were teenagers, in that case flying across the states in a rebuilt Piper Cub airplane. In Flight of Passage, as in Oregon Trail, two brothers build an unlikely but natural partnership that carries them on a trip of socio-historic proportions. In both books, the Buck patriarch looms over Rinker’s psyche without any real resolution. A generous reader might place the books at two ends of an emotional spectrum—one an adolescent journey of self-discovery, the other a later-in-life affirmation that some impulses and struggles are timeless. Another might consider The Oregon Trail a dusted-off skeleton of a memoir reanimated by a new vision quest.

Ultimately, it’s better to return to the mules, which The Oregon Trail wisely does in its final pages. On a ranch where the mules will live after the trip, Buck lovingly hoses down Jake, his stolid leader, while whispering goodbyes into his big, irresistible ears. It’s a strange and satisfying moment, evocative of the connection many pioneers must have felt with their non-human companions by the time they reached the West.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. Simon & Schuster.

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