Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

When this book came through my hands while checking in books at the library, I snatched it up for a couple of reasons.  First, Oregon Trail was probably the first game the girls and I played on the computer together.  Many hours were spent deciding on horses or oxen to pull the wagon.  How much food, ammo, clothes to take only to die from a broken leg or cholera on the trail.  (Yes, it was fun.)  Secondly, and don't spread it around, but owning a riding mule has been on my list of things I covet for years.  At one time I wanted to find a big Tennessee Walking Horse mare and breed her to a mammoth jack for a Walking Mule.  Reasons - good size animal to ride that doesn't trot and is smart. Yep, mules beat out horses for smarts in most cases.  I had also just finished up reading about Grandma Gatewood and her hiking the Oregon Trail when she was in her 80's.  Figured the book had a few things going for it, but was prepared to dump it from the reading wagon once I started as being boring. 

WHOA, MULES! Was I wrong.

Rinker Buck, writer, decided he needed to try and recreate a covered wagon trip on the Oregon Trail when he was on another trip and stopped to stand on the ruts where the trail had gone through.  The next year was spent pouring over maps, reading journals of pioneers who made the trip and planning for a trip of his own.  In the back of his mind was the 1958 trip as a young boy, when his father took them on a covered wagon trip around New England (about 350 miles), an experience he never forgot.  Luckily, his brother Nick, is an expert team driver of horses and all things mechanical - including wagons.  However, they are very different in temperament, so there were doubts in Rinker's mind this would be a good fit.  Especially when Nick wanted to bring his terrier, Olive Oyl along, a dog whose hygiene was suspect. But a year or so later, Rinker, Nick, Olive, Jake, Bute and Beck hit the trail.

What follows is a delight.  I didn't want to put it down, even to help a teething 2.5 year old get to sleep (4 molars coming in at the same time).

Buck skillfully weaves the past with the present and gives a picture of a part of American history so often overlooked or underplayed in school.  I know when I was going through school it was the Revolutionary War, then bang - Civil War.  Nothing much in between.  I was of the option there was one wagon train up the Oregon Trail and Buck sets the record straight for me.

Some of the things I learned -

  • More than 400,000 people over the course of several decades moved from East to West over the trail.
  • The 'trail' itself can be miles wide and there are several cutoffs or alternate routes on the trail.
  • There was a thriving system of stops along the way to resupply travelers.
  • We were dumping trash on the side of the trail in the 1840's.  Oversupplied or items not needed were dumped so the animals could pull the wagons all along the trail.
  • The Mormons used the trail, so much so, they want to rename it The Mormon trail.
  • And like people, mules have personalities and work ethic.  Some of which doesn't exactly make life easy with them.
Despite relatively minor setbacks with wagon and terrain, Rinker and Nick made the 2100 trip in the summer of 2011.  All along the way, 'trail families', and in fact, whole communities, came out to assist along the way.  The trail itself, which in many cases, is now paved over and long turned into highways, was just part of the journey.

I will admit I teared up at the end when he crosses into Oregon.  And then there is the question of what do to with the three mules he bonded with over the months on the trail - another teary moment.

While the book does make me want to travel in a covered wagon, I don't think I could do it for the months it took to navigate the trail.  I would probably have been one of those original pioneers who died crossing a river or of disease (which I spread to the Indians who originally where only trying to help).  Or I would have taken one look at the hill they had to go over and said forget it.

All I can say about this book - READ IT!  It's a delightful way to learn about an important part of American history and how it still plays a role today.

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