(Image from Barnes & Noble)
I didn't make any reading resolutions this year, but if I had, one of them probably would have been to explore more non-fiction. My fiction addiction is well documented; my (sort of) aversion to its opposite pretty obvious. I wouldn't call myself a non-fiction hater—after all, I quite enjoy biographies, memoirs, pop psychology books, and interesting historical accounts. Still, I have to push myself to read non-fiction. And yet, when I first heard about The Oregon Trail, a travel memoir by Rinker Buck, I knew I had to read it. Something about its premise just really appealed to me. Probably has something to do with growing up in the shadows of the famous trail and the fact that I'm a descendant of Mormon pioneers. Even though the book's a long, sometimes plodding, ordeal, I found myself really enjoying the ride.
Buck, a journalist with a serious case of wanderlust, has always liked being on the move. For a hypomaniac like him, it's a way to combat depression, to challenge himself, and to learn about new places. Thus, trekking 2100 miles across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon pulled by a team of mules appealed to Buck's sense of adventure. With his foul-mouthed "Mainiac" of a brother beside him, along with Nick's smelly Jack Russell terrier, he spent several months traveling from St. Joseph's, Missouri, to Farewell Bend, Oregon, in a restored 19th Century Peter Schuller wagon. Although some 400,000 people traversed the Oregon Trail (which Buck points out was never a single trail, but a series of them) in the fifteen years before The Civil War, the last documented crossing was in 1909. In the 102 years between then and 2011, when Buck made his journey, much of the original trail had disappeared, buried beneath modern freeways, farms, etc. Retracing the pioneers' steps as closely as possible, then, was a daunting task. Especially for a starry-eyed 60-year-old writer; his grizzled, cantankerous brother; and a pungent, high-maintenance canine.
Although the Buck brothers occasionally took advantage of conveniences the pioneers never enjoyed (truck stop restrooms, icy fountain drinks, laundromats, etc.) and dealt with trials unknown to early travelers (like the "minivan morons" whose constant gawking caused all manner of problems), they encountered countless hardships early travelers knew all too well—inclement weather, broken wagon parts, bodily injury, spooked animals, boredom, exhaustion, rough trails, hunger, and more. Through it all, though, Buck glories in the pleasant surprises they experienced on their journey, from the spectacular new vistas; to the strangers who became treasured friends; to the satisfying slumber that comes after a day of hard work; to a miraculous visit from Mormon angels. Above all, Buck discovers a great truth about himself:
I had told myself that I was out on the trail seeking adventure, knowledge of an epic era of American history, proof that a modern crossing could still be done. But now, as Kansas slowly passed by, with the clopping of hooves and the ringing of harness acting as a neuroenhancer, I knew that I was also out here seeking my past. (97)Some of Buck's ruminations get a little dull (the chapter on mules felt about 100 pages long), but overall, he's a talented yarn-spinner. Despite its bulk, The Oregon Trail is a compelling book, one which is both entertaining and enlightening. Funny, thoughtful, expansive, enjoyable, this intriguing travel memoir is all those things. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to trek in the footsteps of the West's early settlers, you'll definitely want to grab yourself a copy of this funny, thoughtful, enjoyable memoir. I, for one, found it delightful.
(Readalikes: Um, I can't really think of anything that compares. Can you?)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for strong language
To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of The Oregon Trail from Changing Hands Bookstore, my local indie.