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Monday, February 29, 2016

Mormon Mentions: Rinker Buck

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture.

In The Oregon Trail, journalist Rinker Buck recounts the trip he took with his brother in 2011 from St. Joseph's, Missouri, to Farewell Bend, Oregon.  As he describes trekking in the footsteps of pioneers in a restored 19th Century covered wagon pulled by a stubborn team of mules, he discusses  
the terrain, the history of the places he passes, and the similarities/differences between his trip and those of the trail's original travelers.  Mormonism is mentioned often in his account because, as Buck notes:
"Reaching the Oregon Trail in Wyoming and not confronting the Mormon experience would be like reaching Paris and not studying the cathedrals.  You cannot understand one without the other" (262).
Addressing everything Buck writes about Mormons would take forever, so I just want to point out a couple passages.  His account of visiting Martin's Cove, a historical site owned by the LDS Church, is hilarious.  He makes some interesting points while telling a hysterical tale about his foul-mouthed brother trying to "put on his Mormon" for the visit.  Buck has his criticisms about how the Church acquired and runs the site, but the brothers' experience there made me laugh 'til I cried.

While Buck's comments about Martin's Cove were not entirely positive, his experience on Rocky Ridge—the highest point of the Mormon Trail and one made sacred because of the extreme hardship endured there by pioneers, especially during the 1856 crossing of the beleaguered Willie Handcart Company—made a believer out of him.  The fortuitous appearance of two "Mormon angels" just when the Buck brothers needed them in order to cross treacherous Rocky Ridge seemed to convince them that indeed, they trod on holy ground.  Of the experience, Buck wrote, "... I loved ... everything Mormon, that day on Rocky Ridge.  Indeed, standing with them on the high rocks, I was a Mormon. Today, on windy Rocky Ridge beneath a hard blue Wyoming sky, I was Mormon" (309).  It's a very touching account, the most memorable part of The Oregon Trail for me.

I haven't ever visited Martin's Cove or Rocky Ridge, but I still have a great respect and love for the pioneers whose blood and tears flowed freely over both.  These men and women—some my own kin—endured incredible hardships in the name of religious freedom.  In obeying the God they believed in with their whole hearts and souls, they blazed trails for all of us to follow.  Vital to the settling of not just Utah, but also much of the American west, the magnificence of their courage and sacrifice really can't be understated.        

(Book image from Barnes & Noble; handcart painting by Brent Flory)

Entertaining Travel Memoir a Delightful Journey

(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.
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