Pauline: For a mix of travel memoir and history, we have the man who himself experienced perhaps one of America's greatest adventures: Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.
Arthur: For those of us whose historical knowledge is a bit rusty, to put it mildly, what was the Oregon Trail and when was it important?
Rinker Buck: The Oregon Trail was actually a misnomer. It was the main trail leading west between 1843 and the Civil War that essentially completed the creation of a country as a whole. It was called the Oregon Trail because originally the first pioneers were going to Oregon but after the Gold Rush of 1849, and then of course the Mormons crossing beginning in 1847 to Salt Lake, it also connected to the California Trail, the Mormon Trail and so forth—it just picked up the nomenclature of "the Oregon Trail." It’s 2,000 miles from the Missouri River to the Pacific Northwest, and it essentially finished America as a continental space. The decision of the Buchanan Administration and others to flood the frontier on the Pacific with Americans allowed us to essentially establish squatter rights over British lands out there. About half a million immigrants crossed before the Civil War and, as I said, that really finished America as a continental space.
Pauline: This is The Travel Show, obviously, not The History Show, so the reason we have you on is because you decided to take that same journey. You decided not to do it in a car but in a covered wagon like the pioneers would have. What was behind that decision?
Buck: I became interested in the trail after coming across a trail marker over in Kansas several years ago. I was fascinated by the trail because the true history of the trail was so different than what was passed down in the myths we learn in grammar school. Women played a very prominent role in establishing the trail and the Indians were much friendlier than history books would suggest, and so forth. What I read were just normal books about the trail written from a library somewhere. But then I came across a statement that the last documented crossing of the trail was in 1909. I said well that’s a better book, so I thought let’s do that: Let’s ride the trail and tell the story of that from the prospective of the pioneers.
Pauline: You know, usually I would think looking at a book like this, "Okay, this guy decides to build a covered wagon. He doesn’t know what he is doing." But you may be one of the few Americans who had actually traveled by covered wagon before, right?
Buck: Yes. It was a really good case of personal autism or personal craziness or whatever you want to call it. I grew up on a horse farm and my dad was very adventurous. He actually had taken us on a covered wagon trip when I was a youngster and I was very familiar with driving teams. It was a short covered wagon trip when we were kids just between our house in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But it actually made me feel empowered to do this.
Pauline: So you had to go back and figure out how the pioneers did it. Some of the technology didn’t even exist anymore. You had to create a special harness for the mules and find the perfect mules. People always think, because of Westerns, that it was horses that conquered the West, but in reality it was mules.
Buck: It was mules. I have a whole long chapter on how it was mules that made America and how most people don’t realize that. All those old Hollywood Westerns where you see how the beautiful sleek horses are pulling the stagecoaches and covered wagons—it’s total bunk. They were all mules. They had to be mules because mules have more stamina and can go without water. Horses can’t really make it more than 10, 15 miles a day while mules can do 25 or 30. And yes, I mean the art of mulemanship has basically died over the past century. No one could tell us that we needed something called a tongue reliever to take the weight of the pole off the mules, that we needed the proper breaks. In fact, the pioneers had line breaks; they used leather bindings on their breaks and all kinds of things like that that nobody could do for us. So we had to do it ourselves. Some of it we had to discover out there on the trail.
Arthur: Was most of your trip over land or is there a road today where the trail used to be?
Buck: I explain in the book, the Oregon Trail is marked all the way through. Even when it goes through say a suburb of Kansas City or Boise, it’s still marked and you can ride it right along. About a thousand miles of the 2,100-mile journey is over what are now two-lane blacktops. The trail went where people wanted to go and still want to go, so it became a road. The other 1,000 miles are either original ruts just crossing the plains, like through the open lands of Wyoming. We took 350 miles of original ruts over about three weeks. It was a wonderful part of the trip. Other stretches are just farm and ranch roads. Pioneers hugged the rivers: The Platt, the Sweetwater, all the way through the West. If you just find the closest road to the river, you’re on the trail. It’s pretty well marked. It’s a mix of modern roads and old original ruts. We figure we did about 700 miles of actual original ruts and the rest was on roads.
Pauline: You explain in the book that people think it’s one trail whereas in fact you had pioneers setting off from all sorts of points, so the actual trail was about 5 miles wide. Yes, it hugged those rivers, but there wasn’t just one set of ruts leading west, right?
Buck: I explain in the book that it was actually a collection of trails. In Nebraska, for instance, the pioneers were actually traveling on both sides of the Platt River. The Platt was very broad in those days. It wasn’t dammed yet, so the trail could be 15 miles wide in portions. There were about 40 cutoffs pioneers kept on the trail. The pioneers kept reinventing and perfecting the trail. In western Wyoming, one of the perhaps most beautiful and wild stretches, although it’s all desert now so it’s pretty tough to cross, the trail is actually 100 miles wide or more because you have the main ruts that go down toward Fort Bridger and they follow the fur trapping route. But then there was something called the Lanyard Cutoff the Salt Creek Cutoff and more.
Arthur: Can any of us moderns duplicate the trip that you took in our own automobile or do we have to gather a team of mules and build a covered wagon?
Buck: Don’t buy the mules yet, Arthur, okay? It’s a wonderful irony that here’s this trail that covered some of the most remote country that we have and it hasn’t changed that way, but it’s very accessible in spots. If you take, for instance, Route 30 on the north side of the Platt across Nebraska you can stop at a wonderful museum in the town of Carney in the Archway, which is a magnificent covered wagon museum and there are lots of trail sites around. When you get to Gothenburg, Nebraska, you can see the Pony Express exhibit and see a real Pony Express station. The Pony Express route followed the Oregon Trail. In Wyoming, you can see places like the Guernsey ruts the original ruts, Fort Laramie, which was a major trading post, and Independence Rock in central Wyoming—all of these are accessible by highway. The trail diverts away from the highway for long stretches in part but there are many, many sites throughout Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon that you can still drive right up to in your car. You actually still see the terrain or the Snake River cliffs and everything the same way the pioneers saw them.
Pauline: Where is the spot where pioneers would famously carve their names in the rock to let those behind them know that they had made it this far?
Buck: There were actually a few places, like Inscription Rock in eastern Wyoming. The main one is Independence Rock in Wyoming. You can drive to it fairly easily. It’s only about a 45-minute drive south of Casper on a major highway. It’s just gorgeous to walk around the rock and see all the carvings that the pioneers left there. There is a book that describes all the inscriptions that you can go on Amazon and get. You really get a feeling for the determination that the pioneers had by the carvings on Independence Rock.
Pauline: You talk about that determination in your book. And what makes your book so fun is that you admit when you don’t know things—when things go wrong. For example, you created a trailer to pull behind the covered wagon for the supplies and it turns out to be kind of a disaster because it’s way too heavy. In that way you were very much like these pioneers because the vast majority of them would never have knowingly undertaken a journey this arduous, this long, this challenging.
Buck: Yes, I think the standard template for a travel book or an adventure book is more, "Oh, I really know what I’m doing. I’ve been mountain climbing for years. I’m really experienced." And you know, my template for this book was, "We don’t know what the heck we’re doing but were just going to see if we can make this work." The Trail Pup was typical of that. It was the provisions cart which we pulled behind the wagon which allowed us to be free and independent of motorized support. I was so proud of it. It was such a great thing. I had all these Civil War books and I looked up provision carts. We built it, hooked it to the wagon, and basically our 2,000-mile, four-month trip across the West was a process of watching this beloved Trail Pup of mine fall apart at every step of the way.
Pauline: You start the book by saying naiveté is the mother of invention and you didn’t realize how much naiveté you had that you thought you could undertake this journey.
Buck: I think we became real pioneers. The depiction of pioneers is rugged individuals. They’re tough, they know what they were doing, they could handle anything. In fact, when you read my book, you see that everybody was making it up as they went along.
Pauline: And that many of them didn’t make it. Many were killed along the trail. It was a serious business.
Buck: Disease and the river forts were the most dangerous, and of course we didn’t get cholera, but everything else that happened to the pioneers happened to us. You learn that accomplishing something isn’t always about knowing what you’re doing. It’s about the willingness to fend for yourself when you have made mistakes.
Pauline: Do you have any other journeys planned to write about, or is this it for a while?
Buck: This isn’t it for a while. I’ve got a nice big river adventure coming along. It’s all about rescuing a part of forgotten American history.
This interview was broadcast on our weekly Frommer's Travel Show on nationwide radio.