Monday, April 11, 2016
Suggested Reading: “The Oregon Trail – a New American Journey”
by Rinker Buck (Simon and Schuster, 2015. $28.)
Embedded deep within every Church of the Open Roader is an urge to see new places, confront challenges (either real or in one’s simple mind) and enhance our perspectives on self and the world. And maybe resolve a thing or two.
Rinker Buck, a my-aged writer for Connecticut’s Hartford Courant, disenchanted with the change that is thrust upon most of us during our careers and harkening back to childhood days camping from a New England horse-drawn wagon with dad and family, undertook a Church of the Open Road adventure of a lifetime. Starting near Kansas City bound for Baker City, Oregon in a replica Schuttler wagon, Buck and his brother traverse half a continent tracing a perilous route used 140 years ago, the route that opened up the west: the Old Oregon Trail.
With a reporter’s eye, he tells of verdant fields, thunderstorms, flooded camps, treacherous descents down rocky cliffs, parched desert runs, busted axles and of people – wonderful people whose spirit embodies that of our westerners: curious, helpful, joyful and strong.
As a historian, he weaves stories of 19th century heroism and pig-headedness, politics and plague attached to the place names through which he passes. On this romantic journey, Buck dispenses with the romance of the west outlining how cholera decimated hundreds, how helpful natives were abused and how religious persecution played a large role in seeing the land west of the 100th meridian settled.
As a brother and a son, he chronicles trying relationships with a father and a sibling – a sibling who turns out to be an excellent muleskinner – sharing how both resolve.
As pages turn, vast expanses of Kansas plains or Rocky Mountain crossings are vehicles for Buck’s examination of his greater circumstance and the circumstance in which, we, as a nation, find ourselves. Western wanderlust is elemental to who some of us are as individuals. Western expansion is most certainly elemental to our narrative as a nation. What we learn on our journeys can, and must, inform our tomorrows.
Looking at the possible history of our future - through the author's eyes after 2000 miles of heat, cold and hunger, self-doubt, worry and, finally, jubilation - one can take solace in Buck's conclusion:
The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.
Rinker Buck has given us a rewarding look at our country and ourselves. He has engaged in an ultimate adventure. And whether he knows it or not (or cares) he clearly has earned membership in the Church of the Open Road.