Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Oregon Trail

By Rinker Buck
When Rinker was a youngster, his father took his kids traveling in a covered wagon. It was an unforgettable experience that stuck with Rinker throughout his life. Now in his later years, Rinker decided he wanted to travel the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon like the original pioneers did.
So he purchased wagons, mules, and other gear and, together with his brother Nick and Nick's dog, Olive Oyl, headed west to start their wagon trip at St. Joseph, Missouri. Both Rinker and Nick are experienced horsemen and Nick is experienced in driving a wagon and team. So they are not neophytes in this enterprise.
Unfortunately, much of the Oregon Trail has been lost to farming, ranching, development and highway construction, so the trip on actual trail only consisted of about 40% of their travel time. The rest was on highways and country roads. But they still had to contend with some of the same problems the original users faced. Storms, flooding, washed out passages, equipment failures, crashes, ornery mules, getting lost, runaway mules, dog bites, bringing too much stuff along, miscalculations and so on. About the only thing they didn't have to deal with was illness, as they tolerated the rough travel surprisingly (to me) rather well.
But this isn't just a book about the trip. It also delves into the history of the trail and of the westward emigration, presented in an easy style that made it all just part of the story.
Rinker also has some interesting opinions about the past and present:

Few organized religions, however, can prosper without stunning misbehavior by their leaders. Smith's [Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism] new faith soon stumbled over his secret endorsement of plural marriage, or polygamy, a practice he justified with a great deal of theological mumbo jumbo designed to conceal his chronic philandering. Smith was an attractive man and a spellbinding speaker, and women swooned during his sermons. He rarely met a follower's pretty wife or teenage daughter whom he didn't covet, and many of them succumbed to his charms without Smith having to make much of an effort. Under an impressive veil of deceit, Smith eventually "sealed" to forty-five wives, and his successor Brigham Young would go on to build two adjoining mansions in Salt Lake to house his own fifty-one wives and estimated fifty-seven children.

This model of government support for a major development project [the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail] became popular and was accepted as the new norm for western growth. Each new phase of frontier growth -- the railroads, ranching, mining -- was also supported by either outright government subsidies, land giveaways, or federally supported irrigation and bridge-building projects. That was the tradition established by the Oregon Trail and it has always amused me that the myth of "rugged individualism" still plays such a large role in western folklore and American values. In fact, our vaunted rugged individualism was financed by huge government largesse.

The [mean] rancher reminded me of those Emperor Nero state troopers who cannot hand out a routine speeding ticket without pestering a driver with a string of useless and humiliating questions. The cops of America are poster-boys of low self-esteem. Their uniforms, silly hats, and sparkling patent leather girdles freighted down with shiny handcuffs, walkie-talkies, and spray canisters of Mace apparently do not make them feel secure enough, so they always add the hostile interrogation to make sure that the accosted citizens know who is in charge.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end and I even read most of the lengthy acknowledgements in the back of the book. It's grand adventure, man vs nature and American history all in one.
For another review, see

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