By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Rinker Buck
Narration by: Rinker Buck
From Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon, the Oregon Trail beckons the Buck brothers. Rinker Buck and his brother Nick cross the American west with three mules, and one dog in a prairie schooner and pup wagon. They cross six state borders to end their journey in Baker, Oregon. As writer and narrator of the journey, the Buck brothers replicate the hardship, tragedy, resilience and joy of western pioneers who reach Oregon in the 19th century. Along the way, Rinker explores memories of his father and differences with a brother that reveals his character.
Among many insights to early 1800’s travel, Rinker explains the difference between a Prairie schooner and a Conestoga wagon. Though often depicted in western movies, the Conestoga wagon is not the wagon that crossed the Oregon Trail. The Conestoga is too bulky, too heavy, and too rigid. It is outfitted with running gear that cannot traverse rough terrain without frequent breakdowns. The Conestoga is important in the settlement of the west but only as a grain, hay, and agricultural transport vehicle.
The Prairie schooner is lighter, with a driver seat, and running gear independent of the wagon that allow for rough trails.
In contrast, the Conestoga running gear is an integral part of the wagon. It provides rigidity and stability for heavy agricultural loads but is inflexible on rough terrain. The Conestoga has no driver’s seat but is walked beside as it transports goods. Rinker’s brother is a connoisseur of wagon history and a master fixer that makes him a perfect companion for the cross-country trip. Rinker notes that this adventure will be the first time in a hundred years for traversing the west by mule and wagon.
Contrary to movie depictions of early settler travels, Rinker explains that mules are a preferred choice for wagon power. George Washington is cited as one of the first mule experts and breeders in America. Through cross breeding between horses and donkeys, Washington perfected a breed of mule that is stronger, lighter, more sure-footed, and better at crossing long distances than any other beast of burden in America. Mules are bigger and stronger than donkeys. Mules require less water than horses.
Rinker argues that mules are smarter and are undeservedly characterized as ornery. Rinker explains that a mule’s reluctance to move is often related to perceptions of danger. As the brother’s travel progresses, a listener begins to appreciate the value of the American mule while the brothers cope with idiosyncratic behaviors that are more related to hyper-alertness than orneriness.
The Rinker brothers travel on the Trail is inspiring. It makes one appreciate the history of America’s westward expansion, the beauty of nature, and the adventure of travel by animal power. There is so much to see and a different way of seeing. Rinker intersperses tales of his relationship with his father, a former publisher of “Look” magazine, and his upbringing in a family of ten children. Rinker bares love and ambivalence toward his father and becomes more aware of how he and his travelling brother are so different and so alike. He exposes a disdain for organized religion while appreciating the friendliness and helpfulness of devoted church followers.
Rinker Buck’s writing and narration make one want to experience the hardship of traveling long distances without the power and pollution of a speeding car, train, or plane. “The Oregon Trail” encourages self-examination and a re-consideration of what is important in life.