Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: "The Oregon Trail: An American Journey" by Rinker Buck

Ah, Oregon Trail. I'm sure many of you have memories like I do; sitting in front of a (now considered laughably huge) computer, loading up our fake wagons full of fake supplies (I don't know if I knew what an axle was) and naming our fake fellow travelers after real friends and crushes. And then being angry when you ford a river (again, what is fording exactly?) and lose a bunch of supplies and a buddy.

It's kind of funny how an incredibly dangerous voyage was made into a fun computer game. (But then again we also took pirates who were super scary and dangerous and turned them into a funny Johnny Depp led family friendly cinematic powerhouse. So, whatever, humanity is strange).

Aside from my computer gaming skills and some vague stories about the unfortunate Donner Party I couldn't really tell you much about the Oregon Trail, but now that I've read this book I feel like a near expert!

So our author Rinker, has an ambitious plan. He wants to travel in a super authentic wagon across as much of the original Oregon Trail as he can. He plans to go alone, but than his super outgoing and horeseman brother Nick decides he is going to join him. Rinker should be happy he does because he would have been in massive trouble if he actually went through this alone! The journey from Missouri to Oregon in a massive wagon pulled by 3 mules. (There is at least 6 pages on mules and how they are bred and what makes them such great workers. Never thought I'd learn that much about mules ever). They are greeted by so many friendly folks that offer them food, hay, creature comforts, or a place to park for the night. Interspersed with the tales of their journey is the tales of the pioneers and the trailblazers (literally) of the original trek.

Here's a couple of things I found interesting:

-There wasn't just one trail. Basically pioneers followed the small trails worn by Native Americans and fur trappers and made them larger. There were several ways to get out west, though several ran through the same places.

-You were far more likely to die from accidental shootings, drowning, or getting run over by a wagon; than being shot by angry Native Americans. But, Hollywood decided that that's all so much more dramatic and interesting for movies than someone getting crushed by huge wheels.

-Cholera killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people between 1849 and the Civil War.

-Almost all of the main Oregon Trail is marked. Even in the places where there is now highway and urban sprawl. There is a huge group of people who are devoted to preserving the trail and the many graves of the pioneers who died and were buried alongside the trail. It's a thankless job mostly, but they are a passionate group who understand how important this work is for history.

-The last part of a dead antelope to decay is it's rib cage. So if you're chasing loose mules across the prairie make sure you have good shoes or else you're going to have a dead antelope injury.

I learned a ton from this book. I would love to do this trip, but only if there's snacks and running water and air conditioning. I think I could go for about a week in the style that Rinker and Nick did but than I would be done. There were 2 qualms about this book. 1 - I'm so curious about how much this whole endeavor cost. I wanted to know so badly because so much was custom made and shipped across the country and all this stuff. So curious. 2- The author went on personal random tangents about things that really didn't seem relevant to the book. It didn't happen very often but when I did it almost always made me roll my eyes. Overall I give it a high 3.5 out of 5 stars!



  1. Ha, I immediately thought of the computer game when I saw the title of your post! It was good times playing that game back in school. :D This book sounds so interesting though - how cool of the author and his brother to take on the trip and try to relive the experience. I am fond of Westerns, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to live in that time period without all the amenities - this book seems like the perfect way to have that experience then. Great review!

    1. The courage that it took for people to pack up everything they had and set out on the trail is beyond my comprehension. Like, run over by wagon wheels? Eek!

  2. "naming our fake fellow travelers after real friends and crushes" -THIS right here! And also getting mad when your crush died on the trail.

    This sounds interesting, I've always been curious about the Oregon Trail, but I'm with you, I don't think I could do it by covered wagon. I'll take the air conditioned car, thank you.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who pined for people through a computer game :)

      Who can we get to pay for this (by car) Oregon trail trip I wonder?


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