A Q&A With Rinker Buck, Author of July’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers have selected The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck (Simon & Schuster) as the number one Indie Next List pick for July.

In 2011, inspired in part by a family trip from New Jersey to Pennsylvania by covered wagon in the 1950s, Buck and his brother Nick set out in a covered wagon hauled by a team of mules to navigate the old Oregon Trail between Missouri and Oregon. Writing down his observations at night after making camp, Buck returned from the trail with 30,000 words documenting his trip, along with maps, brochures, local histories, and personal interviews to back up his notes with immense historic detail.

In The Oregon Trail, “readers learn about wagon design, mule heritage, and what pioneers needed to endure traveling west in the 19th century,” said Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, New York. “This is also a moving personal story of brotherhood, endurance, and the kindness of strangers. Buck weaves fact, action, and reflection together into a page-turning delight that history buffs and fans of contemporary nonfiction will not want to miss.”

A longtime journalist, Buck has written for publications such as the Berkshire Eagle, the Hartford Courant, Vanity Fair, New York, and Life. When Buck was a teenager, he and his brother Kern flew across America in a Piper Cub airplane, a trip that Buck later chronicled in the travel narrative Flight of Passage: A Memoir (Hachette Books).

Here, Buck talks about the surprises he discovered along the Oregon Trail and the passion that prompted his journey.

Bookselling This Week: Planning a covered wagon trip across the modern-day Oregon Trail must have required immense organization and research. How did you prepare for this trip? What were the biggest surprises in terms of what you expected versus what you found once on the trail?

Photo by Robert Mitchell

Rinker Buck: Like many writers, I become fixated on a subject once I become interested — I call this my “good” obsessive-compulsive disorder. I read more than 100 books about the trail and the West before I left on the covered wagon trip. I also started organizing all of my notes into separate research files (“Covered Wagon Development,” “Cholera Along the Platte”), so I had something to begin with when I returned.

One big surprise of the trip was just how much of the original Oregon Trail was there, virtually intact and unchanged, and how many of the old pioneer campgrounds you can still just roll into with your wagon and camp for the night. Even when the old ruts have been paved over by two-lane highways, the views, the geography, the wide-open plains that the pioneers encountered are identical today. One of my favorite paintings of the trail is by the renowned 19th century photographer and painter William Henry Jackson, called Approaching Chimney Rock, a charming pastel that depicts the wagon trains dropping down a long incline on the high desert plains of western Nebraska. That route is now paved Highway 92/26. As we came over the rise on the asphalt, the view toward the pink pinnacle of the rock was identical to the one depicted in the Jackson painting. Even the hue of the desert and the color of the sky was the same.

Back east, studying my maps before we left on the trip, I was worried about navigating the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming, where the trail has been blocked by the modern Interstate 25. I was concerned about summiting Rocky Ridge near the continental divide at South Pass, because all of the “experts” said that we couldn’t get a wagon over that miserable staircase of rocks. But navigating the Black Hills via an old pioneer cutoff route that diverted around the modern highway wasn’t that difficult, just arduous. Two or three times a day, I climbed the Rocky foothills and took a compass bearing on the North Platte River, and then returned to the wagon and held that bearing through the canyons and scrub brush. Navigating Rocky Ridge wasn’t that difficult either because we had the confidence to “see” a route through the boulder fields and then just slowly, meticulously ease the mules and the wagon over the rocks.

BTW: The concept of the “trail family,” which you discovered as people from all walks of life came out of their homes to feed you, offer you places to sleep, and share their stables with your mules, was one of the most notable elements of your journey. Has the impression of the trail family — the overwhelming hospitality and generosity — stayed with you following your trip?

RB: Finding trail family everywhere was more a continuation of life habits than something new for me. It happened on the Piper Cub trip from New York to California that another brother and I took in 1966, described in Flight of Passage. I always find trip family on my journalistic wanderings across the country or abroad. There is a special intensity to the instant friendships made on journeys, and, in fact, among my closest friends, many of them are people I met in memorable ways while traveling. I shuttle around all year between Maryland, Florida, California, the Catskills, and the Amish country of Ohio. My family is my trip family.

But I certainly stressed this in The Oregon Trail, where the generosity and hospitality of everyone we met along the way made so much difference for the trip. For Americans, there is something iconic about seeing a covered wagon approaching on the horizon. In the book, I call this the “deeply repressed but potent collective memory” of what the wagon and the pioneer experience meant to the formation of America and our self-estimation as a people. The trip wasn’t ours alone. It was shared with everyone. They all wanted to be part of the trip, helping us make the next waypoint that night.

The most potent themes of a book are the ones you never alert the readers to. Don’t tell them. Just describe events. So I tried not to be too didactic about this point. But there was certainly a subtextual message that, amid all the rancid political divisions and toxic social anger of our day, the essential generosity and resourcefulness of the American people finds a way to emerge. We were two Easterners with decidedly moderate to liberal views, bumping a covered wagon through the most conservative region of the country — Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho. The ranches we crossed often had “NOBAMA” bumper stickers on the tractors. But nobody cared about that and politics never came up because our trip was about something different, something more.

BTW: The term “pioneer” has evolved dramatically over the years, originating as a 16th century term for a foot soldier and eventually referring to an explorer of new lands. What definition do you think the word “pioneer” takes in today’s world? What is a modern pioneer?

RB: The nature of man is to progress. If you remove that, you remove our humanity. A pioneer is someone who sees the future now and goes there. They are not confined by tradition and prejudice; they do not respond to the warning, “It can’t be done.” The founders of the great technology empires in Silicon Valley — even if I disagree with their corporate behavior sometimes — are pioneers. Elon Musk of Space-X and Tesla is a pioneer. The lawyers and activists who worked tirelessly and without much thanks for more than 20 years to secure the rights of marriage for everyone are pioneers. Climate change scientists are pioneers. They saw the possibilities or hazards of the future and went there. Given our pioneer past, it’s a very deep strain in the American DNA.

BTW: Living for four months on the rough and rugged Oregon Trail, you learned to give up some of today’s modern luxuries, including regular showers, steamed vegetables, and even shined shoes. Since returning from your trip, do you find yourself living any differently than before? Have any modern luxuries lost their charm for you?

RB: I did have one interesting life change, which is a willingness to embrace more transience in my life. My family in Maine needed more help keeping my elderly mother out of assisted living, so I live there a great deal of time, working on that. A German television crew wanted footage of a covered wagon crossing the trail, so I lived in Idaho for a while. I spend a lot more time with my trip families in the Catskills or Maryland. Long sections of my book were written in these places. I would just carry around all of my research for the next two chapters in cardboard boxes. I enjoy the vagabond life more.

I also think that people today should spend a lot less time obsessively peering into these little electronic boxes that they carry around in the back pockets of their skinny jeans. Frig that. We’ve become a nation of digital slaves. Corporate bosses know they can always interrupt your private life and make you work 24 hours a day. Oh, and isn’t it really important for you to wand on the little black box and learn that your sister has a new recipe for tofu-pepperoni pizza? Forget your sister. She’s pestering you with trivial nonsense. We’re digital slaves. I covered 2,000 miles with mules and made 79 camps along the most spectacular landscape in the world without that stuff. Throw your tablet and your cell phone in the river and start living.

BTW: A variety of elements came together to inspire you and your brother to tackle the Oregon Trail with a proper wagon-and-mule outfit, but you noted that it was the “crazyass passion” that propelled this vision into reality. Where does that passion come from? And where will it be taking you next?

RB: I think it comes from reading a lot of books and being a passionate, romantic person with a low threshold for boredom. You have to be nearly literally “crazy,” but also deeply grounded in practicality, to accomplish certain things. I don’t particularly care about social acceptance or being considered sane. I care about history and what makes it, and writing well about its meaning for us today.

Winston Churchill was crazy to consider that he could save the last free country in Europe from the Nazis, but he did it. If you look at what America was up against at the time, John Kennedy was bonkers to say that we would put a man on the moon “before the decade is out.” We did it, with several months to spare. Almost four centuries of chattel slavery and then the Jim Crow laws were the shame of our constitutional society, and seemingly ineradicable. Then Martin Luther King Jr. came along and said that it would dignify all Americans to end this behavior. That guy got rid of the Jim Crow laws in 10 years.

You have to be crazy because the whole weight of culture, man’s default toward predictability and same-old, is against you. They say it can’t be done. Well, thanks, boneheads. Why don’t you just enjoy neatening up the garage and applying crabgrass preventer every spring while I go out and do this?

Yes, I do have a new project, definitely crazyass, but also driven by a wonderful opportunity to revive forgotten history. But I try not to talk about new ventures until the book is done.