Rinker Buck wanted to go west and experience a bit of history. A burnt-out newspaperman (he was a staff writer at The Hartford Courant for many years), and a self-described “divorced boozehound with a bad driving record and emerging symptoms of low self-esteem,” Buck hit the road in the summer of 2011 . . . in a mule-drawn covered wagon.
You may think him just plain crazy. Buck followed in the old wagon ruts and dusty paths of the thousands of pioneers who navigated the 2,100-mile Oregon Trail in the decades before the Civil War.
There’s a lot going on in “The Oregon Trail,” a book that’s absorbing on shifting levels. Fundamentally, it’s an adventure story, one in which the Buck brothers find themselves in some legitimately harrowing situations involving cliffs, rivers, runaway mules and low water supplies in the desert.
Mr. Buck is also a capable historian, and he delivers concise primers as he moves along. More than 400,000 pioneers made the trip from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast in the 15 years before the Civil War, he notes, in what was probably one of the largest single land migrations in history.
Buck and his big blunderbuss of a brother, Nick fashioned an epic of their own. They drove their three-mule team from St. Joseph, Mo., across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, into the forbidding high altitudes of Wyoming, then into mountainous Idaho and on to Oregon.