If you’re an American, you’ve heard of the Oregon Trail. If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably learned about this pathway to the West while playing The Oregon Trail on an Apple II (screw you dysentery!). But despite it being one of the largest human migrations in history, most folks don’t know much about the Oregon Trail. Well, my guest today thought that was a shame and decided to cross the original Oregon Trail himself, in a covered wagon no less, to see what he could learn about his pioneer forebearers along the way. He also learned a lot about himself, his family, and modern Americans while on the trip. His name is Rinker Buck and he’s the author of the book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker, along with his brother, were the first people in over 100 years to cross the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon and today on the show we talk about Rinker’s experience.
- Did you know there remains wagon wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail that you can still follow?
- Why there’s more than just one Oregon Trail
- Why the Oregon Trail was one giant trash heap
- The lost skills Rinker had to re-learn in order to cross the trail successfully
- The nobility of the mule (and how today’s American mule descends from George Washington’s mule stock)
- How the American nation developed along the trail
- How getting comfortable with uncertainty is key to surviving and thriving on such a trip
- What Rinker learned about being a man while crossing the Oregon Trail
If you’re a history buff, you’ll love this book. Rinker does a great job mixing in-depth historical lessons with his laugh-out-loud descriptions of his own experience crossing the trail. After reading it, you’ll want to get your own schooner and strike out for the West. Pick it up on Amazon today.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, if you are an American, you know about the Oregon Trail. Learned about it in elementary school, in middle school, or you probably learned about it playing the video game of the 1980s, Oregon Trail. Right? Where your family always dies of dysentery.
Well, it’s a big moment in American History, one of the largest mass migrations in human history, but a lot of people don’t know that much about it. Well my guest today decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to cross the Oregon Trail … in a covered wagon so I can learn more about this part of American history.’ His name is Rinker Buck. He’s an author, journalist and now one of the first people to cross the Oregon Trail in nothing but a covered wagon in over 100 years and he did it. He made it all the way to Oregon along with his brother and today on the podcast we’re going to discuss his book, ‘The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.’
We discuss some of the details about this very unique aspect of American history. We talk about the things that Rinker had to relearn. He’s lost skills that we’ve lost as a culture; things like how to handle mules, how to repair a wagon. He had to learn this on the fly in order to make this trip a success and then we also talk about what he learned about being a man while on this over 4 month journey across the Oregon Trail. If you love history, you’re going to get a kick out of this podcast. Rinker is a character. He’s really funny and he knows his history so without further ado, Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail.
Rinker Buck, welcome to the show.
Rinker Buck: Hey it’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: Your book is, ‘The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,’ and it is part memoir, part history book and it’s basically it’s your travel log of you and your brother in a covered wagon pulled by mules and you guys do the Oregon Trail.
Rinker Buck: Right.
Brett McKay: First off, this is great. What inspired you to do this and why did you think that was even a possibility?
Rinker Buck: Well, what happened was I’ve always written a lot about history and I’m kind of one these people that couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with my life; be a writer or be a historian. I kind of picked both and I happened to be out working on an assignment as a journalist in Kansas and I ran across a stretch of the trail and I walked … there’s a lot of original ruts left. Of the 2100 mile trail about half of the original ruts are still there and the rest is just a two lane blacktop that you can follow very easily and it’s really still the Oregon Trail because it functions for those communities the same way, but at any rate I became fascinated by the Trail after walking the ruts and stopping at a couple sites. The reason was that was I don’t really like the way we teach history in this country and we never explain it to kids. We tell them who the guy George Washington was, but we don’t include the information that he was the richest guy in America and he had a lot of motivation to separate from the British Crown.
It amazed me when I got into Trail history that so many of the myths, and romance, and fantasy from Hollywood and so forth about the Trail years and about the opening of the west was just plain inaccurate. For instance, women played a really critical role in opening the Trail because there was a big cultural prejudice about women crossing the trail. It’s considered dangerous and one particular woman, Narcissa Whitman, who I write about a lot, really opened up the Trail.
The Indians were friendly at first, until we started slaughtering the buffalo in such numbers that they realized the end was near unless they became hostile. Religion played a much greater role in driving people to the trail than anyone would ever tell you in a history book because historians tend to want to go on with the fact that America was a very uncomfortable society, a very bitter society in the 19th century. There were huge religious battles over nonsensical doctrinal points in every small town and people got sick of it and they just decided I’m going to move somewhere where I’ve got a little more religious elbow room and a lot of the wagon trains were actually formed by a group of Baptists, a group of Lutherans, and so forth and it’s hilarious to read the accounts because they’d get to a camping point and, ‘Oh, we better go another mile. I don’t want to park for the night near those Methodists.’ You know?
The outfitters were these classic American scammers. They overloaded, they forced the pioneers to overload their wagons, knowing full well that the pioneers would dump it off somewhere along the way and then the outfitters could come along and pick it back up and bring it back to Independence, or St. Joe, and resell it to the next group of suckers.
The Trail fascinates me … excuse me?
Brett McKay: I was saying that, yeah, like people would pack pianos.
Rinker Buck: Yeah and right. They did pack pianos and by the 1850s, you could literally navigate all the way to California or Oregon along the Oregon Trail, the trip’s 1000 miles of the California Trail is the Oregon Trail and just navigate your way just by the debris field. That’s literally true.
That fascinated me and I wanted to write a book about the real trail instead of the myth that was passed down to us as school children and then I came across in one of my history books a statement that the last documented crossing of the Trail had occurred in 1909. I said to myself, ‘Well boy, that’s a much better book.’ If the Trail hasn’t been crossed in over a hundred years, why don’t I just buy a team of mules and a covered wagon and go. What happened was, I had grown up on a horse farm where my dad was a wagon fancier. He was a horse and buggy guy and we’d actually gone on a covered wagon trip as kids just between our farm in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, much more modest adventure.
You know how childhood memories are and everything, it just enabled me, it just empowered me to feel that I could do it. It was pretty simple. One team of mules and an old restored wagon and everything and we left with my brother who’s a much better horseman than I am and it promptly stopped getting simple the day we left. It was simple in the form of the idea.
Brett McKay: Yeah and we’ll get into that. As I was reading this book, I learned so much about the Oregon Trail and I’ll admit before I read the book I really didn’t know much about the Oregon Trail. I think that’s very common too and I think it’s odd because like you said in the book, it’s one of the world’s largest land migrations that’s ever happened in the history and it shaped the country, but we don’t know much about it. Why does the Oregon Trail get overlooked in American History?
Rinker Buck: Oh I think what happens is we sanitize a lot of history. There’s a guy named Jim Loewen who’s written a really excellent book called, ‘Lies my Teachers Told Me,’ and he talks about this process as heroification. In order to heroify someone and pass down a version of myth that school boards across the country can accept… you have to sort of present the side of that person that’s acceptable to the American public and to the kind of people who write textbooks.
The Oregon Trail, I think, kind of lost out because the curriculum is, there’s so many other important periods they have to deal with, but also, the historians really didn’t want to deal with what really happened on the Trail. Religious squabbling, huge ongoing battles literally, between the Mormons and the non-Mormon Christians. A huge amount of scamming by the outfitters, very dishonest business practices that we’d see today, or Ralph Nader would rant on about.
The pioneers knew they were drinking bad water that was causing dysentery and also gave them cholera and killed them. There was actually enough medicine around, enough science around to begin to understand why that was so, but they continued to drink the bad water because it was all they had. Things like that and I think maybe the Trail was just too complex, too violent, too difficult. All the things that I describe in my book, you know?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Rinker Buck: What history book writers want to pass on is something that’s simple. You know? A myth that’s simple. They don’t want questions at the end, they want to answer everything and in fact history is an enigma. Sometimes there’s not answers.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Sometimes it’s much more complex and much more nuanced. This is great, so if someone hasn’t done this in over a hundred years, I imagine there were skills that you had to acquire, or relearn, or revive in order to make this happen. What sort of things did you have to teach yourself in order to make this trip possible?
Rinker Buck: There were all sorts of things. The art of wagon making and the art of driving mules has been lost. I mean, there’s a reason it hasn’t been crossed in a hundred years, cause nobody’s been driving around in wagons for a hundred years.
Little things like, no one could tell us, even all the Amish and people who use horses all the time. No one could tell us how often we’d have to re-shoe the horses, the mules and we actually re-shod them 5 times. My re-shoeing bill, my blacksmithing bill was 2500 dollars when the trip ended.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Rinker Buck: We just had to leave with that uncertainty and not know and it turns out about 250 miles of continuous travel, which is only 2 or 3 weeks, and you’d better re-shoe again. We had a really good wagon restorer in Kansas. The guy did a really great job putting our wagon together and designing the right design and he built for me something called the trail pop which was a two wheel commissary cart that we towed behind the main covered wagon so that we wouldn’t have to have any motorized support. We could just carry all our provisions with us and a lot of water.
He had no idea, in fact in the 19th century, and I later studied up on it, but in the 19th century they always had an old shoe or an old piece of saddle leather or something on the wooden brake shoes so that the wooden brake shoe, the whole brake shoe hitting the iron tire rim wouldn’t wear through. You know we’re writing messages and we said, ‘Well we think we’re going to need brake linings in these.’ He says, ‘Those brakes, those wooden brakes will last you all the way to Oregon.’ Well they didn’t last us a hundred miles so we had to find some thresher belt.
The Amish were absolutely convinced that we would hook carts, 3 wheels up, we hooked up three abreast with something called a jockey stick which you just have 2 horse lines and then you connect the third wheel just with a stick between the bits which is how the Amish do it in the fields. That was totally wrong, 100% wrong. About 3 days on the trip as soon as we got out of sight of the Amish, we called a harness maker in New Hampshire and said, ‘Hey, can we ship 3 horse lines to this following address? We’ll be there in a week or something.’ It changed the trip dramatically.
Things like that, I mean learning … there was stretches in Wyoming where it’s 50 miles between the rivers and we had to carry all our water. We would have to go 50 miles in a single day to get to water and everyone said there’s no way you can get 50 miles in a single day. You can’t do it. You’re going to have to have motorized support and we said, ‘Well, we’re not going to have motorized support,’ and I learned to navigate straight across the desert using certain landmarks and hawks. Where the hawks were cause the hawks were always knew where the prairie dogs are and the prairie dogs are always near the river crossings, things like that. We had several days where we did 40 to 50 miles cause we had to get to water by the end of the day. We couldn’t wake up without water in the morning and have enough water for our meals.
The Trail’s pretty well marked across the country, but they don’t always mark it at an intersection so you come to a ‘Y’ in the road and the actual trail marker is another mile or 2 down, but in a covered wagon, that’s an hour’s trip and it’s really hard to turn them around, go back because the guys who marked the Trail do them with pick up trucks and ATV s and that kind of thing.
I had to learn to get a reckon and land navigate. It was a mistake. We should’ve brought a horse along so that I could ride ahead and scout trail. I ended up scouting about 700 miles of trail on foot. I walked a third of the Trail just to figure out where we were. I guess the last thing I would say is, the pioneers had a covered wagon train for a reason. You had 50 wagons, a hundred wagons then you have all that labor. You got all those men, you got all the kids. You get to a steep place like California Hill or Rocky Ridge, really dangerous places for a wagon, and one thing we lost is the trail in Wyoming and the pioneers unload the wagons, the kids and the young teenage girls and everything carried all the bedsteads and rolled the barrels of pork and everything up the hill. Now you have a light wagon, you double team, you put 2 or 3 teams on a single wagon and pull up the light wagon and you’ve got all that labor to do it.
Stupid Rinker. The dumbest jack ass in the world. He goes, ‘oh, oh, oh I’ll figure that out when I get to California Hill,’ and it was really brutal getting up those places because we didn’t have a covered wagon chain to help us and I also figured out after we got to the top of the California Hill was above the Platte River in rural Nebraska, that I could very easily have gotten about a thousand pounds off that wagon leaving some hay behind because there was plenty of hay up on top. I can get rid of my water because you know, water weighs 8 pounds a gallon. I could have gotten rid of about 7 or 800 pounds of water, left our feed behind because I knew there were ranches up on top of the plateau where I would be able to replenish that stuff. Or I could’ve gone back the next day, borrowed a pick up truck or something, gotten all my hay and stuff.
Like a jack ass, I just let my brother talk me into, ‘Hey, we can get up there,’ and then we got up to the first level you know and it was, ‘Holy eesh. We’re not going to …. whoa,’ you know? Somehow we struggled but then we made it. There was just tons of things that you couldn’t learn before you left, you just had to teach yourself along the way and the feel of the journey really for us was, and I talk about this in the book, is you got to learn to live with uncertainty and if the art of horsemanship and traveling by covered wagon hasn’t been done in a hundred years, there’s all kinds of really important things, like brake pads. You’ve got to teach yourself along the way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that think of uncertainty because I think it’s something that us in our 21st century society and culture where anything we want we can get at the push of a button, literally.
Brett McKay: Right.
Brett McKay: We have so much certainty in our lives and I feel like our pioneer fore bearers, like they really learned to manage, or live with uncertainty.
Rinker Buck: Yeah, and many of them had moved their farms 3 or 4 times, but by the time he was 21 Abraham Lincoln had lived on 5 different farms and his experience was by no means unusual. People lived with uncertainty then. You’d stake out a claim, you’d manage it, you’d do whatever you had to, and 5 or 6 years later and economic conditions had changed and you had to do something else. People would learn to live with uncertainty and I kind of feel sorry for our culture today, especially the millennials and the young kids because the whole system has been geared up and distorted to give them certainty. ‘Well, this is my major in college and I have to do two student internships, which is basically a form of our culture of corporate sweatery, you know? Unpaid internships, so they do that and then, ‘That means I can get a job at Google, or if not Google it’ll be in some other entrepreneurial start up out in Silicon Valley, blah, blah, blah,’ and their whole life everything’s done. What are we? ‘Oh I know exactly what I’m going to be doing, you know?’ To me, that’s a terrible way to live.
Go off and take some adventure where you’re not certain of the outcome. You’ve got to figure out the outcome. Our whole culture is based on knowing the outcome, predicting the outcome and what I learned on the covered wagon trip is there is no outcome. The outcome is the journey itself, you know?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Rinker Buck: You’re not certain. I mean, when I left, my agent said to me, he said, ‘Hey look, if your wheels break halfway through Nebraska, there’s still probably a book here.’ I knew that was true and I left. I had no idea whether we’d make it. I didn’t know how we were going to cross the rivers. All kinds of things and we had huge stretches of land to cross. There were private ranches, turned out the ranchers were great and couldn’t wait to see us and stuff like that. It was just a new uncertainty everyday and nothing can break that spirit.
Brett McKay: Yeah and I guess it makes you more resilient when things don’t go the way you planned. Right? You just bounce back, ‘All right, well I can’t do anything about it, we’ll go to Plan B now.’
Rinker Buck: Yeah, yeah … and sometimes there is no Plan B. You just figure out Plan B as you go along. Like we came to this place called Dempsey Ridge, it was 8300 feet and in a mile and a half, we had to drop down to 6000 feet along the Bear River in Idaho. It was sort of a big crossing of the Rockies and it was hugely dangerous. There was a 300 foot cliff on the left side of this very narrow trail we had to follow. It’s miraculous that we got down there without getting killed. We could easily have been killed because nobody knew, that was another big thing of the trip, nobody knows. Nobody can tell us. We even stopped at the Bureau of Land Office, the Bureau of Land Management Office, nearby before we took on Dempsey Ridge and they go, ‘Well, it’s either way. I mean it is government land, but we haven’t been up there in a while and I’m not quite sure what you’re going to find.’
We just learned to live with uncertainty, but the big thing for me is, go ahead and make a decision and move forward, you could always reverse that decision tomorrow. Every decision is reversible and we tend to live now a days via, you’ve got to sit down and put everything down on a piece of paper, and do a spreadsheet on it, what are the advantages versus disadvantages, so forth and you’ve got to make the right decision. Well, no you don’t have to make the right decision. We had a ball. We spent 4 months crossing the Oregon Trail and I probably made a bad decision everyday and we got there.
Brett McKay: I’m sure a lot of the original settlers, they probably wouldn’t even have left if they tried to make sure, micromanage every aspect of their trip. They probably just wouldn’t even left because like, ‘It’s just too daunting. I can’t do that.’
Rinker Buck: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Rinker Buck: We distort that in history because we sort of depict the pioneers, ‘Oregon or bust,’ which by the way, they didn’t even have that on their wagons, but what would happen actually was amazing. You’d get to cool places like the Parting of the Ways where the Trail would split for going to California down to Nevada and Utah, or going to Oregon up through Idaho, Northwest and it’s amazing how many people actually made their decision, ‘All right lets go to California instead of Oregon.’ Right there. That morning.
They didn’t leave knowing what they were doing. Imagine, you’ve got your whole family on board. About 5 or 6 different places along the Trail where people would go, ‘Well, you know? All right, let’s go to California. We weren’t planning on that, but let’s do it.’ These people that we worship as our myth creators, our kind of icons, we give to them attributes that they didn’t really have.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think in the process, you take away something. I think it’s actually kind of admirable or it makes them more relatable. I could totally see myself doing that, like, ‘Okay, my original plan, I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m going to go this way.’ Makes it much more relatable.
Here’s a question I have, so when people talk, here’s the kind the kind of the myth of the Oregon Trail, it’s not just one trail, right? Like, there’s multiple Oregon Trails. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Rinker Buck: Sure. It’s a collection of trails and again, the way history’s taught, they got to simplify everything, ‘There was a single Oregon Trail. Blah, blah, blah.’ I guess cause they feel like kids need certainty. They need to know exactly what it was, even if it wasn’t that instead of giving kids complexity.
What happened was, in the buffalo days, you know, the buffalo cross and the buffalo town … crossing along the Sweetwater River called South Pass. It’s the Continental Divide there and it’s just this very gradual climb up and climb down, there’s no big ‘V’ it’s not like what you traditionally think of as a pass. The wildlife knew for a millennial that that was the way to get across the Rockies to find other feeding grounds. The Indians followed the … the Shoshone, the Sioux, so forth followed the buffalo cross and they always knew about South Pass and in about 1802, 1804 that period, a little later maybe, when historians were pioneering the fur roots, the fur trappers used in going to the Rockies. They learned about it from the Indians.
The covered wagon master learned about the roots of South Pass along the Platte River and the Sweetwater River from the fur trappers. There was this continuity along the way, but once they got to South Pass, well, first of all before South Pass in Nebraska people were on the north side of the river or the south side of the river 15 or 20 miles could separate them. There were all kinds of short cuts once they got to Wyoming, then once they got through South Pass, which pretty much everybody took the same route, between being there and the Idaho line, so central Wyoming to Idaho, the Trail was 150 miles wide. There was a land cut off which the federal government built. There was the sublet cut off, there was the Kinney cut off, there was a Salt Creek cut off, and then there were little main ruts that ran down to Fort Granger and the old rendezvous country which was the fur trapper route.
Then you get into Idaho and so forth and there were tons and tons of cut offs because if they Indians were ever not very hospitable during one year or another, they might go on the south side of the Snake River an so forth. There’s forty major cut offs. We took a lot of them. We took the sublet cut off. A flood at a place called Willow Creek blocked us from going. We couldn’t cross Willow Creek so we had to take the Seminal cut off, which I knew was there, but isn’t really marked now days, but I managed to find it and the whole thing was, the Oregon Trail was a collection of trails. It’s a collection of cut offs.
Most of the cut offs, the Seminal cut off, the Sublet cut off, the Lander Road were more traveled, were more heavily traveled after they were raised than the original Oregon Trail west as themselves. I explained all that in the book. It was actually one of the biggest revelations for me because I thought too, ‘Oh, just one trail.’ No, it’s an associated terrain. It’s a broad avenue through the west that the pioneers followed to new futures in the Pacific Northwest or California.
Brett McKay: One of the main characters in the book, it’s you and your brother, and we’ll talk about your brother in a bit because he’s a character.
Rinker Buck: Yeah.
Brett McKay: The other ones that I grew to love were the mules.
Rinker Buck: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.
Brett McKay: It’s funny because you used mules and I’m accustomed to seeing these picturesque paintings of covered wagon being pulled by oxen and child of the 80s, I played Oregon Trail, used oxen in the video game, so why mules?
Rinker Buck: Okay, so oxen were probably a slightly more, some historians can say maybe about a 60% more common draft animal than mules. Horses were eliminated and that’s why all these stupid John Wayne movies, ‘Wagon Train,’ and all those, they have these beautifully matched Belgian Percheron horses. There’s way you would use a horse and I explain all that in the book because they just don’t have the stamina and they’ve got about a thousand extra pounds of weight that the mules don’t have.
The oxen were more common, but only by maybe a slight fraction and the reason I didn’t want to use the oxen is you got to walk along beside them and crack the bull whip and everything. I know equines. I’ve never traveled with mules before, but I figured I could learn to drive mules, but I couldn’t imagine old Rinker standing there harnessed to milking up Sally the ox.
The other reason that mules were preferred by people who could afford them. The oxen were cheaper, but mules were preferred because they’re a lot faster. A mule travels at, you spend most of the day at what they call a fast walk. That’s about 4 miles 4.5 miles an hour, but you can do 25, 30 miles a day pretty easily. Oxen move at about 2.5 miles an hour and they’re just very ponderous and slow. They’re very strong and very reliable, but ponderous and slow.
There’s a whole chapter in the book, I probably shouldn’t wast the time here, but there’s a whole chapter in the book about how the mule developed and how it was really the mule that made America. The mule created America and it’s a very unique story about how they got here and how we were finally able to learn to breed them and so forth.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was one of the most interesting parts of the book because being in the south, people typically think of the mules for just like hick thing, right? It’s what poor people … but like most of the mules in America, right, am I correct? They came from George Washington’s original stock.
Rinker Buck: Right, right. After the American Revolution, America was finally able to begin importing these things called the mammoth jacks which is what you breed to a female horse to get a big giraffe mule and we did not have, as a country, we did not have access to the mammoth jacks parts in the American Revolution because the two countries that controlled that breed, which was Spain and France wouldn’t allow the trade of those mammoth jacks. They wouldn’t allow any to come to the country because they were, of course engaged in not only a war, but a trade war with Britain and they were going to help the British colonies. As soon as the Revolution was over and George Washington was now a global hero for having trounced the enemies of Spain and France, the royal stables of both countries essentially just sent us as many mammoth jacks as we wanted and they sent them to George Washington and he’s the guy that got the mules started.
They weren’t a southern animal either, even though they all started down there. If you go back and look at the Canal Era which was this glorious, wonderful era in American history, up north, everywhere else, we actually had more canals up north than there were anywhere else in the country. Of all the old pictures you see, of all the old mythologies, all the old Erie Canal songs and stuff that kids used to learn in school, show mules in the north pulling the canal boats. Mules were everywhere.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and they’re still used today and you mention the military still has a mule team that they take them out to Afghanistan to cross …
Rinker Buck: Yeah the military actually has 2 separate locations for mules at this point. One in Alabama and one in California and they keep riding mules and packing mules etcetera because you could always get a crisis like we had in Afghanistan where you’ve got to get supplies in there and you can’t drop them in, whatever. In fact some of our earliest attacks on the Taliban were done with the aid of mule packs so the American military still maintains them. They’ve actually come back in vogue. They’re a very fashionable animal now. People are breeding mules, fancy pets and walking mules and all this kind of stuff. Again, I get into that in the book and it’s pretty fascinating.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it is. It made me want to get a mule.
Rinker Buck: Yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What was your typical day like? Was it one of those things where days sort of bled into days, or was every day pretty much like you woke up and like something could happen today that could just completely throw this trip off?
Rinker Buck: I think the days were a solicitous blend of monotony and then something beautiful or very funny would happen. We would wake up, I slept in the covered wagon and my brother slept in a bedroll on the desert floor. We made 79 camps on the trip. I’d say about half of them were at original pioneer encampments. Places like Plum Creek and Rock Creek Station, and Independence Rock. All the places that the pioneers camped at, it turns out for the reasons that I explained in the book pretty much become state public parks. They’re very beautiful places and often times very, very remote places. The Oregon Trail country’s still gorgeously undeveloped, most of it. You can wake up in the morning and see the same things that the pioneers did.
We’d get up around 5:30, 6. I actually woke up earlier and I would make some breakfast for my brother and I, feed the mules. Then we’d harness, it takes about half and hour, 45 minutes to harness and hitch the wagon, and then we would often go, early in the trip, we found that by 5:30 or 6 in the evening we’d done our allotted 25 miles for the day, but we became kind of mile obsessed. We just wanted to make sure we were making enough progress.
Between 6 and 9 is actually a beautiful time to travel with mules, in the evening, because it’s cool and so we’d do another 10 miles in the evening. That would get us in the camp, pretty much, maybe an hour before sunset. Maybe sometimes at sunset and then you’re pretty exhausted. You’re tired from sitting on a wagon seat, being in the sunlight. In Nebraska, all off through the west, there’s always about a 35, sometimes even a 40 mile an hour wind on your face. It was just something the pioneers battled quite a bit and you’re just tired, tired, tired, exhausted, exhausted.
We’d make up a dinner of Hormel chili, no beans. Basically, that’s what we subsisted on for 4 months and then I’d collapse into my bed with my boots on, literally. I never did the dishes at night. I always did them in the morning. I was too exhausted. There was a monotony probably to that, except once a week we’d stop for a couple of days, give the mules a rest, but then in the middle of the day you’d come on some spectacular place like California Hill, or Inscription Rock, or we had this 3 day adventure where we had to get through something called the South Hills of Eastern Wyoming where the Trail isn’t marked. The trail’s there, but it’s never marked because it’s in old cat country. I had to get up every morning and climb the nearest peak and figure out what was my course to stay on the Platte River and that sort of stuff.
It was a combination of monotony and just absolute fun, thrilling stuff. A lot of nights we’d get to a ranch and people, ‘We’re making you a steak dinner. Get your stuff all settled and come on into the house.’ A combination of monotony, beauty, and fun.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. You’re brother went along with you and originally when you were going to do this trip, you weren’t planning on bringing your brother along, but come to find out he was like an asset. He made the trip possible and I loved it. He’s just really funny. Can you tell us a little bit about your brother and what skills he brought to your trip to make it possible?
Rinker Buck: Yeah. Well anybody who complains about their family, or familial relationships, or sibling relationships, they ought to read this book because it’s the kind of thing it’s like, you don’t know what it’s like to have it bad.
My brother and I grew up, we were on this horse farm in New Jersey. We were a big family; 11 kids and I was at the top and he was more in the middle. What happens in families like that is, big families, different sibling have completely different growing up experiences because the parents are at a completely different point say with the older kids than with the younger kids.
In my family, Nick was the guy that turned out, there was a couple of others too, but Nick was one of the ones that turned out, I went to college and considered myself sort of a refined person. You come to my house and I have antiques. You go into Nick’s house, if it’s an antique, it’s really an antique. He’s basically sort of assertively blue collar guy. He builds houses and fixes up barns and stuff like that for people, but he’s also extraordinarily adroit at wagon mechanics. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever heard of, he made a living for 10 years, a very good living at driving a train at a New Hampshire ski resort to cart people around and then during the summer he was a fisherman in Alaska. He worked in the Alaska fishery.
He has this brilliant mechanical background and mule driving experience and everything, but the big personality difference between us is he just considers anybody who’s wasted their life to the extent of getting a college education. It’s just, their inherently stupid. He was talking to a friend of his, once I overheard it because he has a loud voice, and his friend was saying, ‘Well I don’t know. I met your brother. He seems like a nice guy. It’s obvious that he reads a lot of books.’ Nick said to him, ‘Oh no, it’s much worse than that, much worse. He writes books.’
We’re basically incompatible. Very different people. A lot of the book was about, and yes it’s true, without him I wouldn’t have been able to make it because he could fix things. You know our wheels would break, parts of the wagon would break, the mules would run away, all this stuff and Nick could fix them and handle the mules and stuff a lot better than I could. There was a clear division of labor, but the point is that we had to conquer our personality differences.
I had to learn to just ignore the insults and the behavior and so forth and he had to learn to endure my, from his standpoint, unimaginable stupidity that results from a college education. The book is really about how two sibling who have a lot in common, but who have very different personalities conquer those differences to make the journey happen.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. I mean you had to. You had no choice. I’m sure that’s what happened with the early travelers as well, the early pioneers. There probably was a lot of personality differences, but they’re like, ‘All right, got to get over that because we’ve go to make this happen,’ whereas today, if you don’t like your sibling, well you can just go to another state or just go to another room if you’re still living with your parents.
Rinker Buck: Yeah. It’s a good point because it’s something we don’t talk about with the pioneers. There was a brutal calculus of personality involved. Brutal calculus of personality that made American history. What if you get in your Civil War and you don’t get along with the guys? What if you get in on the Oregon Trail and you don’t get along with people because so many people were randomly, diversely flung together. It’s coping skills. It’s coping skills that makes you successful and the book’s about that a lot.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What was the end of the trip like? Four months, did you feel a sense of accomplishment? I can imagine me doing something like that and I would be really excited for the ending and the ending would come and I’d be like, ‘Well that was sort of anti-climactic.’ What was the end of the trip like for you?
Rinker Buck: The end of the trip was a great feeling of accomplishment because so many people thought I was crazy to do it and they said, ‘You don’t really know what you’re doing. Yeah, you’ve driven wagons and all this, but your just … no. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not brutal and weathered enough and so forth.’ It was a great feeling of accomplishment that we actually got a team of mules and a covered wagon to Oregon despite all the hazards we managed and we hadn’t talked about the times the wagon broke.
It was mixed with depression actually because I wanted to live out on that trail forever. I loved the romance of being out in these beautiful open plains and Rocky mountains of the American west, which are really quite unchanged. It’s just the same beautiful vistas that the pioneers saw.
There’s an airplane taking off here. Sorry.
Brett McKay:No worries.
Rinker Buck: People listening to the podcast who know that I’m also a pilot will find it intolerable that I happen to be doing this podcast at the end of my favorite runway.
It was mixed with depression because I just didn’t want this … it was a very miracle, beautiful, rugged, glorious adventure. It was mixed with depression, but also happiness because I found a really great kind of retirement home for the mules. Someone wanted to take those mules from us and that was a very good thing that I didn’t have to sell them and split up the team. Maybe the last source of depression is, you probably know this a little bit, it’s … oh crap, now I’ve got to go home and write this book. The book’s going to be tougher than …
Brett McKay: Okay, I just had one last question before we go.
Rinker Buck: Sure.
Brett McKay: This is the Art of Manliness Podcast. Did you learn anything about being a man while going on this trip? Was there some life lesson that you took from this trip that you’re carrying with you today?
Rinker Buck: Sure. First of all I think that my brother and I are really, really rugged. We just had this ability to go on all day, no matter how hot we are and how much sun and wind is affecting us because we grew up on a farm and that sort of thing, but I don’t talk about that boastfully. It was just the combination of being with a brother with whom you share a lot of values and family legacy made it possible to have the endurance to cross the Trail.
The second side of it is, the fact I think there’s, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and offend women, but I think there’s something about the female sensibility that they are more interested in expressing vulnerability and not asserting that they know, they know the answer. Something very important happens to you when you do become vulnerable and you don’t know the answer which really happened a lot on the Trail. It’s just, ‘Well how the hell are we going to get across this river now? It’s overflowed. What am I going to do?’ In the sort of back of my mind I remember, ‘Well there is a cut off in this area that I might be able to take it, fine.’
What happens when you express vulnerability and what happens when you adopt and attitude of I don’t really know instead of just manly saying, (grunting noises.) It’s that your mind suddenly opens up to all the possibilities of all the other things that you could think of or try. In other words, whatever that tentacle is that flows through your body, the opposite of adrenaline say, that makes you open to exploring things. Actually opens up the intellectual possibilities of what you can achieve in this situation and so I learned that there was a very manly side, of course, of just endurance, not worrying about taking showers. It took us 29 days to cross Wyoming and we only had 3 showers the whole time. Perseverance, being able to hold mules back when they’re trying to run away on you and stuff, but that was only half of it.
The other half of it was not being arrogant, not being masculine, not being certain and just allowing situations to define themselves and to have a very open inquiring mind. That’s probably, I’m not saying that’s the big change, but it was certainly the big personality split that was reinforced by traveling the Oregon Trail.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Rinker your book is fantastic and I want all my readers to get out there and get it because it’s just a fun, fun read and you’re going to learn a lot along the way. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
My guest today was Rinker Buck. He’s the author of the book, ‘The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.’ You can find that on Amazon dot com and really if you love history, go pick this book up. I learned a lot about American history through this book that I didn’t know about and it’s just a fun, fun read. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. Again, ‘Oregon Trail’ go check it out.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at Art of Manliness dot com and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 7, 2017