Five Thoughts About The Oregon Trail

23492799Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail was the Nonfiction Book Club pick for January. Conveniently, I was given the book for Christmas. Win and win! There was so much I enjoyed about reading it. I originally thought this was a history book, similar to The Indifferent Stars Above, but instead, it is an account of the modern-day journey of two men who travel the Oregon Trail the way the pioneers did in the mid-19th century. If I knew anything about mules and driving a covered wagon, had time to just leave for a few months, had a few thousand extraneous dollars to spend, and didn’t enjoy modern conveniences so much, believe me, I would be heading west doing the same thing right now. Mr. Buck and his brother use the journey to work through some personal and family issues, and honestly, I could have done without the parts that got into that stuff. But I loved the historical aspect and learned quite a bit.

  1. I learned a lot about mules. Seriously, I never knew that there are 6-foot-tall mules out there. I always thought of a mule as a donkey with longer ears, but draft mules are serious (and expensive) business. Brought to this country thanks to George Washington, draft mules played an important part in the westward expansion. They are tougher than horses and faster than oxen, with superior instincts due to a slightly larger brain. Their cautious nature has given them the false reputation of being stubborn. Buck’s three mules, “Crazy Beck, Steady Jake, and Prom Queen Bute,” made for some humorous reading.
    Where would you rather be? At work? Or in Nebraska?
  2.  I learned a lot about canvas-topped wagons. I will spare you the details because I can see how this would not be for everyone, but I found all the details about the development of the prairie schooner fascinating.
    While I was reading about pioneers heading west, I was heading east. My journey might have been more comfortable, but my view was pretty miserable.
  3.  I learned about Narcissa Whitman. This missionary from New York repeatedly applied for jobs out west, but she was considered unsuitable for the job because she was single. So she married Marcus Whitman, a doctor and fellow missionary zealot, and left for the frontier with him. Together with another couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding, they crossed the plains. Narcissa and Eliza became the first two women to cross the country with a wagon. Whitman’s letters home created a sensation, and suddenly, the idea of a family traveling west together was not so foreign anymore.
    New York City was pretty awesome, as usual, but this introvert would have preferred a view of Wyoming to a view of skyscrapers.
  4. I learned about the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA). This is an organization dedicated to preserving the Oregon Trail, an endeavor that is increasingly difficult because of farming, land development, and indifference. I’ve decided to become a member, and the kids are currently busy drawing pictures for the calendar the organization produces each year to raise money. Maybe you want to check out the Association’s website:
  5.  I am busy planning a trip west. We’ve been mulling over the idea of a road trip for a while already, but the kids are now getting old enough to appreciate (and endure) a trip like we have in mind. There won’t be mules, and instead of a wagon there will be a tent, but my ideas have become more concrete while reading this book. I am determined to see some wagon ruts.

Further Reading

Where Wagons Could Go by Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, because I want to know more about their journey.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory, because I want the kids to know.
Exiled in the Land of the Free by Oren Lyons, et al, because the repercussions of the westward expansion for the Indian tribes were devastating.




  1. I’m glad to hear that the timing of this read worked out so well for you and it sounds like you really enjoyed it, too! I didn’t love the details on the covered wagons, but I did love learning about mules generally and his mules specifically. They had such personality! And I think it’s awesome this inspired your for your trip out west. I can’t wait to hear all about it!

  2. I’m reminded a bit about the wagon journey in Indifferent Stars Above … before they reached the mountains. I’m fascinated by the pioneers, and will check out the trail association link. I hope you enjoy planning your road trip. I have lived all around the West, and it feels comfortable to me.

    • I first came to the US as an Au Pair, and at the end of my year, I was able to travel out west for a month. I loved it; nature at its best, if you ask me. My husband has been to every state except Alaska and Hawaii, so he has much to show us. He’s not as keen to follow the Oregon Trail as I am, though, so I have to work on him a little bit. 🙂

  3. Ooh, I envy you your trip! When I think of America, that’s the America I think of – probably as a result of too many cowboy and pioneer films when I was a kid. Isn’t it just gorgeous though? Don’t forget to take a camera… 🙂

  4. All those beautiful pictures make me want to go, too! We would also like to go west, but in Canada. I have never been past Ontario! At first we were waiting for the kids to be older so that they’d appreciate and remember it. But now that they’re older it’s really hard to find a good chunk of time that doesn’t mean someone will be missing out on a favourite sport season or a hard-earned recital. Or school, come to think of it. So, go while you can! 🙂
    Reading more about Narcissa will be fascinating. But that last book will be sad.

    • Yes, we have to go while we still have control over everyone’s schedule. 🙂 Kid #2 started watching Little House on the Prairie this weekend and borrowed a book about it from the library. This will be my hook should I need to sell the trip to my kids.

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