ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Let's get some mules, a replica 19th-century wooden wagon and relive the Oregon Trail today. Rivers, mountains, cliffs, runaway mules, cars and trucks, bad weather - what could possibly go wrong? Journalist Rinker Buck wanted to find out. He and his brother hitched a wagon to mules and set off to retrace what's left of the westward path traveled by thousands of 19th-century pioneers. His new book is "The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey," and Rinker Buck joins us now from Portland, Maine. Welcome.
RINKER BUCK: Hi, Eric, great to be here.
WESTERVELT: You write that when you decided to make this journey, your life was a little bit of a mess - divorce, drinking, little bit burnt out at your newspaper reporter job. I mean, was this adventure, Rinker, a bit of an escape or a shot at redemption on some level?
BUCK: It was certainly a shot at redemption on a personal level, but I think there was - there's something quintessentially American about it, too - just sort of bust out and do something significant. And of course, in my case, it was also an opportunity to write about the history of the trail. So it's - the book is sort of an amalgam of history and what happened to us.
WESTERVELT: There were really Oregon Trails - plural, as you point out - I mean, with several different routes at key points, but in general, the trail followed key river valleys and you guys tried to do the same; you and your brother, Nick.
BUCK: Yes, we stuck, pretty much, to the original ruts in most places, and the trail had to stay on the rivers for the pioneers to have water, navigation points, timber and that sort of thing. So, you pass from the Missouri River to the Platte River - big, beautiful wide Platte River, crossing Nebraska - then up through Wyoming, the Sweetwater - which is just absolutely one of the most gorgeous pieces of landscape in the world - and so forth onto the legendary Snake in Idaho. So, it was just wonderful to have this experience that was so simple - you just stay on the river, and if you can't see the river, climb high and find the river. And it was that simplicity of purpose that was so magical about the trip.
WESTERVELT: And you write about the mixture of, you know, hardship and exhilaration. Can you read a little bit about that?
BUCK: Sure. This was a place where we'd made a lot of progress, and I realized that if we had no catastrophes, we might actually make it to Oregon. But, I was also beginning to realize, the more arduous it became, the more stressed I was, the more exhilarated I felt. So, I'll just read you this section, sure.
(Reading) There were other miseries of the trail. Five days would go by when neither Nick nor I had taken a shower and a filthy residue of dust, axle grease, mule hair and hayseeds covered everything in the wagon, including the plates we ate on every night. Coleman lanterns and flashlights, jostled by the constant bumping of the wagon, refused to work. So, we started just living sunup to sundown without any artificial light. Before harnessing, we had to chase mules every morning. Our backs ached from sitting on a hard, wooden seat for eight or 10 hours every day, holding back mules. But we adored the simplicity of life out there and pushing hard every day toward our 20-mile goal. The fragrances of the wildflower fields sedated me, and when my brother called the mules, I felt that I was living a stanza out of Walt Whitman.
WESTERVELT: Your brother, Nick, is your partner in this, and he becomes kind of a central character in this journey. He's a carpenter from Maine, but that doesn't capture his unique skill sets. I mean, he can fix just about anything - he knows mules and horses. It was almost like he was born in the 1800s.
BUCK: Yeah, one of my sisters says that Nick was born out-of-century. We would have problems with the harness where it was rubbing the mules. Nick would pull out some used leather that we had and repair the harness. He's also really, really great - I call him one of the great team drivers of his generation, and he is. And so, when we got to these very rough parts, where it was very perilous to get the wagon up and down the mountains, Nick was great at the driving.
WESTERVELT: Yet, you guys are very different. I mean, he's this pragmatic Mainer, and you're trying to bring along your bocce set and your shoeshine kit. Tell us about that.
BUCK: Well, my Brooks Brothers bathrobe, too, come on, Eric. I mean, that was really important stuff. I mean, what happened was, I was going to be living out of a 12-foot-by-38-inch box with a canvas cover over it for the next four months, and everything I needed for life had to be in that wagon. The very next morning, the second day, I wake up, and after moving this stuff in and out of the wagon just for one 24-hour period, I said, deep-six this stuff. Get rid of it, you know. I brought my Brooks Brothers bathrobe, I brought - Eric, I mean, if you got out on the trail, wouldn't you need a pasta steamer? The trip was an adventure in discovering myself, relative to my brother and how many foibles you bring along from your old life that you realize, when you're on a covered wagon trip crossing the entire Oregon Trail, you don't need.
WESTERVELT: I mean, in this age of selfies and smartphones, it seems like you saw this journey as a way to unplug and slow things down.
BUCK: Yeah, we got out there and, first of all, there wasn't cell phone coverage for probably half the trail 'cause it's very remote areas in Wyoming and so forth. Every form of artificial light we carried - flashlights, Coleman lanterns, whatever - broke. GPS, I used for about two weeks early in the trip and then I said, Rinker, you're moving at four miles an hour, here. You can probably see where you have to go. And so I ditched that baby. And it was just one technology-free day after another, and believe me, America, just take that smartphone and throw it in a river. You don't need it.
WESTERVELT: Journalist Rinker Buck. His new book is "The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey." Thanks so much for coming in.
BUCK: Thank you, Eric.
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