To Rinker Buck, "journey is all" when he and his brother Nick leap onto the seat of a covered wagon to take on a contemporary "crazyass" crossing of the Oregon Trail. But for readers, "The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey" becomes more than that.
Thanks to Buck's utterly engaging voice, infectious enthusiasm, unquenchable curiosity, dogged determination and especially his ability to convey the interaction of two brothers (and three mules), all of whom pull together despite their strong but profoundly different personalities, the saga becomes nothing short of irresistible.
The Connecticut author and his brother had been endowed as young boys with what their dad called "the pioneer spirit" as their large family undertook a covered-wagon trip from New Jersey to Gettysburg. That was during the 1950s. When they set out as adults with the mission to be "the first wagon travelers in more than a century to make an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail," Buck writes, "that was never the point for us. We pushed mules almost two thousand miles to learn something more important." Their real goal was "learning to live with uncertainty."
And the two did not just live with it. With a mantra of "Let's do it!" they positively embraced it. En route, they synced their widely different communication skills so well (the intellectual author's and Nick's ebullience mixed with glitches stemming from verbal dyslexia) that they could survive a death-defying descent of a slate rock face by signaling each other with the touch of a hip.
That descent is far from the only nail-biter of this remarkable saga. Thanks to Buck's gradual delivery of information on the handling of mules, readers deeply appreciate the brothers' derring-do when they and their team surmount numerous truly daunting challenges.
Along the way, the author enriches his narrative by conversationally sharing a compendium of curiosities about the trail's history and introducing readers to key 19th-century pioneers among the 400,000 who made the journey. He challenges the notion of "rugged individualism" by relating how crowds of covered-wagon travelers pushed and pulled one another across the land.
He looks at the zeal behind and mixed consequences of the push West, including devastating results for native tribes. He also reveals conflicted and finally peaceful thoughts about his father. Admirably, he also balances a romantic notion of the original trail with the realities of what some stretches of the route have become in our contemporary world.
Finally, this tale of brotherhood, persistence and daring so snares the emotions that it becomes a tear-jerker at its close. And it might just stir some of us to get comfortable with uncertainty.
Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic and the author of "Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery." She lives in Maine.