What It’s Like to Wagon West on the Oregon Trail…Today
A historian puts his wanderlust into motion. Very slow motion.
Rinker Buck grew up on a farm in New Jersey, taking camping trips in his family’s horse-drawn carriage. He has a heartfelt connection with the American West, developed in part from being assigned there as a writer for Life magazine. And he has what he describes as “a lust for adventure driven by a lust for history.”
Those facts wouldn’t necessarily precipitate his purchase of a restored 19th-century Peter Schuttler wagon and a team of draft animals. Or the recruitment of his chucklehead brother as co-pilot to ride the 2,000 miles of the original Oregon Trail in a buggy. But Buck figured it would be easy.
“The dream, and putting it together, was relatively straightforward,” he says of his journey, which he depicts in his brilliant new book, The Oregon Trail (Simon and Schuster). “I called up the Amish in Missouri and found a team of mules. I had a wagon shop out in Kansas that I already knew about. And then my brother and I went out there and started.
“The first day,” Buck says, “it stopped being simple.”
Around 400,000 people crossed the Oregon Trail in the 19th century, heading west to exploit all the soil, minerals and other resources that could be swindled or swiped by force from Native Americans. But despite their manifest national fantasies—fueled by a steady diet of Remington paintings, Buffalo Bill circus acts, Annie Oakley target practice and glossily inaccurate school lessons—there was little bucolic about the experience. It was a slog.
“One thing the pioneers did, they overloaded their wagons,” Buck says, citing the first of many mistakes he found himself repeating, despite access to the historical record and a century of innovation. In a classic American commercial con, unscrupulous retail outfitters would use scare tactics to get wagoneers buying all manner of extraneous shit. As what Buck calls “terrible environmentalists,” the settlers would just toss their weight-intensive barrels of bacon and flour over the side. “It got to the point where you could literally navigate all the way to Oregon or California just by following the debris field.” Suppliers would trail the wagons, collect the scuttled goods and resell them.
Buck overloaded on books, games, a shoeshine kit, a barbecue cooker and other pampering comforts (“What was going on in my head that I thought I needed my Brooks Brothers bathrobe?” he asks rhetorically). He threw them all overboard the first morning. But one thing he, like his nineteenth-century cohorts, found himself short of was water. There was no such thing as carrying too much. “We had three mules, and they’ll drink 15 gallons in a single watering,” Buck explains. Even with over 100 gallons on board, adding nearly 1,000 pounds in weight, when they came to the high desert in Wyoming, the Buck brothers had one day to accomplish a 45-mile dash between rivers. “In a covered wagon pulled by mules,” he says. “That’s a lot of miles.”
Archaic mechanical challenges, like repairing worn-out brakes (oak shoes, leather pads) and determining the proper interval for re-shodding mules, became routine. The physics of dragging a wagon up—and even more so, down—steep hills, were educational, if terrifying, opportunities. But the biggest reality check came from the constant proximity of death.
“People think, going back to the nineteenth century, that it was this idyllic time,” Buck says. “In fact, horse and wagon travel was very dangerous. You’re going along, a wheel breaks, the mules panic and you have a runaway. Boom. Everybody’s dead. Frozen river crossings, nine out of ten times, everything’s fine. But one day that ice gives, and there’s a stagecoach in the middle, and everybody just drowns immediately.”
Buck even claims that, on a per vehicle basis, there were more fatalities in horse-drawn carriages than there are today in automobiles. (He sends the documentation after our talk. The stats are far worse than even his initial claim suggested. “Horse-drawn vehicles have an engine with a mind of its own," it says.)
Still, his adventure on the Oregon Trail wasn’t all mortality and mayhem. There was joy, much joy. “Here’s what it looks like: It’s spectacular,” Buck says. Much of this pleasure derived from connecting travel back to one’s proximate senses. Unlike in a car, with the windows rolled up and the music and A/C blasting, a trail traveler feels the land. “The pioneers wrote a lot about the wildflowers, and when you go through a wildflower patch, you’re surrounded by fragrance. The wind is blowing hard on you. There’s a lot of dust.”
Also pleasurable was the startling ease with which Buck engaged with buried history. Roughly half of the trail has been buried under modern roads. But the other thousand miles is original ruts. They go right through the same towns and encampments that they did in the 1850s, and Buck pulled on and off, clomping through 200,000-acre ranches, and up to small-town coffee shops and rural Walmarts.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management protects this route as a National Historic Trail. Though much of it goes through private land, it remains public, allowing any traveler to chart how the pioneer camps along the Trail became Pony Express and stagecoach stops. Then they became homesteader camps, where would-be settlers waited for their land claims to be approved. Then they became stops on the transcontinental railroad, built alongside the Trail. Then they became state parks, created during the Great Depression by unemployed laborers and Roosevelt’s New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps
The Trail exemplifies America’s pioneering individualism, but it exists as a layered oasis—a rutted and living monument to our national foundational mythology—because of government intervention and commitment.
Old roads take us places that contemporary highways simply cannot. On them, we can travel back in time, while remaining in the present. Along the glorious length of the Oregon Trail, and nowhere else, wagons maintain a certain primacy. “Interestingly, they never changed the law,” Buck says.
“The only vehicle on the Trail that has automatic right of way, that can’t be questioned, is a covered wagon pulled by mules or horses.”