The Oregon Trail

Written by Lydia Benedict.

Last spring Jeff gave me an advanced copy of Rinker Buck’s book, The Oregon Trail: An American Journey. Buck opens his latest book with this line: “I had known long before I rode a covered wagon to Oregon that naiveté was the mother of adventure.” I was hooked. How many adventures in my life were the result of naiveté? Perhaps my whole adult life.

Eighteen and a recent high school graduate, I traveled across country to meet the family of my then boyfriend. I was in love and wanted to see where Jeff was from – Connecticut. I was from the Pacific Northwest, and Connecticut may as well have been another planet. Weeks before I was to begin my freshman year at BYU, I flew from coast to coast. That was 27 years ago last month. Little did I know that this decision would be the start of my life as a New England transplant.

Jeff and I in Connecticut at the start of our trail

That was the beginning of the adventure that would become my life. There were many other turning points for Jeff and me. Pursuing our dreams brought the unexpected. Rinker is right. Naiveté is the mother of adventure. And youth is often the impetus. We were young. We thought we could do anything. In his first year of law school in Boston, Jeff wrote his first mainstream book. Law classes were at night, so during the day he wrote while watching our newborn son so I could keep my fulltime job (and health benefits) at Northeastern University where I was also pursuing a Master’s degree in education. We were off and running—taking on new projects, trying new adventures, and facing new fears.

I always found the story of the west romantic.

I’ve never made a covered wagon crossing as Rinker and his brother Nick did. But I felt like I was on the trail with them. I grew up on westerns: Clint Eastwood and John Wayne were my heroes. And I devoured Louis L’Amour books. But The Oregon Trail filled in the blanks with reality, giving me the closest thing I’ll likely ever have to a modern western. I learned that the reputation of ornery mules is really an indicator of their intellect; and driving a mule team is a combination of skill, awareness, and trust shared between man and beast. I gained an appreciation for the courage of the pioneers while learning of the events that put what is often termed the Great Migration in play. I never realized that America’s addiction to the acquisition and subsequent casting off of material goods reaches back and across the Oregon Trail which became one endless dumping ground as the pioneers lightened their loads leaving cook stoves, plows, pianos, and much more along the trail.

But there’s more. I can relate to Rinker. I’m an insomniac; I need to be in control of my life, and I’m not very good at living in the moment. Yet traveling through the heat, dust and uncertainty of trail life reminds me that we can’t always control life—and that’s okay. Whether it’s a breakdown on the trail in the remote South Pass crossing the Rockies, trying to make a living in the ever changing field of publishing, or starting a business—living with uncertainty is life. You have to pick up the pieces and keep going.

Buck brothers’ Oregon Trail Map

Rinker’s journey is not just a physical one—though it’s certainly that. It’s also a reckoning with the past. He comes to peace with his upbringing, finds that he has a deep lover for his brother, Nick, and faces the ghost of his past—his father.

Rinker’s brother, Nicholas Buck

And as Rinker pores over pioneer journals and records, he shares his immense knowledge. The American West comes alive with characters like Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. You learn how Indian relations went from good, to bad, to terrible—and how ignorance, misunderstanding and inflexibility contributed on both sides. But my favorite chapter is when the Buck brothers meet the Mormons. Born and raised a Mormon, I could have been offended by Rinker’s description of my religion. I wasn’t. Instead, I laughed. Rinker gets Mormonism.

“Mormons are wonderfully candid about what they consider the spiritual coincidences of life and don’t seem embarrassed about blurting out the mysteries of their faith in front of strangers.”

By trail’s end, I felt I knew the Buck brothers and wished I could have been on the trail with them. I could benefit from trail life. It takes control away from a control freak: mules, dust, and miles have a way of forcing you to live in the moment. You don’t know what the next mile will bring. You have to let go and simply face challenges as they arise. Whether it’s California Hill, Rocky Ridge or the perilous descent from Dempsey Ridge into Idaho’s Bear Lake country—the reader is along for a thrilling ride. You learn about differences, yet teamwork, brotherhood and love, and what can be accomplished when a goal is shared by two brothers, three mules and an ever-growing trail family.

The Buck brothers on the Oregon Trail

I smiled, cheered, laughed throughout the adventures of The Oregon Trail. And when these two New England brothers part ways at trail’s end, I cried. We often start a journey with some goal in mind. Yet journeys have a way of taking on a life of its own that we never could have imagined. “The wrong outcome, or no outcome at all, is often the only result of a journey.”

In life, if we are only satisfied when our intended goals are reached—life would be a colossal disappointment. Life is a journey—a walkabout; and without it we have no story.

As Rinker points out, “Journey for journey’s sake is enough.” The adventure, love and spirit of the Buck brothers crossing the Oregon Trail lingers after the book's closing words:

“Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us. The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”