For having grown up playing The Oregon Trail a lot, I don’t know much about the Oregon Trail.
Am I finally reaching the age where I can’t remember things well, or did we gloss over this in grade school? Anyway, this is what I thought I knew about the Oregon Trail: Pioneer people traveled by covered wagons pulled by oxen to Oregon and California in search of land and the gold rush. Many died of dysentery.
Please don’t make fun of me.
I randomly picked up the book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck at the library and now I’m obsessed with the Oregon Trail. That’s usually how it goes, eh?
In this book, Buck shares his account of re-traveling the Oregon trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City, Oregon with his brother Nick in a covered wagon pulled by a trio of mules. He and Nick had an interesting childhood to say the least. Their own father took them on a covered wagon journey when they were children so that they could “see American slowly.”
Buck is the more bookish brother who tries to pack a shoeshine kit and bocce ball set in the covered wagon while his brother promptly tosses them in the rubbish pile. Nick’s fascinating. He’s like a savant in historical renovation and engineering of most anything. He swears a lot. Together, they make a compelling team.
While some reviewers disliked how Buck randomly jumps into historical interludes about topics like mules and covered wagon production, they were my favorite parts. Buck also delves into lengthy flashbacks of memories of his father. I admit that I skimmed through many of these so that I could get back to the trail.
The 430-page book is packed with information and descriptions of what the trail looks like now. Here are some of the most interesting things I learned about the actual trail and mules.
The Oregon Trail spans 2,100 miles through what’s now known as Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon (p. 4). What began as a fur-trapping route through Native tribal land was renamed to The Oregon Trail in the 1840’s.
About 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail.
The Oregon trail isn’t one, single trail. There are main wagon ruts that pioneers followed, but the trail actually stretches to 12 miles in width at some points (p. 55). People tried to take short cuts and gather space from the masses of people also heading West. Plus, there are trails from nearby towns that feed onto the main trail.
Over 600 miles worth of wagon ruts still mark the earth! This just blows my mind.
Most of the original trail is still accessible along farm and ranch roads. It’s now preserved as the National Historic Trail. Buck notes how some has been suburban development in Scottsbluff, Nebraska and Boise, Idaho and newer farming technology that can cultivate hillier earth.
Mules are cool.
The computer game depicts oxen pulling covered wagons when mules were actually the hot ticket animal of choice. Buck describes them as having the highest “strength to weight ratio” and needing less food and water than horses. Mules supposedly enjoy working into their 30’s and navigate harsh terrain with less risk of injury than horses.
The 1840’s-1920’s were “peak mule breeding years.” Apparently, it was big business and significantly boosted the economy (p. 28).
Mule calling is a thing. Mules respond to certain types of words and sounds. Wagon drivers developed a sing-songy type of communication with his or her team of mules to convey commands and mood.
Oregon Trail-goers were desperate for mules. Companies sold poorly bred mules to people who had no idea how to train mules. As a result, people died and got injured when mules got spooked and ran away, flipped wagons, and caused the wagons to run over people in the process (p. 38).
Sometimes mules ran away because people were mean. Buck describes how mules are intelligent and emotionally complex animals. Unlike dogs or horses, mules are not as apt to do things on command. Inept wagon drivers did not understand mules’ thought processes and instincts and would beat them when they wouldn’t respond to a command. Eventually, they mules said “to hell with this” and ran for the hills.
Cartoons and other media portray mules as stupid and stubborn. Mules are actually clever enough not to put themselves in danger and appreciate when you communicate your awareness of impending danger (p.37).
Mules ponder things (p. 36).
And now for the coolest thing I read about mules! Mules don’t want to risk their lives fording a stream strapped to a heavy, covered wagon. One way that a mule caller can convince the team to ford the river is to walk across the stream with his or her hands up in the air to demonstrate how deep the water is. If the mules find this acceptable, they can be coaxed to cross (p. 36). Buck and his brother demonstrate this in the book.
What are your thoughts on the Oregon Trail or this book if you’ve read it? I’m always looking for travel memoir and non-fiction, historical book recommendations. Wanna talk about cholera next?