The Oregon Trail: An American Journey - Rinker Buck

So I was convinced, somehow, that this book was written by a woman, not sure why I thought that... Actually, it's written by a guy. Maybe the ambiguous name of the author? Misreading of the synopsis? But he's funny in that humorously cynical manner that so appeals to me. Plus, he's an obsessive history buff:

"...for years my interest in colonial forts and Shaker villages so exhausted my two children that they are now permanently allergic to the past."

I was surprised by how many notes I had made in reading this book since it seemed like it would never end sometimes and I was desperately skimming through parts trying not to fall asleep. I enjoyed the historical recounts of Oregon Trail pioneers or related history bits, especially the deadpan (in my imagination) observations of American history.

"Americans were those folks who loved to profess peace-loving values, but who fought about everything. Allegedly America was founded in part to promote religious freedom and harmony, but in fact we were a cauldron of denominational spats, prejudice, and even homicidal church wars. This created a lot of conflict, and for millions of Americans, the solution for problems where they were was to quickly sell out, pack their belongings, and move somewhere else, preferably west."

This where one of those "ACCURATE" meme gifs would go in response. Manifest destiny debunked, haha. Also, this:

"For most Americans, the time line between the Americna Revolution and the Civil War is a seventy-year black hole, as if nothing had happened."

There was some good points about the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of things like the "myth of Indian savagery" (myth, although perpetuated through Hollywood), everyone using horses to pull wagons (myth, oxen were a good choice - thank you Oregon Trail games - but mules are the forgotten heroes of the Old West), people going west willingly (true, to a point - when you lose everything you have to a financial depression or religious persecution, it's not much a choice at that point).


Didn't much care for the tangents that went off into personal memoirs of the author's relationship with his father. It set up the background for why and how he felt capable of recreating the journey by covered wagon on the trail, but other than that just served as cathartic self-analysis for the author. Meh. The recorded interactions with his brother and the mules during the journey were much more amusing.


Best lines:


-- "He epitomizes the personality type that down-easters call the Mainiac - a person so completely devoid of practicality, yet so devoted to fun, that his life can only be considered utterly romantic."


-- "Frequently, to be an American then was to be periodically unmoored, transient, so bereft of options that moving on was the only choice. Settling the frontier wasn't simply America's "manifest destiny." It was a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding." Isn't that still true? Best thing to do when you're in a hard position is usually to pack and move across town/state/country/world.


-- "Few academics and high school history teachers want to risk their careers by suggesting to their students that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump." But seriously tho, comparisons like that actually help me to understand the past!


-- "Royal Gift was an inexperienced four-year-old [jack (donkey)] who initially seems to have been intimidated by [George] Washington's tall draft-horse mares, and he wouldn't fornicate with horses." I don't why this makes me LOL so hard. xD


-- "At a water crossing or a steep ravine, the highly domesticated and more pliant horse will usually behave much like a dog, cheerfully obeying its master." Perhaps why Americans love their horses so much... Sidetrack: a Korean friend once caught me marathoning "Too Cute" and observed that no wonder Americans are so offended by the custom of eating dogs when we have a whole TV show dedicated to our love of cute, fluffy babies.


-- "In English we use the common phrase "stubborn as a mule," a classic example of man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself."


-- "They considered themselves Americans, obligated by birth to accumulate not quality but cash." Reality television.


-- "He knows mechanics, wood, and hubs that pass or fail the shake test. I am incurably aesthetic, and the wagon looked beautiful. Silence often results from incompatibilities like that." Use this comparison on father sometime, should be funny.


-- "...the whole nine yards of cowboy pimp." The cowboy Christmas gift extravaganza festival thing = great fun. Usually held in the fall season.


-- "The Conestoga was the semitruck of young America." I took that baby across the virtual Oregon Trail many a time, ah...


-- "Americans had always been absolute beavers about clearing forest land..." IS THAT WE NEED BRACES NOW?!


-- "The Irish were dying like flies already and in terms of labor efficiency it made no sense to kill a lot more with capsizing wagons." Hah, American immigrant history summed in two words: labor efficiency.


-- "The riddles of history are always more interesting than the proven facts."


-- "Wagon assembly lines (no, Henry Ford did not invent that)..." He didn't invent the assembly line period. More like rediscovered the efficiency in terms of mass producing modern transports.


-- "Because wagon making had been standardized, parts could be ordered by mail." So why can't I order one now? Does anyone still do that? Does anyone remember those houses you could order through Sears & Roebuck and assemble on an empty lot you had purchased and boom, instant Craftsman style home? I heard that the DIY kit houses were sold after Katrina hit back in '05 but Google was less than helpful in showing me what they looked like or who was selling them. Oh man, I would kill for a mail order bungalow. <3


-- "But Schuttler predated [Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Harriman] by almost forty years, never felt that he had to corner the market to succeed, and built his entire fortune out of a single factory that made just one product - wagons." Dude, why wasn't he on The Men Who Built America?!


-- "...the American style of transportation...had been defined. The ride was never good, and your spine ached after a day's run... But your wheels usually got you there because the chassis and box were way overbuilt for the job. And there was another American trait imparted by the covered wagon: spontaneity. Yeah, let's do it, there is free land out in Oregon." Accurate.


-- "...and forging into new country so far from civilization and settlement (pretty much an unknown experience in Europe)..." Interesting point. America = travel 5 hours and you might barely be in another state in the west. Europe = travel 5 hours and you might be 5 countries away. Sociopolitical differences had a long reaching effect.


-- "The perceived need for wagons was also driven by nineteenth-century gender attitudes, and real necessity." Ahah, heaven forbid the women be tramping about in deer leather jackets and coonskin hats, sleeping on the ground! Good commentary on the necessity to bring out household goods, etc., to a country where none existed though, also having a wagon to live in while you built your house.


-- "In the nineteenth century, personal letters were often shared with extended families and reprinted in both rural and large urban newspapers..." Contrast personal letters with accounts from private diaries and journals. Which is the true face of the writer?


-- "But non-elite women like Narcissa Whitman were expected to travel by coach or buggy, or walk." In reference to equestriennes of the time period.


-- "Americans were always wanderers by nature..." Although we do not traditionally have things like gap years for students as other countries, such as Australia, do.


-- "Their only real endowments were soft skills such as a willingness to accept the help of strangers, stubborn practicality, and the ability to live with uncertainty."


-- "Dozens of pioneers would report in their journals that they had simply followed the debris field all the way to the Columbia River." Nice to now littering isn't a 20th century invention...


-- "These Baedekers... even sold in bookstores in New York and Chicago." For people who intended to leave the city to go west or for 19th century hipsters? o_O


-- "Someday, when historians perform their "why the Mayans declined" necropsy on American society, they will marvel at the way that, at a time of high anxiety about energy resources and costs, millions of elderly people took to the road in the clumsiest, most inefficient vehicles ever devised by man. The lunacy of America is all right there, in the RVs." Hahahahah~


-- "This was 1849, a year when the frenzy to reach California gold was so intense that all wisdom had percolated from the American brain." Compare with Klondike gold rush in 1896.


-- "Battlefields where hundreds of men died on a single day become vast, pristine lawns, as lovely as a landscape by Constable or van Gogh, and historic birthplaces are so lovingly maintained that it's hard to believe anyone ever lived there.... While preserving history, we remove it."


-- "Few organized religions, however, can prosper without stunning misbehavior by their leaders." Reminds me of that Ancients Discoveries or something or other show.


-- "Hubris and feelings of invincibility would be required to conquer the many obstacles ahead." See notes on Into the Wild.


-- "The accumulated frustration of the trail after [800] miles, and the crowded, competitive conditions in the camps, unleashed another classic American response to stress - murder." See, this is why everyone thinks Americans are crazy killers 90% of the time.


Annnnnd at this point I gave up trying to beat the clock on transcribing my notes to record it here and let the library loan expire. Oh well!