A crazy whim of a trip on a covered wagon turns into an inspired exploration of American identity.
Journalist Buck (Shane Comes Home, 2005, etc.) chronicles his summerlong journey across the “Great American Desert” in a covered wagon, an arduous, astonishing journey that traced the same exodus of more than 400,000 pioneers across the Oregon Trail in the 15 years before the Civil War. The author and his brother had the knowledge and wherewithal to make such an ambitious journey largely because of their upbringing in rural New Jersey, where their father, a Look magazine editor and former pilot, kept horses and wagons and took the family of 11 children on a similar, though shorter, journey into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1958. Once Buck realized he could not manage three mules and a wagon all by himself, he enlisted his big, enormously capable brother, and the two procured the authentic 19th-century Peter Schuttler wagon and three specially bred American mules (each with its own wonderfully eccentric personality) and all the necessary equipment for breakdowns and repairs. The preparations were daunting, and Buck fascinatingly walks readers through all of them, all with an eye to how the early settlers made the actual journey, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley, Oregon: 2,000-plus miles of carefully plotted trail, encompassing high desert and mountains, rivers and shaky bridges, thunderstorms, scant water, and patches of no road. Throughout, the travelers were, by necessity, required to frequently jettison supplies. “See America Slowly” was the theme of the men’s boyhood trip, a theme resurrected sweetly for this one. The journey encouraged delighted observers to shelter and feed the men and mules, often in the towns’ communal rodeo grounds, and allowed the brothers to reconnect over childhood memories and with the American land they cherished.
By turns frankly hilarious, historically elucidating, emotionally touching, and deeply informative.