What I’m Reading: Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail

Edwin Forbes,  Study of a mule team and wagon, with driver  (September 30, 1863). Library of Congress.

Edwin Forbes, Study of a mule team and wagon, with driver (September 30, 1863). Library of Congress.

Rinker Buck’s book, The Oregon Trail, is the best possible combination of memoir, travelogue, and history you can imagine. It began with a notion that Buck himself calls “crazyass,” to traverse the historic Oregon trail in a mule-drawn wagon. He enlisted his brother Nick, an expert team driver and mechanical genius, and the two of them, at loose ends in their lives, journeyed together from the trail’s beginning in Missouri to its end in Oregon. Imagine Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac on the road together.

While I loved everything about this book, I read one of its strands with particular interest: what Buck says about mules. Buck writes about mules as though mules and horses are running for President and he’s campaigning for mules. He is eloquent about their strength, their hardiness, their longevity, and their intelligence. From their donkey side, they’ve inherited superior peripheral vision, keener hearing, and a bigger brain than a horse’s. Horses, Buck says, will obey. Mules, who can see better, hear better, and think better, will consider what they’re asked to do. They will ponder it.

Virginia. Mule team crossing a brook , 1862-1865. Library of Congress.

Virginia. Mule team crossing a brook, 1862-1865. Library of Congress.

Buck admits that he has some difficulties in his relationships with human beings. He is divorced. His connection with his brother Nick is conflicted, and the journey sometimes tries it. He is haunted by the memories of his late father, for whom he feels a classic ambivalence.

But he is unabashed in his affection for his lead mule, Jake. When he first meets Jake, the mule nuzzles him with such vigor that he’s lifted into the air. Buck writes, “I loved that mule then and there.” On a harrowing moment in the journey—driving the mules parallel to the train tracks, hoping to keep them from bolting as a train goes by inches away—he calls on Jake to “hold them back,” and when Jake does, Buck calls, “‘Good team! Good team! …You’re my team! I love you, Jake!’”

Mules live and work together, but a team of mules is more than animals who share a yoke. Mules bond with each other and get so attached that they will fall into a depression if they’re separated. By the end of the journey, Buck can’t bear to break up the mule team, and he is relieved to find a buyer who wants to keep the three mules together. As Buck says goodbye to Jake, he is full of emotion. The greater team, mules and men on the open road, has now broken up, and he will miss it forever.