Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol. This was not a state he was accustomed to; instilled by his father with a sense of daring, Buck was no stranger to adventure, having been (with his brother) one half of the youngest duo to fly across the country, a tale documented in his celebrated book, Flight of Passage. On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning.
The result, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States.
Here Rinker Buck introduces us to the mules of The Oregon Trail, a July 2015 selection for Amazon.com’s Best Books of the Month.
Meet the Mules: Author Rinker Buck on the Real Heroes of the Oregon Trail
My brother Nick and I were the first travelers to make an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail in more than a hundred years. But the real heroes of the trip, and the reason we managed to make it from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, over the course of four months, were our mules: Beck, Jake, and Bute. I acquired them from legendary Amish mule trainer Philip Ropp of Ropp’s Mule Farm in Jamesport, Missouri, and it was obvious from the first day on the trail that their personalities were every bit as unique as those of people.
Beck: Remember the crazygirl part that Anne Hathaway played in Rachel Getting Married? That’s Beck. Just a tall, leggy, athletic specimen of a mule. A monster for work. Her tug chains were always tight and she was a step ahead of the rest of the team, pulling, pulling, pulling. But completely nuts—psychotic, paranoid. If the door of a mailbox by the side of the road was shut, fine. But if the mailbox door was open, she leapt sideways in her harness, threatened to run away, and danced all over the road.
Jake: A gentle giant with a sweet, loving personality—the Chris Cooper of mules. Tall, black, imperturbable. In the morning, when I woke early to carry water and feed for the team, he always came over to bury his face in my armpit and beg for scratches behind the ears. God, do I love him. It’s a big mule crush all over when I go out and visit the team in their retirement pasture in Idaho. As soon as he hears my voice, Jake trots over to say hello.
Bute: She was our darling little love girl of a mule, much smaller that the big drafty Jake and Beck. Morgan horse good looks. She’s irresistible—we called her “Kate Hudson.” She just wanted to sit around all day eating bon bons in her bikini on the chaise lounge. She hated work and gave us this droll look every morning when we harnessed the team. “Oh, you expect me to work?” If there was a puddle on the trail, she side-stepped it. Kate Hudson didn’t want to get her Italian sandals wet.
Left to right: Beck, Jake, and Bute (Olive Oyl the dog and two humans behind)
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