Four summers ago, writer Rinker Buck traveled the Oregon Trail from eastern Kansas to the Pacific Northwest in a covered wagon.
He describes the 2011 trip in “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,” and the overland trail-wise Kansas City reader could be forgiven for fearing an Easterner’s amazement with the familiar.
Yet Buck’s book is admirable for his candor.
He’s honest about the too-real similarities between he and his brother Nick, who accompanied him, and their Oregon Trail predecessors, once described by 19th-century historian Francis Parkman as “some of the vilest outcasts in the country.”
If the Buck Brothers didn’t fit that description, they’d been having a sufficiently thin time of it. Buck, who lives in Connecticut, had separated from his wife. Nick, from Maine, was an unemployed construction worker.
They were, Buck writes, among “the unmoored of the twenty-first century.”
In that context, a four-month trip out west — mule-drawn, across a continent, confronting unknown hardships in a wagon equipped with historically accurate suspension over some 2,000 miles — seemed like a reasonable option.
Buck bought his mules at a Jamesport, Mo., farm, and a wagon from a Horton, Kan., wagon-maker. The wagon-maker, Buck writes, prized authenticity over road-worthiness. He assured the brothers that the oak brake shoes, unsullied with contemporary rubber padding, would last all the way to Oregon.
“They lasted about 200 miles,” Buck said recently.
Improvising as they went, they persevered.
Buck describes the journey, digressing now and then to detail the idiosyncracies of wooden wagons, the evolution of mules or the impact of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman. She traveled the trail in 1836 and her subsequent letters, printed back east, captured the imagination of 19th-century Americans, some of whom had hit a bad patch and decided to follow her example.
“The 19th century economy was very unstable, with a lot of bank panics,” Buck said. “Today we have this grinding economy that can spit people out pretty quickly.”
But there’s a limit to the similarities between now and then. One example, Buck said, is the constant uncertainty that 19th-century trail emigrants had to accommodate.
He and his brother, Buck added, only knew a reasonable facsimile of it.
“Today you get on the iPhone and find a Hampton Inn,” he said. “On this trip we would harness our team and have a rough idea of where we were going. But then we would have flooding, or terrible thunderstorms, or sandstorms in which we couldn’t see.
“It always worked out, but we didn’t enjoy the certainty you know in modern life.”
Rinker Buck will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 9, at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. For more info, go to rainydaybooks.com.
David Boaz on Libertarianism
For all the rainbow hues posted on Facebook upon the Supreme Court decision affirming a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the Libertarian Party has been flying those colors for decades, said writer David Boaz.
Writing in The Advocate last month, Boaz reminded readers that the Libertarian Party endorsed gay rights in its first platform in 1972. Four years later, the party issued a pamphlet calling for an end to anti-gay laws and endorsing full marriage rights.
In his book “The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom,” Boaz maintains that “libertarian” could describe a significant segment of the population. One recent Gallup survey, he writes, found that 44 percent of respondents identified themselves as both fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
“I think America is a fundamentally libertarian country,” Boaz said recently.
“This country was founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and a strictly limited federal government that would protect those rights.
“Although there have been plenty of Supreme Court decisions I’ve disagreed with, there also have been plenty that have reflected the proper limited government understanding of the Constitution.”
Boaz will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 7, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more info, go to kclibrary.org.