Book Recommendation

… by John W. Head (posted 19 Feb 2021)

Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015)

This book’s subtitle – A New American Journey – can carry several meanings. The story is that of a pair of brothers traveling just a few years ago by covered wagon along what remains today of the Oregon Trail (they go from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon). It therefore tells of a “new” journey tracing the journeys of many wagon trains from over a century ago. The “new” journey faces countless challenges because the path of the “old” journey is lost in some places and covered over in other places with the accoutrements of modern society. Rinker Buck and his brother must avoid interstate highways, for instance, and the pervasive privatization of land. (Even public lands have been claimed in various ways by private persons and their livestock.) In short, the “new” journey is only partially an echo of the “old” journey … and an uncomfortably dissonant echo at that.

But the subtitle might also tell readers of a “new America” – one that is either appealing or distressing depending on the reader’s disposition. For my perspective, the “new America” portrayed in the book is a mess. Despite the scenic magnificence that appear still today in northeast Kansas, the Platte River of Nebraska, much of Wyoming, and stretches of southern Idaho into eastern Oregon, modern human activity has degraded much of it beyond recognition. Time and again, Buck’s book reveals what disasters such human activity has brought to those Plains and Western states.

Maybe some upbeat notes can be found, however, in yet another interpretation of the book’s subtitle. Maybe we can envision a different sort of “new American journey”, one in which the sentiments that Buck invites us to experience will stimulate us into action. What Buck and his brother discover – or rather uncover – in making the effort to follow the Oregon Trail in a way reminiscent of the covered-wagon travelers of the nineteenth century might prompt us to see the Trail differently. Different in what way? As a pathway that traversed, then trashed, inspiring landscapes teeming with natural life … and which can still be restored if smart policies are implemented immediately to arrest and repair the damage.

Fortunately, The Oregon Trail does not preach this message. Some readers may draw the message from its pages – as I do, reading from the perspective of the Global RESTORATION Project and its aims of reversing ecological damage worldwide ( Other readers may simply enjoy the book for its account of adventure, with all its false starts, greenhorn mistakes, and harrowing battles with harsh weather and harsh humans presenting obstacles to the journey. For all readers, though, the book is worth the time to enjoy – especially because its pages are populated also with friendly and generous people helping the brothers on their way. If only those friendly and generous people (as well as the harsh ones) could be persuaded to do much, much more in the way of preserving and restoring the landscapes they share with other species. Then the book might help bring not only entertainment but also change.