"I KNEW that many people would consider me unhinged for wanting to see the elephant," writes Rinker Buck in The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. "I was a madman for becoming a twenty-first-century traveler along the ruts."
"Seeing the elephant" is pioneer slang for "striking out across the unknowable wilderness of the plains." The ruts are wagon ruts—remains of the Oregon Trail, much of which is still accessible today, between Missouri and the Willamette Valley. With the eponymous computer game now available online, diehard bonnet-heads might be content to ford rivers via pixels, but Rinker Buck accepts no substitutes. In 2011, facing divorce and the decline of his newspaper, with neuroses at peak control-freak and self-esteem headed south, Buck did what's fast becoming the norm in a particular juncture between memoir and travel writing: He went on a crazy, impractical journey—in this case, traveling the Oregon Trail in an actual covered wagon driven by a team of mules, with his brother and a dog named Olive Oyl.
If you grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder, you're probably already jealous, and you should be: For as much as Buck plays up his ineptitude, his journey reads as a quaint American adventure. A former Hartford Courant reporter, Buck also delves into the trail's history. This can get dense—I endorse skimming the history of mules in America—but it's one of the more creative uses for a mid-life crisis, and Buck makes a strong case for travel for travel's sake, noting that for the trail's original pioneers, what lay beyond the trail in Oregon Country could often be as ruinous as what preceded it.
"The wrong outcome, or no outcome at all, is often the only result of a journey," he writes. "I didn't accomplish much calling mules for nearly two thousand miles across the plains, and I wouldn't be returning home a changed person. The benefits of the trip related mostly to the journey itself." The sign Buck's brother fixed to their wagon puts it another way: "WE ARE SORRY FOR THE DELAY, BUT WE WANT TO SEE AMERICA SLOWLY."