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Modern-day pioneers head west
June 30, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Jerry Purvis/Gering Citizen Rinker Buck has been following the Oregon Trail westward in a covered wagon, researching sites for his upcoming book. In the wagon are his brother, Nick (left) and Justin Wallingford, a su

Rinker Buck, along with his brother, Nick, and dog, Olive Oil, have spent the last several weeks seeing the Oregon Trail up close – from a covered wagon drawn by a team of three mules.

Rinker Buck lives in Connecticut and his brother is from Maine. Rinker, in addition to writing for magazines and newspapers, is the author of several books, including “If We Had Wings” and “Flight of Passage.”

Rinker and Nick have been traveling through the area as Rinker researches some of the historic sites for his upcoming book about the Oregon Trail, tentatively called “Oregon Bound.”

“We left St. Joseph, Mo. on May 14,” Rinker said. “It took us five weeks to cover almost 600 miles. I think this is a much better way to write a book than just sitting in a library.”

And what a way to experience the Oregon Trail. With just one support vehicle, Rinker and Nick cover about 20 miles a day and camp out on the trail. One of their stops was in Lisco, where the roads along the trail were flooded out because of rising water in the North Platte River.

They arrived in Gering last Thursday and made their first stop at the North Platte Valley Museum, where they had their vehicle parked ahead of time. Museum director Barb Netherland then led them to the Unzicker place, where they could turn the mules loose into pasture. That night, they slept below the Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Friday morning, they spent some time at the Monument, where Rinker was especially interested in the exhibits and paintings of William Henry Jackson. Then they hitched up the mules and headed west – Oregon bound.

Rinker said both he and Nick have experience working with draft horses, but this is the first time they’ve worked with mules. They bought their team of mules from a member of the Amish colony in Jamesport, Mo. and had the wagon restored across the river in Kansas. The wagon is actually an original Schuttler wagon, manufactured in Chicago in the 1800s.

They plan to end their journey this fall in Farewell Bend, Ore. “It’s not quite the end of the trail, but it’s close,” Rinker said. “A lot of the pioneers actually left the trail there, broke up their wagons and turned them into boats. “Others continued on over the mountains to the Columbia River.”

Rinker said he fell in love with the history of the Oregon Trail several years ago while working on a story in Kansas. After some research, he discovered a good book hadn’t been written about it for 40 or 50 years.

“There were things about the trail that have never made it into books,” he said. “Most of the pioneers came west after the great financial panic of 1837, which was worse than the Great Depression nearly a hundred years later. No one really appreciates what the trail did for the nation’s economy. It generated a huge boom in business. Peter Schuttler became one of Chicago’s first millionaires from making so many of the wagons that people brought west.”

Rinker said the journey has been an endurance test. They wake up every morning at five, harness the mules and get on the trail. And he said what he’ll remember about the area is the strong Nebraska winds and the generosity of the people for providing pasture for the mules and offering assistance for needed repairs.
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