Nick Buck was sitting in his Newcastle home in March last year when he received a call from his brother Rinker, who lives in Norfolk, Conn., asking if he’d like to accompany him on an adventure that summer. Nick, never one to decline a crazy opportunity, agreed. On May 14, Nick, 54, Rinker, 60, and a Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oil set out from St. Joseph, Mo., in a covered wagon, drawn by three occasionally temperamental mules, to follow the 2,000 wild, historic, often-challenging miles of the Oregon Trail. Three months and three weeks later, on Sept. 6, they reached Baker City, Ore. — exhausted and battered, but triumphant.
When Nick Buck told family and friends — including his mother and the three of his 10 siblings who live in midcoast Maine — of his and his brother’s plans, the response was almost universal.
“Everyone said, ‘Do it!’” said Buck, who works as a carpenter in and around Lincoln County. “How often does something like this come up? It might seem crazy to some people to drop everything and take a wagon halfway across the country, but to me, there was no other choice.”
Rinker Buck, who works as a freelance journalist in Connecticut, had already been on his share of adventures: in 1966, at age 15, he and his older brother Kernahan became the then-youngest pilots to ever fly a plane cross-country. The resulting book, “Flight of Passage: A Memoir,” came out in 1998. He had also done a great deal of research on the Oregon Trail and pitched the story of his adventure to Simon & Schuster, which accepted. He’s writing the book, which is slated to be published in June 2013. Furthermore, the Buck family has a long tradition of working with carriages and wagons; father, Tom, collected wagons and would take his children on long-distance rides when they were growing up in New Jersey.
Nick Buck, who moved to midcoast Maine when he joined the Coast Guard at age 18 and was stationed in Rockland, inherited his father’s love of both horses and wagons. He owns three horses and 10 wagons at his Newcastle home and, in addition to carpentry, he gives sleigh rides during the winter at ski resorts in New England. He’s a resourceful fellow, having restored and then lived in Whitehead Lighthouse, off Spruce Head in Lincoln County. He has been on his share of adventures, too, so naturally, Buck was the perfect choice to join the caravan — though the Oregon Trail trip was his first time working with mules.
“They’re very different animals from horses. They behaved well — mostly,” said Buck, who named his trusty steeds Butte, Beck and Jake. “I really didn’t know much about mules, honestly, but boy, did I learn quickly. It’s a really specific set of skills you need to be able to drive a wagon. You need to be able to fix the axle if it breaks. If it tips over, you’ve got to right it. But it’s something I’ve done for years and years, so I was the right guy to do it.”
The brothers aren’t the first to attempt a modern-day passage of the Oregon Trail, but they are among the very few who have accomplished it without the help of a car, truck or other motorized vehicle — or with any frills to speak of, such as electricity or firearms. They arrived in Missouri during the first week of May 2011, and had one week to assemble their wagon, mules and supplies. They bought the mules from an Amish farmer in Jamesport, Mo., and the wagon from a builder in Fortin, Kan. As for supplies, they didn’t stock up as much as you might think — those original pioneers who blazed the trail westward in the 1830s and ’40s were often tricked by suppliers into buying far more food than they needed, which ended up spoiling and being discarded.
“People were green. They didn’t know any better. Once you crossed Missouri into Kansas and then got into Nebraska, you’d just see piles of rotting food on the side of the trail because it had spoiled in the heat,” Buck said. “So we brought a lot of canned goods and beef jerky and peanuts. And that’s basically all we ate, unless people took us in and fed us.”
Though they avoided some of the mistakes the original pioneers made, the brothers nevertheless had a learning curve to overcome. And at a rate of 40-60 miles per day, they were in for a long, bumpy ride.
“I think we thought it would be more of a buggy ride, but it definitely wasn’t,” Buck said. “The first two weeks in Kansas and Nebraska, we were in these never-ending thunderstorms. We were wet for days. The mules were miserable. Olive Oil must have thought, ‘Where the hell are we, and when are we going home?’ We had to settle into the fact that wow, we were really doing this. It was a months-long endurance test. Our backs hurt for the entire trip.”
The Oregon Trail still exists, though it’s barely recognizable from the bushwhacked trail of the early 1800s, forged by Manifest Destiny and the promise of prosperity in the West. In many places, it’s covered by two-lane blacktop roads or runs parallel to major highways, such as the cross-country Interstate 80. For the majority of the trip, there was always evidence of civilization.
But for some stretches, it’s just deep, ancient ruts, crossing through the rolling pastures of cattle ranches and over treacherous mountain passes. For a large portion of the trip, they were at an altitude of 7,500 feet, which fortunately meant there were no rattlesnakes or large predators to worry about. In Kansas, the trail is mostly gone due to the destructive nature of pivot irrigation for crops. For a few days at a time, the brothers wouldn’t see a soul on their travels, though they would see landmarks, such as Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska.
“There were nights when we’d pass by farms, and they’d invite us in for dinner, and give us food and showers, and ask us if we’d like to sleep in a bed. But that was only maybe 14 days out of almost four months,” Buck said. “My brother slept in the wagon. I slept on the ground. We were more concerned about making the mules happy than making ourselves happy.”
Though the brothers escaped serious injury, they on more than one occasion found themselves in some serious scrapes. There was the time they narrowly avoided getting stuck on two miles of sheer ledge called Rocky Ridge in Wyoming, thanks to a helpful Bureau of Land Management employee. They got lost trying to navigate Split Rock, also in Wyoming, and had to figure out how to get back to the trail by looking for the rock formation on the horizon. They almost lost control of the wagon entirely in — not surprisingly — Wyoming. It was the one time Buck admits to being really scared. The road turned into a narrow, forested path, which eventually dropped into an undrivable steep decline. Nick and Rinker had to drag the wagon down the hill themselves — at which point they had to cross a river, and then get through a mile of road carved into a mountain.
“A tumbleweed blew up against one of the mules, and she shied to the right. We almost tipped straight off the mountain,” Buck said. “I was just shaking. We were all just shaking. It was pretty hairy in a couple of places.”
But the obstacles the brothers encountered were not overcome in vain when they finally crossed the Oregon state line and pulled into Baker City on Sept. 6. They immediately said goodbye to the mules, sold the wagon and spent six weeks relaxing in town, regaining strength and processing the experience they’d just had — four months in a covered wagon would drain even the hardiest of souls, and the Buck brothers surely are possessing of such a strong constitution. In October, Nick Buck finally returned home to Newcastle.
“I think we were honorary Westerners by the time we got back,” he said. “Olive Oil was a little homesick, so she was pretty psyched to be back. She bagged a prairie dog. She was pleased, but she was ready to go. So was I.”
Buck is back in the carpentry business and is set to perform in Lincoln County Community Theatre’s production of “Sex in the Sixties: Four One-Act Plays,” which goes up March 2-4 and 9-11 at the Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta. He gave a talk in early February at the Owls Head Transportation Museum about his Oregon Trail experience, and is set to speak to the Union Historical Society this summer. Once Rinker’s book comes out, the brothers may reveal the plan they have for another adventure — but until then, they’re keeping mum.
“I always tend to take on more than I can actually do,” Buck said. “Life is a curious thing. It’s hard not to be involved in it. If you get the chance to do something amazing, you’d better do it.”