The best travel memoirs tell three stories at once β€” about the author, the trip itself and the territory being traveled. In The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey (**** out of four), Rinker Buck excels at all three.

We watch Buck’s evolution from a fussy Northeastern journalist bemoaning the slow-motion train wreck of American newspapers into someone able to weather the challenges of trail life. It took him just four months driving a three-mule wagon train from Missouri to Oregon to make it happen.

For more than 400,000 Americans in the 15 years before the start of the Civil War in 1861, the Oregon Trail represented a chance to move west for new opportunities, perhaps to strike gold, or to escape religious bias. It was a journey of great promise and peril; thousands never made it, falling victim along the way to accidents, disease or violence.

“It virtually defined the American character β€” our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space,” Buck writes of the trail and its significance.

Americans who live on either coast see the Great Plains as flyover country, the places in between the parts of the United States they would rather see. During the mid-1800s, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska were the American frontier, where pioneers started their journeys and the nation fought over the future of slavery.

Buck, author of Flight of Passage, brings the land to life in a richly researched book that draws heavily from journals kept by the pioneers and their memoirs. His muse on the long journey is pioneer woman Narcissa Whitman, whose writings about the trail inform much of Buck’s. Whitman was the first woman to conceive a child while on the trail and deliver a baby in the far West.

Buck’s trek is really two trips into the past. First is his journey on the trail, which is a series of ill-defined paths that combined provide a wide swath across the country. Second, he travels back to 1958, when his magazine editor father took his family from New York to Philadelphia in a covered wagon.

That family trip inspired Buck’s but also his deeper dive into his family and history. His covered wagon carries his mental baggage as well as his travel supplies.

Traveling with him is his younger brother, Nick, a mechanical savant able to fix a car engine or a broken wagon with whatever tools he can find. The interplay between the two brothers, one an uptight elitist and the other a bumptious working man with dirt under his fingernails, propels the book from its starting point in St. Joseph, Mo., to Oregon.

“My email exchanges with Nick about the Oregon Trail trip became a study of our divergent personalities, the amazing wealth of possibilities contained within shared DNA,” Buck writes. “I would write Nick long, learned dissertations on my plans, with links to maps, and typically over-researched histories of the places along the trail where I planned to camp. Nick emailed back about wheel grease and tools.”

The covered wagon trip itself never seems truly suspenseful for the reader, since it’s apparent that Buck and his brother made it safely. The problems along the way posed challenges that were ultimately overcome. The real drama comes from Buck himself, as he evolves into a man, even at age 60, who is more comfortable in his skin, with his family and his past. His exploration of America and himself is a joy to read.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

By Rinker Buck

Simon & Schuster

4 stars out of four

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