My favorite place to read is on the southbound Halsted 8 bus between 8am and 10am. I did it every weekday for the better part of two years when I worked in an office in the River North neighborhood of Chicago — finishing entire novels within the span of a few days in the half hour commute alone.
Ever since I changed jobs though I haven’t been able to read as much as I did when I was on the Halsted 8 every day. So whenever I do find myself on a train or a bus or an airplane traveling somewhere, I savor the time I get to just shut up and bury my consciousness in a book.
This morning, I was able to do just that when I flew to Orlando, Florida to take part in a race this weekend. For five hours — as I rode the Blue Line to the airport, and waited at my gate, and flew in my plane to Florida — I immersed myself in The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck. It’s the best travelogue I’ve read since a professor assigned me Rough It by Mark Twain, and it’s just as funny.
The memoir tells the story of a man who, after a mid-life crisis, does what no other man has decided to do since the turn of the 20th century: To travel the Oregon Trail via wagon and mules. Joining him was his brother Nick Buck (the best team riders of his generation) and his Jack Russel Terrier, Olive Oyl. It’s a story filled with humor and peril interwoven with the poignant yet fascinating history of the Oregon Trail — and how it laid the foundation for our country today.
While I enjoyed the book immensely, one thing I couldn’t stop shaking throughout the story was how much privilege laid within the very backbone of it all. This was a man who could afford to leave his life behind to set off on a picaresque journey across America on an honest-to-god wagon. He didn’t have to worry about money, well-being, or reputation. He just could upend everything to jettison his lifestyle back to the 19th century.
While on the other side of the page, there I was flying to Orlando, Florida for the weekend so I could run in two races at fucking Disney World (races I paid hundreds for, mind you). It got me to thinking about how much genealogy and the practice ancestry research is a hobby of the privilege. In between the genetic testing kits, the paid data bases, and subscriptions to ancestral records, you quickly find that this is only a hobby for those who can afford it.
This isn’t to fault Rinker Buck or amateur genealogists for doing what they love — quite the opposite. I think that if you have the opportunity to do the things you want to do (whether it be travel the Oregon Trail in a wagon or try to find what church your great-great-great-great-uncle was baptized in), you should abso-fucking-lutely do it if the spirit compels you.
That said…it feels weird doesn’t it? That there might be people out there who want to do the exact same thing that you’re doing but might, in all likelihood, never be able to do it due to class, race, or whatever else. It makes me want to do something about it.
I’ve never met Rinker Buck, but I’m sure if he could, he’d try to share all the wonders of the Oregon Trail to anyone who wanted it. I’d like to be able to do the same with genealogy. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’d just be damn selfish if I kept it from others. So if you’re reading this and you’ve wanted to find out a little bit more about yourself or your family or where you come from, drop me a line. I’ll get back to you and try to help you the best I can.
Because whether you’re on a trail to Oregon or trying to find out who your grandfather is, you’re going to need all the help you can get.