If you want to grow up to be an adventurer, it helps to have an adventurous childhood. Author Rinker Buck grew up in New Jersey, one of 11 children living "a normal middle-class life" — or it would have been normal, if not for their father, a one-legged barnstormer and magazine publisher.
"My father was very adventuresome and engaged his kids in things like learning to fly and horseback riding," Buck said. "Other kids were playing golf."
In 1966, when Buck was 15, he and his 17-year-old brother, Kern, bought an old Piper Cub plane, rebuilt it in their barn, and then flew it from New Jersey to California. Buck did most of the navigating, following roads and railway lines using maps and eyesight; they had no equipment, no radio.
"What I learned from that experience was that, first of all, you could escape the bonds of ordinary middle-class existence by doing something like that," Buck said. "And, number two, that you could push yourself to achieve things that other people wouldn't think of."
That adventure became a memoir, "Flight of Passage," a national bestseller.
Since then he's driven a covered wagon the length of the Oregon Trail; and, in 2016, at age 66, built a wooden flatboat (named "Patience") and sailed it down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. His new book, "Life on the Mississippi," is about that trip. Buck will be in the Twin Cities for events Aug. 12-13.
We spoke with Buck about his book's "disguised agenda," the hidden history of our greatest river and how to slow reality down. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Before your flatboat journey, people told you the trip was too dangerous, warning of whirlpools, beachings and capsizing. Why did you go?
A: The whole trip was a lesson in myth vs. truth. When a challenge like this comes along, no one is really the expert except yourself. You just have to have a calm head, look at the situation rationally, and understand that there is a huge amount of misinformation out there.
This became important for me because we're living through another age of misinformation. Instead of being part of the herd that listens to the mythmaking machine, you have to be able to discriminate and find out for yourself whether there's danger.
Q: You encountered plenty of danger — you broke your ribs twice and you did get beached. Yet the impression I got from the book was one of calm.
A: The book was an example of a disguised agenda. You think it's the adventure story of a guy going down the river and the history along the way, and that's part of it. But it really becomes much more a journey into inner consciousness. A journey into confidence. A journey into understanding that what you've been told to worry about isn't the actual threat.
Q: There's quite a bit of history in this book. Where does your fascination with American history come from?
A: My curiosity has been driven by the inadequacies of the history we've been taught in school. No one had ever told me that the frontier really began on the rivers, not on the plains.
I was an AP [Advanced Placement] history student in high school and a history major at a very decent college, but there's much they didn't teach us — the Indian Removal Act, which was one of the most heinous events in American history. I never knew about the coffle lines — marching enslaved people a thousand miles, sometimes by flatboat, chained together with metal collars.
Q: How did sailing a flatboat reveal hidden history?
A: What the boat does, what the boat in this book did, just like the covered wagon in the last one, is it creates a vehicle that allows you to see the country and consider the changes at the speed and by the same impressions as the 19th-century travelers. It slows reality down.
Q: What insights did this trip give you about contemporary America?
A: It's important to understand that America was always a violent culture, that we took the extraordinary gift of resources that we had and used it to eliminate people who were not like us. If there were racial tensions, there were also other alternatives. It's very important to understand history because we're just repeating it now.
Q: Your first book, "Flight of Passage," is a coming-of-age story. It's also about your complicated relationship with your father. In "Life on the Mississippi," you write more about your mother. Why?
A: My mother was an amazing person, a classic war bride, got married right after the war, and started having kids right away and over the next 17 years she had 11 children. She was not present and accounted for in that first book because she really wasn't.
She was a completely different person in her 50s — her husband had died, she finally got the last kids out of the house, and she completely changed as a person. She finally had the time to become her own person.
My mother really played an important role in this journey. I spent pretty much the best years of my life taking care of her. We all went up to Maine and took care of her. She died right before I took off.
She kept coming back to me during the journey. I'm going down the river and I'm thinking about my mother. All of us as boomers are experiencing the pains of raising children at the same time as taking care of our parents. It's a common experience. And I want the book to be about the commonality of experience.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Life on the Mississippi
By: Rinker Buck.
Publisher: Avid Reader Press, 416 pages, $32.50.
Events: 7 p.m. Aug. 12, Magers & Quinn Bookstore, Mpls.; 1 p.m. Aug. 13, George Latimer Central Library, St. Paul.