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I recently finished The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. It had a great scene about dishes I wanted to share.

But first some background: Buck and his brother Nick are driving a covered wagon across The Oregon Trail. In Idaho, Buck’s friend Cindy and her friend Donna join them for a leg of the journey.

It was great, introducing some femininity to our wagon trip. But we nearly had a trail mutiny when we started unloading the wagon.

Back in Annapolis, Donna is a marathon entertainer and chef, and the kitchen in her McMansion sparkles like the glass counters at an Apple Store. Cindy had warned me about that—Donna needed a covered wagon trip, she said, to cure her neat freak—but I had forgotten what she said. When I handed out the plastic dairy cases that we kept our kitchen gear in, Donna looked at our pots and pans and dishes and stood straight up with one hand on her hip and the other pinching her nose.

“This is disgusting,” she said. “I am not cooking on top of filth like this.”

Cindy came over for a look herself.

“This is revolting,” she said. “Rinker, you used to be so clean and neat.”

I didn’t think our kitchen gear looked that bad. A few of our dishes were stuck together because the night before we had accidentally spilled some harness oil on them after dinner, and clusters of dog hair, hayseed, and oats had stuck to our fingerprints. I had scraped most of the scorched Minute Rice, Wesson Oil, and Hormel chili, no beans, off the pots and pans. Yes, our food coolers were shiny with cooking oil and axle grease and slipped out of our hands on a rainy day. But this was normal. Everything was shipshape, exactly as it should be on a covered wagon trip.

I explained to Cindy that I washed the dishes myself every morning.

“What did you wash them with?” Cindy said. “Motor oil?”

“A caveman wouldn’t eat on these plates,” Donna said. “Get out of here while we do a rescue clean.”

Nick walked over to see what the fuss was about. He pulled an undershirt out of our laundry bag and began rubbing the grime of the frying pan.

“Ladies, ladies, ladies,” he said. “Let’s not panic here. I’ve got some Grease Monkey Scrub in my tool kit and I’ll shine these pots right up for ya.”

Donna raised her voice now. “Go. Both of you. Out of this camp for an hour.”

Perhaps I could smooth things over by offering to help.

“Cindy,” I said. “While you wash, I can dry, okay?”

“Did you hear her, dickehead?” Cindy shrieked. “Out! Out of this camp! Why don’t you go somewhere and take a shower!”

“There’s detergent and Scotch Brite in the bottom of the green cooler,” I said. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Go! Out of this camp!”

I looked over my shoulder as Nick and I meekly walked toward town, and what I saw is still one of my favorite images of the trip. Cindy and Donna were bent over a plastic washbasin with our kitchen equipment spread out on the grass. Olive Oyl [Nick’s dog] snoozed in the shade of the wagon behind them. The pressure nozzle on the hose was spraying a rainbow-colored fan of water, and the wind picked up the foamy detergent along Cindy and Donna’s tanned arms and blew it away in bubbles.

When we got back an hour alter the whole camp smelled like Brillo pads and Palmolive cleanser. Cindy and Donna ha even washed the mule buckets, our camp chairs, and the wagon seat. (p. 376-377 of the paperback edition)

Reading the book, I really appreciated the quality of Buck’s prose in passages like this, the kind of prose that comes from a lifetime spent writing, both as a journalist and a book author. If you liked that passage, you might enjoy reading the whole book.

One thing I noticed comparing this story about fighting about dishes on the road to the previous one about #vanlife. In this passage the women had higher standards of cleanliness than the men. In the #vanlife article it was the man who had higher standards.