The Great Plains and a Once Great Cow Town

In Travels With Myself on June 30, 2013 at 12:20 am

I know that in New England they are called corduroy roads: they were originally made from logs sunk into the road bed to provide a solid surface and help prevent washouts. They were, of course extremely bumpy and noisy. I remember, as a child, traveling with my parents through upstate New York when many of the highways were what I would call “wide-wale” roads: great slabs of pavement separated by tar strips that allowed the road to expand and contract with the weather. The roads produced a jarring bump and a loud clop-clop-clop for miles, and sometimes it seemed, hours on end. After I got off I35 this morning and US50 took off finally on its own, the road was at first a wide-wale road. Apparently techniques have improved, though, because there was only a small bumping and almost no noise at all. The rhythm of the road was definitely there, though, and I was happy when it changed to the more rumbling texture of aging asphalt.
From there, Kansas opened up like a picture-book laid flat across the landscape. A green and golden carpet spread out as far as the eye could see on both sides of the gray strip of road as it ran its course through hay fields, already dotted with the great rolls of the first cutting, wrapped in clear plastic and waiting for the next step of the process. Among the hay fields were smaller plantings of corn, and great rusty pumps bobbing up and down, massive grain elevators like long-forgotten pieces of a great fortress wall, and the occasional herd of cattle, farmhouse or agribusiness. I found myself drawn in by the unbelievable vastness of it all, and by the water color plein-aire sky, growing from pale pastel to a deep blue roof above, wispy strands and powder puffs of clouds painted against it. To ride these roads is to know what is meant by the “great dome of the sky.” I could imagine watching as the great storms that sweep the plains might rise at the horizon and advance inexorably toward me. The few stands of trees gave testimony to the power and frequency of those storms. They all leaned toward the east, already bending away from the wind that would surely come again, the ground beneath them littered with broken branches and the gray bones of their kin who had not been able, finally, to bend any more.
It is easy to imagine, also, the six million buffalo that once stretched as far as the plains themselves, and the great civilizations that lived and prospered on the land before the coming of the Europeans; easy to imagine that great expansion, as US50 paralleled the route of the Santa Fe trail. Easy, then, to see how this vast prairie, with its isolated towns and more isolated farms and ranches could fire the imagination of rugged individualists, adventurers, and the scoundrels who would want to lose themselves far away from the reach of civilizing forces that inevitably found their own way west.
In Missouri, I had seen at least four instances where some devout farmer with a hillock had constructed his own personal Golgotha, one tall straight cross rising from the hill while two smaller crosses shrank back to either side in that classic iconic image. In Kansas, the road would go for long stretches with nothing but simple fences between the road and the fields, then as a town or some farms drew into view, long, incredibly straight lines of poles would come round the corner from somewhere, their cross pieces crucifying only power lines and telephone wires; then disappear again just as suddenly. In a town called Spearville, I say a town, though I never actually saw one, there is the largest wind farm I have ever seen. It stretches out easily ten miles or more in every direction. If you have never seen one of these windmills, it is hard to imagine how big they are and how gracefully the long, almost delicate blades swing slowly around, giving the whole apparatus the appearance of a great white water bird, stretching its wings and dipping its bill to drink. The sign at the town’s edge proclaims that Spearville is home to windmills and Bengal Lancers, which I can only assume to be the name of their high school football team.
I was amazed by the absence of people. The fields were almost without exception empty. There was no one working them, no tractors running about or great combines lumbering along. Instead, there were only the enormous irrigation rigs, standing on great narrow wheels and impossibly small legs, crawling ever so slowly across the prairie like bizarre sidewinding silverfish. And the absence of people didn’t stop at the edge of the fields. Even the towns all seemed deserted, nobody out in the heat of the day, nobody doing business, only the cars and the ubiquitous semis that seemed to be always passing through to somewhere else.
I grew up in the 1950s, watching fictionalized television versions of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the truly fictional characters of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Paladin, Davy Crockett (a particular favorite just for the name) and too many others to list here. I love the great American romance with the cowboy, the gunfighter, and the lawmen who had helped to tame the west. So when US50 passed through Dodge City, I had to stop and make my first shameless tourist stop. I went to Boot Hill and Dodge’s Front Street museum. It was wonderful. But even here I was surprised by the absence of crowds. Here it was, a Saturday afternoon in late June, and I practically had the whole of Dodge City to myself. Even along Front Street and Wyatt Earp Boulevard, the parking lots were nearly empty, shops still closed, some empty of more than people. The whole of Kansas seemed to have gone indoors and pulled the shades.
Then I remembered. I was there because I had vowed to eschew the interstates, and because US50 had brought me right to town. Only one interstate runs through Kansas; I35 slices off the southeast corner of the state; and the closest major highway to Dodge is US40 which cuts across the middle 100 miles to the north. Where the Santa Fe trail once provided the surest and best known route to the west, where wagon trains and cattle herds once plodded their way across a thousand miles of wilderness, all that is left are some brown signs announcing the occasional historical marker and a small museum in a mostly ignored tourist town, while most of those heading west zip through the state at 75 miles an hour, an hour and a quarter away.

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