There’s nothing like a long road trip to put life in perspective. That’s especially true for the Great Plains. I’m not talking flyovers, but driving an SUV across Kansas, feeling every turn and bump in the road.
Tym and I took this trek on our recent Western excursion. Kansas was our first leg of a three-week journey to San Francisco–1,500 miles as the crow flies. The Great Plains were the warm-up.
As we crossed the Kansas River, I imagined hardy, or foolhardy, tenderfoots with visions aplenty as they set out from Westport, MO. Once the jumping-off point to trails west, Westport is now part of Kansas City, a neighborhood full of restaurants and a bar known as Kelly’s Westport Inn. In the 1850s and 60s, the Kelly’s building was a store provisioning wagon trains. No doubt it saw my ancestors, the Hart family, off on their attempt to homestead the Kansas wilds. The year was 1867. Things didn’t work out. By 1870 they were safely back home in Illinois.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City was an excellent introduction to that period of history. The Arabia sank when it hit a snag on the Missouri River in 1856, laden with goods for the frontier. In 1988, a team of researchers excavated the boat from a farmer’s field, as the river changes its course often. Inside the sunken hulk was a Victorian Wal-Mart: tons of new old stock, from glass buttons to bonnets to leather shoes, chinaware, bolts of cloth, door hinges, nails, tools and horse collars were displayed as they might’ve been had the boat made it west of Quindaro Bend.
Mud is a preservative. I stood gap-mouthed in amazement at jars of pickles that the excavators claimed are still edible, along with every other thing one might buy in 1856— merchandise similar to what my people would have bought as neophyte Kansans.
And so we headed west on I-70, and the landscape turned into rolling hills then grasslands, flat and treeless—400 miles—an entire day of pondering life on the trail from the comfortable front seat of an SUV. We spotted faint remnants of wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail near Dodge City, reminding us of how America’s story is as amazing as the ghosts left in its wake.
We pondered the weeks it would have taken to make it across Kansas Territory at five miles a day, watching for the trail, fording streams and rivers, hoping the livestock didn’t go lame or drown or fall ill. Praying that an axle didn’t break or horses didn’t spook. Watching for signs of illness, safe water to drink, rationing supplies, on the lookout for hostile Indians, outlaws, foul weather; guarding against sunstroke, insect bites, rattlesnakes, fevers, infections and sprains—girding strength to endure the loneliness and the fear of moving headlong into a dry, dusty unknown.
Many didn’t make it. An estimated 20,000 perished on the Oregon Trail alone. We don’t hear much about those unfortunate souls, just as my family seldom talked about my great-great grandparents and how their dream of a Kansas homestead evaporated. They made the 400-mile journey from Illinois, but life on the plains proved too much. Within a year or so they pulled up stakes and headed home. I was never told why.
What I am sure of is how I admire them for dreaming of life beyond Westport, MO and for their determination to make the vision real. What I admire most is their courage to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going long after the dream vanished.