Heartland odyssey, Part 2: Central Plains
In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. Previously, I covered the part of the trip in Texas. This second part covers the Central Plains. Next will come the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.
Mile 631, Cheyenne, Okla.
One cannot forget the Native American presence in the Great Plains. The sense of the Plains, with the Cheyenne and Lakota riding horses across it, looking for buffalo, still is felt in every little corner not yet given over to corn and sorghum.
And one sad reminder of the history of Indians is the Washita River, near Cheyenne, where George Custer and his troops slaughtered a band of friendly Cheyenne Indians who were camped in the snow along the banks of the creek in late November, 1868.
The band, under the leadership of Black Kettle, attempted to remind the army over and over that it intended to remain peaceful.
“We want peace,” he said. “I would move all my people down this way. I could then keep them all quietly near camp.”
But Custer and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, decided to “make battle.”
In the cold of Nov. 27, Custer divided his troops up into four parties, just as he would do eight years later at the Little Bighorn. But there was no Native army lying in wait at Washita. Just a village filled with families.
When Black Kettle realized what was going on, he fired his rifle in the air to alert the rest of his band that they should flee for their lives. Black Kettle had seen this sort of thing before: He had lived through the massacre at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864 and knew what was coming.
But it was too late, the army had already descended on the encampment. Black Kettle was one of the first to be killed, with a bullet ripping through his belly. His wife was killed at the same time.
After the action, Custer reported that he had won a great battle and had killed 130 warriors. A later counts run from as few as 11 warriors and 19 women and children to around 100, mostly women and children.
The site of the battle is in a coulee a mile west of town. Most of the countryside around it is farmland and grazing land, but down in the wedge, along the stream is a dark line of trees where the Cheyenne camped. It is a lonely place among the lonesomeness of the Plains.
Mile 705, Woodward, Okla.
County historical museums exist in almost every small town in the Plains. And there is a peculiar sameness to them.
They all seem to have the identical items on view, but gathered from their different locations. After wandering through a few of them, you come to know what an old-time dentist chair looks like, or the old telephone switchboard, or the pigeonholes from the old post office.
There are white-enamel ladles, wagon wheels, butter churns and moldboard plows. There are “Old Flo” blue china sets, cornucopia-topped Victrolas and immense oaken bankers’ desks.
But it is the sameness that is important. For, north of Texas, the Great Plains is surprisingly homogenous culturally.
Whether it is Oklahoma or North Dakota, the same rugged immigrants plowed the land. German here and Irish there, but otherwise, the same.
Like the land itself, the variation is slight.
One of the best tended and displayed of these museums is the Plains Indian and Pioneers Museum in Woodward, Okla. It tells the familiar history: a land occupied by Native Americans; incursions by whites; a growing cattle industry on the open range and cows replace buffalo; the raising of fences and the building of farms.
In this portion of Oklahoma, the white invasion began in earnest in on Sept. 16, 1893, when northwest Oklahoma was opened to permanent white settlement in the third great land run in the state. Some 100,000 homeseekers carved the prairie into 160-acre homesteads in a single day. Almost overnight, towns popped up — first as tent cities — as land offices registered homestead claims.
Woodward itself sprouted 500 buildings in its first three months of existence. The railroad came through.
Outside the towns, however, buildings were hard to come by. Many settlers made their homes in dug out hills. Others built up “soddies,” or sod homes made of dirt bricks spaded from the turf. In those dusty, buggy, leaky homes, they set up their lives, cooking, sleeping and freezing their way through winters with nothing to burn in their stoves but buffalo chips or cowpies, and sharing that warmth with mice.
Yet, they made the best of it, usually whitewashing the mud walls, tamping down the dirt floors, bringing in their sideboards and pianos.
If they succeeded in busting through the soil knotted with grass roots, planting and harvesting their potatoes, wheat or corn, they may eventually have built a lumber house.
But much of the farm life of the Plains was disrupted in the 1930s by drought and the blowing dust. They had to adapt, and those who didn’t move away, did.
The “dusters” sometimes blackened the daytime sky for a week at a time, stuffing sand under the doorjambs and blowing the precious topsoil to Virginia and New York.
Now, the crops are mostly forage corn and milo, mixed with wheat. Cattle still take up a lot of the land, but there is a change in the wind — literally and none too pleasantly.
“There is a pig boom going on in Oklahoma,” explains Louise B. James, director of the museum. Huge hog farms are being built across the Plains, to make pork intended to pick up the slack in beef sales.
“They make pork chops and Spam, yes,” says James, “but I’m boycotting them. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good, though.”
Runoff from the farms is seriously polluting streams and groundwater.
“It’s real touchy stuff. A lot of people really hate the pigs. This is cattle country, but many people look to the hogs as salvation.”
Meanwhile a law is slowly working through the state legislature that would control the size of the hog farms.
Mile 747, Dodge City, Kan.
I took up life as a pedestrian in Dodge City.
This wasn’t a state I would have chosen for myself; it was brought to me when my rental car coughed, wheezed and then decided to take a nap in the turn lane of Wyatt Earp Boulevard, which is both Main Street and Motel Row in this Kansas cattle town.
The problem, I was told, was not really bad and could be quickly fixed, if they could find the part they needed. Unfortunately, the nearest part turned out to exist in Oklahoma City.
“We can have it here tomorrow,” they said.
Which was going to leave me on foot. First they drove me back to my motel so I could arrange for the room. The man who drove me was 83.
“I came to Dodge City in 1921 in a covered wagon,” he tells me.
“We came from Colorado. My father worked for the government.”
I asked him what had changed over the years.
“It’s all changed,” he answered. “There used to be a livery stable on this corner and over there,” he motioned to a vacant lot, “that used to be City Hall.”
The railroad tracks run through town, paralleling Wyatt Earp Boulevard.
“That used to be Front Street,” he says. Now Front Street is a tourist trap behind a chain link fence where you pay $5 to see “Boot Hill” and a streetfront of Hollywood-set buildings where you can get a sarsaparilla at the “Long Branch” saloon or pay to have the printer work up a wanted poster with your name on it.
“Is that the way Dodge City used to be,” I ask.
“Hell, no,” he says. “That’s just for tourists.”
He has lived in Dodge for most of his life.
“Do you like it here?”
“I don’t know nothing else, I guess.”
For the rest of the day, I walk. It wasn’t a first choice, but Dodge City is light on public transportation. There are no buses and when I call the taxi company, I get a recorded message that asks me to leave my name and number and they’ll “get back to me.”
So, I head off in the direction of downtown, following the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line (or more accurately, in this age of railroad megamergers, the BNSF rail line). On the other side of the tracks are green fields and old houses.
Grasshoppers jump under my feet like popcorn.
The gigantic grain elevator roars with cooling fans and a train pulls by me, squealing and humming.
After so many days of driving, it is a revelation to be on my legs once more. When the wind shifts, I can smell the feedlots on the edge of town.
Wyatt Earp is lined with Taco Bells and Burger Kings. It looks like every generic “Miracle Mile” in the West.
The Dodge City most people think of from Gunsmoke reruns is a flat town surrounded by the Hollywood version of the West, full of woods, deserts and mountains.
There are no mountains anywhere near Dodge City, but surprisingly, the downtown is built on one of the few hills in the area. Walking through it means climbing steep streets paved with bricks.
The Chamber of Commerce plays up the “Old West” angle and everywhere you see come-ons that tout the “gunslingers” and saloon girls.
The prize, though, must go the the Gunfighter’s Wax Museum, which is even cheesier than it sounds. Taking up the second floor of the Kansas Schoolteachers Hall of Fame, it’s dark corridors are filled with cartoonish murals lit with blacklight. There’s Jesse James and Davy Crockett, although I never heard of Crockett called a gunfighter before.
But then, John F. Kennedy wasn’t a gunfighter, either and he’s here, along with LBJ and Dracula.
A gigantic bronze longhorn steer acts as official greeter for the town: It is the first thing you see when you reach downtown.
It commemorates the hundreds of thousands of “beeves” that were herded to Dodge City in its prime, to be shipped on the railroad back to markets in the East.
As I walked back to my motel after dinner, I saw a cloud of about 2,000 or more blackbirds trail across the sky like a river, slowly filling the sky channel from one horizon to the other, then the first birdstream was joined by a second, running right beside it, with its own several thousand birds.
It was a monumental Western sight, a Milky Way of black stars spread out over the twilight. When the first herds rode through, a third followed and after they left, a fourth: a sky with something like 10,000 blackbirds, twisting and skittering like sparks from a fire.
Mile 880, Oakley, Kan.
Vi Fick couldn’t stop collecting shark’s teeth. She collected so many in the fossil beds near Monument Rocks in western Kansas that she didn’t seem to know what to do with them.
So she wound up giving them to the tiny community of Oakley, Kan., providing, she said, that they erect a building for the collection, which included not only the 11,000 teeth, but dinosaur bones, mammoth teeth and the hysterical paintings she created with them. The museum opened in 1972.
For Vi Fick had something of the crazy folk artist about her. She painted oil paintings in the learn-to-paint-from-the-TV-painter school, but she added a touch of her own with bits of seashells, bones and shark’s teeth.
The Fick Fossil and History Museum is one of the must-see stops in northwest Kansas. Not only will you find her bones and her pictures, but a decent local history museum, with its usual collection of old Victrolas, antique dentistry tools and antediluvian flour canisters.
The fossil collection is genuinely impressive and scientifically identified. Some of the fossils are from Fick, others from the collection of paleontologist George F. Sternberg, including a 15-foot Portheus molossus, a kind of huge prehistoric fish.
But you have seen fossils before, I’m sure. What you probably haven’t seen is a painting of the American flag with sharks’ teeth for all the stars and the stripes covered in more teeth, pointed one way for the red and the reverse way for the white.
Nor have you likely seen an entire wall lined with 2-foot tall oval picture frames — 30 of them — each filled with neat, symmetrical arrangements of sharks’ teeth.
There are also the great seals of the U.S. and Kansas, outlined in the teeth.
There is a photograph of Vi Fick in the museum. You can tell from her modest dress, set with a cameo pin at the collar, and from her well-scrubbed face that she was a hard-working, pioneer-stock God-fearing woman.
But you can likewise tell from the pile of tight white-haired curls, gathered in a football-shaped pompadour over her head and rivaling it for size, that she wasn’t completely in control of herself.
If you have any doubts, just look at her eyes, wider than any normal person feels comfortable holding them and staring out at you with the intensity of thumbtacks.
It may be true that the obsessive dedication Vi Fick felt toward her sharks’ teeth and her wacky paintings is the very dedication needed to make a successful life on the farm in the Great Plains, where everything in the natural world conspires against you.
Mile 942, Oberlin, Kan.
The wind blows across the plains the way it blows across the ocean, ceaselessly, raising great waves in the grasses and grains that cover the great sea-swell of the hills.
It is not possible, once you have been here, to imagine the plains without the blow. Spiny tumbleweeds barrel across the road in front of you and if you look in your rear-view mirror, you may very well see one caught in the grille of the car behind you.
Near Oberlin, Kan., I saw the biggest tumbleweed I have ever seen, and the darkest. Usually, they are a kind of straw-yellow and a foot or two in diameter. The one that blew straight northward with me on U.S. 83 was about four feet in diameter, rotating on its edge like a wheel. It sped along in a 40-mile-per-hour gale, turning top over keel for a hundred yards down the highway.
When I passed it, it was still following me till I lost sight of it in the back window as I drove up over a rise. For all I know, it made it to Nebraska just behind me.
The wind rattles the windows at night and if it gets under your house, can seem to be in immediate danger of lifting it in the air like a kite.
The worst winds, in terms of consistent blow, are found in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and western Kansas and Nebraska, where the average hourly wind velocity climbs to 12 and 14 miles per hour.
As I drive through, the wind runs a constant 40 mph, gusting to 50. When I step out of my car, the wind rips my shirt clean out of my trousers.
When I ask in North Platte about the winds, an old town resident thinks carefully and tells me, “On Aug. 13, 1947, we had a calm day. I remember it well.”
Mile 1039, North Platte, Neb.
Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., is the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Every day, 10,000 railroad cars in 120 trains run through on the 260 miles of track telescoped into a yard 8 miles long.
It runs through the city and out for miles to the west, where an observation tower is built for trainwatchers.
But, when I drive through North Platte in October, the yard is also something of a problem.
This fall has brought one of the best harvests ever to the Great Plains and there is concern that there are not enough railroad cars to transport all the grain, corn, sorghum, milo and beets.
“North Platte is reportedly one of five railroad ‘bottlenecks’ in the Union Pacific system that are causing disruption to business and industry across the country,” I read in the North Platte Telegraph.
The problem is the merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. Bookkeeping and bureaucratic snafus have tied up some 10,000 railroad cars in limbo and there are not enough locomotives to redistribute the needed cars.
Senator Bob Kerry (D., Neb.) expressed his concern about “delays in grain car deliveries, pick ups and system gridlock,” an article reads.
“These shortages and backlogs are especially troubling since the harvest season has barely begun,” the senator said.
Nebraska beef producers were running out of molasses, which they mix into their cattle feed.
Concern has been expressed for the health of Nebraska cattle. UP delivers entire train cars of molasses that beef producers use to make feed more appealing to their cattle.
Trucks have been hired to move the molasses, but a business spokesman said that trucking “can’t continue to handle loads of this magnitude.”
“We have a plan in place to fix (the problem),” said UP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Davidson.
The company said it had purchased 288 new higher-horsepower locomotives this year and would buy another 229 next year. To help with the short-term situation, Davidson said, 214 locomotives have been leased during the past few months.
North of the town, the Sand Hills spread out like a lunar landscape, if they grew grass on the moon. Ducks fly west along the Platte River so low I can see their eyes.
And when I reach Thedford, at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest, the wind is blowing at 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 and there are people out on the golf course, playing.
Next: The Northern Plains
I like your plains/prairie series. I once lived in Glasgow, Montana, for three years where the land was as flat as could be in parts. My dad was stationed at Glasgow Air Force Base (since shut down.)
My mother grew up in west Texas and said the land was so flat it hurt your eyes. But I find something serene and spiritual about flat plains. Nothing to block your view or thoughts. Singer KD Lang grew up in a little town called Consort, southern Alberta, and said the isolation helped her create unique music. I actually have been yearning to visit a prairie for years now and I am not sure why. Your articles capture them well. Betty