Along the Santa Fe Trail

© 2006 By Kathleen Kemsley, First published in Rider Magazine, November 2006

We planned to attend a regional sidecar club rally in September.  There was just onesanta-fe-trail_0008 drawback: the rally took place in eastern Kansas.  Kansas?  What was there to see in Kansas?

Though I had never set foot in the state, I had heard plenty about how flat and tedious the journey is across the Great Plains.  And I had watched The Wizard of Oz enough times to cement my conception of Kansas, always appearing in black and white.

A GPS unit could tell me which route would get us to the rally site in Council Bluffs the quickest. A good old fashioned map told me something more important: What was along the way.  Between our home state of New Mexico and the rally, there existed the remnants of a trail over which was etched the history of American commerce.

My husband and I picked up the Santa Fe Trail where it branched into two routes.  From Interstate 25 in northeast New Mexico, we rode onto Highway 56, a.k.a. the Cimarron Cutoff, across some empty country.  The Point of Rocks east of Springer marked the trail’s santa-fe-trail_0001last (or first, depending on whether you were coming or going) view of the Rocky Mountains.

Undulating plains along the Cimarron Cutoff lay dry and barren, crossed only by a couple of small creeks and inhabited by a healthy population of rattlesnakes.  In one segment between Springer and the Oklahoma border, I braked hard four different times to avoid squashing three-footers stretched across my lane in the afternoon heat.

The first night on the Santa Fe Trail, we camped at Cimarron National Grasslands, 11 miles northeast of Elkhart, Kansas.  The campground sat next to the Cimarron River, one the few permanent water sources along the southern branch of the trail.  Trail travelers traditionally stopped here to water their animals and rest before pushing on through the big empty.

The next morning, I walked along remnants of the trail that was first traveled in 1822, under a sky the color of orange sherbet.  Sounds filled the dawn: coyotes yipping nearby, a flock of birds startling from a riverside bush.  A cottonwood tree stood sentinel by the trail.  In my imagination I became one of the intrepid traders who paused beneath this same tree nearly 200 years before.

Unlike the Oregon Trail farther north, tramped by thousands of migrating settlers, the Santa Fe Trail was all about commerce.  The city of Santa Fe in the early 1800s functioned as a northern outpost of the republic of Mexico.  Merchants running the trail between Santa Fe and Kansas City traded silver, mules and Mexican textiles for American manufactured goods and supplies hauled via the Missouri River.

Plains Indians along the way joined the free enterprise fray, santa-fe-trail_0002trading buffalo robes and beaded clothing for horses.  Some conflicts were inevitable, but trail users for the most part cooperated with each other because everyone had something the others wanted.

Two hours northeast of Elkhart, the northern and southern branches of the Santa Fe Trail converged near Dodge City.  Thanks to Hollywood, exaggerated stories about the Wild West had transformed Dodge City into a kitschy tourist attraction.  We chose not to pay eight bucks to tour a re-created version of the Front Street which burned to the ground in the 1880s.  But we did take a few minutes to admire an authentic steam engine sided next to the visitor center and poke around a couple of turn-of-the-century shops selling Western gear and memorabilia.

After lunch, I finally got to say the words I’d waited all morning to utter: “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge!”  Northeast we continued along the Santa Fe Trail toward civilization.

The famous trail landmark, Pawnee Rock, was our next stop.  The tallest natural feature for miles around, the rock marked the halfway point between the Missouri River and Santa Fe.  Many early travelers carved their names into the rock face.  Today, modern graffiti has mostly covered the original signatures.  Looking south from the top of the rock, we could see a line of trees making the bank of the Arkansas River.  Beyond, the seemingly endless prairie-turned-farmland plain swam before my eyes, flat as slate, extending forever.

We overnighted 80 miles east of Pawnee Rock at a lake near the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.  santa-fe-trail_0003Our ride on a dirt road back to the highway the following morning was halted for a few magical minutes while a herd of bison passed by.  Separated from us only by a cattle guard, they milled around, males sparring half-heartedly, calves chasing after mothers who leisurely grazed on the remnants of long prairie grasses.

The memorized words of Carl Sandburg’s poem, Buffalo Dusk, came to me unbidden: The buffaloes are gone / And those who saw the buffaloes are gone / Those who saw the buffaloes by thousands and how they pawed / the prairie sod into dust with their hoofs / their great heads down / pawing on in a great pageant of dusk….  A lump formed in my throat, a sadness for the passing of an era now extinct from the plains.

In the Flint Hills, we rode south of the Santa Fe Trail a few miles to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  From the parking lot, rolling hills overlooked what’s left of a santa-fe-trail_0005tallgrass prairie that once covered 400,000 square miles of the Great Plains.  We stretched our legs walking up a steep driveway to reach a ranch home and three-story barn built of hand-cut limestone in 1881.

A curving scenic road led through the Flint Hills to Council Grove, where buildings 150 years old adorned the town’s main street.  Historic Conn Store, dating from the 1850s, provided travelers a last chance for “retail therapy” before hitting the dusty trail west.  Across the street, Hays House, built in 1857, served as a gathering place for meals, church services, court trials, mail distribution, and political rallies.  Todaysanta-fe-trail_0004 it is billed as the oldest continuously operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River.

We attended a “Santa Fe Days” celebration held on the grounds of Terwilliger Home, a limestone building on Main Street dating to 1861.  Locals in period costumes spun wool, sang, and sold handmade crafts, evoking 19th century village life – at least until they emerged from the house carrying hamburgers and cans of pop.

After the rally we detoured north, then picked up the Santa Fe Trail again in Dodge City and followed its northern branch back home.  Though longer than the Cimarron Cutoff, the mountain route was preferred by trail travelers because it offered more water sources and less danger of Indian attacks.  We liked the fact that it was, as the beer commercial says, a few degrees cooler.

Wagon tracks were visible in several places along the route between Dodge City and the santa-fe-trail_0006Colorado state line.  The Santa Fe Trail followed the bank of the Arkansas River, once the southern border of the United States.  The railroad, too, followed the trail route next to the river.  Ironically, the materials used to build the railroad were hauled on the Santa Fe Trail; once completed in 1880, the railroad then rendered the trail obsolete.  But later, when long-haul trucks eclipsed freight trains, the trail route was resurrected and paved.

Just outside of Las Animas, Colorado, we camped another night on the old Santa Fe Trail at a place called Boggstown.  Situated on the Purgatoire River not far from Bent’s Old Fort, the little settlement was founded by pioneer Thomas Boggs in 1862.  A group of families related by marriage, including Kit and Josefa Carson, built hacienda-style houses in the settlement during the 1860s and 1870s.  When the site was acquired by a local historical society in 1985, ruins of more than 20 structures were located.  Slowly the homes of these early influential families are being restored.

That night I felt a deep kinship to those who camped before me along the Santa Fe Trail.  After nine days on the road, the food in our cooler was spoiling; my skin was dirty, mosquito-bitten and sunburned.  A full moon rose over Boggsville.  Wind blowing through cottonwood branches suggested the long-faded laughter of travelers who met in the village’s central plaza to swap goods and road stories.  Two owls hooted back and forth, recalling a simpler, wilder time when people lived beyond the reach of mass communications, and camping was a way of life.

We visited Bent’s Old Fort a few miles upriver from Boggsville the following day.  Unlike military forts farther east, this fort’s purpose was for trading.  The Bent brothers situated themselves at the juncture of Indian country, the Santa Fe Trail, and Mountain Man routes into the Rockies.  They sold stores to the frontiersmen, acquired skins from the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes, and traded for Mexican goods with the wagons from Santa Fe.  Trade flourished at the fort for about 20 years beginning in 1833.  During the Mexican War of 1846-48, it also functioned as a supply point and staging area for the U.S. Army running raids into New Mexico.

Completely destroyed by fire, floods, and the sands of time, the fort was abandoned in 1853.  The National Park Service excavated andsanta-fe-trail_0007 reconstructed the building in the 1970s using historically accurate drawings and photographs.  As we wandered past doorways of more than 20 adobe rooms on two levels, a historian dressed in period clothing fed a campfire by the fort’s door and answered questions about life on the frontier.  The smell of burning juniper added to the authenticity of the restoration at this important outpost on the Santa Fe Trail.

The trail turned sharply south past Bent’s Old Fort, leading across the Comanche Grasslands to Raton Pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border.  At 7,400 feet, the pass represented the final major obstacle along the way to Santa Fe.  Today railroad tracks and Interstate 25 both follow the original trail’s route across the conifer-dotted pass.  Nearly 200 years later, it is still the only passage through this section of the Rocky Mountains.

South of Raton, the trail closely followed the interstate all the way into Santa Fe.  A die-hard history buff might continue along the interstate, visiting historical sites like Fort Union, an Army outpost, and Glorieta Pass, site of the westernmost battle of the Civil War.  Otherwise, more interesting ways for a motorcyclist to reach Santa Fe include the scenic highway through Taos and the mountain route through Mora.  Our own journey on the Santa Fe Trail ended where the Pecos River crossed the Interstate, as we detoured downstream to the delightful state park at Villanueva.

By that time, immersed in the rich history and drama of the Santa Fe Trail, I could scarcely recall that my original objective had been to get to a rally in Kansas.  The “boring” drive across the Great Plains had proven to be fascinating.  Once again, the journey trumped the destination.


Arkansas Heat Stroke Ride

 (c) 2006 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in Sidecarist magazine, May 2007.

Summer in the South: always oppressive, always miserable.  I don’t know what I was thinking, agreeing to attend the national sidecar rally in Arkansas last July.  The journey took us eastward into record-breaking heat, wilting humidity, and muggy nights – along with campgrounds populated by thieving raccoons, burrowing armadillos, and shrieking worms.  It was, shall we say, an entertaining trip.

Arkansas_0003Brian and I, along with Dina the Dog, launched from southwest New Mexico riding our two sidecar rigs in searing heat.  But, as we desert rats are fond of saying, “It’s a DRY heat.”  By the time we reached Sumner Lake I felt like a fried egg on the sidewalk; so I leapt off my bike and jumped into the cool water of the reservoir.  Desperately diving into any available cold water source was to prove the theme of the weeklong trip.

Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, we crossed over the hundredth meridian – the invisible line that divides the arid west from the humid east.  The mercury stood at 100 degrees outside the Texas BBQ restaurant in Dalhart, where we stopped for lunch.  Peeling off sweaty riding pants and sprawling in a wooden chair beneath the air conditioner, I revived myself with ice water and barbequed pork.

Oklahoma surprised me with its green treed creek beds and fields of crops.  I had the idea (probably from reading Grapes of Wrath) that Oklahoma’s was a landscape of dust.  A 400 mile day landed us in Boiling Springs, a state park whose springs, boiling or not, had long ago been plowed under, piped away, or otherwise diverted.  All they had was some cold showers, but those would have to do.  I ran into them fully clothed, thinking I could do laundry and cool off at the same time.  The next morning, I discovered that wet clothes don’t necessarily dry out overnight in humid climates.

A strange noise coming from the leaves around trees in the campground caught Brian’s attention.  Moving closer, he discovered the source.  I never would have believed it if I hadn’t poked it with my own fingers.  For on the ground was a fat, bright green worm.  Little more than an inch long, it appeared to have no eyes, no feet, no way to propel itself.  But when prodded, the worm emitted an ear-splitting metallic buzzing noise and squirmed around in the dead leaves.  Very strange was this creature of the heartland.

The next day it was on with the eastern trudge… more heat, more ice water.  I eyed clouds floating across the horizon, wishing one of them would move up to cover the sun for a few minutes of relief.  The next night’s campground in eastern Oklahoma sat on a heavily treed knoll next to a public swimming pool, which we gladly paid an extra four dollars to use.

Returning to camp after the evening swim, Brian hit the brake when he noticed a shuffling movement off to the left.  At the edge of the woods near the road, an armadillo rooted boldly through some dead leaf litter.  Laughing, I leaped from the sidecar with my camera.  The shy creature saw me coming and burrowed under.  In the half mile from the pool back to the campsite, we spotted three more armadillos.  “Will they try to get into our tent?” I wondered aloud.  Living in New Mexico, I had experience with lizards, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, but no clue about the behavior of armadillos.

As it turned out, armadillos weren’t the creatures we needed to worry about.  At dawn we arose to find Brian’s tonneau cover ripped to shreds.  Food from one soft-sided ice chest was strewn all over the floor of his sidecar.  Raccoons!  Missing were a loaf of bread, some nuts, a bag of cereal, and – horror of horrors – the Zenny Butt Muffins.

We always carry some of Brian’s special bran muffins when we travel to keep everything, uh, regular.  I was sorry to see them disappear.  When I thought about how much sorrier the raccoons were going to be, though, I cheered up.  Once, when we were traveling in Mexico, Dina the Dog got into a batch of Zenny Butt Muffins set to cool on a low counter.  A couple hours later, she made a poop that looked like a baguette – well formed, cylindrical, and nearly two feet long.  The raccoons are probably still talking about their trips to the bathroom that day.

When we reached the rally in Beaver, Arkansas, I entered a short version of the raccoon story inArkansas_0001 the “hard luck” contest.  Someone else had a story more worthy of the prize, but I did manage to win second place.  I also won an award for longest distance woman rider.  Actually I think it was an award for stupidity.  Women in their right minds had stayed in the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles for the trip, trailering their rigs and showing up cucumber-cool.  But not me.  I draped the award medals around my neck and clanked through the campground, sweating and showing off my helmet hair.

Sidecar games beneath the blazing sun were a challenge.  Someone turned on a lawn sprinkler, where we gathered, panting, while we awaited our turns trying to riding our sidecar rigs blindfolded.  In one of the games, Brian sat behind me on my bike, circling my waist with his arms and grasping a pie pan full of water above my lap.  The object was to traverse a few ruts and two-by-fours without spilling.  Truly that was one of those games, like the song says about Waterloo, that “I feel like I win when I lose.”  At that point, I was willing to take cold water any way I could get it.

Temperatures all week long had set new records in Arkansas.  Humidity saturated the air.  Returning to the campground, I encountered Jim Krautz, a friend from Colorado who was also suffering from too much heat.  Even though he hadn’t brought a bathing suit, I talked him into going swimming in his jeans.  We waded into Beaver Lake and languished in water up to our necks, ducking heads under periodically for a refresh.

Two other men came over and joined our conversation.  We discovered that, with 21 years of marriage, I was the newlywed of the group.   I was impressed.  What was the common denominator that would explain each person’s ability to stay married?  Were we all just old-fashioned?  Possessed of high morals?  Not likely.   Perhaps it was just that folks with sidecars seem to have more patience with complications and more tolerance of the quirky – both desirable qualities for long-term marital harmony.

Arkansas_0002On the return trip home, we stayed at a “high elevation” campground on the Oklahoma- Arkansas state line.  Now, in New Mexico we wouldn’t have even called it a hill, but the campground was near the highest point in the state of Oklahoma: 2,558 feet.  An actual cool breeze blew through the holler that evening.

We descended from the campground the next day into a wall of heat.  Bob and Cheryl Elder, fellow sidecarists from New Mexico, had warned us at the rally that they saw the mercury hit 110 degrees in Wichita Falls.  Lunch was a plunge into Lake Texoma.  Even Dina the Dog, who hates water, had to be thrown in to keep from overheating.  Riding westward with the sun in my eyes, I lead us into Ardmore, got lost, and forgot to refill my water jug.  An hour later, when we stopped for gas, I was so hot and dehydrated that I burst into tears in a C-store.

Faced with a hysterical woman, Brian did the sensible thing: he asked for directions to the nearest water.  Fortunately it wasn’t far away.  A ten minute ride later, we reached a tidy campground on the shore of a sparkling lake.  Once again, I did the Oklahoma shuffle: leap off the rig, shed the clothes, sprint to the water, plunge.  Hooray for the Corps of Engineers.

Some time the next afternoon, we celebrated re-crossing the Hundredth Meridian with an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen in Earth, Texas.  Moving westward into a stiff wind like a blast furnace, we finally reached Sumner Lake.  After the standard swim in the reservoir, I sat with Brian on a sandstone ledge, watching the zigzag flight of a kingfisher patrolling the lake as the sun went down.

“If you ever again see me heading east in the summertime, hit me,” I instructed Brian.  “I’m serious.  No more summer riding in the South.”

We did enjoy the national sidecar rally, of course, and we might consider riding to it again next year.  That is, if they hold it in a place with a climate more temperate.  Somewhere, for example, like Fairbanks, Alaska.  In January.  At night.