September 21 The Santa Fe Trail to Las Animas, CO

The rest of the photos for today are linked here>

Dodge to JohnMartin (12) I saw a different picture of the west today, and now I have added William Bent to my list of western heroes. I learned about his life and his story today as we toured Bent’s Old Fort this afternoon. This morning as we continued west from Kansas into Colorado, I kept seeing signs for the “Santa Fe Trail”. What we hadn’t known before is that we were traveling along the route, now an official National Historic Trail administered by the National Park Service, with a history that predates Coronado’s historic search for the Cities of Gold in 1540.

Dodge to JohnMartin (5) In the small town of Lamar, Colorado, we stopped at the excellent Colorado Visitor Center to get information on the trail, the history, and the towns along the way.  Once again, the visitor center was staffed with a great volunteer, who gave me all sorts of brochures about the Trail, and suggestions of what would be the best way to spend our time today.  In addition, with the simple exchange of my email address to the state of Colorado, I became the proud owner of a “colorful Colorado” baseball cap.  I know, I know, but I can always delete the email when it comes in, telling me all the great things about visiting Colorado.

Dodge to JohnMartin (39) Our campsite destination was another state park, the John Martin Reservoir SP, built by the Corps of Engineers in conjunction with the dam, but now operated by the state.  We drove in to an almost completely empty, very large and open campground, situated below the dam among huge old cottonwoods and locust trees, with half a football field between sites along the small overflow lake. Electric, but no water or sewer, but a dump station and a threaded water spigot nearby made it just fine.  We settled Abby into her crate, safe in the MoHo with the air conditioner going and set out to explore.

Just 30 miles to the west was the site of Old Bent’s Fort, the highlight of the day.  Dodge to JohnMartin (28)The actual fort burned down in 1849, was carefully excavated and reconstructed  by the National Park Service in  1976 based on original drawings, historical accounts, and archeological evidence and is a faithful reproduction. The fort sits alone on a terrace above the Arkansas River, surrounded by natural grasslands and wetlands, and framed by the winding course of the cottonwoods along the river.  It feels silent, and as we walked from the parking lot on the 1/4 mile trail to the fort, I felt as if I had stepped back in time. This spot was a significant center of fur trade in the 1840’s on the Santa Fe Trail, influencing economies around the world. It was a trade fort, not an army fort, and William Bent married a Cheyenne woman and was considered part of the tribe. 

Dodge to JohnMartin (20)The fort in 1840 was constructed with adobe bricks, when William Bent brought in 150 Mexican workers because he so admired the adobe buildings he had seen in the Mexican Territories.  The reconstruction in 1976 was built exactly the same way. We walked through the fort gates into the dusty courtyard, surrounded with rooms cooled by the thick adobe walls.  It was quiet except for a very few visitors.  I felt the era so thoroughly in this place, it was an amazing experience.  The National Park Service is to be commended for this treasure.

DSCN4228 After our visit, we continued to the town of La Junta, also on the trail, and then home through Las Animas to our campsite on the lake. Our travel time was short enough that even after our road tour, we had time to unload the kayaks for a spin on the lake.  There were white pelicans, reminding me of home, and at least ten blue herons on the shoreline as we paddled by.  The moon was rising, nearly full, in the early evening sunset, and the breeze was just enough to keep us refreshed.  Perfect way to end a perfect travel day.

September 20 Kansas winds and Dodge City

Missouri_to Kansas (14) Kansas is windy.  We knew that, right?! After all, Dorothy was from Kansas and she ended up in Oz, which I think is now called Australia.  🙂  This is the first time we have driven across Kansas in the MoHo.  In 2007, on another trip, we left John’s place and drove along the Kansas eastern border, which was green and lovely.  Our route today was route 400, suggested by John as a much easier way to travel than our original plan to take a more southern route. 

When we left Missouri this morning the skies were still a murky grayish brown from the horizon to about midway up.  The highest part of the sky was blue, or something that looked a bit like blue.  I have experienced Blue on this trip, capital letter kind of blue sky in Minnesota, so the murkiness of Missouri was a bit sad. I thought maybe as we traveled west it would lighten up.  Instead, it got murkier.

Missouri_to Kansas (18)

No theme, no clue what this crazy collection of wind driven art along Highway 400 in Kansas was all about.  It stretched for a quarter mile along the highway, and provided a bit of entertainment on the Kansas landscape

The landscape of the part of Kansas that we crossed wasn’t the dead flat prairies that make Kansas so famous.  There were gentle rises and falls, locust trees and willows along the waterways, sections when the road would rise up enough to see a very long way.  But the skies were definitely tan and pale, and the closer we got to Wichita, the browner the “haze” turned.  Long straight roads near the city allowed a moment of internet access with the phone, and I researched Wichita air quality and found out that it has been on the list of the most badly polluted cities in the country.  I hoped that maybe as we drove west, the skies would clear.

Missouri_to Kansas (29) It was not to be, and whether from blowing dust, or the millions of cattle in feed lots all around Dodge City, the murkiness continued. The winds were high in eastern Kansas, and as the day progressed, the prognosis was dire for high profile vehicles.  Guess that’s us.  The average wind speed was 30 plus miles per hour, with gusts to 47 mph, and the direction was from the south, directly perpendicular to our western line of travel.  It made for a harrowing day, with Mo hanging on the wheel and me hanging on to the grip bar for dear life.  We didn’t see much, and with temperatures in the mid 90’s, I didn’t have a great desire to stop and explore the few little towns that we passed.

I saw a large area of trees all stripped of leaves and broken apart, and remembered vaguely the horrific tornado that blew through Kansas recently.  Sure enough, we were passing Greensburg, Kansas, site of the devastating tornado of 2007 that flattened the city.

Missouri_to Kansas (41) We continued west through the wind to arrive at Dodge City around 4pm and set up camp at the Gunsmoke RV Park, one of only a couple of RV Parks in the vicinity. Full hookups with a nice laundry that wasn’t ridiculously expensive was a nice perk.  As a kid, I was a huge Wyatt Earp fan, and in addition to watching the old TV series, I voraciously read all things Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday, the Santa Fe Trail, and later I loved the series Gunsmoke. I wanted to see Dodge.

By the time we drove back the 2 miles or so to town, the visitor center was ready to close. I learned that the majority of the attractions in Dodge City only run through the summer, and that most of them are Disneyesque gunfights, a fake Front Street, a piece of what was left of Boot Hill inside the closed museum gates, and other sorts of contrived western adventures.  Instead, I picked up the one small walking tour guide and we walked a few streets of Dodge City, including the infamous Front Street.

Missouri_to Kansas (43) Throughout this part of town, there were several very well done plaques describing the history of Dodge, a bronze statue of Wyatt Earp, and the Trail of Fame, which consisted of a few seals in the sidewalks naming some of the famous historic figures of the era.  The train depot was reconstructed, but a small part of the original building still stands.  The buildings of Front Street had burned a few times, and were no longer the same.  What I learned that was new, however, is that Dodge City is on the 100th parallel, a line that John Wesley Powell ( another of my heroes), set at the arbitrary break between the arable east and the arid west. 

Missouri_to Kansas (36) A few of the buildings remained from the late 1800’s but most of the historic buildings still in existence were from the early 20th century, during the heyday of railroading and the wealth that came along with it.  I knew that Dodge City was central to the history of the west, but I didn’t realize until today that it was also central to the devastation of the huge bison herds that roamed our country.  It was to Dodge that the hunters brought their hides, leaving behind literally millions of carcasses rotting on the plains.  It only took from 1872 to 1875 for the herds to be completely decimated., with an estimated 1.5 million hides shipped to the east. Later, poor homesteaders would gather the bones from the fields and sell them at 6 to 8 dollars a ton to be used in the manufacture of fertilizer and china. Half a century later, wheat crazed farmers would strip the thick deep sod from the plains as well, an ecosystem that cannot be replaced in a thousand years.  It’s a sad story of destruction that is only surpassed by the stories of what happened to the First Nations people in our country. As I walked along the old Front Street, I felt the weight of this history in my heart, as well as the romantic dreams of the west that I had as a ten year old.