American Sabbatical 102: 4/25/97

Bent's Fort

4/25.. Dodge City.

Out onto the prairie. The world spreads wide. Then wider. And the sky becomes an immense dramatic canvas. All in grays today. Gigantic ink washes.

Last April we flew from Dalles-Ft. Worth to Denver on our way to visit Seth, and the sere emptiness below us had seemed the ultimate desolation. Only relieved by irrigated crop circles of green, and the fan branching of watercourses. Driving across the Dakotas last fall we had been entranced by the grasslands in their myriad shades of beige, and moved by the subtleties of small details against a landscape fit for Hudson School canvases. Now we were back in it, staggered by the scale, and by our exhaustion. We’ve been on the road too long, and this bit is the longest road of all.

Plains of passage. That’s how most of us think of what they called the Great American Desert. We leave high contrails over it, or jack in the books-on-tape and set the cruise control. Even the history is all about crossing over. Zebulon Pike fumbling his way up the Arkansas. Washington Irving making a Boswell’s tour through Oklahoma. Custer making forced marches over the Cimarron in the late 1860s. Chisolm and Goodnight driving longhorns to Kansas railheads. Now the big rigs tunneling through the air with their airfoil cowlings, and the long Santa-Fe freights strung out behind four locomotives.

Young wheat and mature cover crops make green patterns in the sea of bleached umber. The big irrigators are idle today, letting heaven do the work. We run in and out of gentle rain falling from slate stratus. The idle sprinklers are self-propelled pipelines raised a dozen feet in the air on triangulated pylons with fat tires. Close inspection shows bulky electric motors driving the 4-wheel drive units, spaced implausible distances along the segmented waterworks. The whole rig looks like it would fall over the minute it started marching around its circuit. And what if motor #15 started to run at the speed of #32?

We are still plotting our course by the two-lanes, as much as we can. Out here even the tertiaries are full-throttle, though, the cattle wagons and pipe trucks pushing 70, with no shoulders to let them by. We’re holding the Owl at the edge of traction, cab-overs with devil-horn stacks snorting at our backs.

Hennesey, Lacey, OKeene, Seiling, Woodward. Crossroads towns half dried and blown away, or full of farm trucks and mud-streaked commerce. Each burg with its claim to fame. State Track Champions. Local restaurant called The Locker-room. Not too appetizing. We roll on. Settle for The Dog House, honoring a high school team called the Bulldogs. Kind of the way we feel.

The Owlers are definitely out of salad country again. No roadside stands in this season, if any. Even the fruits and veggies in the markets are as jaded as in Newfoundland. There’s no sign of home gardens, either. Hard to believe that farmers aren’t interested in eating well. Too busy plowing to the roadside, I guess. We’re reduced to breakfasts as the only sure restaurant meal.. and no more grits. Our chow at the Dog House was a couple of Denver omelettes (cheese and bell pepper and onion) presented with simple attractiveness. A family operation. Grandma got up from her meal in an adjoining booth to get hot water for my tea. Cashing out, Peggy gushed about our journeys, but didn’t raise a look of longing or interest. The fresh-faced couple behind the counter were almost as flat of affect as the horizons around them. Maybe you have to be to stay in the Dog House.

Even our glazed eyes couldn’t help observing the changing parade of vegetation. There’s more diversity in the thickets and watercourses, and in the fallow fields, than you’d imagine. A wildness still lurking on the edges of the breadbasket. Twisted and spiny trees, tenacious shrubs, unfamiliar grasses and woody growths. Even at the end of winter, when the cottonwoods all look dead, shedding their bark and limbs, the persistent variety of the green urge impresses us.

Fly as we might, we couldn’t bypass all the historic possibilities. There was Dodge City looming up ahead of us. End of the cattle trail. Wyatt Earp and all that. We followed signs for Front Street and Boot Hill. But the Wild West Show was a stageset row of bright-painted false fronts with hokey TV nostalgia. We peeped though the fence and chose not to finance this Mom and Pop. Circled round through today’s Dodge, of dingy brick businesses on the slope of that famous hill, and towering grain elevators along the historic tracks. That was when we saw the signs pointing up Boot Hill: The Teachers’ Hall of Fame.

Dodge City

(Memo #100)

Apr 25 Kansas Teacher Hall of Fame

Who? Kansas Teachers honored each year

What? Hall of Fame

When? begun in 1977

Where? Dodge City, Kansas

How? supported by state and teachers

Topics: history of education, teacher roles and conditions

Questions: What qualities are most revered in teachers? How has education and the work of teachers changed?

We went to Dodge City, Kansas, to see the wild frontier town of shoot outs and saloons and found, instead, the Kansas Teacher Hall of Fame. Dodge City DOES have a reconstructed main street of false front saloons and stores that is a tourist attraction and has a hefty entrance fee. We drove around town and it is a tree filled county seat with some bricks paved streets. The downtown seem pretty alive and there is the expected strip of fastfooderies and malls (and western wear shops) along the major routes in.

The Kansas Teacher Hall of Fame, the first such memorial in the nation, is on Boot Hill (named for the idea that a true cowboy dies with his boots on). Started in 1977, it is housed in a former business building which it shares with the Wax Museum. The sidewalk outside has bricks listing the businesses and groups that have supported the Hall of Fame and honoring particular teachers.

Each year the eleven educational districts of Kansas elect a Teacher of the Year. The eleven have photographs and write-ups which are displayed in a group in the Hall of Fame. The first four years’ winners are also on the walls, then there are hanging files for all the other years. A separate small room has displays of photographs of the presidents of the Kansas Teachers Association. A large back room has a display of historic teaching materials (games and books and teacher’s certificates) and photographs, and there is an old fashioned classroom set up (with an inkwell on every desk). They have reproduced two hilarious lists of rules for teachers from the past.

The 1872 rules include the following:

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session...
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly...
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

These would more funny if I didn't' t remember being told “never to let a townsperson see me with liquor or beer in my hand” when I started teaching in another area of Maine seventeen years ago! I’m sure other older teachers can tell of equally interesting rules and conditions they have worked under. Much has changed in education. It’s nice to see teachers so honored. There were several foreign teachers visiting, from Australia and New Zealand. One man from Indian spent several hours at the center, marveling at the respect paid to teachers. There is also a gift shop with a variety of things shaped like apples and schoolhouses. Kansas also is home to the National Teacher Hall of Fame.

4/25.. cont.

Dodge City maintains some traditions. Threadbare cowboys, cash heavy in this settle-up town, would suit up in new duds and wash down a long thirst. We didn’t hit the saloons, but we did check out the haberdasheries.. or at least one. The saleswomen were offering sparkling outfits in both Spanish and English to a mixed audience. Chaps and tack, leather-trimmed wool vests, fleece-lined range coats and ten-gallon hats, fancy shirts. I bought one to improve my attitude. Peggy was dubious.

The other honored tradition here is beef. Dodge is still the railhead for the burger train. And smells like it. Feedlots blacken the landscape and flavor your breathing. Abbatoirs and freezer plants line the highway. Reeking animal trailers plume their unpleasantness into town and reefers labeled SWIFT fan out in all directions. We follow one west, promising to keep our pledge about beef.

The rain and the miles catch up with us at Garden City, a hopeful sounding metropolis. We laugh as we pass The Garden Bowl, a ten-pin establishment. There’s a certain air about this burg. Phew. Don’t it stink? Everything is widely spaced here, and we discovered why. Half the businesses are feedlots. At least it smells that way. The chain motel we were aiming for was actually next door to one. Even upwind the stench was intense. Peggy came out with a great big grin on. Full up. So sad. We were directed to a local spa.. with a hot tub and A HEATED POOL. Peggybliss. It wasn’t even in sniffing distance of an abbatoir. Turns out there’s an agricultural equipment fair on in Stillwater. And I’d forgotten to bring my overalls. Dang.

4/26.. Bent’s Fort.

Saturday awoke raw and damp again
, but patches of blue kept trying to open up on the clouded horizons. This was to be our last day of the long slog to Boulder. Let it rain.

In the end it didn’t, but the uncertain winds flung tumbleweeds across the Owlpath and brought us rank warnings of passing beef factories. Occasional low bluffs relieved the pitiless horizontality, and the cutbanks of the meandering creeks looked like undressed wounds. Precious little water even in the bridged streams, just sandy flats with thirsty cottonwoods casting shadows in serpentine lines. I spotted my first cactus, some kind of convoluted chollas. We followed the Arkansas into Colorado, with a hoot of glee, and pointed our fading historical ambition toward one last storied spot, this lap: Bent’s Fort.


The Fort

The National Parks Service did us proud at Bent’s Fort. We stepped out of time again. Even the searching wind curling over the battlements and around the adobe quarters had a timeless keening. The sun decided to come out to play among rising cumulus, and the interior yard of the fort was bright yellow, but the north wind had the edge. I shivered through a watercolor while Peggy made the guides feel good.

(Memo #101)

Apr 26 Bent’s Fort

Who? brothers William and Charles Bent and partner Ceran St. Vrain

What? Fort on Santa Fe Trail

When? 1833-1849

Where? on the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado

How? experience trading with Indians + blazing new trail

Topics: Santa Fe Trail, the Fur Trade, fur traders, the Bent Brothers, business practices on the frontier.

Questions: Why was the Santa Fe Trail important? How and why did the Bents build their fort? What was its history?

Bent's Fort

We have learned never to predict what sites will be great. I was disappointed with the Cherokee sites in eastern Oklahoma that I had so anticipated. On our last day of driving to Boulder, Bryce suggested we take the route via Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado. I’m SO glad we did. Just when we thought we were thoroughly toured out and most sites were hokey, we came upon this gem (and stayed for hours).

Bent’s Fort was the most important terminus on the Santa Fe Trail. It’s located at the point where the trail turns south, away from the Arkansas River. We followed the Santa Fe Trail along the Arkansas River for several hours west from Dodge City, Kansas, into Colorado. It is dry high desert, the palette is pale beige and brown and gray with tumbleweed and yucca and clumps of grass, small shrubs and trees along the river. The river itself (which varies from 100 to a 1000 feet wide during the year) is shallow and broad along a sandy course without clear banks.

From the time of Cortez to the early 1800’s, the northern part of the Spanish Empire was served by El Camino Real (the royal road) north from Mexico City. Distant provincial towns like Santa Fe got few trade goods. In 1821 Mexico became independent and opened its trade to Americans. William Becknell made several round trips to Santa Fe from St. Louis blazing a new trail, and realized an 800% profit on his trade goods. Even with huge taxes charged by the Mexican government, the profits on the Santa Fe Trail were huge. Charles Bent from St. Louis made an early trip after buying goods on credit.

His brother William Bent lived in the west as a trapper, and followed the Plains tribes. This was the era of the mountain men who spent long months in the Rockies trapping beaver and then brought the pelts east . William became a trusted trader (“Little White Man”), bringing firesteel / flint / axes / textiles / iron kettles to the Cheyenne and Comanche and Arapaho (while Charles and a close friend Ceran St. Vrain took canned goods / textiles / tobacco to Santa Fe). William saved the lives of several Cheyenne and married a Cheyenne named Owl Woman.


The three men (William and Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain) decided to build a stockade in the west. In 1833 They built “Fort William” with Mexican laborers. For the next 16 years “Bent’s castle” dominated trade on the Trail. It was 50 days travel west of Independence, Missouri. Mexico began across the river. Our guides point out that it linked three worlds - Mexican, American, Native American.

Store Goods
Our road followed the north bank of the Arkansas, visible as a thick strip of small trees. We drove in to a small information building and parked. A wide path took us over a rise and across a long open stretch to the fort. It is breathtaking - a long low adobe structure perhaps two hundred feet square with the woods along the river behind it. By the main gate there are several tepees . You enter through the main gates and find yourself in a huge open plaza. Rooms open all the way around and several staircases lead up the rooms on the second level, the battlements, the roof. There is a corral and stable on the western end. The fort transported me into an earlier time. We were far away from houses and cars. There was no modern noise.

The fort was 60% excavated and was reconstructed on the original site with the help of detailed drawings made by contemporary visitors (one an engineer). The furnishings and costumes of the guides are as accurate as possible, one guide who is in charge of the costumes had just been on a research trip. The items in the store are the same as the trade goods the Bents sold - one type of blanket is still made by the same company!

Many of the rooms have fireplaces. On the lower level I toured the Council Room, trade room, dining room, cook’s room (a slave woman named Charlotte Green), kitchen, blacksmith and carpenter quarters, the warehouses, the laborer’s quarters. Upstairs were more living quarters and a billiards room with small bar. Several small cannons were mounted on the battlements. Each room has appropriate furnishings and seems to have just been vacated, food is under preparation in the kitchen for instance. The company storerooms have boxes and bales of trade goods with authentic company labels. The trade room and blacksmith‘s room both have the Fort’s record journals for tourists to thumb through. There are cattle, chickens and peacocks in the corral.

Trade Goods

There were always 40-60 people at the fort with many visitors. When the beaver in the Rockies gave out, the trade centered on buffalo and 15,000 hides were shipped out each year over the Trail to St. Louis. A buffalo hide cost 25 cents in trade, and sold for $6 in St. Louis. They also took bear and mountain lion hides.

Inside the Fort
In the 1840’s conditions changed. The U.S.military became a greater presence at the Fort as we moved toward war with Mexico. A cholera epidemic killed half of the Comanche tribe. The buffalo herds were disappearing. Local resources such as wood were depleted. Charles Bent started a branch of the business in Taos and was killed in a local revolt there. William tried to sell the fort to the government but it wouldn’t pay his price and the fort was abandoned and burned. There is some controversy over who burned it. One theory is that William burned it, sensing that it would be used as an Army post for war against the tribes he knew so well.

4/26.. cont.

It was hard to put our backs to this enchanting recreation. From the moment we’d crested a rise and seen its mud walls shining, we’d lost track of our weariness, and the time. Still, we had five more hours to Boulder, at least, and the day was declining.

We were tempted to keep westing until we rose Pike Peak up out of the flats, but Peggy remembered the highway through Colorado Springs as deadly, and the prophets were still reporting snow in the mountains. So we aimed our lubbers-line north, across the tilted high plains of eastern Colorado. The border signs say: WELCOME TO COLORADO -- MOUNTAINS AND MUCH MORE. This is the much more. Same old same old. Cattle carriers and oil pumps. Old straw and young green. Sometimes a field full of big rolls of springcut forage. Winter crops?

We intended an end run on Denver, despite its boomtown historic sites. After all this empty, Boulder would be intense enough for us. Crossing the interstate just east of the metropolis, we stopped for supper in a diner in Strasburg. No weinerschnitzel, but superb enchiladas and burritos. It was obviously an exurb kind of place. The kids helping mom were pierced and tooed, and talking uptown. At the same time a small town drama was being performed. It was prom night, and young things in ball gowns and braces, tux and gawk, were coming in for snapshots and approval from the lady of the house, obviously a local institution. She was graciously harried about getting food to us, but we just smiled and enjoyed the show. As did our fellow diners, grandparents mostly.

Last leg. And a dog’s at that. Once we were above the latitude of Denver we turned into the sunset and went hunting for mountains. The fields were greening up from adiabatic precip. Cloudbanks walled the horizon, promising heights. First we saw the caravansarie that is the new Denver Airport, to our south. A cluster of mountain-peak tents like some mirage in a flat plain. Then, after repeated false alarms, we rolled up over a rise and snow-covered precipices, pine-dotted verticals, the whole chin-lifting array opened our mouths. O.

Boulder was full of snow. And youth. And energy. We tottered into Seth’s neighborhood, and the kids and the dogs danced around us, then dragged us in for spinach lasagna and a week’s R&R. Happy landing.

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