In 1987 while cycling from Excelsior to Boulder, Colorado, I walked a portion of the Oregon Train near Scott's Bluff, Nebraska. That short walk was the spark of a dream that has haunted and eluded me for five years. I decided I wanted to bike one of the trails of the Old West.
I've since forgotten why and how I settled on the Santa Fe Trail, but its history and lure have nurtured a sense of adventure and incompleteness since I made the decision to ride. Three years ago I tried the ride only to be defeated by horrendous headwinds and a lack of resolve. The southwest winds were relentless and I packed it in when I reached Nebraska. Two years later I threw my bike in the car during Spring break, drove to Kansas, and rode and drove portions of the Trail around Larned. Having seen my first Trail ruts, remnants of that lively commerce, the spark was rekindled and the need to make the ride grew strong.
First, a bit of history. In 1821, some twenty years before the Oregon and California Trails, William Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, with a wagon train of trading goods bound for Santa Fe, in Mexico. His success prompted others to do the same and until 1870 the Santa Fe Trail remained the major trade and migration route from the civilized East to the rugged Southwest. By 1827, Independence, Missouri, was the major outfitting point for the Trail and remained its head for the majority of the Trail's life. As the railroad grew westward the Trail became shorter, until in 1880 the railroad entered Santa Fe, ending the need for the ox drawn wagons, and so the Trail. Along its path the modern traveller can find ruins of army posts, reconstructed forts, over 200 granite and limestone markers providing a continuity to trailseekers, and ruts, some faint and some looking like four-lane highways running to the horizon. Portions of the Trail have remained undisturbed pastures since 1821, and walking in the low depressions created by heavily loaded wagons gave me the feeling that I was one of the early travellers on that 750 mile route looking for the next "pilot knob" on the horizon pointing the way to Santa Fe.
Barb and I began our car trip down the Trail in Independence. As we drove through the city along Blue Ridge, a strip of high ground between two rivers, we found Cave Springs, a popular nooning spot out of Independence, and saw our first ruts in Red Bridge Park. The deep grassy depressions stood out as an unnatural contour rising out of the river crossing at the foot of the hill. The peaceful park also provided us with a sense of scale. Not thirty minutes ago we had been having a beer in Independence Square and now we were one half day's travel down the Trail and the first nooning spot. Travel was slow and crossing even the smallest creek was a major effort. Often twelve teams of oxen were needed to pull one wagon over a crossing.
Our course followed that of the early traders with the help of a guidebook by Marc Simmons, a noted expert on the Trail. His advice led us off the main roads through small towns and by farm fields, each holding a piece of the puzzle, each with its own recognizable landmark or limestone commemorative marker. Slowly we wound our way from Kansas City to Lenexa, Olathe, Gardner, Baldwin City, Overbrook and Burlingame to Council Grove. Along the way we found more trail depressions, stage stations, camp sites, watering holes and treaty sites. Besides being the site of an important safe passage treaty with the Osage Indians, Council Grove was an important place for travellers of the trail. Since it was virtually the last place along the trail that hardwood could be found, spare axles and wagon tongues were cut and stored below the wagons for later use.
After a lunch stop we pushed on passed Lost Spring, the Cottonwood Crossing, the Little Arkansas Crossing, Plum Buttes, Walnut Creek, Great Bend, Pawnee Rock, and into Larned, Kansas. Our way was slow, stopping at each point of interest to find the ruts, crossing places, and ambush points. The Trail was beginning to take on life. We stayed in the same motel in Larned that I had stayed in two years ago when I ran the motel for an evening while the owner, a young Irishman from Limerick, went out on a date. We had a good conversation with him and his fiancee. It was like seeing an old friend. Kansas folk, even transplanted ones, were among the friendliest anywhere along the trail.
After exploring restored Fort Larned in its prairie setting and a beautiful set of ruts and buffalo wallows, we duplicated the previous day's adventure following the Cimarron Cutoff, or desert branch of the Santa Fe Trail, and arriving at a rather grungy youth hostel in the fascinating town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The architecture of the town is unbelievable. A Jacobean mansion sits in the same block as a modest house done in California mission style which sits next to a pillared Federal style home. A walking tour guidebook made the evening even more instructive.
The next day brought us to Santa Fe and the end of the first leg of our adventure. Our route then took us to Farmington in northwest New Mexico and the Navajo Reservation around Shiprock, the site of the Tony Hillerman Indian detective novels. A day trip into Colorado was sheer excitement as we climbed about the mystical ruins of Mesa Verde and explored the ancient pueblo ruins at Aztec.
Our four days in and about Taos could fill another volume with too many adventures to recount. We met two friends, Jo and Roger, who would accompany me on my first two days home. With them we ate breakfast burritos, watched the Buffalo Dance and Commanche Dances at the San Juan Pueblo, souvenir shopped in Taos and hiked back 6 miles into the mountains. There we left Jo and Roger to climb Truchas Peak, a mountain that had eluded Roger on two previous occasions. The next day Barb and I visited friends in Santa Fe and picked up Jo and Roger early in the evening after their successful climb. Our car developed vapor lock on a deserted gravel road on our way down. We were preparing to spend the night on the mountain with Rambo, one of society's dropouts who was camping in the hills with his guns and dog, when we were able to choke the car into starting by stuffing a pair of Roger's dirty shorts into the carburetor. After what those shorts had gone through in the last four days, they were enough to choke anything!
It finally was time for me to begin my dream. The plan was to leave Taos and cross over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Cimarron where I would rejoin the Santa Fe Trail's mountain branch and follow it into Colorado and across Kansas back to Larned. From there I would wind my way through Missouri and Iowa and eventually find my way home about 16 days later.
Roger, Jo and I said goodbye to Barb at the youth hostel outside of Taos and began our way into town and over our first mountain pass. While I was full of adrenaline and excitement, Barb was full of reservations and apprehensions. She was more concerned than usual since I would be riding solo for 14 of the 16 days through unfamiliar territory on roads we knew nothing about. No amount of reassurance would quell her concern for my safety. With those mixed feelings the last part of the adventure began.
The road climbed steadily from about 7000 feet above sea level at Taos up to Palo Fleshado Pass through a beautiful canyon that reminded me of Boulder. I dropped almost immediately to my "granny gear", the small chain ring that supposedly would allow me to climb walls. With over forty pounds of gear, the bike felt awkward and clumsy as I tried to find a rhythm and to pace myself. My speed was generally four to five miles per hour over the course of the morning. After the initial adrenaline rush, I, too, became somewhat apprehensive since most of the people we spoke to at the hostel didn't think it was possible to pedal fully loaded bikes over the two mountain passes to Cimarron in one day.
The road was definitely steeper than it had appeared when I drove part of it a few days before in the car. As usual when making a long climb, I lowered my horizon and stared at the crack in the pavement ten to fifteen feet ahead. After watching it disappear under my pedals I picked a new crack to watch. Working fifteen feet at a time over a twenty mile stretch made a long morning but it got me to the top. Small stretches of flat and slight downhills also helped break the climb into smaller pieces. It was earlier than expected when the first switchback appeared. I realized the wiggly part of the map was ahead of us and we were in for our first serious climb. Almost before I knew it, we crested the top and saw the sign, "Palo Fleshado Pass (El. 9100 ft)". I whooped as we stopped at the sign and swelled with a sense of accomplishment knowing I wasn't in over my head and the rest of the trip was "doable". It had taken four hours to ride twenty miles and climb over 2100 feet. I made it!
My screams of delight echoed off the canyon walls as I crashed down 1100 feet in three miles to the ski resort community of Angel Fire. Because the first part of the descent consisted of more switchbacks, and the pavement was a bit rough, I had to brake at least half the way down. Once the road straightened out and I could see where it was going, I sat back, relaxed, and let gravity do the work, coasting at 32 mph into Angel Fire. The next seven miles into Eagle Nest, our lunch stop, were basically a downhill coast under a dark storm front that moved in over the mountains from the west, accompanied by a growing headwind. The valley was astonishingly beautiful. With pine covered mountains on all four sides and a mirrorlike lake in the middle it looked like the ranch site Gus and Caul picked in "Lonesome Dove", a place where you could stay forever. Snow capped mountains in the background and a clean but old looking town at the base next to the lake were much more inviting than the menacing clouds that were rapidly approaching.
After some inquiring, we found the Community Center and a picnic table for lunch. The Center was attached to the library and City Hall. Invited in by the staff, we were given a room off the library to eat in, the use of the restrooms and kitchen, and a TV and VCR along with the library's outstanding tape collection. As anxious as I was to get on the road, we waited a full two hours for the front to pass and the sky to clear to the point where we felt we could safely continue.
Immediately out of town was our second pass. This one was only two miles long but seemed steeper than Palo Fleshado. It was conquered with relative ease despite a brief bout with leg cramps. The biggest treat of the day lay ahead. The people in Eagle Nest called it Enchanted Valley. Even though the lane on which we were riding was fresh tar and gravel that gummed up our tires, the ride was spectacular. The trout stream for which Eagle Nest is noted gurgled down one side of the road while a steep limestone palisade towered over the other. Despite a slight headwind coming up the canyon, I took advantage of the descent and pedalled easily in top gear for the next 23 miles into Cimarron. Whooping again and again, I sailed down the canyon soaking in its beauty and checking out the catches of trout as I passed people by the creek. For a flatlander, this was a day for the records. I was high!
A beer in a friendly bar where I was the only gringo and lasagna at the historic St. James Hotel, a noted Trail stop, rounded out a full day. With Raton Pass ahead, tomorrow promised more excitement.
R.C. Gorman, a famous Taos Navajo artist, created an lithograph with intense colors that pictures a woman at a stream with a slivered moon hanging in a sky changing from black to an iridescent blue. As I crawled out of my tent at 5:15 the next morning, I knew where Gorman got his moon. This is beautiful country. The day turned bright and we left the mountains behind us, riding the low hills east into the high plains. Five miles out of Cimarron the Santa Fe Trail ruts became faint but visible on our right. For the next ten miles the ruts led the way toward the next pilot knob, Red Rock Mountain, where we would turn North into Raton. Suddenly, we were joined by a cautious but curious pronghorned antelope. It pranced along beside us, no faster, no slower, for a long time before turning south across the prairie. It was a thrilling and somehow invigorating sight to be riding comfortably with the Trail ruts along side, and an antelope keeping us company just on the other side of the Trail. In 1846 Susan Magoffin, the first white woman to travel the Trail, wrote in her diary of a similar experience. Could it be that her antelope and mine were related?
We stopped briefly at the NRA's fifty square mile Whittington Center, a complex dedicated to shooting and gun education. The center conducts an annual black powder rendezvous, and has ranges for small arms, rifles, shotguns, combat training, and a set of ruts at the base of Red Rock Mountain. Cliff, the gate guard, let us ride back into the site for a good look. We found ruts that, I believe, Cliff didn't know were there. The ruts took the form of erosion gullies similar to ones I had seen out of Las Vegas, New Mexico, three years earlier. They ran perfectly straight in the correct direction and were the only erosion gullies within eyesight. As we left the Center we crossed the Canadian River and one other, and discovered ramps cut into the otherwise perpendicular banks where the wagon trains crossed. It was a remarkable morning as we entered I-25 heading into Raton.
I had been in contact with the transportation department of New Mexico regarding riding the freeways on a bicycle and had been informed that it was illegal, as it is in many states. Why riding the same freeway in Colorado is legal is still a point of confusion. I could, however, obtain a permit to ride in New Mexico if I produced a 5 million dollar hold harmless liability insurance policy made out in the name of the state of New Mexico. I also needed to be preceded and followed by a vehicle with flashing amber lights. After talking with the president of a Santa Fe bicycle club, I decided to ignore the official line and do it anyway. As Roger said, "It sounds like it would be easier to be forgiven than to get permission."
As we crested the first hill on the freeway, there, between us and the town of Raton, was a roadblock. It was a sea of flashing lights and squad cars. We rolled to a stop and asked what was happening. We were told that it was a license, registration, and insurancecheck. I asked if the officer wanted to see my license and he responded, "You don't need a license to ride a bike! By the way, did you know it's against the law to ride a bike on New Mexico freeways."
Roger responded with, "Yes, and can you tell us another way to get over Raton Pass?" The officer smiled and said, "No, have a nice day!"
After lunch in Raton we started our two hour, seven mile climb over the Raton Pass. We had construction to worry about in addition to the climb which started immediately at the outskirts of town. The mostly gradual climb had an elevation change of less than 1500 feet but the last part seemed to have a steeper grade than the two climbs of yesterday. The fact that it was straight, no switchbacks, made it seem worse. I could see what was ahead and knew there was no option but to keep on pedalling. Even lowering my horizon didn't seem to help that much. After pulling off the freeway, thinking I was headed for the summit rest area, a sign announced one more mile. My heart sank and I stopped to wait for Roger and Jo. Actually the sign was in error and the rest area was only a few hundred feet ahead, over the crest of the pass. As we reached the rest area, a picnic table with a tin roof overhead, it started to rain. The rain came in waves, each one worse than the previous one. Then came the hail, also in waves, each one worse than the previous one. The storm culminated with one inch hail bouncing off the picnic table and hitting us in the arms. It still stung! Had we been on the climb fifteen minutes longer, we would have been in real trouble. As it was, we waited out the storm for over an hour in relative safety.
About this pass Susan Magoffin wrote, "They are even taking the mules from the carriages this P.M. and a half dozen men by bodily exertions are pulling them down the hills. And it takes a dozen men to steady a wagon with the wheels locked-and for one who is some distance off to hear the crash it makes over the stones is truly alarming. ... We came to camp about half an hour after dusk, having accomplished the great travel of six or eight hundred yards during the day." And I thought we went slowly!
Before we descended into Trinidad, I climbed to the top of the hill above the pass and stood where Susan stood when she wrote, "We have had some magnificent scenes before us this P.M. From the greatest hight to which I have yet ascended ... mountains far more lofty than any I've seen, deep vallies below that looked blue so great was the distance to them; the clouds seemed resting on the mountains around us. Oh, for the genius of an artist that I might pencil such scenes otherwise than in my memory, ... or that I might trace with this pen a more lively and correct sketch of some of nature's grandest and most striking works."
In covering the next fourteen miles into Trinidad, I pedalled only two-tenths of a mile. As the pavement smoothed I let the bike go and sailed at 41 mph down the canyon with the remnants of the trail in the valley on my left and sheer cliffs on my right. The valley opened up, unveiling Fischer Peak and the town which began to grow before me. It was a letdown to finally reach the bottom of the green valley and coast to a stop in front of the Colorado Visitor's Center. The fourteen miles took only 25 minutes, but those few minutes will never be forgotten. My foolish thoughts were that it would be flat from here on! As instant celebrities or at least objects of great curiosity, we were treated royally by the volunteers in the visitor's center and greeted warmly by people who, in the safety of their cars, had passed "those poor bicyclists" going up the Raton.
I left Roger and Jo the next morning in front of Mel's Diner and Grocery. It was sad to see them ride off in one direction to Walsenburg while I headed off in the opposite to LaJunta. Mel, the diminutive soft spoken Hispanic proprietor, after hearing of our adventures and our separate destinations, came out to see our bikes and waved sadly as we parted company at the next corner.
After riding past Spanish Peaks I traversed the high plains, passing four more Santa Fe Trail markers, a restricted army training base, some towns that had disappeared since the map was printed, and some towns that shouldn't have been where they were. All in all a rather desolate stretch of road carried me from Trinidad to LaJunta, where I met Barb for one last time. She had spent some time with friends in Santa Fe since we first parted and was now on her way home. One more difficult good-bye. That evening we visited Bent's Old Fort, a major trading and outfitting post on the mountain branch of the Trail. Another National Historic Site, it was a faithful reconstruction of the Fort as it was in its hayday. Marc Simmons called it the "Pearl of the modern day Trail". It was our third National Historic Site and for a paltry $1 admission charge I was once again awed. Our tax dollars do support some incredible projects. I visited Susan Magoffin's room where she had a miscarriage due to a wagon accident at Ash Creek near Larned. The accurate reconstruction of this adobe fort was due largely to the descriptions left by Susan and others during their visits. It was a remarkable place which when described by guides in period clothes, transported us back in time to 1846.
From this point in the trip while the days stood out with their own small adventures, they need not be described chronologically. My planed route changed almost daily as I left Kansas. My exact route can be traced with the help of the summary at the end of this treatise. The changes in direction were prompted by bridges that were out, highways closed due to construction and promises of missing a few big hills or nasty dogs, like the ones out of Good Thunder, that "took a chunk out of a runners leg a while back"! The roads I chose were mostly county roads with a few state roads thrown in when I needed to get to a town or when there was no other option. As I began each day's journey I would plan my destination and try to find a fail-safe city about 20 miles short of my goal, just in case. Twice I needed to fall back from my goal; once due to weather and once due to just plain fatigue. For most of the ride the road had no shoulders, but the traffic was light. There were stretches when I only saw a car every half hour. Most of the time a car or truck would ease by every 10 to 15 minutes. Roger had accused me of being flamboyant in my waving. I waved for two reasons: to be friendly, and to be seen. As traffic approached from behind, I noted in my rear view mirror, most people would pull over into the oncoming traffic lane. I'd wave "Thanks!" If they didn't seem to move over, I'd wave to say, "Hey, I'm here!" They would then move over. Since most of my time was spent going uphill that is usually where traffic jams occurred. If the shoulder were ridable, or even existent, I'd often leave the road; otherwise I'd hold my ground and with only one exception, overtaking traffic, whether compact or semi, would slow down until I waved "O.K. come on around!" These were the people most likely to honk and give a "Thanks!" wave, particularly if I were waving them around in a no-passing zone where I had a better sight line than they.
Except for the Big Timbers Museum in Lamar and some ruts near Hasty, much of the mountain branch of the Trail was marked only with the now familiar limestone markers placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in and about 1907. The buildings of Bent's New Fort, Fort Lyons and other sites had been mostly destroyed and the low piles or rubble were noted with markers. While these places were worth seeing they lacked the spectacular nature of earlier finds. Upon approaching Dodge City and Larned where the mountain and desert branches of the Trail joined, I turned North, bid farewell to the Santa Fe Trail and divined a path that led me home through Northeastern Kansas, across the corners of Nebraska and Missouri, through Iowa from border to border and then home via Mankato and St. Peter.
While I hadn't seen all there is to see of the Trail, some of the sites being two or three miles off on gravel roads too chancy and out of the way for my steed, I was satisfied. The only part of my dream that remained unfilled was getting safely home.
My daily routine was similar to past trips except that I ate more. Since I was riding an average of 86 miles a day and working fairly hard over the hills I encountered, my calorie expenditure often approached 5000 per day. I found myself needing a good breakfast, snacking on fig newtons and fruit every two hours or so, having a big lunch about two and as large and wholesome a dinner as I could find about six. I usually set my alarm for 5 a.m. and was at the local restaurant when it opened at 6. On occasion I even slept through the alarm and awoke in a panic after 6. Even at that I was on the road no later than 7:00 with a good long day ahead of me.
Luckily I found spaghetti twice for lunch and four times for dinner, but most of my food was fried something. Most towns didn't have a restaurant other than a burger joint. Power Bars and Exceed powdered drink mix also provided needed fortification. Both of these products are packed with carbohydrates, calories, and vitamins and minerals and are designed for energy bursts and replacement of lost salts due to long periods of exercise. Once again I'm sure they saved me many times from collapsing before the end of a day. Because I drank a lot, up to 2 gallons a day to avoid dehydration, there were times when all four water bottles were empty as I rode into a town. Even though the temperature broke 90O only once, the humidity and exercise did create my usual copious amount of perspiration.
Great breakfasts for $1 up and dinners complete with salad bar, meat and potatoes, vegies, coffee and dessert for $5 could be found in many small towns but I also got stuck with mediocre breakfasts for $5 and dinners for $10. On my 125 mile day I conned a closing cafe into reopening long enough to provide me with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bag of potato chips ($2.06); just enough calories to make it the last 30 miles.
Since I was staying in my tent most of the time, my only usual expense during the day other than a cold beer or two and occasionally film or batteries was for food. Daily expenses averaged $26.00 except on the few occasions when I checked into a motel. I motelled it four times; on my one layover day in Hoisington, Kansas; in Maryville, Missouri, after a day of rain; and in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and St. Peter, Minnesota, when I was told there were no campsites in town. The remainder of the time I camped in city parks, most of which were free. Generally towns with a population of 1,000 or more had a swimming pool with showers. Upon arriving in town I checked in with the police, received permission to camp, and got restaurant, bar, and road information. After pitching my tent and grabbing a shower, if available, I headed out and explored the town, got a beer and generally made my presence known. The police usually watched my camp while I was gone, drove through or around the park during the night, and found me the next morning either on the streets or at the restaurant. They frequently asked how I slept, apologized for disturbing me, and wished me a good days travel.
On television, weather forecasters called this the Summer of El Nino, or the Summer of Mt. Pinatubo. For whatever the reason, the jet stream had moved north. This summer had been markedly cooler and the predominant southwesterly winds of the plains had turned into Noreasters! The tailwinds I thought would blow me home were noticeable only twice, once climbing the Raton and for one five mile stretch going from Rush Center to LaCrosse, Kansas. So much for my theory about the winds; now for the elevation.
Except for the Raton, it was basically level and downhill from Palo Fleshado Pass to Larned. Oh, there were hills, but nothing worth mentioning. Eastern Colorado and western Kansas were an exercise in chasing grain elevators. The elevators from the town ten or twelve miles away would appear on the horizon as soon as one was left behind. Headwinds greeted me during most of this time so it was mainly a matter of cursing the flats and the wind, putting my head down and pushing, while singing "I'm always chasing silos, watching cows drifting by!"
At Rush Center stood a sign sayings "It's all up from here." It didn't take me long to figure out what that meant. At LaCrosse I entered the "Smoky Hills" region of Kansas. Geologically the Smoky Hills consist of three regions. I rode through two; one of Dakota sandstone with outcroppings at Coronado Heights and 200 large concretions near Minneapolis, and the other of Greenhorn limestone east of LaCrosse. Trees were so scarce and limestone so abundant farmers cut limestone fenceposts that still line the roads along the fields. I was after all still around the 100th meridian, the dividing line between the farmland of the east and the Great American Desert. Thanks to the headwinds and the Greenhorn limestone it took three and a half hours to go 30 miles into Hoisington.
Even though my elevation above sea level was dropping, my vertical climb was not. From Minneapolis, Kansas, to Fort Dodge, Iowa, my altimeter showed daily climbs close to those I experienced during my first two days of mountain passes. Actually, the climbing one day in southern Iowa exceeded either of my days in the mountains. Of all the hills, including the mountain passes, none were more taxing than those of northwestern Missouri. In my one rain-shortened 60 mile day in Missouri, I conquered well over 100 granny gear hills. Short and steep was the name of the game. With expansion strips in the concrete every 15 feet, I counted seven strips or about 100 feet and then began to count over again. It didn't pay to shift out of granny; the glide down would be over before I knew it and I'd be back in granny climbing the next hill. Some went up in stages and looked not unlike a roller coaster track. I even took a picture of one that went up in five sections. So much for Missouri and my downhill theory. License plates shouted that Missouri was the "Show Me State". I did!
Iowa was better, or at least different. The hills were longer. There weren't as many, but they were just as demanding. I reached the point where it was no longer even surprising to see the next one. I got to expect it and as a matter of fact even enjoy it. The flats of Western Kansas had headwinds and no relief. Even though the hills of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and southern Iowa were often accompanied by headwinds, I could at least coast a bit downhill. On the flats the energy expenditure was constant and grueling. As the roads flattened out north of Fort Dodge I had one day of windless sailing through the corn fields chasing silos, but as I approached the Minnesota border the headwinds began again and gave me the roughest day of pedalling on the whole trip. Maybe it was just time for a day off, I hadn't had one in over a week; but by the time I got within spittin' distance of Minnesota my knees were crying for a break. I just couldn't keep up the cadence I usually felt comfortable pedalling and ended up pushing harder than I should have. Other than that one day my body held up well. Of course I got tired, particularly my seat, but there were no other real aches or pains. I found that if I pushed it one day, I paid for it the next. As I looked back at my log I did find longer days were usually followed by shorter ones. Coupled with the fact that I had no flat tires or other mechanical breakdowns, I had to admit all the equipment was in good working order, thanks to a good overhaul and 1000 miles of training before I started.
Going as slowly as a I often did gave me a good chance to survey the countryside. In Colorado and western Kansas, the wheat fields were to ready to harvest but too wet. The locals joined me in lamenting the fact that the strong, hot southwest winds were not in evidence. They desperately needed drier fields. The only real effect that had on me was the traffic problems the long stream of combines and support vehicles created. These harvesters drove up from Texas and Oklahoma after contracting to cut the wheat. As I learned, the rates for harvesting are set by the government according to aerial photographs. One portion of Kansas I passed through was a 12/12/12 region. Combiners were paid $12 per acre plus $.12 per bushel plus $.12 per bushel on any yield above a given amount (I think it was 30 bu/acre).
As I entered Iowa the story was reversed. More rain, please. According to one farmer, southern Iowa needed about six inches to bring things up to normal and then a good six inches a week to stay even. Northern Iowa looked o.k. again while some of the bean fields in southern Minnesota were under water. Over the course of a days ride I developed the ability to assess the course of the previous night's storm; hail here, nothing ten miles east, and a good soaker farther on. Luckily I only was rained on three times. Otherwise the weather was acceptable, if not a bit cool.
The wild flowers were incredible. The side of the road was alive with color almost continuously. One day it would be delicate white and yellow blossoms hugging the ground, the next it would be huge brazen clumps of blue or the beautiful red flowers of the cholla cactus mixed with a few yellow prickly pear and yuccas laden with fruit. Fields came alive with the deep purple of the buffalo rose mixed in with the red daisy-like Indian blanket. The variety was spectacular.
Not as obvious was the wildlife. Of course the ever present birds harassed me. If it weren't the scolding of the long- tailed magpies, it was the sad, sad call of the mourning dove looking thin and frail on a fence post. About the only cheerful onlookers were the meadowlark whose song gave me a lift and the teasing darting snipe that dared me to catch it as it raced down the road in front of me. Antelope were in abundance in New Mexico and more than once raced along singly or in pairs off into the sagebrush after checking me out. Occasionally a deer startled me as it bounded out of a corn field, and Roger once tried to call my attention to a coyote running across the plains. Colonies of prairie dogs, standing at attention, barked and chattered as I passed. Rabbits, both cottontail and jack, skittered from bush to bush and snakes littered the highway. One rattler surprised me. I wasn't watching, and, as I passed over it, I tried to quickly lift my feet out of harm's way. I almost flipped the bike over backwards; I had forgotten that my shoes were clipped into the pedals. The snake, it appeared in retrospect, was already dead, but it sure did get my heart started just as surely as a ripe cattle feedlot or fresh roadkill would get my system working early in the morning.
The people, again, were as much a part of the trip as was the Trail. My first encounter was with a group of kids in a yard in the nearly deserted town of Dehli, Colorado. The town was supposed to have some services but didn't. I had counted on the town as a rest stop and was disappointed. Sitting in front of a boarded up store, I was greeted by six kids ranging in age from 5 to 13. They came around the corner with some ice cold spring water. Boy did it taste sweet! A bucketfull dumped over my head to cool me off drew a round of giggles. They, of course, were curious about my bicycle and my mission. After a thorough examination of both, they pronounced me fit to proceed, with water bottles full of good tasting water.
The next day I rode 125 miles to Tribune, Kansas. I had been riding almost twelve hours, the last thirty miles with hills and a headwind; I was tired but proud. It was Sunday and I wanted a beer. Have you ever tried to buy a beer in Kansas on Sunday? It's bad enough on a weekday, but Sunday? Nothing was moving and I stopped in the middle of the main street of town unsure of my next move. All of a sudden I heard somewhat shout, "What in the hell are you doing?" The question came from three men in some sort of uniform standing in front of a building on my left.
"I'm not sure," I said. "I think I just rode 125 miles and I'm tired and looking for a beer." I realized then that the building I had stopped in front of had three comforting initials carved above the front door, V.F.W.
"Then come on in," one shouted. "You stopped at the right place, and as long as you're in Kansas, we're buyin!" For the next hour I was entertained royally and even offered a ride in an air-conditioned engine on the train that runs from Tribune to Great Bend. If that weren't far enough, these three modern day Trail travellers said they could get me all the way to Chicago! I respectfully declined and said, "I like the idea and it would be a great adventure, but it would defeat the purpose of what I'm about." Now, in retrospect I almost wish I would have taken them up on it, just for the experience.
The next day was another adventure. After the many miles of the day before, this would be a short 73 mile jaunt to Dighton, Kansas. Besides, I needed to give myself extra time to do laundry. My tent was quickly set up in the city park, I took a shower at the city pool, declined the free swim, and set about my business. After doing the laundry and having a beer (After all, the laundromat and 3.2 joint were right next to each other) I headed to the police station to check in, and after gaining permission to do what I was doing anyway, I asked about dinner. The sheriff pointed to a store front across the street and said it was the only restaurant open. I walked across the street to Dickee Dee's and found that it was a private club, typical in Kansas. Knocking at the door I was told it was a private club and the owner didn't want to get in trouble by serving me. When I told her that it was the police who had sent me, she let me in. We chatted a while about my journey and the Santa Fe Trail and I was asked to join her group for chips and dip. A short while later Blue entered. Blue was a diamond in the rough. He was a gruff looking sort who had a lot to offer. Our chance meeting turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. After a bit of conversation he said, "I understand you're interested in the Trail? I've got something to show you."
He returned from his pickup with an autographed copy of Franzwa's Maps of the Santa Fe Trail, one of the most detailed sets of maps of the trail published. I was impressed and jokingly said, "I appreciate the offer, but I don't think it will fit in my panniers."
Blue responded, "Can you outpedal a 357 magnum?"
I described for Blue in as much detail as I could the Fort Larned complex and its ruts and buffalo wallows, Bent's Old Fort, the last hundred yards of the Trail going into Santa Fe and the other places I had seen. Blue longingly said he had read about those places but had never seen them.
I expressed with regret that I had not been alive to make the journey when the prairie was full of buffalo, and the next thing I knew I was in Blue's pickup on the way to the country. I was suddenly in the middle of a herd of a hundred buffalo. There were huge bulls, cows and about 25 calves. As we sat in his truck, the curious but still wild beasts scratched themselves against the truck causing it to tilt a bit, and one cow stuck her head in the window. Blue raised buffalo the same way most ranchers raise cattle. In the next half hour I learned more about the history, habits, and future of the buffalo than most people learn in a lifetime. At one time the buffalo were so thick on the prairie that it took 40 days for a herd 1.5 miles wide to pass by one spot. While it took 4 acres of pasture to support a cow, a buffalo needs 10. Currently beef sold for $.70/lb while buffalo was being marketed for $1.10 plus up to $175 for the hide and another $150 for the head. They were also more resistant to the diseases that commonly plague cattle. Blue did love his buffalo and enjoyed sharing his stories.
According to Blue, it was near Dighton that General George Armstrong Custer had his first encounter with the buffalo. Custer was an arrogant man who decided it was time to shoot a buffalo. He set out one morning on his wife's favorite horse, left his troops and began his hunt. Before long he came upon a herd of buffalo, singled out a big bull and gave chase. Buffalo can run at speeds of 35 mph so before long Custer and his prey were screaming across the prairie. Just as Custer was aiming his sixgun at the big shaggy head, the buffalo swerved, as did the horse, and Custer shot his wife's favorite mount right in the head. When Custer awoke he tried to walk back to his troops but kept passing his wife's favorite dead horse. Realizing he was walking in circles, he removed all of the gear from the horse and started walking again in the direction of his troops dropping a piece of gear every so often to make sure his line was straight. As he approached a hill he heard sounds from the other side. Assuming they were hostile Indians he rushed over the hill ready to empty his guns. According to Blue, Custer was as surprised as his troops were at their sudden reunion.
Blue is the founder of the Dighton Historical Society and was a remarkable man to spend an evening with.
The train engineers, Mel and Blue were only a few of the warm people I met along the road. To this list can be added the farm family whose equipment shed I hid in from the Missouri lightning storm. When they arrived home from a shopping trip they were greeted by this strange looking wet man peering out at them from their shed. After a cup of coffee and a few cookies, the front passed and I pedalled off in the rain.
I used the letter of introduction my minister had given me to gain a campsite in the front yard of the Presbyterian minister in a small Iowa town with no city park or motel.
The Hispanic motel owner in Hoisington brightened my day by not only offering me cookies, cake, and beer but the use of her car if I wanted to drive to the restaurant instead of walking or riding my bike.
After talking about biking with the manager of a Fort Dodge restaurant, I was treated to a free buffet dinner loaded with much needed fresh vegetables and pasta as well as salads and main courses. I responded by giving him my funny small-brimmed Twin Cities River Ride cycling hat. My kids said it looked weird on me anyway.
As I was just beginning to fall asleep in my tent in Swea City, Iowa, wishing I had eaten more for dinner, the eight year old daughter of the owner of the only restaurant in town delivered a brown bag with the message. "Here's a little something from our cafe." Inside was a most delicious cheeseburger with onions, lettuce, tomato and more, along with a side of chips. It was a pleasant and tasty small town treat.
Then there was the Wave. The Wave lives in Kansas and, in comparison, is a dying artform in the other states I went through. It's premise is simple: Wave at everyone you see. In Kansas, it didn't matter whether you were walking, riding or driving, everyone waved and you waved back. There were a number of themes and variations. Some flicked their index finger slowly, others quickly. Some lifted their index finger into the air as if trying to make a point. Others used two fingers; Blue used four, a quick opening and closing of his left hand as it rested on the steering wheel. The more emotional would raise their index finger and give the wrist a quick turn as if screwing in a lightbulb. Even others would show their palm with fingers spread out, while the real extrovert would add a wrist wiggle to make a real Queen Elizabeth wave. Motorcyclists would most often give an open palm, fingers together, Indian style greeting or just a simple thumbs up. While riding with my hands on the handlebars, it was usually most expeditious to respond with a single, slow, index finger lift. It did mean, however, that you had to establish eye contact with the oncoming motorist or pedestrian. While the whole process sounds complicated and distracting, after spending the better part of six days in Kansas, the wave became pretty reflexive and now that I'm back in suburban Minnesota, I miss it. In my neck of the woods, a wave is usually greeted by the comment, "Who was that?" This process of acknowledgment told me that if I were in some sort of difficulty, I was assured that the others on the road cared, and help was as close as the next wave.
I was frequently asked of my trip, "Why are you doing
this?" My answers
varied, often depending on the kind of day I had experienced. I never
responded, "For fun!" Most often I talked about my dream and the
challenges, both the physical challenges and the more difficult
psychological ones. I was confronted one afternoon with the accusation
that I did it to be macho. If being able to say with pride that I
accomplished what I set out to do three years ago is a macho thing, then I
plead guilty. But I don't think it is. My pride included conquering fear
and uncertainty; dropping my need for structure, saying "What the hell" and
heading north; resigning myself to the next hill and knowing its all right
that the next one will be followed by another, be patient and persistent.
I did it to learn, about history, and people, and the heartland. The
states I drove through are indeed the heartland of our country. I felt the
pulse. As I stopped beside a bean field one morning after too much coffee
and looked down the straight rows of soybeans that extended in a one point
perspective to the horizon, I felt the pride of the farmer. As I sat in
the middle of Blue's buffalo I felt the accomplishment of the rugged
individualist. As I chompped my burger in my tent and chatted with the
locals in restaurant or tavern, I felt the warmth of people who still care.
I rode the Santa Fe Trail and have had some of the same experiences and
feelings shared by Susan Magoffin and William Becknell. I wonder if they
shared some of mine.
Day Date From/To Miles Rolling Time Daily
Average on Average Climb
(mph) Road (mph) (in feet)
1 June 25 Taos to Cimmaron, NM 66 11.7 11 6.0
2740 Palo Flechado Pass and one other
2 June 26 Cimmaron to Trinidad, CO 67 11.6 9 7.4
2760 Raton Pass, rain and 1" hail (7 miles in 2 hrs)
3 June 27 Trinidad to La Junta 83 14.4 6.25 13.3
670 Flat fast day
4 June 28 La Junta to Tribune, KA 125 12.8 11.75 10.6
1110 No food in Sheridan Lake. Pushed on
5 June 29 Tribune to Dighton 73 13.9 6.25 11.7
2100 A short day following a long one
6 June 30 Dighton to Hoisington 98 10.9 11.25 8.7
670 Body telling me it's time for a rest
7 July 1 Hoisington (layover)
"And on the seventh day, he rested."
8 July 2 Hoisington to Minneapolis 92 10.4 11.5 8.0
1570 Start of the Kansas Smoky Hills.
9 July 3 Minneapolis to Blue Rapids 101 11.8 10 10.1
2200 More Smoky Hills, part of 200 limestone
10 July 4 Blue Rapids to Falls City, NE 86 12.1 8.25 10.4
2140 concretions covering most of central KA.
11 July 5 Falls City to Maryville, MO 60 10.2 8 7.5
2280 MO hills were short, steep, and constant. (Rain)
12 July 6 Maryville to Greenfield, IA 87 11.8 11 7.9
3180 IA hills longer but just as nagging.
13 July 7 Greenfield to Fort Dodge 101 12.2 9.75 10.4
2010 Terrain finally flattening out (Rain)
14 July 8 Fort Dodge to Swea City 71 10.5 8.25 8.6
840 Flat with strong headwinds. Knees ached.
15 July 9 Swea City to St. Peter, MN 83 12.7 7.75 10.7
460 Dodged road construction. Beautiful valley.
16 July 10 St. Peter to HOME 57 11.2 5.5 10.4
1030 Short day home. Helped decorate for my party
Average Excluding Layover 86 12.3 9.34 9.23
25760 Total Climb
Average Including Layover 81 11.5 8.74 9.23 4.9 M
Total mileage 1250
Return to the Kansas Heritage Server
I did it to learn, about history, and people, and the heartland. The states I drove through are indeed the heartland of our country. I felt the pulse. As I stopped beside a bean field one morning after too much coffee and looked down the straight rows of soybeans that extended in a one point perspective to the horizon, I felt the pride of the farmer. As I sat in the middle of Blue's buffalo I felt the accomplishment of the rugged individualist. As I chompped my burger in my tent and chatted with the locals in restaurant or tavern, I felt the warmth of people who still care.
I rode the Santa Fe Trail and have had some of the same experiences and feelings shared by Susan Magoffin and William Becknell. I wonder if they shared some of mine.