On the fifth morning out Sadie Vail and the others rose early in hopes of beating the rain. “I did not get to write this morning as we started too soon,” she wrote, proving what I’d suspected that she penned her thoughts at all hours of the day whenever she found a free moment rather than the way most people journal in the evening or the morning of the following day. Or at least that’s the way I do it. The problem with my approach is immediately obvious in that details get lost if not set down while still fresh. As we followed Sadie’s trail Lori jotted observations in a small notebook whether her own or mine dictated from the driver’s seat, though occasionally I’d feel compelled to pull to the shoulder and hammer out a lengthier passage in a pocket Moleskine cahiers notebook that goes everywhere with me. Sadie’s own diary would have been a delight to read if for no other reason than to study the flow of her thoughts in her own cursive script, the slant of each letter, the travel-worn pages.
The night had been noisy with trains blowing through on one side of their encampment and automobiles on the other and their horses raising a ruckus at either intrusion. Breaking camp was so hurried that she never had time to wash dishes but threw them in a box for later. The morning was cool enough that she needed a jacket but hers had been left behind though relatives had forwarded it to a Topeka post office where it was supposed to be waiting for her. In the interim she borrowed one of Goldie Jewell’s.
They passed through Rossville and Kingsville and Silver Lake. Fred worked on a lid for his tool box while Sadie managed the teams. The road was level and smooth with the Kaw River to their right and low grassy bluffs rising on each side of the floodplain. The agricultural diversity increased with the addition of orchards and fields of sugar beets, details that Sadie easily noted at her five-miles-per-hour gait. Light rain starting falling around noon when they stopped for lunch. They were 12 miles from Topeka.
Keeping the horses and mules under control must have been grueling as vehicular traffic increased with the approach of the state’s capital. Sadie’s only comment was “I have had to drive today till my hands are blistered. Convict work you know.” Considering the frequency at which she drove later in the trip, including in places she probably had no business doing so, one wonders what shift might have occurred to get Fred out of the driver’s seat and into—what? Several entries mention hunting and trapping for supplemental food, sometimes to comic effect. The most striking aspect of Sadie’s forced recruitment is that in most if not every instance traffic or topographic conditions were unfavorable. It’s as if Fred relinquished his position when the going got tough.
I wasn’t about to relinquish my role as driver but I was willing to deviate from Sadie’s route when hostile conditions called for it. Sadie’s crew had problems with cars in Topeka, and suicidal dogs, and my concerns were no different (minus the dogs, of course), so we left the route at Rossville to drop down to the interstate and bypass the city. In the century since Sadie rolled into town via horses and wagons the metropolitan area has spread like an oil slick devouring everything in its path, utterly eradicating most of what they encountered, so it wasn’t like we were going to overlook or miss some significant waypoint. If not for wanting to find Sadie’s coat or gathering supplies they might have considered avoiding the city altogether, too.
Sometimes I had a distinct sense that Sadie was looking over my shoulder or standing off to the side, her keen analytical stare taking in our every move not so much in judgment but in delighted affection. As we turned off the former Golden Belt Highway to bypass Topeka I could see Sadie nodding her head, a small smile playing on her lips. “Wise man,” she said. At other times she seemed distant if not entirely absent leaving me scrambling to pick up her trace. I was reminded of Jim Corder’s Hunting Lieutenant Chadbourne, a slim book described by Pat Hoy II of Harvard University as part textbook, novel, philosophical and philological treatise—“the only history book that is fit to read.” It details Corder’s obsessive search for a soldier who fell on May 9, 1846 at the battle of Resaca de la Palma during the war with Mexico, a second lieutenant who might have disappeared into obscurity if not for a small historical marker along a Texas highway that caught Corder’s eye. His evocative and illustrative chapter titles capture not only his search for Chadbourne but our own search for Sadie Vail and in some ways provided an underlying framework forever in the back of my mind. Perhaps I’ll Never Find Him opens the book followed by Catching a Glimpse of Lieutenant Chadbourne, But Sometimes When I Look I Don’t See, What Perhaps She Saw, The Tracks They Left and Will I Ever Know You?, all which neatly summarized our own obsession.
I have to confess that at the onset of our journey my interest lay more in exploring new places and seeing new sights than in any intricate, detailed historical recreation of a route taken a hundred years before by a woman I never met. It came as a surprise then to find myself pushing against the limitations of modern highways and landmarks to uncover a past that was forever gone but that could nevertheless be glimpsed or intuited by something as simple as a string of words written from the front seat of a wagon or while sitting around a campfire. The first time I felt her presence was misconstrued as no more than the unraveling of a puzzle, of discovering the right road and the right locale and imagining it for what it was both then and now, the merging of logic, planning, execution and terrain, or, to put it another way, mental acuity triumphant on a physical plane. What I didn’t take into account nor adequately prepare for was that she would come as if summoned.
So we turned off as clouds massed in the east. Sadie was briefly with us and then she was gone. We stairstepped down a series of ninety-degree bends past well-manicured farms and plowed fields stretching to the river and crossed the lazy waters of the Kaw. The air grew hot and humid and the light hazy. Behind us a century past three wagons rolled into Topeka guided by the dome of the statehouse visible from ten miles out. They made camp and plans for the next morning that included searching for Sadie’s missing coat and to get the mail, acts required of the menfolk but not the women who were left behind. “I don’t suppose we will get started very soon,” Sadie wrote that evening. In her mild reproof volumes could be written on what was left unsaid.
(To be continued)