“It is nearly impossible to surprise ourselves,” the poet Jim Harrison wrote, but on the twelfth day of their exodus Sadie, Fred, Lucile and the others would do so repeatedly, and with such dire consequences, that it made the previous day’s foibles pale in comparison.
As if to compensate for their earlier disjointed traverse, Sadie, Fred, Lucile and the others rose while the stars were yet visible wondering what the day would bring whether good or evil. After wolfing down a hasty breakfast the women fell to scrubbing dishes while the men hitched the wagons to the horses and mules as all around them the first stirrings of birds lifted wan and faint from the fading shadows, the land and all its inhabitants great and small unfolding before the rising of the sun.
“We started this morning at 6 o'clock,” Sadie wrote. It was October 14, 1912, and they were a little over half way to Eureka Springs.
They rolled through the little towns of Lone Elm and Kincaid and passed on eastward into gently rolling prairie where the sky dominated like some fourth dimension. It wouldn’t be completely false to describe the area’s population now as collapsing, perhaps even a perfect background to a modern post-apocalyptic drama. Beyond the county seats the few population centers appear to be barely hanging on, with “one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” as my father used to say. Of Lone Elm little can be said for little remains and probably never did anyway, the number of occupied houses easily counted on two hands with maybe one or two toes added for good measure. We know this because we made a wrong turn and had to circumnavigate the town to backtrack in a move reminiscent of the crew’s farcical blunders of the day past.
Kincaid—spelled Kincade in older Kansas maps—was larger though not by much. Subtract the vacant houses and the shuttered storefronts and they might equal out. The town is far from dead however what with their annual Kincaid Free Fair which draws hundreds of visitors for carnival rides, turtle races, food, libation and a culminating hour-long parade. The same could almost be said for other minuscule towns that have capitalized on their past penchants for pomp and ceremony, including Lillis whose St. Patrick’s Day parade is a shining example. That the same handful of parade participants circle (and circle and circle) the town’s single block-long street doesn’t deter from the festivities, and if anything appear altogether fresh and dissimilar the more one drinks.
By the time Sadie and crew stopped for dinner just outside the city limits of Blue Mound, they had managed to break the liniment bottle, a lamp, and somehow had crushed Lucile’s doll beneath a wheel. “Have had awful luck,” she wrote in a free moment before setting out again.
Her reference to liniment raises more questions. Was it used as a topical for the horses and mules, or as a tonic for people? When applied topically liniment is said to alleviate soreness and stiff muscles and to reduce fatigue. Considering the rigors of their journey, all parties involved could have benefitted from its use. The lamp would have been an even bigger loss, nor does she mention whether they had a spare.
Blue Mound allegedly got its name from the domed shape of a nearby hillock rising above the prairie. According to Cutler’s History of Kansas, “The elevation is about fifty feet high, and was so named by John [Quincy] Adams, because from a distance it looks blue; the more moisture there is in the air, the bluer it looks.” No, not that John Quincy Adams. We were unable to discern any notable change in elevation blue or otherwise but we approached from the west which might have made a difference. Cutler, writing in 1883, noted that the growth of Blue Mound was phenomenally explosive. Within the span of six months the place went from raw dirt to a population of nearly two hundred, with three general stores, one hardware store, one furniture store, two blacksmith shops, one drugstore, one harness shop, one lumber yard and one hotel. “With a prospect of a railroad, possibly two, and a union depot, the people are full of enterprise and hope,” he wrote. “Should they get neither, they will, upon a near approach, be a great deal bluer than the Mound looks at a distance.”
As it turned out they got both railroads and grew into “one of the leading cities of the eastern counties,” according to Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc., compiled by Frank Blackmar. In 1910 the population stood at 596, about twice that of the current state of affairs. Both railroads have departed yanking their rails like zippers, but a ghostly trace of that meteoric growth spurt was burned into the pavement along Main Street in a series of blackened rubber hieroglyphs.
On the day of our visit the place looked deserted except for an occasional car whose occupants stared at us as if we were mutants. This is a fairly common phenomenon in rural America but some towns excel in it. Two bars each claimed to have the coldest beer and the hottest women or something to that effect and both were closed for the day.
Should the modern explorer prefer to remain on blacktops (thereby negating the term “explorer”), there are two roads that will take them to Mapleton. The most direct path is to head straight south on a well-maintained gravel road for approximately four miles and turn eastward on a narrower, more serpentine lane. This, at least, is how Google maps portrays it, possibly true in essence but potentially an illusion as well. After several unexpected bends, meanders and sashays into what seemed unexplored and uninhabited territory I asked Lori to determine our bearing on the iPad. There are limits to most technologies, however, and on a narrow road snaking through deep valleys choked with timber we found it: no cellular service. My fallback was the DeLorme Atlas and Gazeteer coupled with an innate sense of direction and common sense, and soon enough we were pulled to the side of the road on a steep hill overlooking Mapleton.
That Sadie and the others made it that far was something of a miracle. One of their mules had fallen down, the result being a sprained ankle and a slower pace. Her final entry for the day was brief but telling in its brevity: “We camped high and dry tonight upon a hill about a mile from Mapleton.”
It had to have been the same hill. We got out and celebrated with Oreo cookies and the last dregs of coffee and stood there breathing in the intoxicating aroma of wildflowers and fresh air. A grassy pasture to our left sloped down to a still pond, an altogether bucolic scene. It was easy to imagine them circling the wagons and staking the animals, a cookfire started and smoke rising into the twilight. That we were here at all was due to Sadie’s notes which although scant provided just enough detail to follow, written bread crumbs sprinkled along their path as if to say I was here, follow me if you can. When we couldn’t follow the experience was frustrating and maddening but when we could, when everything fell into place and her presence and ours intersected along the selfsame path one hundred years apart, the sensation was nothing less than staggering. She was here—right here—and so were we, and after a few minutes of humbled silence we weren’t.
(To be continued)