In the night the lights of a smelter glowed like a fallen comet throbbing and pulsing beyond the crenated ranks of silhouetted trees. Looking from the wagon Sadie saw inky shadows stretching from the woods and their own tripartite assembly, the pallid bowed canvases so graceful above their blocky undercarriages, the horses with their bowed heads, and nearer to the ground the alert eyes of a small dog that had attached itself to their party the previous day and remained still. It was hard not to imagine it the ghost of one of their former canines gone ahead to scout the territory before rejoining them on the cusp of the borderlands.
There was a palpable undercurrent of excitement in each of them. By dawn they were on the move, the land flattening out as though pressed down by the weight of the sky, the roads hard and solid and undeviating as lines on a grid. The rising sun ignited the horizon before wallowing into low clouds, and in that sudden dimness they crossed unheralded into Jasper County, Missouri. The date was October 18, 1912.
Gone were the lush cropfields. What crops they saw were poor and stunted and mired in the reddest gumbo they had ever seen. After the fevered mine activity around Pittsburg the area seemed almost deserted, emptied out somehow as if the residents had rushed wholesale off to join the coal boom and its promise of prosperity beyond this bloody soil. The first town they came to was a skeletal frame barely affixed to the muck, its only store vacant and windowless and the houses falling into disrepair. Georgia City, the next town along the road, had a single store though scarcely stocked, the remainder of the town holding on by gravity and lassitude alone.
Our own meandering took us on a triangular wedge meant to adhere to the towns mentioned by Sadie, or at least the ones still on the map. Bush, the first town, was irretrievably gone, apparently vanished from the historical record as well for not a single piece of information was forthcoming on the Internet. All that remained of Georgia City was a cemetery located down a pocked and pooled road of no certain solidity, better left for another, drier, day. The storm that had hammered Fort Scott had deluged southwestern Missouri leaving it half submerged in places and more threatening. Following Sadie’s few breadcrumbs took us in each cardinal direction so that we re-entered Kansas and summarily departed, our only hope of success sticking to the paved roads which were strikingly few. As in Sadie’s time houses were few and far between and half of them abandoned.
The levelness of the terrain screwed with my innate sense of direction so that half the time I couldn’t say if we were heading north or south. If not for being buried in my camera backpack in the backseat I would have set the compass on the dashboard to at least provide an idea of our reading. As it was I counted on Lori’s navigational skills and the itinerary I’d highlighted in the DeLorme Atlas. The road zigged and zagged and passed through vast uninhabited sections and slowed us alarmingly for this day of all days we had a destination, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Bakersville pioneer village outside of Mansfield. As it would take us a fair amount of time to get there, it was evident that my own desired deviation to the extreme southeastern corner of Kansas where Route 66 makes a short appearance would have to wait. We pulled to the shoulder and pored over maps until finally settling on a workable Plan B which would take us north of Joplin to Carthage and then south to I-44. I’m not a big fan of interstates but sometimes unfettered speed is essential.
A few miles south on Highway 171 we came to a long bridge mirrored on the west by a railroad trestle. According to the signpost it was the Spring River, named Springy River in Sadie’s diary. It was a demarkation between failed and harvestable crops, she wrote, after which the land turned greener and more productive. I don’t know what kind of bridge spanned the deep river in 1912 but the modern structure is broad and springy from all the heavy truck traffic.
We parked on a side road and walked to the bridge. I was fascinated by the trestle and wanted a shot of the river but not at all comfortable with the amount of vehicular traffic, all apparently vying for speed records. Crossing the road was an exercise in patience and timing but I proved that it could be accomplished however narrowly. Lori hung back content to watch the sluggish water drift lazily past.
The river was named for the many steeps and springs that form its headwaters, one of which, Big Spring, discharges 12.3 million gallons of water per day. The spring flows from the base of a high limestone bluff known as Baptist Hill, fitting as we’d entered the dreaded Bible Belt. We were about to discover that Missourians are passionate about two things, religion and porn, but that was a few miles ahead.
Pertinent to our journey was the fact that the river formed the western boundary of the Ozark Plateau, at nearly 47,000 square miles the most extensive mountainous region between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. Prior to the introduction of grist and sawmills throughout its length in Jasper County in the 1840s, the river was one of the “Seven Bulls,” a term used by Native American tribes to describe the rivers of southwest Missouri. Here the terrain began to subtly change, more riven and fractured, and rockier, with exposed outcrops of limestone.
We left Sadie and the others north of the populated outskirts of Joplin and headed due east. I wasn’t entirely positive about leaving them at this juncture but the decision was out of my hands, also we had reservations for the night at a quaint B&B in Mansfield. Sadie, Fred, Lucile and the others dropped down a short distance to make camp four miles from town. But crossing the state line had been a catalyst for desire. Their pace would hereafter become more insistent, the yearning for their destination more intense, nor could the lessons of the day be forgotten. As Sadie wrote that night, Charles Jewell had led the caravan in a bewildering show of incompetence that left them off the road as much as on. “We are all well and kind of tired,” she wrote, before closing with a personal note: “I am beginning to want to get settled.”
(To be continued)