The last thing I expected to see was a horned toad but then I’ve come to accept these gifts without fanfare or overblown rumination on the mysteries of life. The temperature was in the low thirties and a cold breeze slicing from the north but the bluff faced the south and the low sun warmed the deep grasses along the hillside. I’d spooked the little reptile on my way back up the slope from a low vantage about halfway down where a dead tree bristled from a rock outcrop, and for a moment I followed it, hoping to catch it and hold it if only briefly. I was either too slow or the toad too fast, neither concept entirely reassuring, when it disappeared behind a limestone rock the size of a dinner plate. “Why would it be out on a day this cold?” Sue Jones asked. Why, indeed.
The stones, jumbled and oddly situated as if disturbed at some point in the past, were one of the reasons we wandered the edge of the bluff. We had driven up in a John Deere Gator, my wife and I and Keith and Sue Jones, a couple we’d met online through the historical society but never in person and whose land we were exploring. If anyone could be said to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s history from earliest settlements to the present it would be Keith. As unassuming, soft-spoken man in his early sixties, he had grown up on the land and absorbed its totality in the way few can or do. He wasn’t just part of the land, he was human embodiment of the land’s collective memory.
Below the bluff and its oddly dislodged crown of stones the long meandering sweep of the Blue Earth River and its tributaries unfurled like a three dimensional map. To the north the Black Vermillion descended from its bastion of treeless knolls, its confluence concealed behind a stand of barren cottonwoods; to the southwest, near the base of the bluff, Spring Creek glittered like a silver thread stitching up a narrower valley angling from the southeast. Off to the side lay a comma-shaped slough that marked the former creek bed, now separated from the main channel. West of the slough a few hundred yards was a former excavation site where in 1971 archaeologists unearthed a Native American village dating back to about 3250 B.C.
Named the Coffey site, it wasn’t a hunting camp but a place of long-term residency occupied throughout the Paleo and Archaic periods. Keith had watched the excavation unfold from the bluff overlooking the valley, a birds-eye perspective providing a panoramic sweep centering the site within the terrain that formed its existence. His was a comprehensive view in contrast with that of the archaeologists who sifted through the soil in small constricted grids, their focus an almost granular dissection of the earth.
Considering the proximity of the ancient camp to the bluff, he couldn’t help but wonder where the inhabitants buried their dead. Within the greater Manhattan area which included the Coffey site, 19 burial sites had been discovered. As all were situated on hilltops, it didn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to wonder if what appeared to be an inordinate concentration of rocks near the crest of the bluff might be indicative of a burial ground.
“If Woodland Indians marked their territory with cemeteries,” Keith said, “then it seems logical that our pasture might be where those graves were located.”
Limestone outcrops along the edge of bluffs in the Flint Hills region are as ubiquitous as the unceasing wind, but Keith’s conglomeration consisted of a loose circle roughly 35 feet in diameter. And unlike other such concentrations crenellating the ridgelines like so many broken teeth, these rested uneasily atop the soil rather than sunk into the ground through the eons of weather and gravity. There were signs of badger activity but otherwise the bluff had been relatively undisturbed since Keith’s great-grandfather bought the farm in the 1870s.
It was impossible to stand within that circle without being moved by the imagery bestowed by the overlook. Close my eyes, turn a page, look back, and the land is once again wild, wilder than now though it successively grows wilder with the depopulation of the Great Plains, and the river broad and clear a half-mile removed to the west, woodsmoke rising from a primitive settlement, the small exposed gravesite a homing beacon for dozens of miles around and the night sky seething with stars and mystery. The place had little of the imposing earthworks of Cahokia or the astronomical alignments of Chaco, retaining more a sense of the discreet and unobtrusive as if the inhabitants were content to live their lives in relative obscurity. There was no grandstanding or monument making, their gods demanding neither temples nor conquest, their existence featherlight on the land. And all gone, disappeared with few visible traces other than a stony disarray on the edge of a bluff.
Almost bisecting the site was a fenceline which to the east continued as a gravel road. It was, Keith explained, Parallel Road, also known as the Old Pikes Peak Trail Road, misnamed through accident or romantic impulse, the actual trail following the 1st Standard Parallel from the Missouri River before veering off to the northwest near the ghost town of Barrett. The road and the fence were the demarcation between Pottawatomie and Marshall Counties, surveyed in 1830 by Isaac McCoy whose journal became the first written account of what would become Marshall County. It also traced the northern boundary of the Delaware Outlet which provided access to hunting grounds for the Delaware Reservation to the east.
Not visible were the bridges that once spanned the Blue Earth River. One crossed to the town of Cleburne, the other to Irving, nothing of which remains except for a few limestone foundations disappearing into the encroaching woods. Keith told us of the private railroad spur that once paralleled the road, of grand businesses that once thrived in the area, of a spring on the eastern slope of his property that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about, and of the eventual collapse and unsettlement of the valley. The flood of 1993 took out many of the huge cottonwoods bordering the river and the river itself has changed course several times making life along its banks an unpredictable gamble. Countless times the road to their farm has been swamped by the Black Vermillion, an erratic and eccentric river to say the least.
It struck me that most people wander through life without a thought or care of their place within the world they inhabit, or, as some acquaintances do, relegate their corporeal existence to a mere shadow destined to flower into life at the moment of life’s cessation. Neither option grounds one to a sense of place but then people no longer seem curious about their surroundings or the immense sweep of time of which they are a part however finite. Keith is an anomaly in that every tree and shrub, every road or path or track, every ridge or hill or valley within the area he encompasses is at once familiar and recognizable in its historic setting. He’ll disagree with such an assessment but his modesty belies the wealth of knowledge and experience he possesses. For him the past is never past, and if the future remains veiled it can nevertheless be glimmered through statistics, the U.S. Census no more than a crystal ball predicting the inevitable erasure of human civilization in vast swathes of the Midwest, the land slowly reverting to the wild, a return of game and fish, towns fading into ruins and the eternal wind whispering through waist-deep grasses masking a jumbled outcrop whose riddles might forever remain unsolved, the abode of badgers and grasshoppers, bright butterflies and a small improbable spirit in the guise of a scurrying horned toad.