Thursday, May 31, 2012

IV: First lesson: Make no assumptions

       I was trying to see the road as Sadie would have seen it from the seat of a covered wagon, or even afoot as she occasionally mentioned, imagining the snail-like pace, the methodical plodding of the horses and mules, the intimacy of the land unveiling itself at each turn. Time a slow, stately river without haste or hurry. The notion itself seemed utterly alien not merely because of its antediluvian conception but for what it implied about modern travelers for whom speed is the soporific to numb themselves between origin and destination. Coupled, of course, the mandatory accoutrements such as DVDs for kids in the back seat, cellphones to connect to anywhere but the present (I’ve heard it said that cellphones are talismans to stave off man’s essential loneliness, possibly the most logical explanation to date), four-lane highways to insure against impediments such as small towns or roads hewing to the natural terrain, and generous allowances for speed. God help us if we have to actually watch the scenery.

I have to admit, though, that our detour to ford the river chafed. Sure it was only a minor reversal of 15 miles or so but it was still going backwards and not forward which is the basic law of momentum. The temptation to drop the hammer and fly like the wind was a firefly’s spark that came and went, acceleration and washboard surfaces a guarantee for unintended consequences of the direst kind.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to follow Sadie or to retrace her route for Lori’s sake. We all have our unspoken personal motives, mine being the unambiguous desire to see new territory. I’d never been to Arkansas nor laid eyes on the Marais des Cygnes River in eastern Kansas whose name sounded nothing at all like it was spelled. Translated, it means Marsh of the Swans, named by the French for the trumpeter swans that migrate down from the far north to overwinter. Such lyricism is a far cry from the staid, meat-and-potatoes descriptions of so many of our waterways. The Big Blue, crossed by Sadie and crew at Irving and circumnavigated by ourselves, was originally known by the Kaw Indians as the Blue Earth River. I’ve seen its blue earth glistening in the dawn but never its river blue.

As I said, it wasn’t far, a short jaunt back to Blue Rapids where we took the scenic cutoff through agricultural riverbottom, across the bridge and east four or five miles to a sign whose wordage escapes me. Something about a cattle company, not that it matters. A sure sign—pun intended—that we’ve slipped the shackles of our former urban lives is that I no longer need to navigate by road designations or numbers but by habitations, structures, former structures long removed from the earth’s surface or signs whose placement means more than the message. The road made a beeline for the south until the river meandered in from the west at which time it meandered equally as much. A few miles of this and we came to a seldom-used track bearing to the right into a heavily-wooded grove of oaks. In Sadie’s time it was the road from Irving joining the main thoroughfare toward Fostoria and Westmoreland, meaning we were back on her trail.

We turned on a southward course at the old Cudney place and entered the bottoms. The suddenness of the transition was like watching an opera curtain rise onto a set piece of unparalleled depth. Grassy hills receded to either side with the forested ribbon of trees delineating the Blue on our right, and in the hazy distance the Black Vermillion snaked down from the northeast. After the narrow confines of the river road the sky unfolded into an immensity that bore down like a weight, freckled with the black specks of vultures pendent and motionless against a churning mass of clouds.

The Vermillion is an irascible river, steep-sided, muddy, prone to flooding. Wise travelers pay attention to its moods, as we learned last year when we led a caravan of relatives toward Spring Creek Cemetery. My failure to take into account recent deluges brought our little group to a stop where the road disappeared into an unexpected lake a good half-mile wide. Because a detour entailed close to 50 miles of backtracking we decided against pursuing our original plans and dispersed to our own homes. It wasn’t a big deal, more a fact of life in rural America where roads are rarely certain. To live here is to develop a certain pragmatism about transportation and your chances of getting from point A to point B: The road will either get you there or it won’t. 

Past the bridge over the Black Vermillion the road forked and forked again, implacably heading toward higher ground. I imagined Sadie looking back for a last glimpse of the river, broader now with the Vermillion’s ruddy addition, before the undulant hills closed in. I wonder what she thought then, what Arkansas might have promised to lure them away. The elevation gain would have slowed them but they didn’t have far to go. Shadows were lengthening when they pulled into the yard of Springside School, a one-room schoolhouse serving the community of the same name.

Nothing remains of the community or the school, no sign, no marker, and very little information can be found on the Internet. Which explains, in part, why we blithely sailed past without a wave or a fare-thee-well, heading for what we were positive was Sadie’s campsite at Spring Creek School a few miles distant. How we confused the two remains a matter of conjecture but clearly it was partly a lack of research and a lot of assumption, a toxic mix that led us to place our last iris on the wrong stone marker and to walk around the tumbled stones of the wrong school.

Something about Sadie’s mention of Springside School cast a doubt I could not shake, nor was I alone in being troubled by the differences in names. While I drained the thermos into our insulated cups, Lori penned a simple “Spring Creek—Springside?” in a small notebook. Sadie’s occasional misspellings were just that—Pamona for Pomona, Sarcolie for Sarcoxie—minor quibbles easily dismissed. My own mistakes were less forgiving. If I was wrong on Springside School, I was wrong on the roads they traveled to Westmoreland. In fact, I was probably wrong on just about everything. How were we to know what was right and what was wrong?

(To be continued)


shoreacres said...

It finally occurred to me that you're getting near the path I always took on my way up to Kansas City - more than once I've stopped at Marais des Cygnes wildlife refuge, and once at the site of the massacre there.

Your tales of rivers-to-lakes reminds me of the Texas hill country, where people talk about getting "watered in" instead of "snowed in".

And then there's this - on my trip north last fall, I got as far as Blue Earth, Minnesota, where I crossed the Blue Earth river. Not your Blue Earth river, but still...

Tom Parker said...

Close enough to count. We found out later that Sadie's path to Arkansas was almost exactly that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. (With some revisions, of course. She ended up in Mansfield, Mo. where we spent a very pleasant night at a B&B located in the oldest building in town. Also ate a shockingly good chile relleno next door, the first such experience in the Midwest. Go figure.)