So from the start: Genesee Street by the levee, early morning sun breaking through roiling clouds, a slash of sunlight gilding the concrete signpost. Lori places a fresh-cut iris at the sign’s base and we’re off, heading south to follow Sadie Vail on her grand adventure. The only thing missing is almost everything: the creak of harness, the rattle of chains, the methodical clopping of hooves echoing off hard-packed dirt. Any similarities lie in our excitement over the road ahead.
Recreating a journey taken a century ago is a quixotic quest at best, if not a fool’s errand. Though Sadie listed many of the towns they passed through on the way to Eureka Springs, several have grown into cities, most have withered and a few disappeared entirely. Again the unanswerable questions: how different were the paths we chose, Sadie in 1912, ours one hundred years later? Some were probably the same, at least in stretches of uncertain lengths. Poring over 1912 highway and plat maps makes me realize that so much has changed as to make today’s highway system utterly alien to what came before. Roads were either gravel or dirt, many impassable after rains, rough and rocky or wet and boggy, winding hither and yon dependent wholly upon geography and terrain above all and shortness between destinations of which there were many more than today. Geological obstacles such as Rattlesnake Hill outside of Garnett have been realigned, planed and tamed to a gentle slope, whereas in Sadie’s days it presented difficulties of unimaginable proportions. Indeed, several entries were surprising for the limited number of miles covered, hampered as they were by terrain, obstinate mules and bottomless roads.
All that would come later, of course, but within blocks of our departure doubts were already thickening like the clouds boiling to the east and south. Did they follow Genesee through town or sidestep around the round town square onto Main? Not knowing was a bur under my proverbial saddle. I’d known all along that tracing their exact route was hopeless but now that we had started it became a distraction that would follow us every mile of the way. I would eventually succumb to a sort of numbing indifference punctuated by brief bouts of euphoria whenever finding ourselves exactly where Sadie had been, and though those moments were few and far between they salvaged what otherwise might have become merely a historical travelogue.
And if theirs was an inauspicious beginning with its balky horses and crushed canine, ours was only slightly better. Forecasters were all but apoplectic over predictions of a collision between blastfurnace air and a southbound cold front, an apocalyptic clash prophesied to combust over Fort Scott by early evening. That its epicenter was our destination wasn’t surprising. In the Midwest one quickly gets the impression that hell-weather can not only seem deeply personal, but occasionally targeted toward the individual.
A purr of the engine, the crunch of gravel under the tires. It was the best we could do, and we did, down Genesee at a crawl to the railroad tracks, east at the elevator, diagonally past the old Hannah poultry plant and so out of town, dust pluming behind us and the green ribbon of the river snaking crosswise from the bridge to intersect us near where Sadie and crew stopped for lunch.
“We camped about one mile from Irving for dinner,” Sadie wrote. “I had a campfire. We got a phone message that I had left my coat and scarf at Grabhorns. I will have it sent to Topeka. That was our only bad luck. Charles Jewell's horse has balked 7 times today. We had lots of fun.”
One gets the impression that it was something of a summer camp ride for Sadie, more entertainment than exodus. (She was, it appears, having much more fun than Charles Jewell.) But her journey had just begun, its newness still virginal and unblemished. But where did she receive the phone message? It had to be in Irving, a town that no longer exists thanks to land speculators, flood control planners and the Army Corps of Engineers. Irving was one of a string of unfortunate towns stretching from southern Marshall County to the confluence of the Big Blue and Kaw rivers that were bodily removed to higher ground (such as Randolph) or bulldozed, sold off or submerged beneath the rising waters of Tuttle Creek Reservoir. The fight was as bitter as it was fruitless and still rankles in the minds of the older generation. Irving’s greatest claim to fame happened on May 30, 1879, when two tornadoes an hour apart obliterated the town, the first taking out the north half and the second raking what remained. Between 17 and 40 people died, depending on sources. For most of a century no other American town endured multiple tornadoes within a 24-hour period, a record it no longer holds. In the wake of the disaster the town rose phoenix-like from its splinters while an inspired L. Frank Baum penned a book about a young girl and her dog whisked away via cyclone to a magical land named Oz. Kansas would never be the same.
Where Sadie made temporary camp was a matter of conjecture. I opted for the public wildlife area at the edge of the forest, seconded by Lori. Our own stop was at the memorial, a grassy clearing snowy with the lotus-like blossoms of the surrounding catalpa trees. Lori again laid an iris at the base of the stone monument while I poured fresh cups of coffee, not because they needed to be refilled but because I thought Lori might want a few minutes to converse with her great-grandmother. I tried imagining the town spreading beyond the dirt intersection but could conjure nothing but its current state of wild woods studded with buckled sidewalks and purple iris glowing like embers deep in the sun-dappled shadows.
Once we were underway again I surprised Lori by heading east.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“The way Sadie went,” I replied, as if it were that easy. From what I could tell from looking at period maps, there was only one bridge over the river between Blue Rapids to the north and Randolph to the south, and that was at Irving. Like the town, the bridge, or bridges, had a checkered history. The first bridge, built in 1870, was a victim of the twin tornadoes; the second was swept away by flooding in 1903, and its replacement, bigger and stronger, lasted a paltry five years before it, too, floated away piecemeal. The bridge Sadie and crew crossed was fairly new then.
We weren’t so fortunate. Floods took the final bridge in 1974, and with Blue River Valley cleared out for the reservoir project, there was no reason to rebuild. But Sadie went this exact route, then a town, now a rutted gravel road that eventually forks about a mile from the monument. A two-track continues east for a hundred yards before petering out near the banks of the Big Blue. We parked and stepped from the car into an explosion of birdsong, mostly dickcissels and western meadowlarks. Behind us the road gained elevation toward the townsite. For a moment I could see their wagons entering the descent, three teams and three wagons shimmering in the heat of early afternoon, dust rising, dogs barking, Charles Jewel’s horse prancing sideways and backwards, the early blush of adventure and hope still writ on their faces. “She was here,” I said, and we climbed in the car for a 15-mile detour to follow them across the bridgeless river.
(To be continued)