Anyone who has ever kept or attempted to keep a diary knows the utter hopelessness of recording a life fully. Whether consciously or unconsciously details are left out, incidents overlooked, emotions ruled unfit for disclosure or posterity, and every word, every sentence, weighed, judged and critiqued by the most damning of judges—our own internal censor. Most of our daily activities are so boring and tedious anyway that it isn’t worth the paper, the ink or, in this modern age, the hard drive space to even make the attempt. Time constraints are also a limiting factor. Best to record details representative of the day, the incidents and thoughts that propel our story forward, and leave it at that.
After 40 years of keeping a more-or-less daily journal, that’s my theory, anyway. Mark Twain would undoubtedly disagree. “An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of a man’s life at all,” he wrote. “His life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on.” Maybe so, but as he set about to write his autobiography Twain’s opinion evolved under the difficulties of maintaining a coherent timeline. He finally traded linearity for spontaneity which certainly worked for him.
But as with all personal diaries, what’s left out often carries more weight than what’s included, especially if something is alluded to. Sadie’s short diary is no exception. On the third day out after a good night’s sleep the reborn mule was so eager to depart that when given the reins it almost jerked her from the wagon. Another mule managed to get tangled under a wheel and had to be extracted. It’s impossible to read her writing without sensing a rank amateurishness tainting their every move. I’ve often wondered if they were surprised each evening to have made it as far as they had.
The zinger comes midway through her first paragraph, obviously written early in the morning. “All are well but me,” she wrote. “This trip does not agree with me.”
Followed by—explanations? guesses? details? Only an allusion to something that probably happened the previous day: “We did not get stuck today.”
Either she didn’t know or didn’t want known that she was four months pregnant. It’s an odd thing to omit but she must have had her reasons.
The resurrected mule’s energy was needed for the first hill, steep enough that Sadie made a reference to it and, by my reckoning, almost certainly identifying their camping spot. When they reached Westmoreland two miles away Charles Jewell left to get his $18 horse shod. “This is a fine day and nice town,” Sadie wrote, with a pointed “We are still waiting.” While they still waited Fred Vail fashioned a shoe out of oil cloth for their dog which was almost lame. According to Sadie it refused to ride in the wagon, perhaps in self-preservation.
While not geographically true (and not far off, either) it could be said that Westmoreland is the true northern gateway to the Flint Hills. So named by Zebulon Pike in 1806, the Flint Hills encompass the largest intact tallgrass prairie in the world thanks to its underlying limestone chert that made farming all but impossible. Designated internationally as a distinct ecoregion with its own biodiversity, the region stretches in a narrow band from Marshall County in the north to upper Oklahoma. The rolling grassy hills crenellated with pale limestone outcrops resemble nothing more than the surge and swell of the seas that once covered the land during the Permian Period 250 million years ago. Early explorers wrote of bluestem grass reaching to their saddles and of having to outrun wildfires.
Considerably tamed since then, the Flint Hills are still a wild and haunting place, scarcely settled except for the occasional small town or isolated ranch unless one counts the abundant cows. Then as now the road undulated as they headed due south, more prairie than woods and the sky its own exalted presence. Once underway they left Westmoreland and crossed Rock Creek whose rocky bottom once provided safe passage to wagons along the Oregon Trail. Nearby Scott Spring was a popular camping ground for its fresh water and grassy meadows, now a small historical park. An unmarked cholera cemetery was partially unearthed when road crews laid Highway 99, creating unexpected delays while an archaeological survey located graves. Several were moved to the west side of the highway with a marker to note their presence.
The storm clouds building to the east evaporated into a blank haze. We pushed on down 99 cognizant of our departure from Sadie’s trail but hoping to make up some time. Recreating their exact route was never possible nor was I too concerned about an area I knew fairly well, and there was also the matter of what I call the Topeka Vortex, the great sucking gravitational maw of the region’s most populous city. The real adventure would come after we escaped its clutches somewhere to the south, and until then traffic would only build exponentially.
For a while Sadie walked beside the wagon. The wind blew fiercely snapping the canvas rigging and kicking up dust. “I have wore Fred’s cap all day to keep the hair out of my eyes,” she wrote that evening. The convoy passed through Louisville, a small town a few miles north of Wamego. Not much is left but a few hundred people, the downtown business district (such as it is) shuttered and empty as was the old two-story limestone school and the nearby I.O.O.F. lodge. The east side of the town borders heavy deciduous woods dark with shadows and a green creeper crept up the stone façade of the adjoining lodge. Within those shadows lurked rusted hulks of ancient automobiles and crumbling walls of former houses. Fifty years from now the remainder of the town will probably have succumbed to the forest’s relentless march.
A few miles more and they camped for the night. “The wind blew so hard I could hardly get dinner,” Sadie wrote. “We are three miles from Wamego, Kans. I am so sick I can’t hardly hold my head up tonight.”
And here was the last of the day’s unwritten gaps, intentional perhaps but hinting at a more expansive tale. Footsore, weary, suffering from an unnamed illness that left her reeling and a gale that might have seemed personal for its intensity, she managed to cook supper and feed her family. A few quick words jotted into her diary and she was finished: “I will go to bed now.”
Maybe as an aside or maybe as a snide comment, Sadie managed one last sentence. “Fred has piled up the dishes,” she wrote. I imagine them constrained by the era’s gender-specific roles, the man doing the manly roles and the women the womanly roles and never the twain transitioning into true equality. Fred put aside the dishes; he would wash them come morning, or leave them for her, but either way they would get done. Maybe it was just a matter of practicality, the late night, the miles long and steep, the battering by wind and dust and the ordeal of a journey they were undoubtedly ill-prepared to undertake. What came to me as we whipped past fields encroached by two-acre ranchettes each with its own cookie-cutter house was an image of night falling on the campsite, a tiny flicker of flame and the acrid aroma of woodsmoke, the pale shadows of wagons and sleeping livestock cast by the limitless stars ephemeral impressions against the prairie. Fred slips between the blankets beside his wife and whispers a soft goodnight. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he says, and snuffing the candle brings darkness down like a shroud.
(To be continued)