Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: John, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore...Oklahoma!
Date: Tue, 09 Sep 1997 22:22:30 -0700

A town off the interstate; Galena, Kansas A town off the interstate; Galena, Kansas A town off the interstate; Galena, Kansas A town off the interstate; Galena, Kansas A town off the interstate; Galena, Kansas
Galena, Kansas

20:35 Bernice State Park; Bernice, Oklahoma :: 09 SEP 97

We're pulled up beside a reservoir. The air has cooled from its mid-day sombre mugginess and the night sky is crisp and clear with the half-moon's silver reflecting off the water below. It's perfect except for the fickle breeze that wafts campfire smoke in every direction so that no place around the fire is safe. And I could do with a few less of the pesky bugs attracted to the computer screen's light. But near perfect is quite acceptable, and the night is so much friendlier with the calls of crickets, cicadas and other night-time insects not so taken with the dim light issuing from a laptop.

After a marathon crossing of Missouri yesterday, nearly half the state in a single go, we managed no more than 40 miles today. A late start, a snail's pace and a lingering stop in Baxter, Kansas conspired delightfully to keep the distance short, but the memories lengthy. On the other hand, we traversed every single foot of Route 66 we could find in Kansas in a single day. About 13 miles or so. And in Baxter I realized I'd been going about the Route 66 back-story all wrong. I'll talk about the marvellous experience of Baxter Spring's museum in another post. For the moment, suffice it to say it is a beautifully conceived and executed museum run on a small-town's budget offset by the requisite small-town heart, dedication and TLC. Today it proved to be a great resource and a friendly place to stop and talk history.

Route 66 was cobbled together from disparate sections of existing roadways. Each of these sections have their own stories to tell. That is, in 1926 the highway came into existence as a transcontinental route, but this is genesis by decree rather than an original act of creation. Much, if not most, of the original 1926 alignment of Route 66 already had a long history by the time a couple signatures on a piece of paper declared it America's first major interstate. And this history predates America itself.

It would be an Oddyssean task to tell the entire Mother Road's history in this way, to name every stretch of highway and tell its story. It would make for a beautiful songline, (See Dreamtime) but I have neither the heritage nor the expertise to write that song, and certainly not the time. Instead, I'll hum a few bars about a short section in Kansas connecting Riverton and Baxter. You'll get a little taste of it that way.

Animals of all sorts make paths and trails simply by wearing a particular area stretching between two places frequented by the animals. Ants do this all the time, as do herd animals between watering holes and feeding grounds. The worn in path is easier to follow and navigate.

Human beings add a second dimension to this, technology. We don't merely wear a path in; with tools we can clear and pave one. I don't know how much technology was required to establish the Black Dog Trail. I'm not even certain which tribe must be credited with its creation. The Quapaw eventually came to settle this region, but only at the request of the US government which insisted the tribe leave Arkansas early in the 19th century. Apparently, they used the Black Dog Trail for a number of years, right up until someone else found a use for it. They've been sharing the trail ever since.

The folks at Baxter Spring's Museum were kind enough to photocopy a few newspaper and magazine articles referring to Military Road, Baxter's main avenue. It also served as Route 66 for as long as The Mother Road existed. Going through Baxter, it's now marked as State Road 69A but continues to carry the name Military Road on street signs at every block.

This is one road in a large network of roads. During the westward expansion of the 1800's the US Military built and maintained numerous forts supplied by an intricate web of military trails. If you remember your US history, you'll recall that America's often hostile neighbours and co-inhabitors of what is now the continental United States included the Spanish in the southwest (later, independent Mexico) and in the south, the French and Spanish in the Midwest. The English were to the north and cohabitating the Oregon Territory. And of course, the Indian Nations buzzed all about the hive. There were plenty of good reasons to build forts and plenty more good reasons to maintain roads for supply and troop movement.

All the Baxter Museum's photocopied articles refer to Military Road as if it were blazed by the Army but, at least for the section passing through the vicinity of Baxter, I am assured by the folks in Baxter Springs that Black Dog Trail preceded Military Road, just as Military Road preceded Route 66, which preceded State Road 69A. Overtime, the alignments follow new paths through the countryside. The needs of a traveler on foot differ from the mounted, from wagoners and from cars and trucks. We build towns on our highways, as Baxter Springs was built on Military Road, and as Kansas City grew on the intersection of the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail and the Leavenworth-Ft. Gibson Military Road. As road and town grow, the needs of the traveler dictate a by pass. If towns along a road fail and die, so might the road. As technologies and established infrastructures change, so to do the modes of travel and, possibly, the routes. Baxter Springs was established only three years before the railroad came through, closely following the alignment of the Leavenworth-Ft. Gibson trail. Route 69 closely follows the alignment of the railroads. From Riverton to Baxter, old Route 66 closely followed them all. But the local Mother Road was the Black Dog Trail, which preceded them all.

I know all this history has been a jumbled mess, but you're the unfortunate lot to hear me tell it as I learn it. As I fill in yesterday's gaps today, I'm uncovering tomorrow's.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand by their men-to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.
  graphical element John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath