Kansas: an ocean of grass
To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.
From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
To pass through a fire-ravaged world — eyes stinging in the smoky haze; feet sinking and twisting in the soft and shifting ash; lips tight against bitter, blowing grit — is to risk being consumed by irrational certainties: convinced, perhaps, that such desolation, such destruction, will last forever. Even when burns scheduled for prairie management have been carefully planned and implemented with precision, the sight of the bleak and apparently lifeless land sears the mind as surely as the earth itself has been seared.
Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.
Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.
Even the tracks provided entertainment. Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.
By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.