As a youngster riding down Highway 50, I never questioned how this piece of asphalt connected me to the past of either Kansas or our nation. It was a boring ride that didn’t have interesting scenery unless we happened to drive through a storm with writhing clouds or pass through at sunrise or sunset.
When cruising Kansas roads, it’s easy to forget where we came from. I don’t question our ability to recall an address we just left. I mean we don’t consider that many of the thoroughfares we take for granted began centuries ago first as Indian trails, which were later adapted to meet the needs of newer settlers.
Historically, native people’s trails followed water, and the Arkansas River is no exception. Not long after the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of western expansion, this ancient track became a busy international trade route filled with convoys of goods traveling between businesses in Missouri and Santa Fe, then a foreign city. Prior to and during the Mexican American War, it also served as a military road used to move troops and supplies between the United State and Mexico.
In recent times, government entities have graded and paved this route, labeling it Highway 50 on current maps. What these documents don’t reveal is that where the road follows the river, travelers can imagine they are within a stone’s throw of another era, country, and culture with period appropriate sights and sounds. At one time, the Arkansas served the same purpose the Rio Grande River does now--an international border.
In his book Dangerous Passage, William Chalfant chronicles this history. Ox trains heavily loaded with expensive goods traveled back and forth between the St. Louis vicinity and Santa Fe. Before and during the Mexican American War, military convoys advanced on Santa Fe and exited it using this route. Between Council Grove and Bent’s Fort, no aid was available when wagons broke down; beasts of burden went lame, died, or were stolen; or humans succumbed to cholera, dysentery, or other ailments. Auto clubs like AAA didn’t exist, so prairie navigators faced every crisis with only their wits to guide them.
Even though garages, motels, cafes, and medical services punctuate the present route, landscape and weather conditions haven’t altered from those trail predecessors experienced. No matter the century, summer heat scorches native grasses and dries up waterways. These are aesthetic concerns for modern wayfarers, but for early travelers, these were essentials to maintain livestock. Even today, folks who cross in winter chance blizzards and icy conditions that can bring a journey to a stop. Before bridges, high water often halted trail traffic or drowned humans and livestock who risked crossing these torrents.
Another concern Chalfant describes were attacks by Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians who roamed this borderland. They fought both American and Mexican encroachment on their historic hunting grounds, frequently attacking east and westbound caravans between Walnut Creek and the Pawnee Fork. Forts Dodge, Larned, and Zarah weren’t established to protect the trail until the 1860s, after it ceased serving as an international border.
For many, a trip along Highway 50 where it borders the Arkansas River is downright tedious. If modern travelers could sense the past, they’d hear groaning wagons, lowing oxen, and cursing bullwhackers. They’d flinch to see desiccated carcasses of animals and humans who succumbed to the elements. They’d lose count of broken down wagons littering the rutted road. Eyes would scan horizon lines for a glint of sunshine on a Cheyenne lance. Without the weather channel’s advance warnings, they’d monitor distant clouds for changing weather. Always, always, they’d seek good water and camping spots to refresh themselves and their beasts.
If only there were a way to experience what was and what is simultaneously, no one would complain about a boring trip down Highway 50 where it followed the border between Mexico and U.S. Territory.