Monotony Kansas – American Travel

WE left Lawrence late at night and went immediately to bed upon the train. When I awoke in the morning the car was standing still. In the ventilators overhead, I heard the steady monotonous whistling of the wind. As I became more awake I began to wonder where we were and why we were not moving. Presently I raised the window shade and looked out.

How many things there are in life which we think we know from hearsay, yet which, when we actually encounter them, burst upon us with a new and strange significance! I had believed, for example, that I realized the vastness of the United States without having actually traveled across the country, yet I had not realized it at all, and I do not believe that any one can possibly realize it without having felt it, in the course of a long journey. So too, with the interminable rolling desolation of the prairies, and the likeness of the prairies to the sea: I had imagined that I understood the prairies with-out having laid eyes upon them, but when I raised my window shade that morning, and found the prairies stretching out before me, I was as surprised, as stunned, as though I had never heard of them before, and the idea came to me like an original thought : How perfectly enormous they are! And how like the sea!

I had discovered for myself the truth of another platitude.

For a long time I lay comfortably in my berth, gazing out at the appalling spread of land and sky. Even at sea the great bowl of the sky had never looked so vast to me. The land was nothing to it. In the foreground there was nothing; in the middle distance, nothing; in the distance, nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing, met the eye in all that treeless waste of brown and gray which lay between the railroad line and the horizon, on which was discernible the faint outlines of several ships —ships which were in reality a house, a windmill and a barn.

Presently our craft—for I had the feeling that I was on a ship at anchor—got under way. On we sailed over the ocean of land for mile upon mile, each mile like the one before it and the one that followed, save only when we passed a little fleet of houses, like fishing boats at sea, or crossed an inconsequential wagon road, resembling the faintly discernible wake of some ship, long since out of sight.

Presently I arose and joining my companion, went to the dining car for breakfast. He too had fallen under the spell of the prairies. We sat over our meal and stared out of the window like a pair of images. After breakfast it was the same: we returned to our car and continued to gaze out at the eternal spaces. Later in the morning, we became restless and moved back to the observation car as men are driven by boredom from one room to another on an ocean liner.

Now and then in the distance we would see cattle like dots upon the plain, and once in a long time a horseman ambling along beneath the sky. The little towns were far apart and had, like the surrounding scenery, an air of sadness and of desolation. The few buildings were of primitive form, most of them one-story structures of wood, painted in raw color. But each little settlement had its wooden church, and each church its steeple —a steeple crude and pathetic in its expression of effort on the part of a poor little hamlet to embellish, more than any other house, the house of God.

Even our train seemed to have been affected by this country. The observation car was deserted when we reached it. Presently, however, a stranger joined us there, and after a time we fell into conversation with him as we sat and looked at the receding track.

He proved to be a Kansan and he told us interesting things about the State.

Aside from wheat, which is the great Kansas crop, corn is grown in eastern Kansas, and alfalfa in various parts of the State. Alfalfa stays green throughout the greater part of the year as it goes through several sowings. Fields of alfalfa resemble clover fields, save that the former grows more densely and is of a richer, darker shade of green. After alfalfa has grown a few years the roots run far down into the ground, often reaching the “underflow” of western Kansas. This underflow is very characteristic of that part of the State, where it is said, there are many lost rivers flowing beneath the surface, adding one more to the list of Kansas phenomena. Some of these rivers flow only three or four feet below the ground, I am told, while others have reached a depth of from twenty to a hundred feet. Alfalfa roots will go down twenty feet to find the water. The former bed of the Republican River in northwestern Kansas is, with the exception of a narrow strip in the middle where the river runs on the surface in flood times, covered with rich alfalfa fields. Excepting at the time of spring and summer rains, this river is almost dry. The old bridges over it are no longer necessary except when the rains occur, and the river has piled sand under them until in some places there is not room for a man to stand beneath bridges which, when built, were ten and twelve feet above the river bed. Now, I am told, they don’t build bridges any more, but lay cement roads through the sand, clearing their surfaces after the freshets.

The Arkansas River once a mighty stream, has held out with more success than the Republican against the winds and drifting sands, but it is slowly and certainly disappearing, burying itself in the sand and earth it carries down at flood times—a work in which it is assisted by the strong, persistent prairie winds.

The great wheat belt begins somewhere about the middle of the State and continues to the west. In the spring the wheat is light green in color and is flexible in the wind so that at that time of year, the resemblance of the prairies to the sea is much more marked, and travelers are often heard to declare that the sight of the green billows makes them seasick. The season in Kansas is about a month earlier than in the eastern states; in May and June the wheat turns yellow, and in the latter part of June it is harvested, leaving the prairies brown and bare again.

The prairie land which is not sown in wheat or alfalfa, is covered with prairie grass—a long, wiry grass, lighter in shade than blue grass, which waves in the everlasting wind and glistens like silver in the sun.

Rain, sun, wind! The elements rule over Kansas. People’s hearts are light or heavy according to the weather and the prospects as to crops. My Kansan friend in the observation car pointed out to me the fact that at every railroad siding the railroad company had paid its respects to the Kansas wind by the installation of a device known as a “derailer,” the purpose of which is to prevent cars from rolling or blowing from a siding out onto the main line. If a car starts to blow along the siding, the derailer catches it before it reaches the switch, and throws one truck off the track.

“I suppose you’ve seen cyclones out here, too ?” I asked the Kansan.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

“Do the people out in this section of the State all have cyclone cellars ?”

“Oh, some,” he said. “Some has ‘em. But a great many folks don’t pay no attention to cyclones.”

Last year, during a bad drought in western Kansas, the wind performed a new feat, adding another item to Kansas tradition. A high wind came in February and continued until June, actually blowing away a large portion of the top-soil of Thomas County, denuding a tract of land fifteen by twenty miles in extent. It was not a mere surface blow, either. In many places two feet of soil would be carried away; roads were obliterated, houses stood like dreary, deserted little forts, the earth piled up breast high around their wire-enclosed dooryards, and fences fell because the supporting soil was blown away from the posts. During this time the air was full of dust, and after it was over the country had reverted to desert—a desert not of sand, but of dust.

This story sounded so improbable that I looked up a man who had been in Thomas County at the time. He told me about it in detail.

“I have spent most of my life in the Middle West,” he said, “but that exhibition was a revelation to me of the power of the wind. A quarter of the county was stripped bare. The farmers had, for the most part, moved out of the district because they could n’t keep the wheat in the ground long enough to raise a crop. But they were camped around the edges, making common cause against the wind. You could n’t find a man among them, either, who would admit that he was beaten. The kind of men who are beaten by things like that could n’t stand the racket in western Kansas. The fellows out there are the most outrageously optimistic folks I ever saw. They will stand in the wind, eating the dirt that blows into their mouths, and telling you what good soil it is—they don’t mean good to eat, either—and if you give them a kind word they are up in arms in a minute trying to sell you some of the cursed country.

“The men I talked to attributed the trouble to too much harrowing; they said the surface soil was scratched so fine that it simply would n’t hold. There were wild theories, too, of meteorological disturbances, but I think those were mostly evolved in the brains of Sunday editors.

“The farmers fought the thing systematically by a process they called ‘listing’: a turning over of the top-soil with plows. And after a while the listing, for some reason known only to the Almighty and the Department of Agriculture, actually did stop the trouble and the land stayed put again. Then the farmers planted Kaffir corn because it grows easily, and because they needed a net-work of roots to hold down the soil. Most of that land was reclaimed by the end of last summer.”

The little towns along the line are almost all alike. Each has a watering tank for locomotives, a grain elevator, and a cattle pen, beside the track. Each has a station made of wide vertical boards, their seams covered by wooden strips, and the whole painted ochre. Then there is usually a wide, sandy main street with a few brick buildings and more wooden ones, while on the outskirts of the town are shanties, covered with tar paper, and beyond them the eternal prairie. You can see no more reason why a town should be at that point on the prairie than at any other point. And it is a fact, I believe, that, in many instances, the railroad companies have simply created towns, arbitrarily, at even distances. The only town I recall that looked in any way different from every other town out there, was Wallace, where a storekeeper has made a lot of curious figures, in twisted wire, and placed them on the roof of his store, whence they project into the air for a distance of twenty or thirty feet.

I think, though I am not sure, that it was before we crossed the Colorado line when we saw our first ‘dobe house, our first sage brush, and our first tumbleweed. Mark Twain has described sagebrush as looking like “a gnarled and venerable live oak tree reduced to a little shrub two feet high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete.” In “Roughing It” he writes two whole pages about sagebrush, telling how it gives a gray-green tint to the desert country, how hardy it is, and how it is used for making camp fires on the plains and he winds up with this characteristic paragraph:

“Sagebrush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child, the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.”

Though Mark Twain tells about coyotes and prairie dogs—animals which I looked for, but regret to say I did not see—he ignores the tumbleweed, the most curious thing, animal, vegetable, or mineral, that crossed my vision as I crossed the plains. I cannot understand why Mark Twain did not mention this weed, because he must have seen it, and it must have delighted him, with its comical gyrations.

Tumbleweed is a bushy plant which grows to a height of perhaps three feet, and has a mass of little twigs and branches which make its shape almost perfectly round. Fortunately for the amusement of mankind, it has a weak stalk, so that, when the plant dries, the wind breaks it off at the bottom, and then proceeds to roll it, over and over, across the land. I well remember the first tumble-weed we saw.

“What on earth is that thing?” cried my companion, suddenly, pointing out through the car window. I looked. Some distance away a strange, buff-colored shape was making a swift, uncanny progress toward the east. It was n’t crawling; it was n’t running; but it was traveling fast, with a rolling, tossing, careening motion, like a barrel half full of whisky, rushing down hill. Now it tilted one way, now another ; now it shot swiftly into some slight depression in the plain, but only to come bounding lightly out again, with an air indescribably gay, abandoned and inane.

Soon we saw another and another ; they became more and more common as we went along until presently they were rushing everywhere, careering in their maudlin course across the prairie, and piled high against the fences along the railroad’s right of way, like great concealing snowdrifts.

We fell in love with tumbleweed and never while it was in sight lost interest in its idiotic evolutions. Excepting only tobacco, it is the greatest weed that grows, and it has the advantage over tobacco that it does no man any harm, but serves only to excite his risibilities. It is the clown of vegetation, and it has the air, as it rolls along, of being conscious of its comicality, like the smart caniche, in the dog show, who goes and overturns the basket behind the trainer’s back; or the circus clown who runs about with a rolling gait, tripping, turning double and triple somersaults, rising, running on, trip-ping, falling, and turning over and over again. Who shall say that tumbleweed is useless, since it contributes a rare note of drollery to the tragic desolation of the western plains?

As I have said, I am not certain that we saw the tumbleweed before we crossed the line from Kansas into Colorado, but there is one episode that I remember, and which I am certain occurred before we reached the boundary, for I recall the name of the town at which it happened.

It was a sad-looking little town, like all the rest—just a main street and a few stores and houses set down in the midst of the illimitable waste. Our train stopped there.

I saw a man across the aisle look out of the window, scowl, rise from his seat, throw up his arms, and exclaim, addressing no one in particular : “God! How can they stand living out here? I’d rather be dead !”

My companion and I had been. speaking of the same thing, wondering how people could endure their lives in such a place.

“Come on,” he said, rising. “This is the last stop before we get to Colorado.. Let ‘s get out and walk.”

I followed him from the car and to the station platform.

Looking away from the station, we gazed upon a fore-ground the principal scenic grandeur of which was supplied by a hitching post. Beyond lay the inevitable main street and dismal buildings. One of them, as I recall it, was painted sky-blue, and bore the simple, unostentatious word, “Hotel.”

My companion gazed upon the scene for a time. He looked melancholy. Finally, without turning his head, he spoke.

“How would you like to get off and spend a week here, someday ?” he asked me..

“You mean get off some day and spend a week,” I corrected.

“No, I mean get off and spend a week some day.”

I was still cogitating over that when the train started. We scrambled aboard and, resuming our seats in the observation car, looked back at the receding station. There, in strong black letters on a white sign, we saw, for the first time, the name of the town : Monotony !