Dry land still sprouts plenty of history, memories

Oct 5 2009 - 1:15pm

The trees became scarce as we headed west, until we saw them only around human settlements or along the course of streams. At some point, we left the East and entered the American West, a land marked mainly by lack of water.

I had never been to Dodge City, but it was typical of so many Western towns -- defined by the railroad, with a main drag that paralleled the tracks. From the east, it announced itself less by sight than by smell. Soon enough, we came upon the source -- a sprawling network of feedlots on a low hill.

A year ago my wife, Judy, and I bought a big truck and a camper -- essentially, a little house with a queen bed, a kitchen, dinette and a toilet. Recently we drove it to an RV park in Dodge City, where we met up with Judy's sister, Sally, and her husband, Steve.

Steve is a Santa Fe Trail enthusiast. He and Sally had been driving around the West with their trailer. They visited historical sites, and that's what we did in Dodge City on a cool day under a low, threatening sky.

We followed cryptic directions, seeking the sites of Fort Mann and Fort Atkinson, which once had some significance. We finally found two spare, unpretentious markers on a residential street that ran by a farmer's field. That was it. Once those places teemed with wagons and horsemen. Now there was little sign those settlements had ever existed.

We headed for lunch near Boot Hill, a tourista compound complete with staged gunfights. Somehow, the talk veered into the subject of Woodstock, the 40th anniversary of which had been in the news. We all knew Judy had been there, the summer after her freshman year at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colo.

Our son's friends react with awe when they hear Judy was at Woodstock, but it would be hard to come up with a better example of the gap between myth and reality. The kids see the media portrayal. She recalls a nightmare of rain and mud.

I mused on the quirks of fate that brought Judy and me together. As she was slogging through the mud at Woodstock, I was coming home from Vietnam. I bought my first car and headed for school in Boulder. Half the students seemed high on weed and the other half ran around with their hair on fire over the war.

Years passed. I quit my job with United Press International, traveled in Europe for a couple of months and ended up in Denver. While looking for another reporting job, I worked in the backshop of a chain of suburban newspapers, laying out ads.

In another part of the building, proofreading galleys in a room with white walls, was Judith. We became friends. Even as I moved to Colorado Springs and then Cheyenne, we stayed in touch. I often drove to Denver on the weekends. One snowy day in late 1979, I dropped by when she was unattached. A week later we went on our first date.

My musings and Judy's stories ended. We returned to the RV park. That evening, I wandered around the place, marveling at the gigantic fifth-wheel trailers and motor homes fitted with slide-outs and satellite dishes.

At the far end near the tracks was an small trailer that had clearly dropped anchor for good. It sat next to an old pickup and a compact car, both stained by rust and surrounded by high weeds. An old man in a blue overcoat shuffled up to the door with tiny steps. He carried four yellow grocery bags.

Our eyes met. "I bet it's cold in the winter out here," I said.

"Oh," he replied, "it's not too bad."

His dilapidated trailer was about the only thing in the place that was rooted. The next morning, like Fort Mann and Fort Atkinson, we were gone.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at mcclanahan@kcstar.com.

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