Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sky Paths

More than one traveler crossing the prairie commented on a sky that comforts some and unnerves others.  Personally, I cannot imagine life without that endless horizon or blue hues.
 At the same time, I wonder what it must have looked like before jet vapor trails crisscrossed it like game trails to a water hole.  Driving west in the late afternoon, I sometimes stop at the peak of a hill near our house to gaze at those sky paths and wonder what lies at their end.  Denver for some.  Salt Lake City or Los Angeles for others.  Maybe exotic overseas locales for others. 

While these herring-bone tracks tell of a jetliner’s trespass, vapor trails do not provide hints of anything except that a jet disturbed the atmosphere.  After a short time, determining where the cottony wisps begin and end is impossible.

 Moving from thoughts of destinations, I wonder about points of origin.  Where did those folks begin their journey and why?  What sorts of changes will occur because of their journeys?  What hopes ride in that jet plane?

Until the afternoon of September 11 and all day September 12, I cannot remember a clear sky without vapor trails slicing through it.  After school that golden autumn day, I drove home wondering how different our world would be, how families’ lives had changed. 

As I reached that familiar hilltop, I gazed into a sky as familiar as my own hand.  That day I saw a scene as unfamiliar to me as two jets plowing into the World Trade Center.  This time man-made horror did not rattle my being.  It was emptiness--absence of vapor trails across a sky road for global travelers making my neck hairs prickle.

After a moment, I realized I was seeing the sky the way my ancestor must have seen it as he urged his horse and wagon carrying wife, children, and household goods onto the Kansas prairie in 1873. 

Since that September day, I think about changes in our lives and paths we choose.  Though trails today often involve speeding cars or jets, it has not always been so.  Travelers did not always race from place to place, interested only in the destination and missing the journey. 

One can still find remnants of the Smoky Hill Trail, a route gold-seekers followed to the Colorado mines, that passes not so far from Hays and Ellis.  Other trails led from Fort Hays to Fort Larned, Fort Dodge, Fort Kearney, and Fort Supply.  An observant traveler driving near Cedar Bluff Lake can still find markers that identify the Butterfield Overland Despatch Trail.  

When I think about these trails, I think of travelers’ accounts of their journeys over these dusty passageways.  Because they moved so slowly, writers recorded precise observations concerning plants, animals, and landmarks—observations modern day travelers miss.  What have we sacrificed to gain speed?

 Human lives and paths change over time. For centuries, gravity limited those paths to waterways and earthen trails.  With flight, man escaped those boundaries, leaving more tenuous, less lasting paths written across the sky.  Until September 11, few Americans knew or remembered a sky untouched by man.

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