As a youngster riding down Highway 50, I never questioned how this asphalt ribbon connected me to the nations’ or Kansas’s past. The drive was boring with uninteresting scenery unless we passed through a storm with twisting clouds or timed sunrise or sunset just right.
When cruising Kansas roads, it’s easy to forget where we came from. No, I don’t question the ability to recall an address we just left. I mean we don’t consider that many thoroughfares we take for granted began centuries ago as Indian trails. These were adapted later to meet arriving settlers’ needs. What intrigues now me is learning a section of the Arkansas River near Highway 50 once functioned as an international border.
Historically, native people’s trails followed waterways. A major landmark, the Arkansas River guided wayfarers on their journeys. Not long after the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of western expansion, this ancient track became an international trade route bustling with convoys of goods destined for distant businesses. Prior to and during the Mexican American War, it also served to move troops and supplies.
In recent times, government entities have graded and paved this passage, labeling it Highway 50 on current maps. What these documents don’t reveal is that where the road follows the river, travelers might 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--a border separating nations.
In his book Dangerous Passage, William Chalfant chronicles this history. Ox trains heavily loaded with valuable merchandise traveled between Missouri and Santa Fe. Before and during the Mexican American War, U.S. military troops used this route. The author pointed out travelers expected no aid between Council Grove and Bent’s Fort 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 each crisis depending only on their own abilities to save themselves.
While mechanics, 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 evaporates moisture. These are aesthetic concerns for modern wayfarers, but for early travelers, these elements were essential to survival. Even today, folks who cross in winter chance blizzards and icy conditions that can halt a journey. Before bridges existed, high water arrested traffic or drowned humans and livestock that risked crossing these torrents.
Another concern Chalfant describes include Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche raids. These tribes considered this borderland home and fought American and Mexican encroachment on their historic hunting grounds. They frequently ambushed east and westbound caravans between Walnut Creek and the Pawnee Fork. Forts Dodge, Larned, and Zarah didn’t protect the trail until the 1860s, more than a decade after it ceased its role as an international border.
For many, a trip along Highway 50 where it parallels the Arkansas River is tedious. However, if modern travelers could hear or see the past, they’d hear groaning wagons, lowing oxen, and cursing bullwhackers. They’d view desiccated carcasses that succumbed to the elements as well as broken down wagons littering a rutted road. Eyes would scan horizons for a glint of sunshine reflecting off a lance. Without the radio’s advance warning, they’d monitor distant clouds for changing weather. Always, they’d look for good water and camping spots to refresh themselves and their beasts.
If only one could experience what was and is simultaneously, there’d be nothing dull about a trip down Highway 50 where it follows the old border between Mexico and U.S. Territory.