Crossing the 98th Meridian

They did not know it, and their journals reflect it only in half-comprehended observations, but they had come into the West. Their crossing of the Loup Fork was almost directly on the 98th meridian, that all-but-mystical line at which begins another climate, another flora and fauna, another ecology, another light, another palette, another air, another order of being. The “poor and sandy” country they had just crossed, the antelope that Woodruff shot on April 17, the first prairie dog town and the first lizards, the increasing number of wolves-these were all symptoms, So was the tendency of the dry wind “to make sore lips, parched up and feverish.” So was the general “shrinking up” that they noticed; even Clayton’s portable writing desk was splitting with the dryness. As they turned upriver on an Indian trail that showed occasional tracks of wagons, with Grand Island on their left, bluffy with timber, across the braiding channels of water and sand, they passed their first alkali flats and tasted that bitter dust, and saw the white rumps of many antelope coasting away ahead. Westward there was no timber at all except on the island. The grass now was a variety new to them, the short curly kind they called buffalo grass.