Locating the Trail

“As the days went by and we talked with some of Kansas’ historians, and many of her farmers, we found unexpected ways of quickly noting the presence of the almost forgotten road, even through cultivated fields. It seems that the prairie grass, decaying through the innumerable years, has formed a top layer of mulch more than a foot deep. The heavy wagon wheels bit so deeply into its moist richness that great clods were pulled out and scattered aside. In time the path of the wagons lost its fertile top coating and a red clay remained which was comparatively poor.

To this long thread of depleted ground various things have happened, but it is never quite the same as its surroundings. Sometimes, in the midst of a healthy green hill slope, its ill nourished grasses show sparse and yellow. Sometimes it has filled with cockleburs—easy-going weeds with few requirements, which live long after the rest of the field has dried. To the searching eye this appears as a long blurred ribbon of soft green through the indefinite golds and tans of the summer turf.

Sometimes the old trace appears merely as an otherwise unexplained lightness of crop through a certain stretch. Quite often it is a definite, elongated swale, a senseless rounded groove showing even through crops on fields long cultivated.

In the sage country, far to the west, we later found the evidence to be entirely different, for there the slowly moving caravan gave to the earth more than it took away and a strip of rank-growing sage, three times the height of that surrounding it, marks the fertilized path of thousands of driven cattle.

These signs show the way of the grinding wheels and pounding hoofs.”