As you guessed from my other column I like to drive. I’m an explorer of highways and roads with a notoriety mostly known to those living alongside them and serving as an artery drawn on a map showing a physical destination. Highway 96 is one those I’ve traveled. I traveled it because it exists. And I travel such highways and roads because I’m a romantic for an idyllic past while being conscious of a harsh manifest destiny threaded in the landscape.
Highway 96 originates in Wichita, Kansas and ends in Westcliffe, Colorado. It conceptually follows the Arkansas River for a distance of about 500 miles. It hasn’t been romanticized, like US 66 that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles, or heavily traveled like US 50 from Baltimore to Sacramento. It’s just kind of out there in the Midwest – unknown, unloved, unused, unfranchised, unsanitized, unkept, unguarded, uncluttered, unhurried, unblemished, unadvertised, and unsung.
From Great Bend, Kansas (so named because of the bend in the Arkansas River) to Ordway, Colorado, Highway 96 cuts straight like a ribbon, but makes a gradual ascent across some of the most amazingly lonely farm land and wilderness that one could hope to see.
Going west, you first travel through a bit of the Kansas Flint Hills, where the early cattle drivers stopped to fatten their steers before taking them on to Kansas City for slaughter. The landscape now is more dotted with oil wells than with cattle. By the time you get to Ness City, about an hour later, the hills gradually flatten out and the oil fields are central. The local motel/restaurant is called the Oil Rigger – one of the good eateries along the way and home to the early morning coffee drinkers. Someone has put large metal silhouettes of Indians on horseback on a hilltop on the west end of town, gently introducing you to the plains to come.
Of course much of the plains are now irrigated and cultivated into wheat fields now and for the next hundred miles or so the road takes you through the golden waves of grain. And after the wheat fields, there are feedlots, the modern-day more efficient Flint Hills where you can see next week’s hamburger on the hoof.
There are the occasional grain elevators and church steeples marking the few small towns along the way. These are the small towns free from the invasion of McDonalds or Walmart. They are small towns that are home base to the family farmers who make their living working in the soil. All have a farm implement dealer and a Ford dealer whose small lots are filled with large pick up trucks. The small towns like Dighton that have local schools with playgrounds and football fields and drive-in restaurants that make cherry cokes and cones filled with sweet ice cream then dipped in chocolate. The small towns like Scott City where the gas is expensive but the service is friendly. And where the cafes and bars serve real food and cold beer. The small town of Marienthal whose Catholic Cemetery sits at the side of the road with all the small white crosses marking the graves and its large white crucifix on display.
Soon, the farmland gives way to a surreal grey and purple high plains wilderness as you approach the Colorado state line. Throw caution to the wind and instead, enjoy it. Open your windows, or better yet, stop the car and get out and feel its breath blowing through your hair and your clothes. Open your eyes and see the beauty of a part of this wonderful country in its natural state. Open your ears and hear nothing but the sound of the wind and the cry of a lone meadowlark. Open your imagination and see the plains Indians chasing the herds of buffalo as they thunder across the land. Open your heart to the agonizing pain and despair of the young pioneer woman who rode on a wagon through the last weeks of a pregnancy only to deliver a baby still-born. A baby that she had to bury on the side of the trail in a grave. A grave that she could never return to. Open your conscience to the frustration of the farmer who worked his crops day and night for months, only to lose them to the drought. One’s destiny is never certain.
Smell the honest and natural aromas of the dust and rain and wind and cut hay and wheat and skunk and cow shit. Watch the distant rainstorms gathering on the horizon and the dust devils jumping around in the fields. Look for the prairie dogs trying to make their living without falling prey to the talons of the abundant hawks sitting on the telephone lines, just waiting for a bit of movement in the fields below.
Places like this touch my soul in a way I can’t truly express. There aren’t enough of them, enough less traveled roads, roads that have yet to be victimized, bastardized, or franchised, but are thankfully, unsung.
*A romantic traveler