That great writer of the West, Wallace Stegner, once remarked that the West has always been a trail to somewhere else, a place with a literature that is more about motion than about place.
We love to travel the West, always by road trip. When we are in a hurry to get beyond the mundane and reach the spectacular, we pass the time reading. Usually I read while he drives.
Returning from Texas after the holidays this month, we enjoyed Roughing It, Mark Twain’s account of a stagecoach journey from Missouri to California in 1861. The route took Twain past Independence Rock and over South Pass, probably along roads near home that we have often traveled by car.
I was disappointed that he didn’t travel slightly farther north to our own beautiful valley. At least he got to the Continental Divide near Dubois, and he experienced how “it seemed that we could look around and abroad and contemplate the whole great globe, with its dissolving views of mountains, seas and continents stretching away through the mystery of the summer haze.”
Parts of his account of the stagecoach experience made me laugh aloud. For instance, driving into and out of a gulch:
“First we would all be down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail bags that came lumbering over us and about us, and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can’t you quit crowding?”
We drove in heated comfort in mid-January, with cushioned seats, armrests, sun visors, cans of seltzer in the cup holders, and cellphones available to help in a crisis (or text the relatives to describe our progress). I could not help but compare our experience to that of Twain as I was reading, and also to that of cowboys along the northbound cattle drives. I had just finished reading Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton, a history of cattle drives and ranching in the late 1800s.
We would reach home via Denver and Cheyenne, two towns on the early cattle trails. Sometimes on this trek we actually follow an early cattle trail, through the Raton Pass to Trinidad, Colorado, and straight up the Interstate toward Denver and Cheyenne—more or less the 1866 route of the Goodnight-Loving cattle drive. But we prefer US Highway 287, slightly to the east, because it’s less congested, sometimes has a better road surface, and (incidentally) passes through Dubois.
During the cattle drives, which Knowlton calls “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some 50,000 cowboys drove about ten million cattle north out of Texas. They had to contend with water that might be toxic or completely absent, cactus and sagebrush that tore at their legs, the risk of stampedes, Indians, and outlaws, and the hostility of farmers along the way who knew that many Texas Longhorns carried and transmitted a disease that could be fatal to their own livestock.
He recounts the “astonishing” number of ways the trip could also be fatal to a cowboy. “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer, you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand, you could be struck by lightning, you could be scalped by an Indian, you could be shot by a rustler … “
An Iowan named George C. Duffield kept a journal during an 1866 cattle drive, which is quoted extensively in Cattle Kingdom. “It has been raining for three days … Hard rain and wind and lots of trouble … Ran my horse into a ditch & got my knee badly sprained…. Swam the river with a rope & then hauled the wagon over … Almost starved not having had a bite to eat for 60 hours … Am almost dead for [lack of] sleep. I am not homesick but heartsick.”
The cattle drives took from three to six months, with many detours to find water and grass. The average rate of travel was around 15 miles per day, or about one mile an hour.
Lacking cattle to drive, stagecoaches could be faster. Writing a decade after his trip west from Missouri, Mark Twain reveled in comparing the rate of travel by stagecoach with that of the new transcontinental railroad. He traveled “fifty-six hours out from St. Joe—THREE HUNDRED MILES!” or about 5 mph altogether. The train reached 300 miles west of Omaha in only 15 hours and 40 minutes, averaging nearly 20 mph.
“I can scarcely comprehend the new state of things,” he wrote.
We try to travel at 70 mph, by the way. Even in the short days of winter, we can make it back from Texas in less than three days. Pushing, we can make it in two.
Twain seemed to marvel even more at the culinary difference. At stage stops, he sometimes faced food and beverages so distasteful he opted to go hungry and thirsty. On the transcontinental railroad (according to a New York Times account he quotes), passengers dined on “snowy linen” using solid silver, served a “repast at which Delmonico himself could have had no occasion to blush” (antelope steak, mountain-brook trout, choice fruits and berries and “bumpers of sparkling Krug”) by waiters clad in white.
As a 19th century humorist, Twain could not have had our current mindset about the railroad. (In fact, if I quoted some of his phrases about Native Americans, Facebook might cancel this blog.)
He does not contemplate what immediately struck me as I read the quote above: the ultimate cost and consequences of delivering those passengers at such speed and elegance, not merely in dollars but in effort, anguish, and often lives–Asians and Native Americans and others.
Cattle Kingdom reckons the cost to bison, and thereby to Native Americans. The great transcontinental railroad, Knowlton write, divided the bison into two primary herds and thereby helped to decimate them– a southern herd of some 5 million animals, most of which disappeared by 1875, and a slightly smaller northern herd that largely vanished by 1883.
This was no mere matter of disrupting migration routes. “Railroad management encouraged recreational hunting,” he wrote, “hoping to eliminate the herds that blocked their line. Passengers were directed to shoot at the beasts from the train windows.” Telegraph companies also wanted to see an end to the bison, which liked to scratch themselves against the telegraph poles.
We passed a few very long trains in Texas this month—none shipping cattle, most shipping fuel. Of course, energy sources long ago replaced cattle as the most important commodity produced in both Texas and my home state of Wyoming.
The number of vast wind farms along our route in Texas is noteworthy. I caught this picture near Lubbock. (The train is transporting oil.) Sometimes I see cattle grazing beneath the turbines.
Our only challenge during this trip was the assault by thousands of tumbleweeds, which charged us from the northwest in a steady 30-mph blast as we traveled through Oklahoma and Colorado. They got caught in our grille and our undercarriage, and we sometimes swerved to avoid a tangle of weeds almost as large as a calf. We wonder how much paint they took off the car.
© Lois Wingerson, 2022