It was supposed to be for one year.
I was living and working in Los Angeles, which I enjoyed, but my fiance was working on his master’s degree in Kansas. It was easier for me to find a new job and move (at least, in those days, it was easier to find a job) than it was for him to transfer in the middle of a degree program. So I took a deep breath and packed up the contents of my apartment into the back of a Penske truck and my then-fiance-now-husband and I traveled across the desert and the Rockies and landed in Emporia, Kansas.
As I said, it was supposed to be for one year.
Jim was supposed to finish his master’s degree and we were supposed to move on. But life has a funny way of making decisions for you. We bought a house. I traded in my job at the university for a job at the library. And I began to learn about the state I swore I’d never return to. We realized, having grown up in the Kansas City metro area, that the state was foreign to us. Our perception of Western Kansas was everything west of Topeka. We’d never seen what was out there.
We began to explore. We took a weekend trips we called Whirlwind Tours of Kansas. We packed the car with a couple of changes of clothes, some food, and some maps and just drove to see what was out there. We took in the the landscapes, the history, the people, the food. We were more than a little in awe of places we didn’t even know existed despite growing up our entire lives in this state.
I fell in love with this little area of Kansas. I didn’t mean to; when I first moved here, I was perfectly prepared to walk away. But then I saw the Flint Hills and and the Tallgrass Prairie and the little towns in Lyon County and learned about the people here and without even realizing it, they became my hills and my people in a way I had never connected to the people and places growing up in Kansas City or during my years in Los Angeles. I walk down the rows of graves in any of the forty-plus cemeteries and I feel like I know these people and their stories.
Which is why I’m a little teary-eyed to be moving away from Lyon County almost a dozen years later.
My husband and I took our last easy field trip in Lyon County this past weekend. By now, we’ve traveled almost every county road and seen almost every county cemetery.
“Where do you want to go?” Jim asked.
“Agnes City,” I said. “And supposedly, there are still trail ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.”
We climbed into the truck and headed to northwest Lyon County.
Thinking about packing got me thinking about early Kansans and pioneers just passing through on the Santa Fe Trail. As I taped shut more than thirty boxes of books, I thought about those early settlers making sometimes heartwrenching decisions about the family mementos they would leave behind in order to fill their prairie schooner with the things they would so desperately need out on the open plains. Especially in those early years, when towns were only whispers on a map, it was about survival.
We would have had to leave the books behind back then.
The city of Agnes City no longer exists. Today, the moniker lives on in the name of the township and the cemetery, which houses more people in a few acres than anywhere else in the township. This was not always so. In 1854, before Kansas was a state but settlers were finding their way into the territory and the Santa Fe Trail was still heavily traveled, Arthur I. Baker rode past Charles Withington’s place at 142 Mile Creek and became the 33rd settler of what was then Breckenridge County. He named his homestead and store Agnes City in honor of his mother. Within a year, he was named a Justice of the Peace.
Baker was no stranger to Kansas, having worked as a blacksmith for the Mississippi Sauk and Fox Indian Agency in Osage County since 1849. When he settled down in Agnes City, he helped the little town he founded prosper. He became the postmaster in 1860. He ran one of only a handful of stores in the area where settlers could get supplies. His only stroke of bad luck, it seemed, was with his neighbors.
William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his family also lived in Agnes City Township.
In 1862, the Andersons approached the store under the guise of wanting to buy supplies. The unsuspecting Baker descended the steps into the cellar under his store and was shot and killed. The Andersons set his store on fire with Baker’s body in the cellar beneath it.
And that was the beginning of the end of Agnes City. People hit the trail and moved on.
When I wrote the story of Columbia, I came across the story of the Willis family and the sorrow the elder Mrs. Willis felt when she realized she had left behind a perfectly good house in Ohio to move into an abandoned cabin with no windows or doors in Lyon County. Even when we’re settled and comfortable, there is still something that drives us to wonder if there is something better somewhere else.
Thousands of people gave up families and friends and good houses with amenities to ride across the open prairie and live on next to nothing, hoping to stave off starvation and disease long enough to establish a new home on their own land. They traveled on long trails where babies were born and the sick died. They worried about not having enough water; they worried about floods and mud. They worried about attacks by people and animals. But they drove on, ready to give a new life a go.
My husband has spent the better part of the past six years commuting 55 miles each way to work in Ottawa, Kansas, where he teaches at the high school. This year, I found a job there, too. During the past six months, we commuted together along the highways, a stretch of driving that takes us an hour today but would have taken at least two, possibly three days in a covered wagon on one of the trails.
A few weeks ago, we sold our house.
Lyon County is fortunate; there are several places the Santa Fe Trail is still visible. The D.A.R. placed markers along the trail in the early 1900s in an effort to preserve the trail’s history. Development, both commercial and agricultural, obliterated the remnants of the trail in parts of the state. But there are places–mostly pasture land–when the grass is at just the right height and the sun is shining at just the right time of day, that the remnants of the trail live on.
We found the first D.A.R. marker in Agnes City Cemetery. A sign down the road said, “Santa Fe Trail Ruts” with an arrow pointing east.
“Do you see them?” I asked Jim.
“No,” he said.
We found the second D.A.R. marker on Road 370, just east of Road M. A short jaunt down the street and we discovered the sign commemorating Withington’s toll bridge on 142 Mile Creek.
Still no obvious signs of the Santa Fe Trail.
We drove on to the next sign.
“Look,” Jim pointed, and we stood back, studying the undulations in the ground. We had found one of the places in Lyon County where the trail ruts could still be seen.
Trail ruts. Scars left behind by thousands of wagons and horses and cattle and oxen, all moving along the path, looking for something more and better down the road.