Musings on a Road Trip

Way back in the early part of this century Judi and I used to make holiday pilgrimages to family gatherings in St. Louis, “Gateway to the West.” On one such trip I got to thinking about the even earlier days of earlier centuries, and some of the things we take for granted as the miles smoothly whiz by in our sleek metal-and-glass stagecoaches. 

By Harry Puncec

Three days after Christmas and it’s time to pack up for our drive back to Denver from St. Louis. Interstate 70 beckons and cannot be ignored. So an event of historical destiny must be re-enacted – migration westward with its manifest difficulties and triumphs relived.

The 850 or so miles from St. Louis to Denver reminds me of life itself; first there is the fertile countryside of youth as you travel the rolling hills and lush fields of Missouri, then you encounter the long, mind-numbing middle-ages stretch across Kansas and eastern Colorado, bringing you, at long last, to the happy view of the eons-old mountains of our fulfillment.

Nah, that won’t work, too simple and doesn’t take long enough. It’s just the kind of thinking your mind engages in when you are deprived of any visual sensory input. Driving the empty miles provides the brain with far too much time to think, leading to fantasies not experienced since the days of magic mushrooms and LSD. My own hallucination took the form of comparing pioneers of the 1860s to the traveler of 2005.

Wagon trainTraveling at 80 mph lets you cover within minutes the distance traveled by a wagon train in one day. They would walk – and the trip from St. Louis to any destination in the West was a walking trip – beside their wagon as it covered 15 to 20 miles on a really good day. The only sound they heard was the squeaking of wagon wheels, the soft murmur of other human voices muffled by the cathedral sky and windswept prairie grass, and the cry of circling birds waiting to feast on those who fell away. I, in turn, was listening to Fat Bottomed Girls by Queen on a CD turned up high to drown out the sound of wind buffeting the van.

The last view of St. Charles, Mo., seen by the departing pioneers may have been their last contact with family, friends and the land of their life forever. Years later, should they survive the trip and should the mail find them, they might receive a letter telling of the death of a beloved parent, the fire that consumed the barn where they used to play, and the factory going up over in Springfield that was rumored to be hiring 100 young girls to operate the spinning jennies. Communication was slow and unreliable if it made it across the miles at all. My reflections on this were interrupted by the ringing of my cell phone. It was our daughter back in St. Louis saying our grandson’s favorite toy had turned up missing and asking if we had seen it.

Back to dreamland, and waiting for me was the thought of death. If you ever walk the old pioneer trails leading west you encounter graves off to the side; most are unmarked and you can’t even be sure that bones still lie beneath the stacked stones.

Others may have a note affixed telling of a 3-day-old baby, a young mother taken in childbirth, or a father dying from gangrene after a fall. It wasn’t just old buckles and ribbons or used containers littering the trails; sometimes it was the remains of those too frail or too unlucky to make it. The modern equivalent is the shattered remains of blown tires on the shoulders of the highway and the occasional wreath propped up along the road to mark the site of a fatal accident. At least those deaths were known to family and marked by services. The pioneers could only pause the train for a brief time while words were spoken from an old family Bible. Perhaps they wondered what would befall the far-too-inadequate grave when they left, but they had to turn away and try to make a couple more miles before night fell.

We spent the night at the Comfort Inn in Hays, Kan., enjoyed a tasty breakfast the next morning, and rejoined the flow heading west. At the end of the road that afternoon stood home. The electric garage door opener operated to let us into our house where I found a full refrigerator and freezer, a VHS recorder that had saved all the missed Dr. Phil shows, and a toasty temperature assured by a computer-driven thermostat. But before I started to drag in the suitcases I paused to think one last time about those people who first came to create a fledgling Denver, and to silently salute.

—  This article was previously published in the Rocky Mountain News on January 2, 2006. 

Harry Puncec is a resident of Lakewood and a founding member of not only the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association but the Southern Gables neighborhood itself. Story: Memories of Early Southern Gables.


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