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The End of the Line

close up of two grain elevators with a sliver of blue sky showing between
Grain Elevators, Keyes, Oklahoma

In the distance, I saw the unmistakable shape of a volcanic plug rising from the horizon. After three days of driving through the flat plains of Kansas, it was the first sign I was nearing New Mexico.

Like the original travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, I had a choice to make after I left Kansas' Fort Larned. I could continue west towards Colorado, the Mountain Route, or turn southwest through Oklahoma, the Cimarron Cutoff.

For those traveling in the 1800s, the Mountain Route was longer, but it followed the Arkansas River, a reliable source of water for people and animals.

The Cimarron Cutoff was about 100 miles shorter but more dangerous. In addition to the potential of running out of water from frequent droughts, there was a chance of hostile encounters with the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne who long inhabited their ancestral home on the plains.

In the comfort of my air-conditioned rental car, neither water nor attack were a consideration. But as the odometer kept turning, I realized I had made an error in my planning, thinking six days would be plenty of time for a leisurely drive on my proposed route from North Carolina, through Indiana and Illinois, then along the route of the Santa Fe Trail.

It wasn’t, and I was getting tired.

As the flat landscape passed, punctuated by the frequent hazy silhouettes of Oz-like grain elevators on the horizon, I wondered how those 19th-century travelers must have felt at this point after weeks of slow travel with the kids getting more and more restless in the back seat of the wagon. How does one handle antsy kids without movies streaming on modern tablet technology?

Torn between trying to squeeze in as much as I could see and photograph on the drive and realizing my long conversations with my trusty travel partner Space Cat about the populist symbolism in the Wizard of Oz might have indicated a level of exhaustion that was bordering on mental issues, I decided to follow the shorter Cimarron Cutoff.

I crossed into New Mexico and had lunch at a hut-like pizza chain in Clayton, a small city a few miles east of the Texas border. Like most small towns in New Mexico and across the country, Clayton has its fair share of empty store fronts along its main street, skeletal reminders of more prosperous times.

As I sat at my booth organizing my notes for the day, a social worker was helping a woman and her children at a neighboring table.

A man standing behind a wire rack filled with tortillas

On my backroads travels, I was fortunate to have met many kind people. But I was also witness, even if it was just a brief peek, to the people left behind in today’s world. It reaffirmed my belief that we need to combat fear and anger with compassion and understanding.

I arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico around three in the afternoon.

As I mentioned in the first newsletter of this series, many people had told Corie and me that things would feel strange returning to the States.

Nowhere was that more true than driving around the town that was home for Corie and me in our life together for the previous fifteen years. As I drove through the town, I found it curious how a place so familiar could also seem so distant.

The next morning, I polished off a breakfast burrito, wrapped in a pillowy, fresh homemade tortilla at Charlie’s Bakery and Café, Las Vegas’ must-stop eatery, then finished my Santa Fe Trail ramble with an interview on the Richard Eeds Show on KTRC, Santa Fe’s News Talk Leader.

The journey that I had spent months anticipating was drawing to a close. The foggy mountains of Appalachia, the dogs of Evansville, the vast cornfields of Illinois, the green rolling hills of Missouri, and the Kansas prairie were all behind me.

But like any good travel adventure, the journey, and each person I met along the way is now a part of me. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Turn-of-the-century Main Street store fronts under a blue sky
Storefronts, Clayton, New Mexico


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