Grant Enables Research on Rare Biodiversity in Saguaro National Park

By Dave DeFusco

Botanist Dan Beckman, beside a Cochise adder’s mouth orchid, is co-leading the study. photo courtesy of Tony Palmer, NPS

A team of National Park Service researchers will study the biological diversity of Saguaro National Park’s “sky island” assisted by a $10,000 grant from the Western National Parks Association.

The grant was supported by a $5,000 gift from Wild Tribute, which donates to organizations that support national parks and public lands, and the agencies that oversee their legacy. Ben Kieffner, co-founder of Wild Tribute, said the Saguaro NP research aligns with the company’s goal of donating 4 percent of its proceeds to protect historic and wild places.

“It’s enormously important that researchers have the resources and capacity to protect this nation’s biodiversity, which is threatened by climate change,” said Kieffner. “We feel it’s our responsibility at Wild Tribute to be part of the solution since we all share the same Earth.”

The Saguaro NP research will provide baseline data on the park’s nearly 1,200 species of native plants in the Rincon Mountain District, located in Pima County, Arizona. The park contains 67,000 acres of wilderness spanning desert to forest. 

In this area, species from the Rocky Mountains and the subtropics intermingle, and many of the high-elevation, moisture-loving species are utilizing rare microhabitats in an otherwise dry environment where climate change, drought-induced wildfires, and decreasing snowpack could eventually eradicate them if measures aren’t taken to preserve them.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). photo courtesy of Mary Owen, NPS

The moisture-loving plants considered most vulnerable to climate change include Thurber’s bog orchid (Platanthera limosa), known to be in only one spring-fed, high-elevation drainage; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), known to exist in only one localized area of shallow groundwater; and giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), known to inhabit only a single mid-elevation spring. Other species, like white panicle aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum var. hesperium), have not been sighted in targeted searches and may have already died out.

“It’s worth underscoring how special the biodiversity of the Rincon Mountains is, as well as how threatened it is by climate change and the associated wildfire risk,” said Dan Beckman, a botanist who is co-leading the yearlong study with park biologist Don Swann. “As a Madrean ‘sky island’ range, the Rincons contain many species that are extremely rare in the US, and also represent a fascinating confluence of disparate floristic influences.”

The team will employ survey methods developed over the past five years in remote areas of the park that will identify unique plant communities and biodiversity hotspots. The hope is that their findings will help the park’s fire management team in targeting specific areas for prescribed burning, which will protect highly valued and rare biodiversity. 

The researchers will log georeferenced occurrence data for locally rare or never-recorded plant species through collections and photo records. Each collection or photo record will include coordinates, habitat description, the presence of other species, and a description of the plant population.

“It’s increasingly clear that climate change represents an existential challenge to the resources that national parks were created to protect,” said Swann. “It’s also becoming clear that we need new tools and an expanded role for the community if we have any hope in protecting these resources for future generations.”

This painting depicts the burning of the Confederate wagon supply train near Apache Canyon. photo courtesy of Roy Andersen, NPS

By Robert Pahre

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, which took place from March 26 to 28, 1862, was the decisive battle of the Civil War in New Mexico. While the battlefield has had historical markers since 1939, the stories you learn on the field have changed since the National Park Service took over in 1993. The landscape of interpretation tells not only the story of a battlefield but the story of how we tell the story of a battlefield.

The battle marked the end of the Confederacy’s New Mexico campaign. Their plan for the campaign was pretty straightforward. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Texan volunteers would advance up the Rio Grande from El Paso to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. From there, they would move eastward along the Santa Fe Trail, crossing the mountains at Glorieta Pass, and then turn north. After seizing the supply base at Fort Union, Sibley would take the mines of Colorado while disrupting federal communications with California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The key to the campaign was logistics. The Confederates would have a long supply train stretching back to El Paso, and they needed Fort Union’s supplies to make the plan work. The Union commander, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, lost every battle but won the campaign because he focused on the Confederate supply problem.

They fought various engagements up the Rio Grande before arriving at the Glorieta Pass region in March. On the third and decisive day, Canby split his forces. The larger part fought a delaying action near Pigeon’s Ranch. They gradually gave ground to Sibley’s Texans while remaining in good order astride the Santa Fe Trail.

Canby sent about two-fifths of his troops over Glorieta Mesa to the Confederate rear, where they found and destroyed the rebel supply train. Without supplies, the Confederates had to retreat to El Paso, using a difficult route through the mountains. Fewer than half found their way back.

Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley

When interpreting the battle, the National Park Service defines it as a tactical Confederate victory. After all, the rebels held the ground at the end of the day. The park also notes that “the Confederate victory was short-lived” because Sibley no longer had his supply train.

That perspective is understandable. It rests on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch, Glorieta Pass, and the Santa Fe Trail. That fight features two opposing forces trying to take or defend ground. It feels like a battle should feel—and, of course, it was a genuine battle.

Not only do visitors expect a battlefield to involve military units moving around it, but many military historians would also tell the story exactly that way. We see that perspective in a lesson plan the park developed for students: “The Battle of Glorieta Pass represented the high-water mark for a bold Confederate offensive into Union Territory on the western frontier. Here, volunteers from Colorado clashed with tough Texans intent on conquering New Mexico.” Tough soldiers fought bravely on both sides.

The Texas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the first monument on the battlefield itself in 1939. The thousands of years of rich history have been preserved at Pecos National Historical Park, which has served as scenery for Pueblo and Plains Indians, Spanish conquerors, Santa Fe trail settlers, railroad workers, and even Route 66 travelers. Discover more about this historic location in the book Pecos National Historical Park Ancestral Sites Trail Guide or purchase an official park product from the Western National Parks Association.

A focus on brave soldiers also produced the first interpretation on the site. In 1866, New Mexico recognized its soldiers on one side of an obelisk in downtown Santa Fe, honoring “the heros of the Federal Army who fell at the battles of Cañon del Apache and Pigeon’s Rancho (La Glorieta), fought with the Rebels March 28, 1862.”

Remembering battlefield bravery motivated park advocates. The Glorieta Battlefield Preservation Society, a group of regional Civil War reenactors, worked to preserve the site, which had remained in private hands. The Council of America’s Military Past, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and other military heritage groups worked with them to convince Congress to establish the Glorieta Battlefield Unit of Pecos National Historical Park.

A marker honors the Texas mounted volunteers. photo courtesy of Robert Pahre

The NPS then began to update this landscape of memorialization it had inherited. In addition to leaving the stone memorials in place, the historical park installed a collection of modern interpretive signs on the Glorieta Battlefield Trail. The trail makes a lovely hike today.

Park advocates helped fund the new interpretive trail and most of the signs. Signs funded by Texan and Confederate groups highlight the bravery of Sibley’s troops, and the ones placed by the State of New Mexico highlight the role of Hispanos, New Mexican Volunteers, and U.S. Regulars. While they also discuss how the Union soldiers burned the Confederate wagons, those signs place greater weight on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch at Glorieta Pass. Again, the action on a conventional battlefield seems more important.

Taken as a whole, those signs tell a richer version of the story than the stone markers, and a more accurate one. Still, one might go further and turn current interpretation on its head. By dividing his force in the face of the enemy, General Canby had clearly decided to make the wagon train central to his battle plan. The 750 troops near Pigeon’s Ranch needed only to protect Union lines of communication behind them while the other 500 men circled behind Confederate lines. In this alternative perspective, the ground of Glorieta Pass mattered much less than the supply train—making this a decisive Union victory.

A second feature of the campaign also contributed to the Union victory. Well before the battle itself, the Union had won the battle for the hearts and minds of New Mexico’s citizens. The Confederates supposed that the locals, having become involuntary subjects of the United States in 1846, might welcome “liberation.” The rebels hoped they could rely on those locals for some supplies along the way. As it turned out, New Mexicans liked Texans even less than they liked gringos, and were not inclined to help out.

The battle for hearts and minds also brought New Mexican volunteers to Canby’s side at Glorieta. Lt. Colonel Manuel Chavez, who led those volunteers, had the local knowledge to guide the Union forces over the mesa to the Texans’ wagons. The Confederates had no good local sources of supplies once the wagons were gone, dooming their assault.

Robert Pahre is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, where he teaches and researches the politics of national parks. This article is part of a current book project, titled Telling America’s Stories.

The mesquite tree represented in blue has maintained a steady presence through decades of drought, while Brittlebush represented by the gold areas took advantage of heavy summer rains in 2006 to expand its range. Mesquite and saguaros typically live for many decades. map courtesy of Emily Fule.

By Dave DeFusco

Desert vegetation surrounding the saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park has been remarkably stable despite the presence of extreme weather over the past 30 years, according to a progress report on an ongoing research project, Three Decades of Ecological Change: the 2020 Saguaro Census, Phases I and II, supported by Western National Parks Association (WNPA).

The research, conducted by University of Arizona master’s candidate Emily Fule and park biologists Don Swann and Adam Springer, is part of the fourth survey associated with the Saguaro Census. They found that, since 1990, the total number of perennial plants has increased in both the Tucson Mountain District (TMD) and Rincon Mountain District (RMD) of Saguaro National Park, which is located in Pima County, Arizona.

Both districts are separated geographically by the city of Tucson. The TMD, often referred to as Saguaro West, encompasses 24,818 acres of land, much of it designated as wilderness, while the RMD, or Saguaro East, contains 67,000 acres of wilderness.

The census, which takes place every 10 years, is a large-scale monitoring effort of the park’s signature plant, the majestic saguaro, whose towering bodies and upraised arms are as much a Southwestern cultural symbol as a staple of the desert landscape.

In 2020, the researchers found that the total number of individual plants, or stems, in the RMD nearly doubled to 5,056 from 2,659 in 1990, and in the TMD, the number of plants swelled to 4,394 from 2,822, or by 44 percent. Total plant cover also expanded significantly during the past three decades. In the RMD, cover extended to 15,500 square feet in 2020 from 11,300 square feet in 1990, and in the TMD, it jumped to 10,300 square feet from 9,000 square feet.

Although researchers observed a slight decline in the number of trees in the park, prickly pear and saguaros, as well as Brittlebush, a smaller perennial plant that favors warmer conditions, have greatly increased in number.

“There is some evidence that the long-term drought of the past 20 years is beginning to impact some species,” said Swann, “but the results also show how slowly desert plant communities change. Many plants that were present on the plots in 1990 are still there today.”

The saguaro surveys are taken on 45 plots, each approximately 10,000 square feet. Twenty plots are randomly located in the TMD, and 25 are located within saguaro habitat in the lower elevations of the RMD. Within these large plots are 1,100-square-foot subplots. During the surveys, the researchers record all plants on each subplot and map their cover area.

The 30 years of data suggest that long-term climate warming, suburban sprawl and random events, such as wildfire and above-normal precipitation, are significantly affecting growth patterns. All of the plants they mapped flourished after cattle grazing ended in the 1970s, and during wetter, cooler conditions throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, the park and desert Southwest have experienced extended long-term drought, punctuated by short wet periods.

Drier, warmer conditions have been favorable for prickly pear and cholla, but less so for shrubs. Researchers in 2010 discovered a surge in small subshrubs that resulted from heavy summer rains in 2006. Some individual plants were killed by a deep freeze in 2011, but the long-term effects, according to the researchers, appear to be relatively small.

“It’s a fascinating park if you’re a biologist,” said Swann. “It goes from low desert elevations, where it’s very hot and dry, to 9,000-foot elevations that are overspread with conifers. Being at the top of the Rincon Mountains is like being in Maine or Oregon.”

NPS biologist Don Swann, holding a wildlife camera, said the Saguaro Census is a “partnership of generations.” photo courtesy of Konner Speth

The research is taking place in the Sky Island region, isolated mountain ranges that are an extension of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The area contains a mix of dry desert and subtropical plants. A lot of these plants grow like saguaros, said Swann, and their reproduction and growth are tied to reliable summer rains.

While the general number of and cover for plants have ballooned in the park since the 1990s, there have been winners and losers among species. Among common trees, velvet mesquite and foothills palo verde have declined, while white-thorn acacia and wolfberry have prospered. Among shrubs, the density and cover for creosote, pelotazo or hoary abutilon, and jojoba have remained stable, while fairy duster and limber bush have bloomed.

Nearly all common subshrubs have expanded in range, except for triangle-leaf bursage, a common species in the TMD that has decreased slightly in cover and density. Brittlebush, which exploded in numbers in 2010 following heavy summer rains in 2006, decreased in number in both districts by 2020 but increased in cover.

“This project highlights the huge plant diversity that we can see in the low-elevation Sonoran Desert,” said Fule, the lead author of the report who did most of the field work, as well as the data management and mapmaking. “In only 1,100 square feet, it was common to find over 20 different species, and on several plots we found as many as 30 species.”

Among cacti and succulents, prickly pear stands out as a dominant plant, more than doubling in cover in the RMD since 1990. Pincushion cacti have doubled in the same period, while the barrel cactus has declined by more than half. From 1990 to 2020, the overall cover of three common cholla species increased mainly because of an eruption of jumping cholla.

Plant communities, however, aren’t shaped by just large-scale, long-term environmental change. Rare events, such as wildfires, freezes, windstorms, and droughts, can spur their growth or hasten their decline. Since 1990, the park’s plants have been met with three very wet winters, a summer of torrential rain in 2006, and a deep freeze in 2011 that defied the prolonged drought and historically high temperatures.

During that wet summer in 2006, subshrubs, such as Brittlebush, multiplied to such an extent that surveyors in 2010 had to modify their sampling methods to accurately map the plants that were by then 3- to 4-years-old. The freeze in 2011 was a sudden reversal of fortune for many of the cold-intolerant Brittlebush, which died off in significant numbers. Overall cover did expand, however, as they continued to mature.

Emily Fule, a master’s candidate at the University of Arizona, did most of the mapmaking and data management for the fourth survey of the Saguaro Census.

Indigenous peoples drew sustenance from saguaros long before the cacti became a celebrated symbol of the Southwest. The Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, have lived in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. Their harvesting of the Saguaro fruit is a centuries-old practice that reaffirms their relationship with their traditional environment. They use the flowers, fruit, seeds, thorns, burls or boots, and ribs of the saguaro for food, ceremonies, fiber, manufacture and trade, and they use the fruit and seeds to make a ceremonial wine that is used in the Navai’t, and the Vikita, or harvest ceremony.

Saguaros are a master of survival and they reproduce for more than 100 years, but the species doesn’t produce a fresh crop every year. They like cool, wet conditions, and are especially resilient once they mature, but climate-induced drought over the long-term may affect their numbers in the park.

“Adult plants tend to survive and be much more resilient to drought than young plants,” said Swann. “Saguaros are a good case study of this. Once they reach a certain age when they can store water, it’s incredibly resilient to change and drought, whereas the new ones are decreasing in number. We’re not alarmed by this development, but we’re keeping an eye on it.”

The park’s evolving vegetation has also affected two species of deer in the park—white tail deer and mule deer, which like to eat saguaro flesh that hoards water. White tail deer tend to inhabit higher elevations and like to hide in the forest, while mule deer roam the grasslands and desert. Over the past 30 years, the researchers have seen a shift in behavior.

“In the 1970s, the white tail deer inhabited elevations at 5,000 to 6,000 feet and their presence in the desert was unusual,” said Swann. “Now they’ve moved into the desert where plants provide cover for them. Since mule deer can’t see as far, they’re uncomfortable with the plant cover.”

Swann called the Saguaro Census a “partnership of generations.” He said the team of researchers, which includes 500 volunteers, is “grateful” for the support from WNPA and the Friends of Saguaro National Park that is allowing them to continue the 80-year-old program.

“Saguaro National Park is particularly biologically diverse and has a rich scientific legacy that we feel responsible for continuing,” he said. “A lot of people who started the studies that I’m working on have been dead for a long time. Like them, I hope that I become a conduit for young people to continue these studies long after I’m gone.”

Picking up garbage at Padre Islands National Seashore. photo courtesy of Brad Tabor

By Barbara Jensen

Don’t miss the signs leading you to Padre Island National Seashore. It’s not well-marked until you’re right out on it—out where the trucks and jeeps leave tracks on the hard-packed sand. Only a half-hour from Corpus Christi, Texas, this national park’s south beach extends 60 miles from the end of the paved road, a four-wheel-drive access to wilderness encompassing Little Shell and Big Shell beaches. Deer and coyotes roam the rugged dunes.

This is definitely not South Padre Island, the spring break destination near Brownsville. Though they’re both on the same 118-mile-long barrier island, the national seashore is not a beach party resort. Out here, there is a community that believes in caring for its local national park.

Hiking with my full backpack along the edge of the water, I dodge the occasional wave reaching farther ashore. More than one truck stops to ask good-naturedly if I’m heading to Mexico. I’m sure it looks like I’m running away from it all, having left my car and any creature comforts at the last parking area. One couple surf-fishing calls me over to their RV and hands me a bologna sandwich and potato chips. A mile farther down the beach, two guys watching their lines from the comfort of their camp chairs offer me a cold refreshment from their cooler. Everybody waves.

It is precisely this spirit of camaraderie that has brought me back after my initial stopover.

On my first trip just two weeks prior, high-tide warnings had been posted. Assured by a ranger that my beach camping plan was still viable, I had hiked about four miles down the shore and then set down my pack. But I’d felt slightly uneasy, worried I might be pitching my tent too close to the rising waves. I’d shouldered my pack again and walked another few yards to a higher, more protected spot by the dunes.  

When I unzipped my tent the next morning, everything was shrouded in fog. Peering out, I had to look twice.

Everybody does their part in the cleanup. photo courtesy of Barbara Jensen

To my right, I surprised the pint-sized resident of a nearby sandy burrow as it simultaneously popped out from its entrance: a ghost crab nearly invisible on the sand.

Then I looked to my left. And there, only a few yards up the beach, rising out of the mist, I spied a ghost ship. A sailboat, at least 30-feet-long with an even taller empty mast, solidly beached. It was at that moment that I did a double-take.

It had run aground in the night, apparently without a soul on board. No tracks led away in any direction. The boat had come ashore at the exact spot I had initially thought to camp.

I felt the hairs on my neck stand up. What were the odds of this unlikely coincidence? As I waded in the surf to take a closer peek, I saw black spray paint on the boat noting “USCG” and “OK” with a date from several days ago. Had this boat been boarded at sea by the Coast Guard? And somehow deemed okay? The shredded sail hanging from the rigging and the scraped gash near the hull’s waterline at the bow did not look okay to me. One window of the glassed-in pilothouse was propped open like an escape hatch. I wondered if the Coast Guard would tow it to shore. A fisherman I met later just laughed, joking that they probably hoped it would sink.

Instead, it became the biggest piece of discarded refuse to wash up on Padre Island National Seashore in years. And that’s saying something. Because this place collects all kinds of castoffs. The winds and currents of the Gulf of Mexico join forces near Padre to deposit odd shoes and ends of rope, closet hangers and cell phone cases, the flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives all washing up with the tides. I’d noticed the trash on the beach as I hiked, the weird similarities of a crushed can to a chipped shell, a plastic grocery bag to a dying jellyfish, a waterlogged scrap of carpet to a thick mat of seaweed. But nothing I’d seen compared to finding a boat outside my tent.

When I’d left that day, I’d chatted with a park ranger about everything that washes ashore here, what he called the catcher’s mitt effect. “Oh, well, what can you do?,” I said.

Veteran adrift embraces the island

“Actually, there’s a clean-up day coming up, if you want to come back for that,” he told me. “It’s pretty amazing, all the people who participate. The Billy Sandifer Annual Beach Clean-Up.”

Billy Sandifer showed up on Padre Island after two tours of duty in Vietnam and a couple more at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A former Navy man now rudderless, he lived wild on the beaches from the summer of 1977 to February 1979. In a 2009 interview with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Sandifer explained, “I was just a misfit without a mission. Shark fishing became my war. And at the time I needed a war. I needed an enemy.”

Even boats wash up on the shore at Padre Island National Seashore. photo courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Gradually, Padre Island had a healing effect on Sandifer, allowing him to let go of war and embrace the people he met there. His shark fishing evolved to include conservation tours to promote protection for sea turtles, migratory birds, and other local flora and fauna, especially his “dune dogs,” the coyotes with whom he felt a spiritual kinship. He developed a deep reverence for mother ocean, as he called it, and the island itself. In 1995, he started the annual Big Shell Beach Clean-up as a way to give back, always hoping to engage the next generation in island ecology. By the time of his death in 2018 at age 70, Captain Billy, the rough-edged, cigar-smoking “Padre of Padre,” had received numerous conservation awards and had found peace at last.

“He was hardcore for a long time, but the beach really helped him,” said Jeff Wolda, who is the treasurer of Friends of Padre, a nonprofit group whose mission is to continue Captain Billy’s legacy, preserving and protecting wild Padre Island. “Billy was like a father to a lot of us.”

Wolda is also a military veteran who, 20 years after Sandifer, found Padre Island National Seashore by chance—or by providence. Wolda, too, camped far down the beach, alone, in all seasons, so often that he learned to recognize the sound of Sandifer’s beaten up, rusted out Suburban passing on the sand, not realizing that Sandifer had come to recognize Wolda, too.

While Padre Island National Seashore has remained undeveloped for most of its entire existence, the first permanent settlement was established around 1804 by a Spanish priest, Padre Nicolas Balli. Balli created a ranch that raised herds of cattle, sheep, and horses with his nephew, but they never lived there themselves.

Out surf-fishing one nasty winter day, Wolda was trying to reel in a sea trout when he heard the Suburban pull up behind him. He didn’t want to bring in his fish and thereby invite another fisherman to his spot. “Billy stepped out of the vehicle and walked up behind me,” Wolda says, “asking me, ‘You gonna land that fish?’—well, it got pretty salty.” When Wolda caught and then released the big trout in front of him, something in that moment confirmed Sandifer’s hunch.

“Billy said, ‘You’re ex-military,’ and brought me his business card from the Suburban,” said Wolda. “‘Next time you come back to Padre, come see me. We need to talk.’ He helped me through some hard times. He helped a lot of guys.” It was Wolda who got the charter to guide light-tackle fishing at Padre Island when Sandifer retired in 2012.

Inspired by Captain Billy, I now find myself camped on the beach again. It’s the morning of the clean-up, and I’ve come back to help. I pack up my tent from overnighting at Mile Marker 20. I’ve definitely reached Little Shell Beach, small cockle shells crunching everywhere underfoot, but my destination is Big Shell, which starts farther south. To get there, I’m going to need a ride.

‘What can we give back?’

The sight of me in my backpack, holding a driftwood walking stick and standing at the water’s edge thumbing for a ride, seems to be a surprise even for Padre Island folk. One long caravan of four-by-fours and then another cruise right past.

But leading the third caravan, a red pickup stops for me. “You part of the beach clean-up?,” I said. After I clamber over the tailgate, he takes off, roaring through the looser, uneven sand down here.

Every little bit helps. photo courtesy of Brad Tabor

My pack is heavy. I’m carrying plenty of fresh water in case I have to camp and hike back the whole distance to my car. By the time we stop at Mile 46, I’m facing a tough three-day return trip over bad terrain. But my driver, Brad Tabor, laughs and assures me he’ll give me a ride back. His wife, Elizabeth, and the two boys, Hudson, 14, and Finn, 8, all welcome me.

I have met the Friends of Padre. Trucks and jeeps park up and down the sand, and people of all ages and backgrounds gather. As section leader, Brad directs us to collect only garbage; anything natural, we leave. We spread out along the mile stretch we’ve been assigned.

It’s instant community. I watch the boys scrambling up the face of the dunes to grab faded detergent bottles and deflated mylar balloons. One guy hooks a tow strap to his truck and pulls an old tire loose from the sand as we all cheer. I help a woman with bad knees, gathering the trash near us so she can bag it. Everywhere I look, people are laughing and chatting, enjoying the day together. Over the course of just two hours, we load one guy’s huge construction trailer full of garbage bags.

“I’ve found all kinds of crazy stuff over the years,” said Wolda, “like a bottle with a note inside from a freighter off the coast of Norway. They asked us to write back and let them know where we found it. I asked Billy if he was going to write back. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna tell ‘em to quit throwin’ stuff in the ocean.’”

When asked why he joined Friends of Padre back in 2001, his response was immediate. “Billy asked me to.” He started as a section leader, like Brad. The reason he continues his commitment is equally simple. “We use the island. What can we give back? You know, a lot of work goes into getting ready for the clean-up. We’re at Mother Nature’s mercy each year, rain or shine, and I always worry if no one shows up. And every year, as I’m setting up, I’ll look north and there’s headlights as far as you can see heading this way. Here they come.”

On that day, 1,000 volunteers have collected more than 33 tons of garbage from 27 miles of Big Shell and beyond. That brings the grand total to 12,425 volunteers over the years, cleaning up over 3 million pounds of trash. A labor of love started by one feisty guy—one of war’s castoffs who found himself here on Padre Island National Seashore.

When we’re done, I climb into the back of Brad’s truck. Mile after mile, we drive down the pristine beach, and I look out over the Gulf, the wind in my face. Maybe Captain Billy sent me a boat to bring me back here to make this personal connection with Padre Island. I can’t help but grin as I think, he really ought to quit throwing stuff into the ocean. 

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

A lonesome white gate opens to Charlie’s Ruts on a low hillside with soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Point of Rocks promontory here has been partially excavated to make way for a highway leading out of town, and the Caches Site (where one early expedition was caught in a blizzard and buried their goods to retrieve later) is marked with a white stone beside that highway, tricky to locate. These vivid and sobering landmarks for Santa Fe Trail travelers seem like sidenotes to Dodge City’s apparently sexier images of gunslinging, hard-drinking, wild living—and dying—in the Old West. Atop the broken Point of Rocks, laser-cut metal silhouettes of cowboys on horseback race after outlaws, dominating the high horizon, larger than life. I decide it’s time to get out of Dodge.

Out on Highway 50, I find Charlie’s Ruts. The metal mailbox contains a simple notebook as a homey guest register. A lonesome white gate opens to a low hillside and the soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. When Charlie Bentrup acquired this land in the early 1900s, he recognized the trail ruts as historically significant. His son Paul, born in 1917, became the steward of “Charlie’s Ruts” until his own death in 2003.

I wonder who is manning the mailbox now. Just like at Jack’s Ruts, I can almost feel the straining of men and oxen to get those wagons up the hill, as if I’m along for the trip, pushing from behind—as if I’ve sunk my meager life savings into the freight we’re hauling, and have got to get it to Santa Fe no matter what it takes.

Looking more like a military post than a mercantile exchange, Bent’s Old Fort in southern Colorado warehoused and shipped goods from across most of the Rocky Mountain area to the rest of the United States, ending at the Mississippi. Courtesy of NPS

Just 60 miles west, I pull in for gas at Cimarron, Kansas. I’m back to the end point of the Cimarron Cutoff, the risky road I initially traveled west to east. Tomorrow, I will instead follow the difficult Mountain Route. I’m only 142 miles from Fort Larned, eight days by wagon. But I have definitely crossed into frontier territory, where your life might have depended upon knowing whom to trust.

Day 7 | Fortifications

It’s a long, lonely drive, two hours to cross from the emptiness of western Kansas into the somehow even greater barrenness of eastern Colorado. The only green here traces the edges of the river, as the Arkansas leads me through this arid sagebrush landscape to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. In 1831, brothers Charles and William Bent built their trading post as an adobe stockade, with walls 15-feet-high and four-feet-thick, on the sandy soil above the river. William sold goods to Santa Fe Trail travelers and negotiated with local Native American tribes like the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, while Charles guided wagon parties southwest over Raton Pass into Taos and Santa Fe, eventually becoming the first governor of New Mexico Territory.

Highway 350 is my only guide today as I enter the dump zone, the region east of the Front Range where rain storms building behind the mountains finally boil over, their cool air colliding with warm air over the hot prairie, generating massive thunderheads.

Fort Union was the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

In an instant, the daylight fades. Rain suddenly pounds the windshield so hard that my wipers cannot keep up, and I am forced to pull over. Hail quickly follows, pummeling my car. Bent’s Fort would have been a godsend, the only shelter for hundreds of miles. I imagine being out in this onslaught, trying to shield horses or oxen from the deadly force of the ice raining down.

Twenty minutes later, the storm has eased. Despite breathtaking views of Colorado’s snow-capped ranges, this Mountain Route was no scenic tour for trail travelers. They would have labored toward Fisher’s Peak. Reaching Trinidad, I drive I-25 alongside the distinctive triple-stairstep landmark, soaring past the tractor-trailer rigs slowly struggling up Raton Pass with their heavy loads.

Once on the other side, Colorado’s heavily forested, tight canyon road now immediately opens into New Mexico’s broad vistas. Highway 64, the road to Taos, takes me to the other Cimarron on the Santa Fe Trail: Cimarron, New Mexico, once a Mountain Route stage stop. Here, historic sites include the Aztec Grist Mill, built in 1864 to grind grain for residents of the town, for a nearby Indian reservation, and to feed travelers passing on the trail.

Native Americans called Black soldiers stationed at Fort Union “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit.

Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail were driven primarily by oxen. Unlike the Oregon and California trails, the Santa Fe Trail was primarily a two-way commercial trading route rather than a one-way emigrant trail.

Back on I-25, I soon reach Fort Union National Monument. Built of stout brick and adobe, it became the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

Several units of Black soldiers were stationed here, having joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Enduring constant racism, they were tasked with subduing hostile Indian forces who threatened the fort or the trail. Native Americans called them “Buffalo Soldiers,” a term of respect for their adversaries’ fighting spirit and physical resemblance to the powerful and much-revered bison. The only Fort Union troops ever awarded the Medal of Honor were six members of the 9th Cavalry—the Buffalo Soldiers—for their actions during intense fighting against Apache warriors. The irony of Black soldiers, fresh from the horrors of slavery, being honored for the subjugation of the Indigenous people who had honored them.

The main unit of the Pecos National Historical Park preserves the ruins of Pecos Pueblo, known historically as Cicuye (sometimes spelled Ciquique), the “village of 500 warriors.” Courtesy of NPS

A tinny recording of a bugle call plays over a pole-mounted speaker out by the flag. It’s hard for me to listen to, but this is part of the fraught history of New Mexico—and the nation. Truth is grist for the mill that feeds us all. Ours is a hard story to reconcile, a difficult climb but necessary, like the final stretch of trail into hills you cannot avoid as you travel toward Santa Fe.

Day 8 | End Of The Trail…And The Beginning

The Pecos River, at last. It flows down Pecos Canyon through the hills above Santa Fe, passing close to Pecos National Historical Park, the site of the ruins of Pecos Pueblo. During the years of the Santa Fe Trail, regular travelers would have witnessed the pueblo’s decline from a busy communal dwelling to a sparsely populated structure, falling into disuse and then ruin as the final few residents left to join distant relatives at the Jemez Pueblo to the southwest.

This pueblo’s time had come and gone, and the people found another way to live. Likewise, the Santa Fe Trail came and went. Created by linking older Native American trade and hunting routes, the Santa Fe Trail’s own end came from a similar new beginning: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with a spur that dropped south, first to Raton, and then to Santa Fe.

I follow the trail signs into the city, parking my car on Alameda Avenue under the cottonwood trees where the Santa Fe River trickles quietly beneath their leafy branches. Slowly, I stroll the narrow streets past the old adobe shops, low and thick-walled, and hung with colorful blankets and chile ristras, at last entering the central plaza built in 1610. It’s filled with music and flowers, and the bustling commerce of Santa Fe’s rich and deeply complicated history.

The goal of the Santa Fe Trail was to allow trade between cultures. In many places, our path is divided, split. Maybe, beyond mere goods and money, we can trade stories, gain personal understanding, with appreciation of the difficult journeys we have all undertaken. Maybe we can make a new beginning and learn to find our way, as we walk toward each other from both ends of the trail.

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

A lonesome white gate opens to Charlie’s Ruts on a low hillside with soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Point of Rocks promontory here has been partially excavated to make way for a highway leading out of town, and the Caches Site (where one early expedition was caught in a blizzard and buried their goods to retrieve later) is marked with a white stone beside that highway, tricky to locate. These vivid and sobering landmarks for Santa Fe Trail travelers seem like sidenotes to Dodge City’s apparently sexier images of gunslinging, hard-drinking, wild living—and dying—in the Old West. Atop the broken Point of Rocks, laser-cut metal silhouettes of cowboys on horseback race after outlaws, dominating the high horizon, larger than life. I decide it’s time to get out of Dodge.

Out on Highway 50, I find Charlie’s Ruts. The metal mailbox contains a simple notebook as a homey guest register. A lonesome white gate opens to a low hillside and the soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. When Charlie Bentrup acquired this land in the early 1900s, he recognized the trail ruts as historically significant. His son Paul, born in 1917, became the steward of “Charlie’s Ruts” until his own death in 2003.

I wonder who is manning the mailbox now. Just like at Jack’s Ruts, I can almost feel the straining of men and oxen to get those wagons up the hill, as if I’m along for the trip, pushing from behind—as if I’ve sunk my meager life savings into the freight we’re hauling, and have got to get it to Santa Fe no matter what it takes.

Looking more like a military post than a mercantile exchange, Bent’s Old Fort in southern Colorado warehoused and shipped goods from across most of the Rocky Mountain area to the rest of the United States, ending at the Mississippi. Courtesy of NPS

Just 60 miles west, I pull in for gas at Cimarron, Kansas. I’m back to the end point of the Cimarron Cutoff, the risky road I initially traveled west to east. Tomorrow, I will instead follow the difficult Mountain Route. I’m only 142 miles from Fort Larned, eight days by wagon. But I have definitely crossed into frontier territory, where your life might have depended upon knowing whom to trust.

Day 7 | Fortifications

It’s a long, lonely drive, two hours to cross from the emptiness of western Kansas into the somehow even greater barrenness of eastern Colorado. The only green here traces the edges of the river, as the Arkansas leads me through this arid sagebrush landscape to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. In 1831, brothers Charles and William Bent built their trading post as an adobe stockade, with walls 15-feet-high and four-feet-thick, on the sandy soil above the river. William sold goods to Santa Fe Trail travelers and negotiated with local Native American tribes like the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, while Charles guided wagon parties southwest over Raton Pass into Taos and Santa Fe, eventually becoming the first governor of New Mexico Territory.

Highway 350 is my only guide today as I enter the dump zone, the region east of the Front Range where rain storms building behind the mountains finally boil over, their cool air colliding with warm air over the hot prairie, generating massive thunderheads.

Fort Union was the largest military post in the region, a travel hub and supply center for the Santa Fe Trail and other regional forts.

In an instant, the daylight fades. Rain suddenly pounds the windshield so hard that my wipers cannot keep up, and I am forced to pull over. Hail quickly follows, pummeling my car. Bent’s Fort would have been a godsend, the only shelter for hundreds of miles. I imagine being out in this onslaught, trying to shield horses or oxen from the deadly force of the ice raining down.

Twenty minutes later, the storm has eased. Despite breathtaking views of Colorado’s snow-capped ranges, this Mountain Route was no scenic tour for trail travelers. They would have labored toward Fisher’s Peak. Reaching Trinidad, I drive I-25 alongside the distinctive triple-stairstep landmark, soaring past the tractor-trailer rigs slowly struggling up Raton Pass with their heavy loads.

Once on the other side, Colorado’s heavily forested, tight canyon road now immediately opens into New Mexico’s broad vistas. Highway 64, the road to Taos, takes me to the other Cimarron on the Santa Fe Trail: Cimarron, New Mexico, once a Mountain Route stage stop. Here, historic sites include the Aztec Grist Mill, built in 1864 to grind grain for residents of the town, for a nearby Indian reservation, and to feed travelers passing on the trail.

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

A lonesome white gate opens to Charlie’s Ruts on a low hillside with soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Point of Rocks promontory here has been partially excavated to make way for a highway leading out of town, and the Caches Site (where one early expedition was caught in a blizzard and buried their goods to retrieve later) is marked with a white stone beside that highway, tricky to locate. These vivid and sobering landmarks for Santa Fe Trail travelers seem like sidenotes to Dodge City’s apparently sexier images of gunslinging, hard-drinking, wild living—and dying—in the Old West. Atop the broken Point of Rocks, laser-cut metal silhouettes of cowboys on horseback race after outlaws, dominating the high horizon, larger than life. I decide it’s time to get out of Dodge.

Out on Highway 50, I find Charlie’s Ruts. The metal mailbox contains a simple notebook as a homey guest register. A lonesome white gate opens to a low hillside and the soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. When Charlie Bentrup acquired this land in the early 1900s, he recognized the trail ruts as historically significant. His son Paul, born in 1917, became the steward of “Charlie’s Ruts” until his own death in 2003.

I wonder who is manning the mailbox now. Just like at Jack’s Ruts, I can almost feel the straining of men and oxen to get those wagons up the hill, as if I’m along for the trip, pushing from behind—as if I’ve sunk my meager life savings into the freight we’re hauling, and have got to get it to Santa Fe no matter what it takes.

Looking more like a military post than a mercantile exchange, Bent’s Old Fort in southern Colorado warehoused and shipped goods from across most of the Rocky Mountain area to the rest of the United States, ending at the Mississippi. Courtesy of NPS

Just 60 miles west, I pull in for gas at Cimarron, Kansas. I’m back to the end point of the Cimarron Cutoff, the risky road I initially traveled west to east. Tomorrow, I will instead follow the difficult Mountain Route. I’m only 142 miles from Fort Larned, eight days by wagon. But I have definitely crossed into frontier territory, where your life might have depended upon knowing whom to trust.

Day 7 | Fortifications

It’s a long, lonely drive, two hours to cross from the emptiness of western Kansas into the somehow even greater barrenness of eastern Colorado. The only green here traces the edges of the river, as the Arkansas leads me through this arid sagebrush landscape to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. In 1831, brothers Charles and William Bent built their trading post as an adobe stockade, with walls 15-feet-high and four-feet-thick, on the sandy soil above the river. William sold goods to Santa Fe Trail travelers and negotiated with local Native American tribes like the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, while Charles guided wagon parties southwest over Raton Pass into Taos and Santa Fe, eventually becoming the first governor of New Mexico Territory.

Highway 350 is my only guide today as I enter the dump zone, the region east of the Front Range where rain storms building behind the mountains finally boil over, their cool air colliding with warm air over the hot prairie, generating massive thunderheads.

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

A lonesome white gate opens to Charlie’s Ruts on a low hillside with soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

The Point of Rocks promontory here has been partially excavated to make way for a highway leading out of town, and the Caches Site (where one early expedition was caught in a blizzard and buried their goods to retrieve later) is marked with a white stone beside that highway, tricky to locate. These vivid and sobering landmarks for Santa Fe Trail travelers seem like sidenotes to Dodge City’s apparently sexier images of gunslinging, hard-drinking, wild living—and dying—in the Old West. Atop the broken Point of Rocks, laser-cut metal silhouettes of cowboys on horseback race after outlaws, dominating the high horizon, larger than life. I decide it’s time to get out of Dodge.

Out on Highway 50, I find Charlie’s Ruts. The metal mailbox contains a simple notebook as a homey guest register. A lonesome white gate opens to a low hillside and the soft swales where multiple wagons once rose over it. When Charlie Bentrup acquired this land in the early 1900s, he recognized the trail ruts as historically significant. His son Paul, born in 1917, became the steward of “Charlie’s Ruts” until his own death in 2003.

I wonder who is manning the mailbox now. Just like at Jack’s Ruts, I can almost feel the straining of men and oxen to get those wagons up the hill, as if I’m along for the trip, pushing from behind—as if I’ve sunk my meager life savings into the freight we’re hauling, and have got to get it to Santa Fe no matter what it takes.

A sea of annual wildflowers blankets the slopes of the Smith Springs Trail. There are 1,000 plants species in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Courtesy of Cookie Ballou, NPS

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has more than 1,000 species of plants, from common desert species to plants that can only be found in the park. Ecosystems like the Chihuahuan desert, rocky canyons, and forests also support 60 species of mammals, 55 species of reptiles, and 289 species of birds.

Returning to the visitor center, I come upon six bicyclists resting in the breezy shade of the covered portico. They are refilling their water bottles and snacking on salty trail mix, their bike paniers laden with camping gear, their faces and arms sunburned. Six young people, all in their 20s, are traveling coast to coast. They started their trek on a Pacific beach near Santa Cruz, California, and will end by dipping their front wheels in the Atlantic near Wilmington, North Carolina. So far, they’ve pedaled for 29 days and over 1,200 miles across the country. Only 1,700 more to go. I tell them about the Butterfield Stage.

“This is the high point of our route, too,” says one young man. “It’s all downhill from here.” He grins knowingly. They were well aware of the potential for hardships to come on their journey. Their thirst quenched for now, they swing back into their saddles and ride off toward the east, following the long, quiet highway that has brought them this far, a road less traveled over the Guadalupe Mountains.

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

Carnivorous plants populate the Sundew Trail. Courtesy of Mary Kay Manning, NPS

He squints.

“They’re pretty hard to find,” he says sympathetically.

He pulls out a map of Sundew Trail and a highlighter. “I’ve seen pitcher plants along the trail here,” and he traces a stretch, “and some along the powerline clearing. You might find sundews right here, at the start,” and he adds another yellow mark, “but honestly – look….” He quickly pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of a sundew.

“Oh, they’re tiny!” I exclaim. “I thought they’d be bigger. No wonder they’re hard to find.”

“Mm-hmm.” He nods. His photo includes a coin for comparison; the plant is smaller than the quarter. “Some are dime-sized.”

 

Sundew plants are small and hard to spot without some effort. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Suddenly, Big Thicket feels immense — a vast, watery world filled with millions of living beings. How will I ever spot this small life within such a massive tangle of growth?

He smiles encouragingly. “If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, there’s a whole patch of them right out here at the roadside ditch, right where you drove in. That’s where I took this picture, just yesterday.”

I thank him for the tip.

I lace up my boots. Tramping carefully out into the mushy ditch, I bend low, peering through the ground-cover of pine needles and dead leaves, focusing in on this miniature biome that I completely overlooked as I entered the preserve. After several minutes of searching, I notice something glinting in the sun. Turning, I catch a shine again, and a hint of red under the rusty-colored pine needles. Squatting, I spy a sundew.

Readjusting my vision, now I see them everywhere before me. The little rosettes have fleshy stems and leaves covered in miniscule red bristles that appear to end in shiny dewdrops.

Pitcher plants lure insects with sweet nectar. Courtesy of Scott Sharaga, NPS

These bristles are actually tentacle stalks, secreting the nectar-scented “dew” to attract insects. The sticky leaves are a trap, sprung by the tiny prey struggling to free itself. Wrapping its wriggling captive with its tentacles, the sundew’s secretions digest needed nutrients from the insect’s soft tissues. It’s a savage world, this wet ditch.

Nonetheless, encouraged by my find, I drive up the road to Sundew Trail. Here, an accessible boardwalk is part of a one-mile trail that loops through a wetland savannah. Yet, try as I might, I cannot spot any sundews where the ranger marked the map. Instead, I continue on to the pitcher plant bog.

Pitcher plants are much easier to spot. They send up foot-tall, modified leaves, each shaped like a narrow vase or pitcher. Down inside this funnel trap, an enticing, scented pool of digestive juices awaits unlucky insects that fall in from the waxy, slippery rim. This early in the spring, all I see are the tan stalks of last year’s plants, dozens or maybe hundreds of them standing dead in the marshy area between trees. I head up to the powerline clearing, but no matter how slowly and carefully I search, I’m not finding anything.

But I haven’t given up. I walk back toward the bog, looking closely at the dead pitcher plants. I can’t be sure of what I’m seeing, so I step carefully onto a wet log at the very edge of the trail, crouching to get a closer view. Sure enough, the pitcher plants in the warmest, sunniest area are putting out new growth. Four- to eight-inch pitchers unfurl like ferns beneath the old growth, rising from the common root that survives.

I have been lured in by Big Thicket National Preserve. And I’ve only seen a tiny corner of it. With more than 30 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails and 10 times that mileage in water trails to canoe or kayak, Big Thicket offers a wide variety of ways to experience this remarkable region.

Birdwatching, fishing, and hunting are all available; seasonal hunting permits are free, as are backcountry camping permits. I’d like to paddle my gear into Big Thicket’s quiet interior, and pitch my tent on a sandbar—really get my feet wet. I want to come back, try to find the butterworts as they begin blooming, and bladderworts that float. I’m starting to see how the incredible natural diversity, preserved and protected here, is the strength of Big Thicket.

A plaque commemorating the Santa Fe Trail. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Day 4 | Crossing the Big Muddy

I exit I-70 at Boonville, Missouri, and quickly come to the Franklin Site, the original eastern gateway to the Santa Fe Trail. Traders would have loaded their wagons in St. Louis, then trekked 150 miles west to join other freighters, find trail guides and cross the river here. A narrow road winds up around a tall bluff to a point overlooking the Missouri River and Arrow Rock Landing, the crossing used by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and Santa Fe Trail travelers.

At Arrow Rock State Historic Site, I find a trailhead to the landing. A sign warns that the last 100 feet drop steeply to the river and can be muddy and slippery. I hike through trees dripping last night’s rain onto the hood of my jacket. After the arid Cimarron Route, Missouri is shockingly wet and green. As I push through soft willow bushes, I find the sign’s warning unnecessary: there is no steep drop-off. The Big Muddy rolls like a freight train at my feet. It churns mere inches below the high embankment.

While Becknell and company set off west on horseback in September 1821, the first loaded wagons bound for Santa Fe crossed here in May 1822. Today is May 15, 2021. Uprooted trees protrude along the edges of the surging, swollen river. No wonder historic Huston Tavern and Neff Tavern nearby were such popular spots.

Black Jack Ruts. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Westward I go, Highway 24 tracing the south bank of the Missouri until I reach Fort Osage National Historic Landmark. Built of wooden blockhouses surrounded by a log stockade, it stood guard near Independence and Westport, small towns now engulfed by Kansas City. Due to flooding at Franklin, the trailhead soon shifted toward these two towns.

Today is drizzly. I return to Highway 56 and Kansas. An interpretive site west of Gardner Junction marks one of the clearest and most intimate examples of trail ruts that I found: Black Jack Ruts on the Ivan Boyd Memorial Prairie Preserve. It’s a small pull-off near Mile 435, a quiet, easy trail lending itself to contemplation of hauling a heavy wagonload through this wet, loamy soil.

Multiple creeks and small rivers have overtopped their banks, flooding out into fields and woods, filling the ditches along the road I drive. Low clouds add to my pensive mood. Boonville to Wilmington, Kansas, has been another 200 miles, at least 11 soggy days of wagons in the mud.

Day 5 | All-Consuming Like Prairie Fires

South of Council Grove, Kansas, I turn off the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I stand next to a display of the namesake grasses; they tower over my head, six-feet-tall, which they will reach by October. But these are not the largest living things here. I take the Scenic Overlook Trail to Windmill Pasture where I will stand without any barriers between me and a herd of about 80 bison.

The gravel trail curves up between two hills, a reddish-brown one to my left and a vibrant green one to my right. The dramatic difference: fire. Controlled burns keep the prairie healthy. The sweet smell of grasses and flowers is intoxicating, and I inhale deeply, repeatedly, closing my eyes until I have to remind myself that I am approaching the peak of the hill, and the bison pasture. I need to pay attention.

Blue sky arches overhead, with soft white clouds floating over wide-open green prairie. As I reach the top, I see that it stretches for miles, broad rolling hills speckled with limestone outcroppings, and massive, dark brown bison grazing contentedly. I stand where the buffalo roam.

It’s a long way to just about anywhere from Fort Larned. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

I remember a ranger’s warning to keep a football field’s distance between them and me. Even so, the scene is exhilarating, and I am transported across time. I think of the Indigenous peoples who once shared this same vista, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa (or Kaw). They treated the Flint Hills as a communal hunting ground and shared source for flint stone.

Not far from here, government emissaries struck deals with the Osage and Kansa tribes to allow passage along the Santa Fe Trail. But the one-time payments of trade goods and a few hundred dollars pale in comparison to this rich expanse of flowering grasslands and windswept skies.

Back in the car, I continue following Highway 56 to Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided military protection of the trade route during the so-called Indian Wars. Soldiers stationed here in tight, cramped quarters were dubbed “The Guardians of The Santa Fe Trail.”

Looking through the doorways of the officers’ rooms, I survey the home goods displayed: beds with linen sheets and wool blankets, wooden desks and chairs with leather seats, metal coffee pots and fine china, leather-bound books and glass kerosene lamps. Whether by civilian settlers or by military soldiers, Americans carried such items with them as they marched west across the country.

The signpost at the fort says I am 285 miles west of Independence, which I passed through yesterday in my car. This distance would have taken three weeks by freight wagon, or six days for those Native Americans once riding horseback across the green rolling hills, intentionally traveling light.

Day 6 | Frontier Towns

At one time the most important cattle-drive destination in the country, Dodge City still celebrates its cowboy roots and its Wild West frontier reputation, complete with a Boot Hill cemetery (like the ones in Deadwood and Tombstone) named for the many men who “died with their boots on,” meeting sudden, violent ends. Dodge City wasn’t even incorporated until 1872, a perilous resupply stop for anyone on the Santa Fe Trail, at least until Wyatt Earp became the town marshal in 1876.

Carnivorous plants populate the Sundew Trail. Courtesy of Mary Kay Manning, NPS

He squints.

“They’re pretty hard to find,” he says sympathetically.

He pulls out a map of Sundew Trail and a highlighter. “I’ve seen pitcher plants along the trail here,” and he traces a stretch, “and some along the powerline clearing. You might find sundews right here, at the start,” and he adds another yellow mark, “but honestly – look….” He quickly pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of a sundew.

“Oh, they’re tiny!” I exclaim. “I thought they’d be bigger. No wonder they’re hard to find.”

“Mm-hmm.” He nods. His photo includes a coin for comparison; the plant is smaller than the quarter. “Some are dime-sized.”

 

Sundew plants are small and hard to spot without some effort. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

Suddenly, Big Thicket feels immense — a vast, watery world filled with millions of living beings. How will I ever spot this small life within such a massive tangle of growth?

He smiles encouragingly. “If you don’t mind getting your feet wet, there’s a whole patch of them right out here at the roadside ditch, right where you drove in. That’s where I took this picture, just yesterday.”

I thank him for the tip.

I lace up my boots. Tramping carefully out into the mushy ditch, I bend low, peering through the ground-cover of pine needles and dead leaves, focusing in on this miniature biome that I completely overlooked as I entered the preserve. After several minutes of searching, I notice something glinting in the sun. Turning, I catch a shine again, and a hint of red under the rusty-colored pine needles. Squatting, I spy a sundew.

Readjusting my vision, now I see them everywhere before me. The little rosettes have fleshy stems and leaves covered in miniscule red bristles that appear to end in shiny dewdrops.