Westward ho! I'm heading out West this week, checking out other people's gardens as I go. I drove down the Santa Fe Trail several years ago when I gave a lecture to the Santa Fe Trail Symposium, in McPherson, KS. I drove about half of the trail and the result of that trip was my little book, Herbal Medicines of the Santa Fe Trail. On that trip I photographed a lot of plants, and acquired a serious addiction to fire roasted peppers. (More on that later).
The Santa Fe Trail was totally about commerce, trade and making money. It was the Wal-Mart and Hunts Trucking of its time. The U.S. had just taken the land that is now southern California, all of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and a piece of Kansas and Oklahoma, away from Mexico. That done, traders set out into "our" new land. Never mind that the Native people were quite happy here, both the Plains Indians, and their cousins, the people of Mexico.
That's a representational statue in Kansas City, of Massasoit, a Wampanoag Indian, who likely wouldn't have given the Pilgrims that first mouthful of food had he known what was in store for his people. But he did share food with the visitors and they reproduced and kept moving Westward. The Santa Fe Trail existed between 1822 and 1846 and carried freight between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Trail began near St. Joseph, Missouri, down through Independence and on through Dodge City, then the Trail splits into the Cimmaron Cutoff, through the corner of Oklahoma, and the Mountain Route, that headed farther west to Bent's Fort in southern Colorado, near the present town of La Junta, where I stopped for the day. Tomorrow I visit Bent's Fort, which has a gift shop that sells my books.
Tonight, though, I visited one of my favorite (ok, I've just visited it once before, years ago, but it instantly became a favorite) restaurants - the Hoggs' Breath Saloon. The sign says Boss Hogg, simply because Clint Eastwood, it turned out, owns the trademark rights to Hog's Breath and in order to not be sued, the Hoggs Breath folks, changed their name since I was here last. What do you eat in the Hoggs Breath Saloon? Steaks, of course, it's cattle country. What did I eat? The salad bar, an order of Snake Eggs (jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) with a plate full of Mountain Oysters. If you have to ask what that is, you don't want to know.
Lots of the trading that took place had a strong impact on those who lived at either end of the Trail. Lea & Perrins Worchestershire Sauce, went southwest. Cayenne pepper made its entry into medicine in the East during that time, traveling back up the Trail. The addition of cayenne pepper helped the body absorb other medicines faster, just as it is sometimes used today. You can read all about medicines of that period, and how they changed because of the Trail and it's commerce in my little book if you are interested.
I pushed right on through Dodge City, which someone called, "Branson, without the music and a lot of fake tombstones and faux gunfighters." I drove highway 50, which mostly follows the original Trail along the Arkansas River. There are pull asides where you can still view the wagon tracks. They're just variations and folds in the prairie, but after those thousands of wagons went back and forth, compacting the soil, there are still different plants that grow in those tracks. Hopefully, if you click on the photos to enlarge them, you can see the variations in the grasses.
Kansas doesn't have a wide variety of wildflowers this time of year, mostly varieties of native sunflowers, some beautiful blue flowered salvia and lots of liatris (those are the purple spikes at the top of the page). Tumbleweeds are still green and are simply innocent looking weeds along the roadside. But come fall, a good heavy frosty night, and those waist sized weeds will curl into balls of stickery, stiff mobile objects. When the limbs curl inward, making the ball shape, the stem at the base of the ground weakens, and at the first wind - the wind blows a lot out here - that weed becomes a rolling ball of stickers that you won't want to be in the way of.
You have to dodge them on the highway, they pile up against the fences and buildings and can be a real pest. But of course, from the tumbleweed's point of view, it's how they spread their seed and get ready for next season. (No, those aren't tumbleweeds pictured, but some variety of perennial sunflower cousin that lines the roads).
I also found evidence of what really won the West, a piece of it laying in the road as I was walking off the plate of mountain oysters and eating my dessert of a local Colorado peach. Copenhagen, the label says, "since 1822" which means it came on the Santa Fe Trail. More about what else came on the Trail another day.