Monthly Archives: August 2014

Starvation Trail

Map adapted from Historic trail map of the Limon 1° x 2° quadrangle, Colorado and Kansas Limited anniversary edition of the historic trail maps of Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico / by Glenn R. Scott

Map adapted from Historic trail map of the Limon 1° x 2° quadrangle, Colorado and Kansas Limited anniversary edition of the historic trail maps of Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico / by Glenn R. Scott

Some of what its founders planned came to fruition in Atchison in 1858. They’d long believed its geographic position, being a few miles west than any other town along the river in Kansas (Le Grande Detour de Missouri, as the French explorers called it) positioned it to attract emigrants heading overland to the farther West. Mormons used the area for outfitting heavily in 1854, and many other wagon trains followed suit from 1855-1857, but in 1858 the business exploded. Due to one word: gold. In July men who had camped where what would one day become Confluence Park in Denver (through which I ride my bike twice a day) found gold a few miles south (very near my father’s house in SE Denver). And it was on, so to speak. The Pikes Peak Gold Rush had begun.

Atchison was a big part of it. That summer over a thousand men and nearly eight-thousand oxen pulled over seven-hundred wagons out of the rutted streets of Atchison, bound for Denver and Colorado City (Ingalls, 1916). And these were but a fraction of the numbers preparing to leave in the summer of ’59, man and animal and machine sinking into the ruts and mud, tipping the earth into the mighty river astern while the men toppled over the grassy bow pointing West, ever west. But how best to get there? There were several routes out of Atchison, the most popular being to follow the Oregon Trail and the South Platte River. The Santa Fe Trail could also be used, striking north from Bent’s Fort in what is now southern Colorado. Both were somewhat indirect, and in the spring of 1859 word spread that a more direct middle route had been found. Now known as the Smoky Hill Trail, it runs largely parallel to and few miles south of what is now Interstate-70, a route I have driven countless times. It was a dangerous, poorly-marked and under-provisioned trail in 1859, and one need only make that drive once to see how scary it probably was. Between Fort Riley near Manhattan, KS, and Limon, CO, there is little. Little anything. Water, wood, notable features in the landscape. For the inexperienced traveler, which most of the 59ers were, it was just a bad, bad idea.

Many were undeterred, however, due in part to all kinds of press that the route was actually easier and saved some 100 miles off the northern and southern options. As many things in Kansas in the 1850s, newspaper reports were somewhat unreliable, to say the least. And if Ft. Riley to Limon was hard, west of Limon was worse. This section became known as “Starvation Trail.” Though it actually took place somewhat east of this section, part of its nickname came from the horrible story of a party of 16 Pikes Peakers that included three brothers, Daniel, Alexander and Charles Blue. Only 5 of the 16 reached Denver, and the Blue brothers were forced to eat the remains of a man named Solely. Daniel was saved by a band of Arapaho Indians (Blue, 1860). It isn’t the only story of cannibalism in Colorado history (see Alfred Packer’s story), but it’s a particularly horrible one. The Smoky Hill originated where my great-grandfather’s blacksmith shop (which would become my grandfather’s hardware store) in Atchison, and terminates where I caught a bus everyday during college, and with my wife as we left downtown for our City Park apartment when we were first married. It literally links my past and my present, and has a lot of great stories to tell. You can bet it will be included in the Second Song.

Is Something Wrong With Section 16?

I have spent a lot of my life camping and backpacking, so I’m on some levtractbookel familiar with the process of choosing a spot, as it were–deciding where the tent goes, the fire, etc. And I’ve noticed how quasi-irrevocable this choice is; it seems despite the rock in your back, the fact the wind blows the smoke at the tent, or that the spot is a muddy pool every time it rains, you don’t move it. You made your bed and now you lie in it.

I can only imagine how the early settlers of Kansas chose their spots. Speculators may have chosen based on where they thought railways would be laid, or future towns. The poorer, simpler settlers in 1854, 1855, I’m sure, looked for hardwood and native stone so they could build a cabin. And most probably cared quite a lot about the quality of the soil and access to water. Proximity to like-minded people also mattered–one wouldn’t want to be the sole Free Stater in a Pro Slavery township. German and Irish immigrants tended to congregate, like my great-great grandparents, who settled next to families named “Kelley,” “McMahon,” and “Farrell” in a community that years later would come to be known as “Irish Point.”

But their spot, which I believe to be the SE 1/4 of Section 16, Range 20, Township 5, Atchison County, seems to have been one of the last spots chosen in Irish Point. I’ve written about this before and how it’s great fodder for writing. These gaps among facts I often want to leave as they are so I can fill them with fiction. But sometimes the historian and librarian in me comes forth, and I want to know the facts.

Many of the land sales in territorial Kansas were recorded in Kansas Tract Books, which detailed transfer of ownership from the government to private parties. But again, I find Section 16 empty. Section 15 and 17 have detailed records, and many of the sections in Irish Point were sold as early as 1855 (October being a popular month, perhaps because Kuhn had come through the neighborhood by then?). Why? Was there really a dispute over this section that delayed its sale, as I portray to some extent in the first novel and expand in the second? Or was something wrong with Section 16? Could court records help? Are there other tract books available through the county?

I will keep looking to satisfy my inner historian, but in the meantime will keep writing my own reality for Section 16, and it may just have to involve something other-worldly.

Magic In History

bloghop button 2014I didn’t learn how to read until college. Not literally (in the sense of phonemes and word recognition), but literally (admittedly misusing the word here, but in the sense of learning how to greater appreciate great texts). I learned to read with purpose, with a deep appreciation that can only come through reading mindfully, almost meditatively. This sort of reading, I learned, uncovers a more meaningful, transcendent text that somehow manages to exist above, below, and in the spaces among the words on the page. I wish we had a word for this sort of reading in English, similar to the distinction between “hearing” and “listening.” I may have learned to read in grammar school, but it wasn’t until college that I really learned how to–really–read.

And yet, by the end of my degree I found some aspects of studying literature weren’t for me. Despite it opening volumes of subtext to me, once opened, I felt we were murdering to dissect, as it were. Welcomed into this new imaginary garden, I felt I was trampling the real toads in them, to borrow Marianne Moore’s famous phrase. Categorizations and genre studies put unnecessary boundaries around works of art (a great irony now that I am a librarian). And so, the first time I heard “magic realism,” I probably rolled my eyes and guffawed. After some threshold, studying literature began to ruin literature for me, and it took years cure myself of it.

But the first time I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this passage opened up yet another world to me:

“A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

Ah, so that is what they mean by “magic realism!” I thought. Those flowers did fall. They must have. The genre now had a pulse, and I tend to agree with Zoe Brooks that “magic realism is not a genre, but a way of approaching writing fiction.” In some ways its also an way of approaching many things. In fact, I experience almost all art in this way: it calls into being the magic of reality, the magic that is already and always there, just under the surface, just above our heads, disappearing as soon as we focus on it, like the faintest of stars. Magic is the ineffable.

In many respects, that is also how I perceive history, and why I write the sort of historical fiction (“touched by magic realism,” I am told) that I do.

Song of the Jayhawk is definitely an historical novel. I’ve taken great pains over several years to portray historical characters, and the events that forged their fame, as accurately as possible.The major exception would be that a giant bird runs about my novel, twisting the story in dark directions. Kansas in the 1850s, I believe, had no giant mythical bird running about.

Or did it?

It did, like every time and every place, have a myth. A past. Subconscious motivations. Hidden agendas. A removed people, the Kanza, who told tales of Mialueka–monsters with giant beaks who led warriors into dark woods, or to rivers, and they never returned. In other words, the past had a past. One that influences the present like the moon does the ocean; like any unseen force of nature acts upon the world. As I write in the introduction, I have long delighted in wondering if the Mialueka were the inspiration for the infamous Kansas “jayhawk.” The librarian and historian in me believe not, but the writer knows it is so. It simply must be.

To me, this is what is magic about history, and reality. The reality that transcends our understanding of reality. And in the Second Song, I plan on opening the gates to this garden a bit more, and hopefully I’ll find a few more real toads in there.


This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.


1. Resources for Magic Realism Fiction – Magic Realism Books Blog
2. Magic Realism Keeping It Real – Latimer’s Library
3. Free Magic Realism Short Stories and Books – Magic Realism Books
4. Is it or isn’t it magic realism? – News and Musings From Violet Hills Productions
5. A Death by Whispers Released by Joel Seath
6. They Come At Night – by Joel D Hirst
7. Shadowy Realistic Fantasy: Magical Realism, Mythic Fiction and Myth Punk – by Marsha Moore
8. Ivy Dreams – Teagan Kearney’s Writing My Novel blog
9. What Magic Realism Means to Me – Zoe Brooks Books & Things
10. Magic Realism -How I See It. by Feather Stone
11. Allonym Books – Evie Woolmore On The Six Senses
12. Synasthesia and the Spectral Locomotive – Eilis Phillips blog
13. I Believe It’s Magic on Kathy Bryson’s blog
14. Accepting the Magic in Magic Realism on Confessions of a Fan Girl blog
15. Voices in the Canyon; Magic or Real on Dennis Vickers’ Blog
16. Magic Realism and Me on Yvonne Hertzberger’s Blog
17. Solitude on C E Medford’s blog
18. Fractures in the Sky, Lines in the Dirt on Karen Wyld’s blog
19. Magic in History – Song of the Jay Hawk
20. Master and Margarita by Bulgakov – Magic Realism Books
21. Cadell Blackstock responds to Leigh Podgorski – Allonym Books
22. We Were All Lost Things – The Ends Don’t Tie with Bunny Rabbits
23. Labelling Magic Realism Discussion Continues – Magic Realism Books
24. Ode to Magic Realism on Rhymes with Camera Blog
25. Murielle Cyr’s blog