Move over, Wyatt Earp. A new Marshal is riding into town. He may not have any skills with a pistol, but he’s fully loaded with enthusiasm. He doesn’t know how to ride a horse, but he sits astride the West’s most steadfast steed. Dodge City, place 73 of 92, is up!
Monday, June 24th, 2019
Somewhere east of Dodge City, Kansas
My first night back in the tent in some months was less than exhilarating. The random aches in the back, the foggy mind, the mosquito bites around my ankles; all of these things seemed to hearken back to an earlier stage of this journey.
Additionally today I would be rolling into a song place unaccompanied for the first time since Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. No friends or family. No support vehicle. No Mom leaning into the curves with me. Just a grizzled, worn drifter looking for a post to hitch his trusty steed.
Known as “The Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier,” or “The Sodom of the West,” Dodge City was perhaps the Wild West’s wildest town. It is the setting for the long running show Gunsmoke and the true stories of this place may be even crazier than the fictional ones.
This is the land of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson; of saloon shootouts and shallow graves; of cattle drives and can-can dances. Needless to say, I’d been looking forward to visiting this place.
Dodge City is the final location mentioned in the song (unless someone can find “Whatapity” on the map) and it would be number 73 of the 92 for me.
For this first day, my only goal was to not take any pictures. I was (and still am!) really far behind in my writing, so I spent a long time camped out at a McDonald’s on Wyatt Earp Blvd. This too felt like a return to the “classical era” of this trip: Sausage burritos, a tall black coffee, a rat’s nest of cables, clothing layers strewn about, Annie securely in view and friendly people asking, “is that your bike out there?” It was good to be “home.”
I had a really productive day and also rode around enough to get my bearings of the town. It is not a big city, with less than 30,000 inhabitants, but I would come to discover just how much history could be packed into a place like this.
One interesting thing I found was the state of the Arkansas “River.” In Wichita, just 180 miles or so away, it looked like this:
But in Dodge City, there was not even a trickle running. It appeared to be pretty much a playground for off road vehicles. I’m still not sure what caused this stark contrast. Over irrigation maybe?
I opted for urban stealth camping for the night, finding a protected spot next to a row of trees by the soccer fields. Sleeping in a spot like this was another thing which I hadn’t done in awhile. I was not disturbed during the night, so it was nice to know that I hadn’t lost my touch.
Tuesday, June 25th
I had emailed the Visitor’s Center prior to my arrival. A nice lady named Jan, who I unfortunately did not get to meet, was helpful to me in many ways. Dodge City has a trolley tour gives a comprehensive overview of the city’s history. Jan gave me my pass for free, which was an unexpected blessing.
Being the humble person that I am, I tried to show my comped pass to as many people as I could. They needed to know what a big deal I am. 🙂
I was really impressed with how well Dodge City has transformed itself into a tourist destination. There’s not a major metro area close, but they still have been able to attract visitors from all over. The visitor’s center had a steady flow of traffic and the parking lot for the Boot Hill museum was consistently filled.
I was a bit chagrined, however, to learn that their official slogan was the same title that I had been planning to use for this post weeks before my visit.
No need to change it, I guess. Great minds think alike. 🙂
I’m going to do something a little different in this post. Instead of going step-by-step of what I did that day, I am going to try to tell the story of Dodge City in chronological order. We’ll see how this goes:
A number of nomadic Native American tribes were the first people in the Dodge City area. Where the buffalo went, they followed, as the animal was their source of food, clothing and even fuel for their fires (buffalo chips).
The first European incursion into the area was by the Spaniard Francisco Coronado’s expedition in 1541. East of Dodge City a large cross stands, commemorating the first Christian service in the interior of the continent. The Spaniards were the first ones to introduce the horse to the Native Americans.
There wasn’t a permanent European settlement in the area until Fort Dodge was constructed in 1865. It is five miles to the east of modern day Dodge City. It was constructed to protect the people and goods traveling along the Santa Fe Trail. At this time, the railroad only went to Hays, Kansas. Anything west of there had to move overland.
By 1872, alcoholism at Fort Dodge had gotten out of control. The commandant mandated that alcohol could no longer be sold within five miles of the fort. An entrepreneurial Canadian named George Hoover got a wagon load of whiskey, measured out exactly five miles, set up a few boards and started selling alcohol. It only took a couple of weeks for other shops to be built nearby. This became Dodge City.
The tracks of the Santa Fe rail line reached Dodge City in the same year. It was at this point that the city boomed due to the trading of buffalo hides. Before Europeans arrived, the number of Plains bison is estimated to have been around 100 million. For comparison, there are an estimated 25 million whitetail deer currently in the United States.
They were hunted to near extinction (only around 1,000 remained) over the course of just a few decades. A successful day’s hunt could net a hunter $3,000 in today’s numbers. Seen in that light, perhaps you could say that it wasn’t just the hunters who killed the buffalo. Eastern demand was just as responsible. (More on this in my upcoming post on Hennessey, OK)
As there were lots of people with way too much money and absolutely no law and order, chaos ensued in Dodge City. To deal with rabble, experienced lawmen were brought in, such as Wyatt Earp.
Gradually, order began to arrive in Dodge City, though not completely. The lawmen patrolled the “civilized” area north of the railroad tracks, where no firearms or brothels were allowed. But south of the tracks, chaos still reigned supreme. The Boot Hill Museum has recreated the Main Street (north of the tracks) during this era.
Boot Hill was where burials took place for people who didn’t have the money or clout to be buried at Fort Dodge. People who “died with their boots on.”
A fun anecdote about this area was that the conductor of the city’s “Cowboy Band” used a pistol as his baton. I don’t really like to stereotype, but doesn’t everyone know a trombone player who looks exactly like this?:
In my previous post about Wichita, I mentioned that it was a final destination for drives of Texas longhorn cattle. That changed in 1876. The longhorns brought a disease that infected the local Kansas cattle. Accordingly, the Kansas legislature progressively moved the line where the Texas cattle where permitted to the west. With the movement of this line in 1876, Dodge City became the closest destination to get Texas cattle on a train to Eastern markets. This caused the city to boom like never before.
A year later, Dodge City had 16 saloons for only 1,000 people. The most popular was the Long Branch, which is recreated at the museum.
I had a great conversation with the bartender and the piano player as I sipped on a sarsaparilla.
They agreed to do a period correct “no smiling” picture for me, but I ruined it by including the Bud Lite tap in the frame. I’m such an amateur! 🙂
“Doc” Holliday came to town in 1878. He was a dentist during the day and played cards at night, taking advantage of fresh paid, low skilled cowboys. He is still sitting playing cards today:
Until 1885, Dodge City was the destination for the Texas cattle drives. No other city had this designation for longer. For this reason it is referred to as “Queen of the Cowtowns.”
It was not just the cowboys who would keep the cattle in check. A longhorn steer would usually establish itself as the leader of the herd. Some longhorns were so good at this that they were shipped back down to Texas to lead subsequent drives. There is a wonderful sculpture of these longhorns called “El Capitan” which pays them tribute.
A unique site in the city is the “Home of Stone” which was built in 1881.
I received a fascinating guided tour and learned all about the home’s history. It is unique in that it has only had two owners. By 1965, it had already been sold to the county to become a museum. Because of this, it never really fell into disrepair and still maintains its original charm and character.
One of the original cranberry glass doors.
Well-cut exterior walls:
The final resident had one request when she sold the house: That the original master bedroom be dedicated to telling the story of pioneer women. These unsung heroes are perhaps the party most responsible for the survival of western culture on the harsh plains. It was the perfect place to take a picture of my wonderful guides.
A Spanish style Catholic Cathedral was built in 1915.
The mural of the crucifixion is unique in many ways. It was created to with many Kansas elements mixed in. The character in the foreground has Native American features, the horse is a Pinto and a prevailing southern wind is blowing through the scene.
Dodge City was the setting for many Western movies and TV shows all throughout the 20th Century. The legend of the place and personalities has almost seemed to grow stronger as time wears on.
In 1960 a good friend of mine served as the honorary marshal:
Today, Dodge City is still a “Cowtown.” With numerous feed lots and packing plants, beef is still the main driver of its economy. Refreshingly, the city seems to take pride in this fact. The trolley tour even drives right through a feed lot.
Additionally, coming into town there is a “scenic overlook” featuring a feed yard. I’ve been a lot of places, but I’ve never seen that before.
Alright, I’m going to jump out of the chronological storytelling back to my regular style. I hope that didn’t feel too “academic” from the reader’s perspective. Given the depth of history of Dodge City, I felt like it was appropriate for the post.
I definitely knew the picture that I wanted to represent Dodge City: The recreation of Front Street at the Boot Hill Museum. I knew that it might be a tall task to get Annie into the museum, but I tried really tried hard. I spent hours writing emails and making phone calls, but I could not get it done. I never heard a solid “no,” but I never got to talk with someone who could authorize it.
However, the picture I wanted was not really available anyway. There is lots of construction going on, so it is not possible to get a good view of Front Street. The angle would have been something like this.
I was a little disappointed, but I think I still have a few good options. The “El Captian” sculpture photo is pretty good. I also like the town sign picture I got:
I don’t think I was supposed to be up there, but I’ll do most anything to get the shot I need. 🙂
I headed south out of town feeling like I had experienced Dodge City to a thorough degree. I’m so glad it was included in the song.
Oddly enough, this stretch was possibly the most time I’ve ever spent in Kansas. Though it neighbors my home state, I’m usually just passing through on the way to somewhere else. It’s kind of like Nebraska, except with the thermostat up a few degrees and much less gluten-free.
(Annie is in tire tracks in the photo above. I didn’t just ride into a field.)
Perhaps the only thing I can say negative about Kansas is the quality of their gasoline. You could say they put the “um…” in “premium.” I had a consistent drop in my efficiency (12-15%) with just about every tank of gas in the state. There is no ethanol labeling law in the state, so they can mix in any amount of alcohol, Mountain Dew or apple juice without posting it on the pump. There’s no way to tell what you are getting. Fill up in Oklahoma if at all possible.
I found a free campsite for the night at a place called Clark State Lake. It is an unexpected oasis in the middle of a dry, flat area.
I accidentally took a road that was closed to get to the camping area, but it was a lot of fun.
Nothing says “I’ve Been Everywhere” like cold beans in a tent. 🙂
Wednesday, June 26th
I had a terrible night, mostly due to a two hour battle of wits against a local field mouse. Ultimately, it ended in a draw. Though he was not able to successfully infiltrate my tent, he feasted on a multitude of strategically placed food items that I left as distractions. Well played, little mouse.
Groggy and stiff, I loaded up Annie and headed south. The next border would be our next area of exploration: Oklahoma.
19 to go!
Stay wild, everybody
Realtime update: I’m staying with some new friends in NE Louisiana. I still have a lot to catch up on: Hennessey, Texarkana and Shreveport are all complete. From here I will be heading down to Ferriday, my next song place. Since “Louisiana,” the state, is mentioned in the song, I will be doing some exploring down here. This will probably include some time in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. After that, Houston will be up. More to come!