Garrison Keillor & Friends: Crossing the flats, looking for mountains

In homage to my ancestor David Powell, I rode a train across Kansas heading for Colorado, his goal in 1859 when he left Martha Ann and the children behind in Missouri and headed for the gold rush. Kansas is a state of vastness, some of it seems undisturbed since David rode across it. Here is a little farm near the tracks with no neighbor for several miles. A good place for an introvert like me. I could tow a trailer out on the treeless prairie and pull the shades and sit there and slowly go insane, buy a couple rifles with scopes, and yell at the TV about government oppression.

David was an extrovert. He was a leader of his wagon train and organized the lashing of wagons together to cross the rivers. He hunted antelope with the Arapaho and traded with them. He arrived in Colorado too late to get rich and instead sat in the territorial legislature and helped draft a state constitution. At age 62, an old man in those times, he settled in Kansas and wrote to his children: “I built a house 21r x 24r, one-story of pickets, shingle roof, 6 windows and 2 doors, divided and will be when finished one like my house in MO. Dug a well 20 feet deep, plenty of water, and put up a stable for 10 head of stock, covered with hay. We have done very well with oats and I have 25 tons of timothy hay, not yet sold. I am very comfortable, the times are fair here in Kansas, we are all well except for a touch of influenza. Our love and best wishes to all, yours affectionately.”

I assume the r means rods, which would be a considerable structure for an old man to build. What I admire is the cheerful tone. He is the father of eleven kids, including Isaac Newton Powell and Harriet Beecher Powell, which indicates he was a progressive. There are no references to the Lord in the letters, so he was not an evangelical, maybe a free-thinker.

Kansas flew past me, long stretches of brush and wild grassland as we headed west under an overcast sky, the train rocking as we rolled, an occasional coulee, no crossroads for miles and miles. David hoped to strike it rich but recognized the reality of the situation and set out to be useful instead and was elected mayor of Pueblo. Last week, as the train rolled through the first of the foothills, I wanted my man to talk to me and tell me what to do with my remaining days.

I am very comfortable, as he was, and married well, likewise, which is more than an old rounder deserves, but I have flashes of big ambition, which is lunacy for a gentleman of the geezer class. A screenplay? Get over yourself. A movie in which ordinary small-town Midwesterners suddenly burst into song about the simple pleasures of summer? It’s 2023, pal. That movie was outdated around the time you were born. What a man your age should do is accept the diminutions of age and find a shady porch and reread the classics of his youth, Oliver Twist and Anna Karenina and Walden, War and Peace, Walt Whitman, and see what more they have to say.

Time passed. I awoke from a nap. We were in the hills and canyons now. A tunnel through a mountain. I dozed off. I was awakened by the conductor’s voice on the loudspeaker: “Next station stop, Pueblo. This will be a brief stop, three minutes. Feel free to step down off the train but don’t wander off. We’ll be boarding in three minutes.” So I stepped off into brilliant sunshine. Cool air, we were almost at 7,000 feet. A sandy lot and the main drag and a short row of brick storefronts. I don’t think David came west for the money, I think it was for the pleasure of venturing into the unknown, and when he saw the mob of would-be miners he quickly got busy elsewhere, including Pueblo.

I was looking for his advice and I only had three minutes and I’m pretty sure it was succinct and sweet: Leave the big chances to the young ones and live your life, counting the days, applying your heart unto wisdom, cherish what you love, take no meetings, go for long walks. And the conductor yelled, “BOARD,” drawing out the O just as in David’s day, and the whistle blew and onward we went.