Getting Out of Dodge

by Mark Dvorak

“The map sings,” wrote Alan Lomax in his introduction to The Folk Songs of North America. And since leaving last Wednesday, many songs have come to mind on the road headed west.

Driving down Interstate 55 toward Springfield, and crossing the “broad” Illinois River, the “sandy” Kankakee, and the “rocky” Mackinaw, I remembered again Win Stracke’s “Down By the Embarass.” It’s an Illinois folk classic adapted from the cowboy song, “Down By the Brazos.” 

This particular part of Interstate 55 replaced the old Route 66, which used to run all the way “from Chicago to L.A.,” as Nat King Cole sang in Bobby Troup’s 1946 hit song.

And Route 36 runs all the way from Hannibal to St. Joseph, clear across the northern part of Missouri. Passing through St. Joe, I couldn’t help but recall the familiar, “Ballad of Jesse James.” Back in the 1880s, James was killed by former ally turned Pinkerton agent Robert Ford in house in St. Joseph. I visited that house years ago, as well as James’ boyhood home in nearby Kearny.

Driving south out of St. Joseph, Route 59 crosses the wide Missouri into Atchison, Kansas. Compared to a typical western river, the Missouri really is wide, and the oddly beautiful shanty, “Shenandoah” as we know it, was apparently morphed into existence by singing boatsmen who found new work on this very majestic and winding waterway.

About an hour southwest of Atchison is the capital of Kansas, Topeka. Atchison and Topeka are connected by rail, a line that comes all the way up from Santa Fe, New Mexico. The three cities represent the basis for the name of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, and are also included in the title of the great Johnny Mercer song from the 1940s, “On the Athison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” 

For several reasons, I don’t often listen to CDs while driving cross-country. I mostly scan the radio and yesterday morning, just outside Atchison, I was able to pick up the university station out of Lawrence. And rolling across these sweeping prairies on a beautiful summer morning, I was surprised and very pleased to hear the recording of Townes Van Zandt singing “Columbine.” It’s from Townes’ first lp on Tomato, released in 1970. Columbine is a wildflower and it is common in parts of Colorado or so I read, and Townes sings of its beauty and vulnerability.

His metaphor is plain and evocative, and I have loved “Columbine” for years. In a way, hearing it again ruined the rest of the listening morning. Townes’ imagery and straightforward melody were simply captivating. Everything else the station played afterwards came across sounding hasty or forced, or merely commercial.

It was afternoon already, and the sky was high, the fields bright in sunshine, and it was hot. I stopped for coffee in Junction City, and when I climbed back into the truck, I left the radio off. For a long time, I preferred the sounds of the motor grinding west, and the whistle of the wind. After some time, I finally succumbed, clicked the dial and scanned until the sounds of a classical station came in.

A beautiful string piece was playing, stirring and delicate. The music drifted above the growl of the road and wind, and somehow complemented the swaying rhythm of the passing trees and  cornfields. It spoke of an ancient darkness and summoned the same deepening melancholy that sometimes comes along on road trips like this one.

The announcer said it was Dvorak’s “Romance in F Minor,” performed by Malcom Stewart on violin with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Antonin Dvorak was a Czech composer during the Romantic Period. He’s probably best remembered for his “New World Symphony,” composed in 1893 after spending a summer in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” and the folk ballad, “Jesse James” were born only eleven years apart, each a personal reflection from living on the prairie, each as enduring as big bluestem.

The welcome sign at the north end of Abilene, Kansas proudly announces that Abilene is the birthplace of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was also a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II, and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.

I stopped for a sandwich. Abilene isn’t the prettiest town I’ve ever seen, but it is mighty pretty. Abilene is a railroad town located in the heart of cattle country. After lunch, I walked around the downtown and wound up at the historic train station. There the blended smells of diesel fuel and cattle dung added a curious note to the clean Kansas air.

There is also an Abilene in Texas, and I wondered if the two might somehow be related. I also wondered if Bob Gibson wrote the song, “Abilene” from scratch, or if he adapted it from some older piece. “Abilene” was a big hit for a country singer named George Hamilton IV in the early 1960s.

By the time I pulled into Dodge City the hot sun still cut like a razor. I found a suitable motor inn on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, within walking distance to the historic downtown district. The temperature on the thermometer outside the hotel read ninety-eight and I learned that tomorrow was the opening of Dodge City Days, the annual week-long celebration that includes everything from car shows to wild-west reenactments. I stowed my luggage and instruments and began to walk eastward, toward downtown.

Dodge City became perhaps the wildest of the Wild West frontier towns, after the railroad and the cattle business had reached its borders. The town was divided in half by the railroad. On the north side of the tracks, guns were not permitted. But it was “anything goes” on the south side. Whiskey, lawlessness, prostitutes and gamblers followed the cowboys and buyers to Dodge City each cattle season.

The downtown area of Dodge is inviting. It is appointed like an 1870s cow town, with covered sidewalks and wood planking. I passed the Boot Hill Museum, whose main building and miniature Wild-West village are contained by a tall brick and wrought-iron fence. Three tourist busses idled in the parking lot while their passengers supped under a big tent within the main area.

While envisioning a juicy steak and cold draft beer for supper, the melodramatic theme song from the old television show Gunsmoke, played in my mind. It brought forth an array of images and characters from TV westerns and the movies. I glimpsed the tables of tourists gobbling down their plate suppers of brisket, potato salad and corn on the cob. I could still hear their talking and laughter as I continued down Front Street, where I encountered a sidewalk medallion of the actor James Arness, whose character Matt Dillion, was the hero of Gunsmoke. Arness, and other actors, actual lawmen and real cowboys are all part of Dodge’s walking tour, “The Trail of Fame.”

I found a place to eat, took my table, and a weird, inner disagreement began to take place. I opened my notebook and began to write. Uneven paragraphs about perception and reality found their way across the lined pages. I jotted comments on the importance of historic fact, and reflected again on the role of mythology as a clamor of country music spilled from the speakers. This was going nowhere. The young man waiting my table brought my supper, and I returned pen and notebook to my bag. I took out my book and felt grateful for a hot meal after a very long day in the saddle.

I left the restaurant and began walking westward, back toward the hotel. The sun was an orange glow behind a veil of purple and pink windswept clouds. Traffic zipped by on Wyatt Earp Boulevard and a good song came to mind. I have no idea when Woody Guthrie wrote it, but I heard Woody’s son Arlo, sing it on the fourth record I ever bought in my life. I have loved it ever since.

Lay down little dogies, lay down

we both gotta sleep on the cold, cold ground

the wind’s blowin colder, and the sun’s goin down

lay down little dogies, lay down

We hit this old beef trail just twno months ago

we blistered in the sun and we froze in the snow

in ten days we’re comin to a packing house town

lay down little dogies, lay down

This Dodge City Trail is a hard road to go

up the Texas flatlands from old Mexico

I got dust in my eyes and mud in my nose

lay yourselves down, little dogies lay down

A bad hole of water, we drunk and got sick

curled up our tails, tied our hair back in kinks

we got lost in a blind canyon tippy-toein around

lay down little dogies, lay down

Here now we’ve come to the end of our trail

your hair, hide and carcass to the stockyards I’ll sell

I’ll see you in a tin can when you get shipped around

lay down little dogies, lay down


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