Modes of travel

One of the stories that I heard early in my time of serving in Rapid City came from one of the elders of our community. Emma Tibbetts was probably ten of fifteen years older than my mother. She was the daughter of missionaries that worked among Lakota people in the Dakotas in the 19th Century. Once, when I was visiting her, she told of a trip her family took when she was a child. They went from Cannon Ball, North Dakota to Santee, Nebraska for the mission meeting of the Dakota Association. The trip is about 400 miles along side of the Missouri River. They made the trip without crossing the river, staying on the west side of it as it flowed. Sometimes they traveled right along side the river on the river bottom. In other places, they climbed to the top of the breaks and traveled across the prairie. I took them three weeks to make the trip one way. Each day they would rise, eat breakfast, break camp and travel until the sun went down when they would set up camp, cook dinner and sleep on the ground. They averaged around 20 miles per day in their travel.

Today, it would be considered a short day to drive between the two locations. The quickest route would involve crossing the river on permanent bridges twice. There is now a dam that creates a lake on the river, one of a series of dams along the Missouri. There are areas where it is impossible to travel the exact path taken by Emma and her family because those places are now under the lake formed by the dam. In other places, the division of land means that fences and other barriers lie in the path they had taken.

I don’t know the details of the trip. I don’t even know if it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or one that they took several times. I suppose that they had some kind of a tent to provide protection from inclement weather, but I don’t even know if that was the case. What I do know is that there weren’t any restaurants or hotels on their agenda. They slept under the stars most nights and carried essential provisions with them as they traveled. Most likely, they didn’t have to carry much water. They traveled alongside a mighty river that, in those days, had water that was safe to drink.

When Lewis and Clark followed the same path nearly a century before Emma’s family made the journey, they traveled on the river in boats. They had keel boats for the journey upstream and a combination of different craft for the downstream journey. Compared to the downstream journey, the upstream travel had been slow for the members of the expedition. Emma’s family didn’t have a boat. They had a horse, or perhaps a couple of horses, to carry supplies. They walked.

We have nearly doubled their distance in our journey for a one week vacation. We took a day and a half coming and will take about the same amount of time going, though it is technically possible for us to make the trip in a single day.

We, too, are traveling with food for our meals and accommodations for sleeping. Our camper, however, is a 25-foot long trailer that follows our pickup along the highways. When we stop we have a made-up bed in a room with a furnace and air conditioner, a kitchen with a stove, oven, sink and even a microwave, and even a bathroom with a shower. Compared to rolling out blankets under the stars and eating around the campfire, ours is a luxurious journey.

They, of course, saw things that we miss due to the rate of our travel. We are less likely to be aware of the birds and small mammals along the way. We don’t take time to study the nuances of color in each day’s sunset and sunrise. We check the thermometer to tell the temperature outside instead of determining how many layers of clothing to wear by the chill in the air.

Between the days of pioneer travel by foot and horse and our contemporary days of freeway travel there was a time when covering long distances on the plains was accomplished by riding the trains. That is how my parents made a couple of big and important trips when they were young adults. Here in the Dakotas train travel worked best for east-west travel and wasn’t very convenient for north-south travel. The trains, running around the clock, could make enormous distances each day compared to previous methods of travel. They also could carry enormous amounts of freight from one place to another. Trains still transport huge amounts of cargo, but are less and less a mode for transporting people here in the United States. Around the world, however, trains still are the way many people travel from one place to another. We, of course, also use airplanes to travel great distances at high speed.

Riding the train or flying in an airplane is a passive activity for most people. With the exception of the crews staffing the transportation methods, most people are just along for the ride, looking out the windows and passing the time with a book or a movie. The trip that Emma’s family took required the active participation of every person. I’m sure that there were times when small children were carried and elders were allowed to ride on the horse, but for the most part, each person had to pick up their feet and move themselves. Walking 20 miles a day for several weeks builds up the muscles and the appetite. They probably sensed hunger and thirst and heat and cold more intimately than we do.

I’m comfortable with our mode of travel. I’m grateful that we are able to cover so many miles in a single day and that we can visit our loved ones in distant places. But I’m also grateful that I at least have the memory of the story of other ways of travel. It strengthens my admiration for those who have gone before and my appreciation for the luxuries of our lives.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!