Narrow Rivers – Wide Streets

The tires rumbled with a strange, rhythmic sound from my grandpa’s narrow box, half-ton 1964 Ford pickup as we climbed the narrow streets of Mariana, Arkansas the summer between second and third grade.

The streets in Mariana, the seat of Lee County, at least the oldest ones, were made of red brick. As a kid, I thought they were pretty cool, later as a 20-something summertime construction worker I didn’t share the same view. Just imagine all the back-breaking labor that went into mortaring in all those horizontal bricks to pave a road.

America is a land of roads. Once they were water, but as the irresistible force of technology advanced over the continent, the dirt, gravel, concrete, and eventually asphalt roads took the place of the keelboat, canal, and riverboat.

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There is an interesting parallel between rivers and roads that I noticed last weekend as my wife and I took our annual trip to Ft. Robinson, Nebraska to attend a few shows at the Post Playhouse.

We’ve stayed at Fort Robinson in the past, in her hometown of Lusk to the west, and nearby Crawford just three miles from the post, but this time, we chose to stay 30 miles to the east in Chadron, Nebraska.

For a historian, western Nebraska is so deep in historical events it rivals the battlefields of the Virginia countryside.

Treaty sites where the United States blatantly cheated the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho are in the area, as are battle sites where the last stand of the Native American people who once owned the  Sand Hills took place against the American Army. Ft. Robinson itself is rife with history as the site where an arrogant, cocky Custer rode off to his destruction in the late spring of 1876 and where Crazy Horse was murdered by a bayonet stab in the back while he was in handcuffs a year later.

Many of us know this history, but this time my attraction was focused on the plethora of streams that US Highway 20 crosses in the short 30-mile trek from Ft. Robinson to Chadron.

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For a short grass prairie, bordering a desert, there were many small bridges along the highway. One sprouted up every few miles in the depressions between the undulating rise and fall of the Sand Hills.

Names that still carried the weight of history were on small placards on the edge of each tiny open concrete bridge. Trunk Butte Creek, Chadron Creek, Ash, Squaw, White Clay, Beaver, and the names that adorn creeks across the west, and in nearly every Wyoming county, Willow and Cottonwood Creeks.

The funny thing was, they were creeks in name only. The grass was greener, but in late July there was no open water in any of them. Even the mighty Niobrara River, (ok, maybe that’s an overstatement) is just an underground aquifer as it flows east in its subterranean lair from Lusk in Niobrara County until it surfaces near Hemmingford, Nebraska, and turns into a substantial river of the Great Plains.

All these creeks, but no water. Go east on Highway 20 to Valentine, and then continue into eastern South Dakota, Iowa, and Southern Minnesota and the scenery changes dramatically. They dig ditches in this area to drain water, not to bring it to crops as we do.

But, back to those narrow brick roads in Mariana, Arkansas. The same narrow roads were found in Blytheville, a few dozen miles north of Mariana when we live in eastern Arkansas in the mid-1960s.

The extreme between the narrow streets in the old section of Blytheville and the mighty Mississippi, one of the great rivers of the world a few miles east are epic.  At Blytheville, just above Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi is still over a mile wide and a hundred feet deep.

I find it interesting that Wyoming roads are so wide, and our rivers so narrow, or nearly nonexistent, while the massive Mississippi, and the equally impressive Ohio, Monongahela, and Youghiogheny rivers of Pittsburgh are lined by cities with streets so narrow that pickup trucks sometimes must bring in their mirrors to navigate them.

Wide rivers, narrow streets, rivers you can jump across, and wide streets, it’s yet another example of the consternation of man when we encounter physical changes in the world around us.

When Brigham Young brought his people across the prairie from Missouri to Deseret, he was one of the first to utilize the vastness of the American West to full advantage.

If you travel to the heart of a Mormon community, in towns like Afton, Kemmerer, and Lovell which were founded by Latter Day Saints members you’ll find incredibly wide streets in the original sections of each town.

Ol’ Brigham had an edict, a wise one in my opinion, that the streets must be laid out wide enough to turn a four-horse team and wagon around on them. Riverton and Lander have those same wide streets, as do Dubois, Hudson, and Shoshoni, all vestiges of the design created by a man of the early 19th century.

Our streets aren’t paved with gold, but rather with asphalt and concrete. A few years ago as the old section of Shoshoni was finally being demolished I took a trip over to the old Shaver Hotel and the Gambles Store one last time. Though I’ve been a regular in Shoshoni since 1971, I’d never noticed the steel circles in the sidewalks along that soon to be destroyed business district marking the location of parking meters. Parking meters in Shoshoni didn’t fit the modern view of the town, South Main Street was once a haven of business in Fremont County, but it lived long past its prime.

The interesting thing was the width of the street, which remained substantial from its founding in 1906, to the present day. You can easily flip a U-turn on Main Street in Shoshoni, probably with a four-horse team and wagon.

We don’t have many brick streets in Wyoming, they were once all gravel or just dirt outside of Cheyenne and Laramie until the New Deal brought asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks to the Cowboy State.

Our streams are small, even our mightiest rivers, the Platte, Laramie, Yellowstone, Greybull, and Wind/Big Horn would be small streams in Arkansas or Pennsylvania, but they’re ours and provide a vital lifeline to the citizens of the state.

So do our roads, and whether they’re just a narrow two-track dirt path across the sagebrush or the commercial lifelines of America in Interstates 25, 80, and 90, they represent us.

In Robert Frost’s most famous work, The Road Not Taken, he writes in the final stanza, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Roads and Rivers, all this came to mind on a scorching summer day in an area where you have to swat history away from your face like gnats on a cool evening, it was a path well worth taking.

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