Stuck In a Rut

These days there is little left of the rural village of Montrose, which sprouted from the north side of U.S. 36, about seven miles east of Mankato in Jewell County, Kansas.  In the 1960’s and 70’s a pair of gas stations straddled the highway at that point.  One of them was also a diner and auto garage that was owned by Quincy and Madeline Sills, friends of my family.

Quincy once told my dad that hardly a week went by without a westbound traveler or two driving into his garage to ask about a wheel alignment.  “Car pulling to the right, is it?”  “Yes,” they would answer, with a puzzled look.  How did he know which direction the car was drifting?  Quincy probably would have welcomed the work, but he was also an honest mechanic.  “Keep your money,” he would tell them, “it’ll stop once you get close to Mankato.”

Motorists who lived in the area were aware of it.  There was a section of road between Formoso and the intersection of  U.S. 36 and K-14 where a car tended to fight its driver for control, insistently sidling to the right.  Quincy claimed that a highway engineer had explained the phenomenon to him.  It seems that the highway was opened to heavy truck traffic too soon after construction.  The trucks etched faint but indelible grooves into the road bed that no amount of resurfacing would correct.  Generations of drivers found themselves at the wheels of slot cars that tended to follow an invisible path laid down decades earlier by trucks that now lay rotting in junkyards.

I was reminded of Quincy's story when I read about the 1919 plan to build the road, first known as the “Pikes Peak Ocean-To-Ocean Highway.”  It was laid out only a few miles north of the old Parallel Road, which had been mapped in 1859 to lure gold prospectors from Atchison to Denver, a road that used a segment of the earlier Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express stagecoach line.  The history of the road, and the story Quincy told about it, struck me as a neat little lesson in the odd and often subtle ways the past is always hanging around, whether we’re aware of it or not.  It’s one of the reasons I cite for studying history - to find out where the invisible ruts are.  By the way, I can offer no guarantees about the truth of the story of ruts in the road bed.  It was told to me by my father, who got it from Quincy, who heard the explanation from someone who claimed expertise in the subject, but I hate to let quibbles get in the way of a good parable. 

Speaking of parables, you may have run across a version of an essay on the Internet about how the distance between the wheels of Roman war chariots led to modern railroad gauges.  It begins with the observation that in America the standard gauge, the distance between the rails, is 4 feet 8 and 1/2 inches, which is supposedly the spacing of the grooves that chariot wheels carved into those roads the Roman Empire left behind in Britannia.  A version of the argument tracing the connection between these two bits of information can be found at, which also explains that it’s only slightly true.  The humorous climax of the essay is supposed to remind us that the size of two horses’ rear ends nearly two thousand years ago, continues to exert an influence on modern technology.  It’s an amusing notion, but the little bits of truth in it should come as something less than an earth-shattering surprise.  The first railroad tracks in England and America were built to convey carriages drawn by teams of horses, beasts that hadn’t changed that much since Roman times.  Why would anyone tear up miles and miles of track and invent a new gauge just because smoke-belching machines were now pulling the load?  Perhaps the real moral of the story is that we’re thrifty, a little bit lazy, and tend to get stuck in a rut.

For a vivid demonstration of both how much and how little things can change at the same time, there is nothing so revealing as a road trip.  Although we use an automobile instead of an oxcart, as we head west on U.S. 36 through Hiawatha, Seneca, and Marysville, we are tracing a path that is only a few miles from the Parallel Road, the first stage of Thomas Lovewell’s route to the gold fields in 1859.  Turning north at White Rock Creek, just as he did, though in our case, travelling on K-14, passing just west of Lovewell State Park, we will eventually run into Interstate 80, the new name for a section of the old Platte River Road that used to be choked with an endless stream of emigrants headed west.  It’s still a very busy thoroughfare.  Bearing left, we can take Exit 102 to Interstate 76, following the South Platte Trail to Denver.  The means of locomotion has changed, but not the route, nor much of the landscape.

Oh, and if, along the stretch of road just before the intersection of U.S. 36 and K-14, the car suddenly develops a mind of its own and someone suggests stopping at the next garage for a wheel alignment, we must remember to be patient.  It will pass.


© Dale Switzer 2023