It’s not the road less traveled, though it’s not the most popular, either. There are places where the trail is faint, passing under brush and fallen limbs, and goes fuzzy along the edges. But even on its bad days, the Butterfield Hiking Trail is still a trail. Fifteen miles strung through Ozark hills and valleys, representing a guiding element in what would otherwise be a rather intimidating place. Because, y’know, it’s the wilderness. And even though there are no paved paths and it’s hardly a place suited for strollers and requires some forethought and preparation, it is charted territory and it is known.
But let’s say it wasn’t.
Let’s say you were going in without the assurance of what you might find there. Let’s say the road less traveled was, like, really less traveled. Let’s say you’d forked over some $200 for passage in a stagecoach from St. Louis to San Francisco, packed sardinelike with as many as eight other passengers (and possibly, at times, another six on the roof). In all likelihood it would have been an experience not unlike that of one Hiram S. Rumfield, who wrote the following in a letter to his wife in 1860, detailing his trek through the Boston Mountains:
No one who has never passed over this road can form any idea of its bold and rugged aspect. It winds along the mountain sides over a surface covered with masses of broken rock, and frequently runs in fearful proximity to precipitous ravines of unknown depth … when [the horses] are driven at their topmost speed, which is generally the case, the stage reels from side to side like a storm-tossed bark, and the din of the heavily ironed wheels in constant contact with the flinty rocks is truly appalling.
All of which is to say: Let’s imagine you were taking that other Butterfield Trail (which runs 2 miles distant from the modern day iteration), the Butterfield Overland Stage, which for a period of two and a half years linked the country from coast to coast, at a time when the function of trails was concerned more with necessity than recreation.
On March 3, 1857, the last day before adjourning for the session, the U.S. Congress authorized the Postmaster General to subsidize a stagecoach line that’d reach west from the banks of the Mississippi all the way out to California. Largely a response to an April 1856 petition made by 75,000 Californians who wanted better ties to the east in the form of an overland mail system, the act stipulated that the contractors chosen would need to be capable of crossing the country, from the Mississippi to San Francisco, in under 25 days—and that the system be up and running within a year.
Ultimately, the contract was awarded to one Mr. John Butterfield, who proposed a forked route. One route would start in Memphis and cut west across the state. The other would drop down from St. Louis, continuing through Fayetteville and then on to Fort Smith, where it’d rejoin its sister line before heading west to California.
On Sept. 16, 1858, the first coach left Tipton, Missouri. And despite the lack of public confidence in the endeavor (just a dozen letters were entrusted to this first cross-country delivery), it arrived at San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square on Oct.10, 1858—three hours ahead of schedule.
By 1860, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company was widely considered a success. However, the steady dissolution of the union, financial woes and the increased efficiency of its competitors—notably, the Pony Express, which cut the travel time from 24 days to 10; and even more so, the converging of the transcontinental telegraph lines on Oct. 24, 1861, which allowed for a telegram to be sent that day from San Francisco to New York—ultimately resulted in its shuttering. The last coach made its way west for San Francisco in early April 1861.
It’s interesting to think how the landscape might have changed had history and technology taken a different course—that is, had the Butterfield Stage become the established mail system of its day. What it’d be like had we gotten stuck with Butterfield’s admonishment to his drivers—“Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States Mail”—as opposed to our modern “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night.”
But even then, looking out over the modern-day Butterfield Hiking Trail, named for the other, it’s interesting to take what’s out there at face value: that a trail, no matter its function, still offers a route, still offers some grounding in places that would otherwise be difficult and difficult to know. And so, from the vantage of looking out over the landscape of the assured conquest, it’s possible to appreciate what’s on the ground, what’s underfoot, what’s there in front of us, leading off into the woods we know.