The Writing Traveler: Chasing an Illusion


For 75 years, the circus had been moving from town to town, hamlet to hamlet, down endless miles of forgotten, backcountry American roads.

It had been a long and grueling season for Carson & Barnes, the last great circus to play the grasslands of rural America, sometimes setting up in three states in three days and getting Easter Sunday off only because someone canceled the show at the last minute. I had followed along, mile after mile, day after day, for a glimpse behind the illusions that played out beneath the shadows of the Big Top.

D. R. Miller was the man who made it happen His daddy played vaudeville back in 1924 with a few trained dogs and a Shetland pony that could add and subtract and tell the time of day. Talking pictures slammed the doors on vaudeville, so the elder Miller took his dogs and ponies and hit the road.

By 1937, the traveling caravan of thrills, spills, and chills had two trucks, two monkeys, four ponies, four dogs, and a 40-by-80 tent. D. R. walked the high wire and even performed on the single trapeze. By the time he and his daddy reached their first town of the season, Galena, Missouri, they had 67 cents between them. But they sold $14 worth of tickets that night, and they were off and running. At least they were off.

Caleb Pirtle III

As he wandered the grounds, preparing for the last show of a hard season, D. R.’s eyes were on the crowd and his heart was in their pocketbooks. It has to be. D. R. Miller has to earn, he told me, $1,,000 a day to break even.

He had to pay off his 235 people, feed them all at the cookhouse, and buy a half-ton of grain and 100 bales of hay between every sunrise and sunset. It is not uncommon for his gasoline bill to run more than $4,800. And every time Carson & Barnes crossed a state line, he had to come up with another $3,000 permits on his animals.

Miller shrugged and said, “Few owners have ever died with any money.”

He was broke, but broke was a way of life, one he chose a long time ago.  Still, the show goes on.  Well, sometimes it didn’t.

Several months earlier, Carson & Barnes had set up in a small town, population 800, for a Sunday performance. What Miller did not know was that he was in violation of a Sunday ordinance against entertainment.

The mayor, a leading merchant and a staunch church member, came swaggering out with the sheriff and highway patrol and piously closed the circus down. When the crowd arrived that afternoon, D. R. Miller, with apologies, made the announcement: “You won’t be able to see the circus today because the mayor made us tear it down.”

He was chuckling as he watched the crowd push its way beneath his $100,000 tent.

He had just finished reading a letter that finally caught up with him

The mayor had been impeached.

The mayor had been thrown out of office.

That’s what the letter said.

Would the circus please come back?

Maybe next year. There was always next year.

I walked with the elephants into the Big Top three decades ago. Time has erased everything but the memories. The names and the faces have changed. New animals have replaced the old. But the show does go on at it has for 75 years, moving from town to town, hamlet to hamlet, down endless miles of forgotten roads.

Dim memories fade into new ones.

Only the illusion remains intact.

You can find a collection of my travel stories in Confessions from the Road. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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