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On the Santa Fe Trail

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

For nine days we had driven west from Old Franklin in central Missouri, the original head
of the Santa Fe Trail, following the historic route as closely as you can on modern roads.
Then, beyond the cornfields in western Oklahoma, we could see far in the distance a sight
that had caused early travelers to rejoice. A pair of rabbit ears appeared to be taking
shape along the horizon where the trail crosses into New Mexico. To travelers on the old
Santa Fe Trail, the odd formation was their first glimpse of the Rockies. It was the
700-mile marker from the start of the trail. Many of the worst hazards were behind them,
and just 200 miles stretched on to their destination, a quaint adobe town in northern New
Mexico. The relief must have been immense. Following the route the National Park Service
and the Santa Fe Trail Association have cobbled together, enabling today’s travelers to
parallel the old trail as closely as possible, we who ride in an airconditioned coach at 55
mph on paved roads could only guess at the elation. By the time early traders and their
ox-drawn freight wagons reached Rabbit Ear, they would have been on the hot, dusty and
dangerous trail nearly six weeks. For our week and two days, a pair of invaluable
guidebooks by Gregory M. Franzwa and Marc Simmons had been our bibles. These two writers
literally put you there, tracing the old route practically rut by rut. Despite the fact
that 122 years have passed since freight wagons last lumbered toward Santa Fe (a town so
fabulously rich in silver that horses were shod with it), many of the old ruts and swales
remain, even as far east as Independence, Missouri. However, rare are the ruts – or, for
that matter, the historic river crossings, campsites, scenes of Indian attack and other
important locales – that can be seen from the stitched-together tapestry of modern roads.
You must park your coach and walk a distance. We had vowed to see it all, so the days of
our trip had been long and hot. The mountains seemed to promise cooler days and a landscape
more varied than the tableflat country we’d thus far covered. Therefore, like our
19th-century counterparts, we rejoiced. The Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821 by a
trader named William Becknell. He was deeply in debt and left Old Franklin on the Missouri
in a mad rush, only a few steps ahead of the sheriff. “Back then, you went to debtors
prison,” says Michael Dickey, administrator of the Arrow Rock State Historic Site in
Missouri, a few miles west of the Old Franklin site. “He could also have landed in jail in
Santa Fe because Mexico was still a Spanish colony and trade with the United States was
illegal.” But Santa Fe was hundreds of miles and many weeks away, and Becknell was
desperate. He probably figured he had nothing to lose, Dickey says. Friends were willing to
“front” him $1,000 worth of trade goods, and Becknell set out in a hurry, leading six
Missouri traders and a string of pack horses. Following a sequence of routes, old buffalo
and Indian trails, they walked 900 miles west. East of Santa Fe, the party was met by a
force of 400 Mexican soldiers and learned their mission was no longer illegal. While they’d
been traveling, Mexico had declared independence. The traders were welcomed into Santa Fe
and established a commercial link that lasted nearly 60 years. Becknell returned to
Missouri, having made an enormous profit in silver and mules. He paid off his creditors,
and the next spring headed west again, this time with three freight wagons. Becknell’s two
trips set him up financially for life, though he was only in his 30s. When the railroad
reached the little town in 1880, the need for the old wagon trail, one of the most
profitable commercial routes in history, came to an end. Travelers on the trail had their
choice of two main routes: the Mountain Route or the Cimarron Cutoff. The former followed
the Arkansas River, assuring travelers of water, but included difficult Raton Pass, which
links Colorado and New Mexico. The cutoff, which diverged south from the main trail at Fort
Dodge, Kansas, was 100 miles shorter, but crossed the perilous Jornada, where springs and
streams were rare as rubies. Then, as today, this was a dried-up plain. But until the
1840s, the difficulty of crossing the Raton Pass kept most of the Santa Fe traffic on the
cutoff. We drove the cutoff going west, the Mountain Route on our return. For sheer drama,
nothing else on the trail compares with 7,800-foot Raton Pass. Otherwise, we found the
cutoff to offer far more of interest to today’s travelers. For the most part, not counting
side trips, you follow U.S. Highway 56 west through Clayton and Springer, passing landmark
Point of Rocks roughly halfway between the two, and then drive southwest on Interstate 25.
The most concentrated array of historic sites lie along this fishhook stretch of road,
which crosses the mountains near Kearny Gap and climbs into Santa Fe. At Clayton, we
stopped at the Clayton-Union County Historical Museum, which offers a number of interesting
trail exhibits. West of town, the wide-open land is the color of champagne, dotted green
here and there with yuccas. Pale-blue mountains on the horizon rim an empty landscape,
where the only structures are occasional windmills and ranch houses, miles apart, and the
only trees are those planted to shield houses from the unrelenting wind. About 60 miles
west of Clayton, at Dorsey Road (County Road 52), a sign indicates that Point of Rocks is
10 miles north on well-maintained gravel(we had no problem driving it in our large rig).
Although the “great pile of rocks” is now on private land, Franzwa notes in his guidebook
that owner Faye Gaines, a modern-day pioneer who runs cattle on 7,000 acres here, will
grant permission to visit the site. The trail continues west to Springer, then turns south
on Interstate 25 toward Fort Union and quaint Watrous, where the two historic routes came
back together for the final swing into Santa Fe. (Today they reunite 50 miles north at
Springer.) Along U.S. Highway 85 (just off the interstate) at tiny Wagon Mound, Becknell
rides the lead horse of a pack train on a large bronze relief. Just east of the statue are
a pair of cemeteries with graves dating from trail days. Fort Union, now a national
monument, was once the largest and finest post in the West, according to park ranger Judy
Geck. Also an important hospital, it was established in 1851 to “control the Jicarilla
Apaches and Utes and protect the Santa Fe Trail,” she says. During the fort’s heyday in the
1870s, more than 1,600 soldiers were garrisoned there. But by 1891, the year the huge adobe
complex was abandoned, the number had dwindled to 20. Until it was designated a national
monument in 1956, the fort, once commanded by Colonel Kit Carson, was quarried into
near-ruin. But much remains, and miles of flagstone paths lead past dozens of thickwalled
structures: the arsenal, supply depot, barracks, officers’ quarters and others on the
site’s 637 acres. Watrous, a charmingly derelict adobe town, is located eight miles south.
Originally called La Junta, or “the junction,” the town was renamed for local rancher
Samuel Watrous in 1879 when the railroad came through, to avoid confusion with La Junta,
Colorado, to the north. Elegant Las Vegas, with just 15,000 residents, but 900 houses
listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was once a major stop along the trail.
Upper Town, with a handful of ancient adobe houses, a dusty plaza and an adobe church with
a sagging wall, remains as it was during trail days, says Priscilla Romero, caretaker of
the San Antonio church. Her family came here in 1860. Now the old church is locked up
except during four annual celebrations when the priest at Immaculate Conception, a church
with a congregation of 3,000 in a more affluent part of town, comes to say Mass. Suggested
side trips include 10,212-foot Hermit’s Peak, home in the 1860s to an Italian mystic who
carved crucifixes for his daily bread; La Cueva, a national historic district in the hills
outside Las Vegas; and Puertocito de la Piedra Lumbre. Now known as Kearny Gap, that was
where Becknell had his chance meeting with the Mexican soldiers and was welcomed into Santa
Fe. A quarter of a century later, during the Mexican War, General Stephen Watts Kearny
arrived in Las Vegas, claiming the land for the United States, but adding, “We come amongst
you as friends, not as enemies.” His speech appears on a bronze plaque in the town’s main
plaza, where stylish hotels and shops border a lovely park. The trail arcs west along I-25.
Pecos National Historical Park, once a trading center for Pueblo and Plains Indians, is
about a dozen miles east of Santa Fe and is well worth a visit. At the first-rate visitor
center, dioramas, placards and artifacts tell the story of the area, first settled about
10,000 B.C., and of the pueblo and Spanish mission, built about 1450 and abandoned in 1838.
Several miles of asphalt paths wind among 1,200-year old pit houses and kivas and past the
massive adobe pueblo, which visitors also can walk through. West of Pecos, the road climbs
dramatically as you drive toward Santa Fe. You can take the interstate to the historic
town, but there’s a better way to have your first look at it, as early traders might have,
down steep hillsides thick with piñion pines into the wide valley. You actually have two
choices: the Old Las Vegas Highway, which leaves I-25 at exit 294, and the Old Pecos Trail
at exit 284. Both are rather narrow, and you must watch carefully for turns or you’ll
wander aimlessly in the hills, but the effort is rewarding. Zigzagging slowly down into
town, you’ll feel like time has somehow spun backward and you have just completed a most
amazing journey.

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