Autumn in New Mexico (Part Two)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFollowing up on Part One…The fun never stops.

Fall Color

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With what we all know as “climate change” there are some odd things that took place this year. It was a snowy winter, and a bit colder than normal. Then it got rainy and we had a fairly wet year – off and on all through spring and summer right up to a couple weeks before Balloon Fiesta. The Rio Grande was bank full — higher than anyone remembered. There was a bit of flooding in parts of the state.

Now we get the prize for all of this wet weather and the (lately) unseasonably cold temperatures. It has already snowed significantly in northern NM and we have had nighttime temperatures at 20 degrees or below. The Cottonwood trees in the bosque and the Aspens up in the mountains have been putting on a show.

The bosque river forest paints a bright gold ribbon through the middle of Albuquerque with many trails and open spaces to enjoy the color. All this fall color is intoxicating but it doesn’t last all that long. Living in a desert environment we are always wary of drought but this year has been fairly wet and there have been fewer forest fires. They tell us that El Nino was the culprit that sent us the wetter weather. No complaints here.

Angel Fire — September  (revisited)

I spent a week in Angel Fire, up in the Sangre de Cristos by Taos,  in late September for some fly fishing and relaxing. The weather was good and I got out every day to fish, hike,  or do some photography. My favorite fishing stream there is the Cimarron  River where it flows through Cimarron Canyon State Park. Eagle Nest Lake is there but it was too windy and wide open for fly fishing. There was a Northern Pike fishing tournament going on at the lake.  Red River, the town and the river are across Bobcat Pass but I didn’t try fishing there. They do have a great craft brewery, however. There is another small brewery in Cimarron and also one in Angel Fire — never far from a beer.  Fishing was pretty good and not too crowded.

— Cimarron Clear Creek Trail

There area few trails heading up out of the canyon. I got a recommendation from a park ranger and took a walk up Clear Creek Trail. It’s an easy trail that follows a stream and a past a number of small cascades.

This was a chance for some photography so I took my time. I met a couple other hikers but it was a quiet and pleasant walk. There was less to photograph than I hoped for.

— Moreno Valley – Mora Valley

Going south out of Angel Fire you follow the Moreno Valley, cross a divide and then descend into the Mora Valley. It is very pretty ranch country with nice views of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain.

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Wheeler Peak — tallest mountain in NM

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Toward Black Lakes – Moreno Valley

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Moreno Valley

Across the divide, there are some interesting old New Mexico communities heading down toward Mora.

I turned back toward Angel Fire before I reached Mora. If you go that far (Mora is an interesting town) and turn left to La Cueva (check out the old mill), you can follow route 442 north to Ocate where, if you go west on route 120, and if you are lucky and have a 4-wheel drive, you can return to the Moreno Valley and then limp back to Angel Fire. That was one of the most challenging so-called “roads” I traversed on a previous trip and didn’t feel like trying it this time.

Jemez Mission, Jemez Springs

Another trip took us up about 50 miles into the Jemez Mountains along the Jemez River (or creek) through the Jemez Canyon to see the old Jemez Mission Church at the Jemez Historic Site in the town of Jemez Springs, north of the Jemez Pueblo where the speed trap is.  That’s seven Jemezes in one sentence. You turn off of Hwy 550 at San Ysidro onto Hwy 4. Watch your speed.

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The current (ruined) mission church was constructed in 1621 to replace an earlier one built in 1598. Christianity was a difficult sell to the local Pueblo Indians, especially after you build the large church smack-dab in the middle of the pueblo. The neighborhood isn’t quite the same after the Franciscans arrive. The locals had their own religion (there are kiva ruins on-site) and Franciscans seemed unable to take no for an answer. The historic site includes the ruins of the church, San Jose de Los Jemez, and the ruins of Gíusewa Pueblo.

There are ongoing archaeological investigations at the site. The Gíusewa Pueblo was established sometime around 1450 and the entire complex was abandoned around 1680 at the time of the Pueblo Revolt. The Franciscans probably abandoned the mission a few years earlier.

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There is a special Christmas event: “Light Among the Ruins” (Nov. 30 & Dec. 14 this year)  when the church and pueblo are illuminated with farolitos accompanied by pueblo dancers and flute music (drones prohibited!).

First Snow

It came in November. Not too early or too late. We usually see our winter start after Thanksgiving but the holiday is this week and coming late this year.  It has been snowing on and off up north for a couple weeks. We started getting big fluffy flakes last Thursday morning. The flakes were so big that they spooked the birds at the bird feeder. They were getting clobbered each time they tried to snatch a seed or two on the perches. That sent them flying to the nearby bushes while others tried their luck at the feeder. Back and forth like a game.

The snow tapered off in the valley but continued up in the mountains. The low clouds kept it from sight.

The mountain snow went on for most of a day but we mostly got needed rain. The sun broke out the next afternoon.

Thanksgiving morning had a significant snow cover (for us) but it was mostly gone by the next day. Some areas in town and the higher elevations got more snow.

Looking back over these two posts, I’m a little worn out. I need a few days or weeks off. This year we are having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians — they put on a great spread at the casino.

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Autumn in New Mexico (Part One)

I think this is my favorite time of the year. The weather is dry and crisp. The chiles are roasted or hung. Things are settling into the long and glorious Autumn season. We have an influx of visitors who stay but not too long. The Sandhill Cranes start to arrive.  It is a time to get out and appreciate what we have in this oft forgotten corner of the country.

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This year I was blessed by a visit from my brother so we spent several days enjoying the Balloon Fiesta from my front porch and roaming around the country. This is sort of a travelogue and somewhat abridged version of some of our trips — not on any particular order.

Acoma Pueblo — Sky City

We tried to visit one day but it was closed due to a cultural observance so we went back the next day. I suppose a call to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque would have told us that it was closed but it was a nice drive anyway and it was open and busy the next day  Acoma Pueblo is the oldest occupied settlement (possibly along with Taos Pueblo) in the US going back 1000 years.  It goes back to almost mythic origins. The people first established a home on Enchanted Mesa but moved after a time of crisis and starvation to the present site back around 1000 AD.  Archaeologists found evidence of even earlier occupation on the valley floor.

Enchanted Mesa

Acoma was a busy place when Coronado visited it in 1540. The Spanish expedition passed through with almost 2000 people – soldiers and (Mexica) Indians along with herds of cattle, horses, and pigs — but the Spanish did not come back to stay until the 1590s. By then, the once strong and prosperous pueblos were seriously weakened by disease introduced by European contact over the intervening years since Coronado’s first contact. The Franciscans established mission churches including San Estevan del Rey at Acoma in 1629. There was conflict and friction but things continued with the Spanish gaining control.

San Este\van church is the largest adobe structure in the US and is still the active parish church at Acoma. The Sky Clan is dedicated to the continued maintenance of the 1629 mission church. The church bell was a gift from the King of Spain, brought up from Mexico.

There are scheduled tours of the old pueblo which involves a short buss ride up  300+ feet to the top of the mesa. Photography is allowed (with a license purchased with your tour ticket) but drawing or sketching is not allowed. My brother, a pastel artist,  had his sketch pencil confiscated but got it back after the tour. There are some other rules and restrictions. Photos of the interior of the church are not allowed.

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I have a camera that fell on its head too many times and takes pictures that sometimes look like watercolors, especially if viewing something in the distance.  The angular pueblo structures and the mesa walls and rock formations made interesting, though slightly distorted, pictures.

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Enchanted Mesa

Acoma Pueblo Country

The pueblo itself is occupied by sixteen families, about fifty people, and six dogs. The majority of the pueblo residents live in several towns close to the interstate with modern conveniences. The families will maintain a residence on the mesa for cultural or religious events. The white ladders in the pictures lead to the entrances of kivas, still serving as religious and ceremonial spaces.

Acoma Pueblo is located in a rugged area surrounded by cliffs and other mesas. The current road to the top was built to assist a movie crew that was using the pueblo as a movie location about fifty years ago. Before the road, the residents had to follow a steep footpath up through the rocks to finally reach the top.

 

El Malpais National Monument

This is volcanic terrain. Mount Taylor (picture above) is an inactive “stratovolcano”, meaning it has erupted many times and added successive layers of ash and lava to its rising slopes and now reaches over 11,000 feet in height. It may have been twice as high at one time prior to erosion and subsequent eruptions.. The Navajos call this Turquoise Mountain, one of the traditional boundary peaks of their lands.

A little way to the southwest, on the far edge of the Acoma Pueblo lands, is El Malpais National Monument. That is where we ended up the day that the Acoma pueblo was closed and it is a very interesting place to visit. The area saw numerous volcanic eruptions over the last few thousands of years right up to about eight hundred years ago. The lava flowed out of several vents, forming craters and lava tubes, and eventually covered the floor of the large valley. The hard lava flows make an interesting contrast to the softer sandstone cliffs.

There are trails that venture out into the lava field, including a traditional trade route between the Acoma and Zuni pueblos.  I can say from experience that the sharp lava will destroy all but the strongest hiking shoes.

La Ventana – the Window – is a natural arch formed in the sandstone cliff overlooking the lava fields. The arch appears to be the remnant of a large sandstone cave entrance or rock shelter.  The sandstone walls under the arch and on the adjoining cliff face are quite striking and are stained by various minerals into what almost looks like an abstract painting..

El Malpais is one of my favorite places to visit. It seems to be a seldom visited place and there are no crowds of visitors. There is an ageless, zen-like quality to the area due, in part. to the almost surreal vastness of the lava field on one hand and the small details of nature and the drama of perseverance in a hostile environment.

Besides the national monument, there is a national conservation area and two designated wilderness areas associated with El Malpais. There are plenty of Elk tracks but I have never actually encountered any when visiting.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

You can’t escape it. The early October skies over Albuquerque are festooned with hot air balloons. Something like 800,000 people visit the morning launch park over the nine days of the fiesta.  My first visit was in 1979 and I have been back several times since. It is a bucket list thing for many people – they go one time. Others go back every year. I am blessed with a ring-side seat as I live on the top of the western mesa a few miles north of the Balloon Fiesta Park. I’m on the flight path. This year my visiting brother and I opted to sit on the front porch and watch the balloons as they headed up the valley. We had balloons on six of the nine days. For photography, I’m at a disadvantage because I am often looking directly into the sun but I get plenty of pictures (as if I needed more).

The atmospheric conditions vary each morning which makes photography a little more interesting. That’s what really gets me out on the front porch every morning.

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The special shapes or the interesting graphics are often turned the wrong way  and you have to watch to see if the balloon rotates. This was a lucky shot.

There is a helium gas balloon race each year and this time the winners landed in Ontario. Some years they have to land to avoid going out over the Gulf of Mexico.

So this is the end of “Part One”

 

Road Trip! Enchanted Circle

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Wheeler Peak — tallest mountain in NM

In the northern parts of the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains extend southward like a tail from the bulk of the Rockies, There is a region that is especially scenic and enjoyable. The Enchanted Circle is a scenic byway road trip that circles around from Taos through Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Red River, Questa, San Cristobal, Arroyo Hondo, and back into Taos. Each place is worth some time and maybe even a short stay but the scenery is — enchanting.

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Moreno Valley

I’ve been up there several times but only made one complete circuit. I usually stop and spend a few days at one place or another. This time I was holed up at Angel Fire, a skiing resort in the winter and a calmer mountain retreat most other times. I was there in September so the season was changing and there was frost several nights but the daytime temps were very comfortable and sunny.

My purpose was to go fishing on the Cimarron River as it flows east through its steep and narrow canyon. There are many places to fish but the canyon is a state park so you need to pay a daily fee — don’t forget. There are a few free spots. As a photographer I always want to prowl around and find things new, or new to me, so I did some of that. Here are some pictures from the trip.

Cimarron Canyon

There were several good spots to fish. The canyon was threatened by a huge forest fire that burned part of the nearby Philmont Boy Scout Ranch and threatened the town of Cimarron for a while. The damage is serious as you head east toward the town. There is a nice craft brewery in Cimarron (Blu Dragonfly) and the historic, and very haunted, St. James Hotel.

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Cimarron River

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Cimarron Canyon

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The Palisades Sill

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My favorite fishing hole

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Palisades pine tree

Clear Creek Trail

There are several hiking trails that climb up side valleys off of the Cimarron Canyon. I was visiting in a short window between a couple hunting seasons so I felt safe and fit enough to try a couple hour hike. The park ranger recommended Clear Creek Trail — noted for following a stream with numerous cascades and small waterfalls.  It was a good hike, once you found it. Not too strenuous and there was a lot to see and photograph. The word “clear” apparently applies to the water because the forest is littered wit tons of fallen timber, and a lot of it fell into or around the creek. There is no real way to clean this up but the dead wood serves as great fuel for forest fires. The trail was quite easy. I had a hiking pole that helped in places (I have a new hip so I’m careful). The cascades and waterfalls were small. I think there was one about four feet high and the rest were smaller. This being in the fall, there were some aspens and some late flowers and berries. Apart from birds, there was no wildlife that I saw. I passed only two other hiker groups.

 

Moreno Valley

The Moreno Valley runs north and south out of Angel Fire. Heading north (Hwy 38) you will cross Bobcat Pass and descend to Red River, another ski town (with a great brewery – Red River Brewing). I ran into some elk on that road (not literally) and they can be a hazard on the highway at night. Going south out of Angel Fire (Hwy 434) you can go all the way to Mora through some very pretty ranch and forest land. This part of New Mexico is very Hispanic and you will see some Spanish signs and probably hear some commonly spoken.

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Heading south out of Red River

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Elk Country

Eagle Nest Lake was impounded in the early 1900s by the Springers, a local prominent rancher family. It has a population of Northern Pike as well as trout. The Cimarron River flows out of the lake and into the Cimarron Canyon. Between Eagle Nest and Angel Fire is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park, one of the first Vietnam War memorials in the country — well worth a stop.

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Eagle Nest Lake

South of Angel Fire the road climbs over a divide, passes Coyote Creek State Park, and descends into the southern stretch of Moreno Valley and the Mora Valley. You might be curious enough to take route 120 eastward to Ocate. Been there, done that — need a tee shirt. The road is very rough even for four-wheel drive. It is scenic but almost impassable at times. I was not impressed with Coyote State Park. People were camping and RVing there but I couldn’t see what the attraction was. The creek is brushy and almost unfishable in the park. Coyote Creek is the stream that flows south toward Mora.

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Toward Black Lakes – Moreno Valley

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South of Angel Fire

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Coyote Creek – Streamside bluff

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Old Homestead

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Nice Accommodations – Guest House

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Sportsmen’s Cabins (for sale!)

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Upper Mora Valley

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Camposanto (Cemetery) at Guadelupita

I didn’t go all the way to Mora but I have in the past and it is an interesting place. There is an alpaca ranch and some traditional weavers. The wool mill sells alpaca, churro and other kinds of yarn for weaving. There are classes to teach the traditional weaving.

Further afield, if you go east from Mora you’ll find La Cueva village and a raspberry farm, an old water mill and a gothic-styled mission church. If you go to Ocate there is an old whitewashed church.

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Let it Flow

As things go around here, we have had a relatively wet year, thanks to our little friend, El Nino. We had a good snowpack last winter and some rain in the spring that stayed with us with spotty showers through our hot months of June and July. There have been only a few wildfires in our area and I’ve seen wildflowers that I haven’t seen before. The Rio Grande has been bank-full for the first time in over ten years. Now we are in the annual monsoon season when it rains or threatens to rain almost every day.

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There’s that phrase in the song we sang as kids…Home on the Range: “…the sky is not cloudy all day”. Well, it isn’t cloudy ALL day but when you have horizons that stretch for sixty miles, the sky puts on a nice show.

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The monsoon clouds are impressive as they pile up, layer upon layer and bump into each other. The shadows on the mountain skip and dance.  Sometimes you just have to stop and stare and enjoy the show. I always try to have a camera handy because you are often taken by surprise.  This (below) is a favorite cell phone picture I use as a “header” image on this blog. Mount Taylor, a stratovolcano, is sixty miles in the distance.

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This is a time of long evenings and lengthy sunsets. The storms occasionally come at night with spectacular lightning shows. We had one of those last night but no rain this time. You can track a storm crossing the desert forty miles away — somebody is getting rain.  Of course, the sunsets are gorgeous most evenings, almost to the point of not noticing — an embarrassment of riches, perhaps. Ho Hum — but some evenings make you pause and take it in.

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So, thanks to El Nino, the show goes on.

Crossing the Line

Writer's Cramp

fog ship

Somehow we crossed the line.
Maybe in the night; in the fog
when we really didn’t notice.
Like a ship crossing a meridian,
going quietly from one side to another.
We went from one thing to a worse thing.

The mass shootings have gone from
mostly jealous lovers and angry workers
and deranged people hearing voices
to people filled with unconditional hate.
People who feel empowered by words of hate
and failed leadership that relies on hate.

We always have people motivated by their
own emotions or demented private voices.
We have always had hate-filled people.
But the empowering of hate, and the
encouragement of hatred toward “the others”,
will always cross a bloody line.

We must find a way soon to cross back over.
The hate-filled people and their empowering
champion need to climb back under their rock.
Speak up. There is no room for tolerance
or remaining quiet…

View original post 22 more words

DWE: Driving While Enchanted – Guadalupe Canyon

I’ve been getting out more lately to enjoy the spring flowers and the nice weather. We have had a wet year so far and some of the vegetation is a bit confused and the mountain streams are full of water. This is just a few pictures of a recent excursion up Guadalupe Canyon in the Jemez Mountains. The Jemez are my favorite mountains in New Mexico — they are close and accessible and have some fascinating geologic features. On this trip, I met a young guy who felt the same way and drove all the way from Austin to spend a day or two in the mountains. He was dreading the trip back to Texas, as would I. I think all of these pictures are from Forest Road 376 that goes through the Gilman Tunnels. to join highway 4.

The Rio Guadalupe flows into the Jemez River near Walatowa in the Jemez Pueblo.

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The lower canyon is as colorful as any place in the Jemez Mountains.

Gilman Tunnels were constructed for an old rail route but now carry the forest road up into the canyon, The two tunnels (this is the 2nd one) were used in the movie “3:10 to Yuma”.

New Mexico’s native Mock Orange blooms near the tunnel. (Philadelphus argyrocalyx ). You can pick up the scent almost before you see it.

Almost any stream that has water in it most or all of the year is most likely called a “Rio”. The Rio Guadalupe usually has less than half of this amount of flow as it cascades down the canyon.

The canyon continues its climb up into the Jemez Mountains. The Jemez were primarily created by a super volcano that developed into a huge peak, erupted explosively and then collapsed into its magma chamber creating a caldera. The volcano rose and collapsed three times over the millennia.

Climbing out of the canyon the road passes lush mountain meadows and the Rio Cebolla. You can probably jump across the Rio Cebolla through most of its length. This is a good trout fishing stream along with the Rio Guadalupe and several others in this area.

Consolidated volcanic ash, Tuff, erodes in these conical “tent rock” formations. These are a little hard to see, being in the forest. Kasha Katuwe National Monument (AKA Tent Rocks) accessible through the Cochiti Pueblo is famous for these formations. and an interesting slot canyon.

The Jemez Mountains are popular with campers and picnickers and there are usually one or two forest fires each year because of careless campers who wander off and leave their fires burning. The forest road goes through some recently burned areas.  The Aspens trees seem to recover in burn areas faster than other trees.

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On the Road: Trails West

Moving Frontiers and Moving People
An early explorer, Edwin Thomas with Major Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition, labeled the Great Plains as the Great American Desert in his published account of their trek across the space between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River valley. For years that description stayed in the public perception. Mountain Men and fur trappers would venture out onto the plains and into the mountains but not many others.

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The Plains had always been peopled by nomadic groups going back to the Clovis hunters. The Indians still lived out there and seemed to be successful. The very idea of a settled and sedentary white population living on the Great American Desert was not widely accepted. But frontiers creep forward. Historians talk about the “moving frontier” and the notion of several different kinds of frontiers – a mining frontier, a cowboy (cattle) frontier, a farming frontier, etc. The idea of a widely populated Great Plains, with sedentary towns and cities, is a fairly recent concept largely made possible by the invention of the railroad and the availability of cheap and accessible land.

Vázquez de Coronado and his Conquistadors were probably the first Europeans to fully experience the Great Plains. He and his expedition, which included over a thousand Hispanicized Indians from Zapotec, were on a fool’s errand looking for fabled cities of gold. We imagine Coronado and a small band of brave Conquistadors out on the plains but he had a relatively large gang of people and livestock. He and his people marched from Mexico well into eastern Kansas before he gave up and went back. Lewis and Clark mostly followed the major rivers west to the Pacific Ocean. That gave them a different and wetter view of the plains. Stephen Long’s expedition ventured out onto the plains but concluded that the plains were “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.”

Free Enterprise turned a blind eye toward Long’s and others’ admonitions and in 1821, William Becknell pioneered the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri’s Boonslick communities across the plains, following the Arkansas River, into what was then just becoming independent Mexico to the northern town of Santa Fe, the capital of Nuevo Mexico. The northern region was being cut off from commerce and government authority in Mexico City by the aggressive expansion of Comanche Indian dominance and the turmoil of the recent separation from Spain. The Santa Fe Trail turned out to be the interstate highway of its day. By the 1840s at least half of the traffic along the trail originated in Santa Fe and even from the south in Chihuahua with Spanish/Mexican traders making the trek eastward to Missouri. Traders from Independence, Missouri, were going the other way. The trail became a military road in 1846 when the US Army marched down the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. New Mexico (actually named after the Aztec empire, not the country) became part of the United States officially in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Under American control, the plains became ranching country with only a few settlements. The Buffalo herds were largely relegated to the northern plains by then, so cattle ranching spread out of Texas and cattle trails took up the space. The railroads moved west with new towns dotting the routes where there was water and, soon, cattle stockyards. The railroads civilized the plains by offering land for sale to farmers.

Some areas provide a concise history of the plains. Dodge City, in Kansas, sits on the Arkansas River, the route followed by Coronado in 1542, the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, and the US Army in 1846. There was an Army fort there by 1850 and the railroad arrived around 1872 greeted by thousands of unenthusiastic Texas longhorn cattle heading to eastern markets. This was the Cowboy Frontier and there was a good deal of lawlessness for a few decades, stretching into the early 1900s. Dodge City was not alone. Many similar towns in the west went through a similar sequence of events. Some had more Mountain Men or miners, but it was a rough existence in the early years.

My Trip
Well, I managed to yammer for over a full page before getting to my trip, but the background and the history is part of the story. I was traveling along the Santa Fe Trail from the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico near Bernalillo (1620 – reestablished 1693) and going to the place of my birth, St. Louis on the Mississippi River (1764). I made earlier partial trips along the trail beginning twenty years ago but never covered the entire route. This time I closed all of the gaps. I stayed in three historic hotels along the way and I’ll cover them in some detail in a second posting HERE. This post will touch on some of the other interesting stops along the way.

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I started out heading north along what was once the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro that connected Mexico City to Santa Fe in colonial days. Today it is mostly part of Interstate 25 and was once part of Route 66. This is also part of the Pan-American Highway that connects Patagonia to Alaska. I picked up the Santa Fe Trail about thirty miles from my house near Santa Fe and headed east, still on Interstate 25. The route crosses Glorieta Pass and the Pecos River along the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – the southern limit of the Rockies.

Las Vegas
I don’t drive very long before I hop out of the car for some reason. My first stop was in Las Vegas – in New Mexico. This, the older Las Vegas, was once the largest city in New Mexico. The town has done a very good job at maintaining its century old buildings thanks to a citizens group dedicated to preservation. Thanks, also, to a man with vision – Alan Affeldt, who seems on a mission to preserve and restore some of the great old western hotels. He restored the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, then moved to Las Vegas and preserved the Plaza Hotel on the town plaza and is now working to restore the Castaneda Hotel, also in Las Vegas. The La Posada was the last Harvey House hotel, built in the 1930s. The Castaneda was the first Harvey House hotel, built in the 1898.

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La Posada

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The Plaza Hotel

Affeldt knows how to use the properties to help pay for their own preservation. He uses the state’s film industry tax credits to help fund the projects. The Plaza Hotel was the filming site for scenes from “No Country for Old Men” and the Castaneda was the filming location for the TV show “Midnight Texas”.

The Castaneda is a work in progress but enough of the restoration had been completed when I stopped by to open about ten rooms for hotel guests. The Amtrak Southwest Chief train connecting Chicago to Los Angeles still stops in front of the hotel every day… the classic old Santa Fe station is next door. I’m looking forward to staying at the Castaneda Hotel on a future trip.   The Fred Harvey hotels were famous for the Harvey Girls who waited on the hotel guests in a very prim and proper fashion. In Las Vegas they lived in a boarding house across the street – still standing and also in the process of restoration.

Fort Union
My next stop, a few miles east of Las Vegas, was at Fort Union – a military post and supply depot on the Santa Fe Trail. At one time there were 4,000 people residing at the fort working in a military capacity or as outfitters and suppliers for the Santa Fe traders. The officers’ families were also in residence.

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Fort Union is a grim and ghostly ruin today. Built of adobe, it has slowly given way to the elements. When I visited it was even more ghostly due to the fog and April snow showers. It was cold and miserable, and I imagine the soldiers stationed there were pretty miserable at times. The fort kept two crews working in the nearby mountains just cutting firewood for heat and cooking fires.

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The Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible at Fort Union. Unlike the popular idea of single file wagon trains, the freight wagons usually went four or five abreast, so the ruts are spread out over a wider area.

Fort Union exists today as a National Monument with two park rangers on duty. They were not very busy when I visited, and I had the place to myself.

Ludlow
I crossed Raton Pass and entered Colorado just south of Trinidad. Coal mining was important to the local economy beginning in the 1860s and numerous mines and company towns sprung up  along the foothills of the Rockies. One such place was Ludlow. The miners were mostly foreign born from eastern or southern Europe while the mine owners were prominent eastern “Robber Barons” of the era; people like John D. Rockefeller and John Cleveland Osgood. Working conditions at the mines were unfair and dangerous. Miners were not paid for needed shoring up the shafts or laying track or other “dead work” secondary to actual coal extraction.

A miners’ strike in 1913-1914 brought out strike-breakers from the east and some violence broke out. The National Guard, who, along with mine guards employed by mine owners, opened fire with machine guns on a tent encampment of 1,500 miners at Ludlow killing twenty miners, women, and children. Most died when their tents were intentionally set on fire. Only six of the dead were adults. The enraged miners retaliated with a ten-day war against local mines from Trinidad to Walsenburg – over sixty miles of skirmishes and mine property destruction. About 200 people died before President Wilson sent Army troops to stop the carnage. The strike ended when the miners ran out of money and supplies and returned to work empty-handed…but public opinion largely sided with the miners.

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Some of the mines reopened but others were shut down throwing many miners out of work. In 1917, 120 miners died in a disastrous fire at the Hastings mine in Ludlow. The mine was owned by John Cleveland Osgood, who opposed the miners during the strike of 1913. The United Mine Workers established a memorial park and monument at the site of the Ludlow Massacre. The Town of Ludlow has all but vanished.

Spanish Peaks

Walsenburg
My first night’s stop was at Walsenburg, Colorado, located near the Spanish Peaks, twin mountains that sit as an outlier from the main front range of the Rockies. These peaks, reaching 13,600 feet, were probably the first actual mountain landmarks the traders on the Santa Fe Trail encountered from out on the plains. From here they turned south to climb over Raton Pass (7,800 ft.). Walsenburg was also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the 1914 coalfields war with almost thirty people killed.

I stayed at the La Plaza Inn, a local historic hotel established in 1907. The La Plaza is a small place with eleven guest rooms and a nice restaurant with two dining areas. The rooms are furnished with antiques and decorated in the style of the early 1900s.

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There were probably more rooms at one time but modern travelers need private bathrooms and a bit more space than those of 1907.  The owners consider the place to be a Bed and Breakfast but it straddles the line and falls more on the Inn classification in my estimation. My room was nicely furnished with a vintage iron bed, antiques and a nice bathroom. It had a definite cowboy feel to it – not fancy but comfortable.  The hotel has a fine restaurant and two dining areas.  The specialty on the menu for Saturday night was Prime Rib — it was very good.  There is a microbrewery in town about a block away, but I decided to skip it for this trip. A full breakfast is provided in the morning — I don’t think anyone goes away hungry from the La Plaza Inn.

Walsenburg has another claim to notoriety besides the coalfield war (and the midnight trains). The outlaw Robert “Bob” Ford operated a saloon and gambling house in Walsenburg around 1890. This was eight years after he shot Jesse James (alias Thomas Howard) in the back in his home in St. Joseph, Missouri. The “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard” had to watch his own back after the deed was done. He died in 1892, murdered by Edward Capehart O’Kelley in Creede, Colorado.

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The Great Plains
From Walsenburg my route turned east, away from the mountains and out on the Great Plains. I was on two-lane highways for almost the entire day. This was the high plains. If you ever wondered what was out there on the horizon as you crossed the plains on the Interstate highway or by train, I can tell you now that there is practically nothing out there. That being said, for a photographer or an artist, it has a stark beauty and a lonesome appeal.

The few hills that one sees at first as the road leads away from the mountains soon change to an incredible flat canvas where the sky takes over as the most prominent feature.

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I could not live here but I am struck by the mighty presence of absolutely nothing. There are ranches out here scattered every dozen miles or so and there is occasional traffic on the highway, but one has the notion of being entirely alone.

As I crossed the plains I encountered the Arkansas River. Out here the final ‘s’ is pronounced (and the middle syllable emphasized) and not replaced with the “saw” as in the state of Arkansas. There are towns that stretch out along the river because that was the way of commerce. La Junta, Dodge City, Garden City, and Great Bend are positioned along the river – and the old Santa Fe Trail. Between La Junta and Las Animas is Bent’s Fort, a way station on the Trail. It was a private commercial fort and trading post run by brothers Charles and William Bent. They ran a commercial and fur trading empire for many years. Charles Bent was named Territorial Governor of New Mexico and was killed during the Taos Revolt of 1847 at the end of the Mexican-American War.

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I didn’t take the time to visit the reconstructed Bent’s Fort on this trip as I had seen it several years ago (hence the picture) and I was still in Colorado and had a long way to go.

On that earlier trip I had a wheel bearing go out on my car and I was stranded briefly at Las Animas. The original Spanish name for the place is La Ciudad de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, “The city of souls lost in Purgatory.” A dismal name for a place and I felt like it was very appropriate at the time. The town is at the junction of the Arkansas and the Purgatoire Rivers, probably named by a lonely French fur trapper. The Trail traders and local cowboys pronounced the French river name as “Picket-wire”

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There is a lot of agriculture in this part of the plains…an understatement for sure. Every town has a grain elevator standing tall like a Gothic cathedral. You can see them miles before you reach the town. Due to our current political climate and the tariff war, the local farmers are not selling their crops like in previous years. The grain elevators are full and there are piles of grain and soybeans twenty-five feet high in adjoining lots. The soybeans are beginning to smell just a bit. Further east the smell of soybeans is replaced by the aroma of cattle feed lots. You can capture the essence a few miles before you see them if the wind is right.

Fort Larned
I hurried on my way through those Arkansas River towns and stopped at Fort Larned, about halfway across Kansas. This was an Army post established to protect the middle portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead of adobe, Fort Larned was built of local sandstone and survives nicely today – probably one of the best original examples of a cavalry fort.

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Being made of sandstone, the fort’s buildings provided a ready tablet for visitors to carve their names or messages in stone. Once the fort closed it was too tempting. People want to leave their names to show that they were there. I guess we are always seeking immortality. Some examples show some real dedication to the effort.

There’s even a cryptic reference to Kaiser Wilhelm in a couple examples. The fort closed before WW-I so it must have been a visitor — or a spy?

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I took a bunch of pictures and spent enough time at Fort Larned that I was running far behind schedule. The rest of my day’s trip across Kansas is something of a blur.

 

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Bugs

Marion
My stopping point for the night was Marion, Kansas. Apart for the fact that Coronado almost made it this far across Kansas, I knew nothing about Marion. Nothing except that I had some distant relatives that settled in the area in the 1870s and the only geographic place-name that matches my surname is a cemetery a few miles north of town. I planned my trip to visit the place.

I was impressed. Marion is a substantial place. This is on the edge of the Flint Hills, the only hilly part of the state and there is some scenic interest. There seems to have been an oil and gas boom here some time ago and the place looks a bit well off. I was staying at another historic hotel – The Historic Elgin Hotel.

These little towns were always competing with each other for attention. Marion was the county seat of Marion County and wanted the business that should naturally flow into such an important place. The railroad arrived in 1879. The hotel dates to 1886 when local entrepreneurs decided that what Marion needed most was a good hotel. The Elgin Hotel would be an asset to any town or city, and I was a bit surprised to find it in a small town in eastern Kansas.

I stayed in the Eisenhower Suite. Dwight Eisenhower lived not too far away in Abilene, but I have no idea if he actually stayed at the hotel. There are other named rooms including the Amelia Earhart Suite – she was another local – and the Cowboy Room, complete with a large jetted bathtub.

The hotel is probably one of the best historic places I’ve stayed, and I have seen my share. Sometimes I stay in historic hotels and I’m impressed and sometimes I’m left with the thought that I never want to see a place again. I really can’t figure out a reason to come back to Marion but If I ever do, I would love to stay at the Elgin Hotel once again.

Before I left the area, I made a side trip to visit the pioneer cemetery that bears my family name. It sits alone, out on a seldom used gravel road not far from a tree line from a small seasonal creek bed. The cemetery is small but well kept in a minimal fashion. It was fenced and mowed occasionally to keep the prairie plants at bay. Never disturbed, these prairie cemeteries are the resting place and refuge of the original prairie and plains vegetation. Everything else has been plowed and planted into oblivion, as natural as an asphalt parking lot. There was one elderly cedar tree (the Rhino tree?) planted a century ago over the grave of the cemetery’s namesake.

Carl was born (geboren) in 1818 and survived until 1886. That was a full life for his time. I know from other sources that he was born in Pomerania a few miles from where my great-grandfather was born. They were probably cousins, not brothers. He came to America as a young man, one of three brothers who made the trip, and moved out to the frontier.  They settled in Lincolnville, Kansas, and put down roots and descendants. Some of the latter were literally put down in this very cemetery, but in unmarked graves. Life is hard and few children survived into adulthood. The small graves are simply marked by a flat stone slowly sinking into the soil. There was no money out here for a dead infant or sickly toddler’s tombstone. They were better remembered in the family Bible. The few other marked stones were for in-laws or married daughters and sons in law.

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St. Louis or Bust
Apart from the usual crazy traffic in Kansas City, the drive into Missouri was uneventful and mostly familiar. I found it a bit odd that the farmers were burning their fields all through that part of the Flint Hills. The smoke was rising in several places and the fields were black along the roadside.  I have old friends in Central Missouri where I lived for 35 years so I stopped for three days and stayed with a friend. It was a nice visit and I took a day to revisit Jefferson City where I lived, my daughter was born and my wife and parents passed away. Jefferson City hasn’t changed much except that the Capitol Building is wrapped in white plastic, it’s first true cleaning in a century. The Missouri River was out of its banks with the spring flood.

In St. Louis I stayed with family and reconnected. It has been over two years since we have been together. We walked along Main Street in St. Charles and Cherokee Street in St. Louis’ Benton Park area and visited the Soulard neighborhood for lunch. There was an evening get-together of old friends from the early 1970s. Those early friendships have stayed strong and true for almost fifty years. We are now all a few years either side of seventy but we well remember our twenties. The weather was a bit rainy so the visit was well suited to conversation and relaxation.

Going Back West
With the several rainy days behind me and a new storm front coming in, I decided to get started on the road home. My route took me west on the interstate until I hit Emporia, Kansas, and then onward on mostly two-lane highways to Liberal, Kansas, and then southwest through the Oklahoma Panhandle, skirting Texas, and finally into New Mexico. I didn’t make much effort to see anymore of Kansas – I had seen quite enough.

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There were a few familiar spots where I stop every few years, like Greensburg, a small Kansas town that was nearly wiped off the map by an EF5 tornado in 2007. The tornado was 1.7 miles wide and fully 95% of the city was totally destroyed and the rest damaged by 205 mph winds. Ten people died and another sixty were injured. The city decided to rebuild as a “Green” city in conformance with sustainable LEED environmental standards. Some of that has been accomplished but the population is only half of what it had been before the tornado. It still seems to be struggling.

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People on the plains keep one eye on the sky this time of year.  I have only seen one tornado and that was enough. Thankfully, my trip west was sunny and warm.

 

XOWF3318New Mexico
A driver can slip out of Kansas and into Oklahoma and south into Texas without noticing much of a change. Going west on my route, one recognizes a subtle difference when entering New Mexico. The plains begin to show swells and hills and distant mountains appear.. The mountains are part of the Raton – Clayton Volcanic Field and those are old volcanoes on the horizon. Of course there is that welcome sign and you gain an hour as you enter Mountain Time.

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My route took me through Clayton, the old county seat of Colfax County. The old courthouse is still there. This was the wild west and modern lore makes it seem that there were as many outlaws and regular citizens. Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, one-time associate of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch gang, was tried for his crimes in Clayton and sentenced to hang. Unfortunately, the folks in charge of the hanging, over in Union County, didn’t quite know how to manage it and the outlaw’s head popped off – decapitated instead of hanged.

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Cimarron
Cimarron – even the name evokes a sense of cowboy shenanigans and outlaw activities. The town grew up in the 1860s as part of the Santa Fe Trail. The Cimarron River flows through town and it is situated where the plains butt up against the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I had to wait for a small herd of Pronghorn antelope to cross the road as I drove into town. There were deer grazing in the yard next to the hotel and marmots running across the road every few minutes. I didn’t see any obvious cowboys or outlaws. I suspect there are a few cowboys around.

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One of the oldest places in town is the Aztec Mill, established in 1862. The arrival of a grist mill means that there was grain or corn that needed to be ground, a sign of established farming in the area. There is another large mill in La Cueva, a few miles to the south. The Spanish had been farming and ranching here long before the Santa Fe Trail era.

I was spending my last night on the road in Cimarron at the legendary St. James Hotel, established in 1872 by Henri Lambert, Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef.

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Anybody who was anybody stayed at the St. James Hotel at one time or another. It was the vortex of the Wild West with all sorts of shootings, murders and outlaw stories swirling around the place. I think almost every famous outlaw stayed here as well as General Phil Sheridan, New Mexico’s Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur), and lawman Wyatt Earp. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley stayed here and worked out plans for the Wild West Show. The hotel is well built and well maintained with a more modern annex added across the central courtyard.

I requested one of the historic rooms, not specifying anything in particular. I was put into old Room 14, Jesse James preferred room. Jesse signed the hotel as Thomas Howard, his usual alias. He knew how to pick ’em with an outlaw’s eye for comfort and an escape route. Bob Ford, the “dirty little coward”, stayed at the hotel — maybe stalking Mr. Howard.  “Black Jack” Ketchum spent time here – the guy that lost his head over in the next county. There are 26 documented killings – some outright murders – that took place in or around the hotel.

T.J. Wright, who won the hotel in a card game one night, was shot in the back as he victoriously walked back to his room, where he died. His room, Room 18, is sealed and not available for guests due to unexplained happenings. Of course, these old hotels have a reputation for hauntings but I did not experience anything strange during my stay.

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The current saloon is impressive and the polished wood back-bar dates to the early 1900s. There is a nice restaurant that was busy but not crowded when I stayed there on a Friday night. Reservations are sometimes advisable. There are bullet holes in the ceiling of the restaurant — the original saloon. I’ve only briefly touched on some of the history and the guests that have stayed at the St. James.

There’s more to see in Cimarron if you decide to stay there. There is a small brewery – Blu Dragonfly Brewery and BBQ. I ate lunch there when I came into town and the beer was good as was the BBQ brisket sandwich and baked potato salad. A few miles south of town, past the hotel, is the public area of the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. The Ranch is huge and encompasses much of the mountain terrain to the west of Cimarron. There is a scouting museum there open to the public.

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Homeward, At Last
Heading for home after leaving the hotel, I decided to go west throuch Cimarron Canyon to Taos and then south to Santa Fe and finally home. The Cimarron Canyon is a state park and the river offers a great place for trout fishing. Unfortunately there was a huge forest fire in the lower section that threatened Cimarron and the village of Ute Park a couple years ago. The state park was spared. The fire scar is clearly visible and is evident on both sides of the highway. Restoration is beginning but there is a serious flood risk in the burned areas.

The trip ended at 2,500 miles. I enjoyed it but had as much of the Kansas plains as I need for a while. I usually take the train across Kansas but I liked stopping at the historic hotels and some of the history.

Fully 80% of the US population lives within 100 miles of the coastline — Atlantic or Pacific. More are clustered in the industrial Great Lakes cities. The Census Bureau reports that 47% of the United States is unoccupied — nobody lives there. Most of the region I crossed is empty of people but still in some sort of agricultural use. The towns out on the Great Plains are tied to the rivers and the railroad. Even in New Mexico, where I live, most of the population lives along the Rio Grande — almost like the Nile in ancient Egypt.  To the crowded coastal dwellers, the vast open and empty spaces seem very alien. I’ve had conversations with a few of them on train trips crossing the plains and they look out the train windows and ponder the emptiness like they are watching it go by on a television screen.  I find myself doing that at times. On this trip I had to get out into the plains and I succeeded.  You mostly remember the emptiness, the quiet, and the wind. It is good to be home after two weeks on the road.

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