|Revisiting the Santa fe Trail
Two hundred and fifty years before the American Revolution, Santa Fe was a thriving community in territory claimed by Spain. Early trappers and traders recognized the opportunities for commercial trade and blazed a trail between the Missouri River and Santa Fe. Unfortunately, the Spanish officials forbade trade with the Americans, even after The United States became a sovereign nation. Those who tried to trade with the Southwestern inhabitants were jailed, and their goods confiscated. Then, in 1821, Mexico won her independence from Spain.
The same year, William Becknell loaded up several mules with trade goods and headed toward Santa Fe. The Mexican Government welcomed the opportunity to establish a trading business with the Americans. The Santa Fe Trail was open. In 1847 the Mexican-American War resulted in the southwestern portion of the country becoming a U.S. territory. For the next thirty years the trail was used by traders seeking their fortunes, and by military forces. Thousands of wagons carried millions of dollars worth of trade goods back and forth along the trail. During the Civil War, the trail was used to supply Union troops in the Southwest. When the railroad reached Santa Fe in 1880, the wagon road entered the realm of historians. All that remains today is about 200 miles of wagon ruts scattered along the route. It was the section of ruts between Willow Bar in Oklahoma, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, that drew me back to the area.
In the summer of 2000, my 182 had just been fitted with a rebuilt Millennium Engine, and I welcomed the opportunity to do some low and slow flying with the confidence instilled by a fresh engine. Early on a June morning, I left northern Utah and headed for La Junta, Colorado. I always stopped there when I was doing the research for The Santa Fe Trail by Air: A Pilots Guide to the Santa Fe Trail a book I had written several years before.
The nice folks at the La Junta airport provided a courtesy car, which I used for the short hop to Bents Old Fort National Historic Site. The site is a reconstruction of a fort built by merchants to supply trappers and travelers who used the trail years ago. Since the staff was dressed in period clothing and oxen grazed outside the walls of the fort, it was not too hard to let my imagination take me back in time. The rooms were decorated and furnished as they would have been in the 1800s. The trading post was stocked with trade goods like those used by the teamsters who drove the thousands of wagons that left the ruts along the route. This was a great place to spend an afternoon while thunderstorms tossed up the air above. As the sun was about to set, I drove back to town and found some great Mexican food and a room.
At first light the next morning, I passed over the fort, located just south of the La Junta airport, then turned on my GPS and turned toward Willow Bar on the Cimarron River ninety miles to the southeast. Ruts of the Santa Fe Trail became visible just as I reached the dry river bed. I had flown the route a number of times, but had never taken the time to just poke along and carefully look for signs of the old trail along the main line of ruts. From Willow Bar to Las Vegas the ruts are almost continuously visible from 1000 AGL, so I turned off the GPS. This trip, I wanted to get down lower and look for details I had missed on earlier trips. I planned to follow the Cimarron Route, a southern variant that presented little water for the teamsters and their animals. Bents Old Fort is located along the Mountain Route the longer northern variant that had more water and fewer problems with hostile Indians. With the low light of the rising sun creating shadows, the ruts were clearly visible.
On previous trips, I had discovered a few secrets to spotting ruts. From the air, ruts often appear as swales with different colors of vegetation, and not as ribbons of bare earth like those of some modern 4-wheel drive tracks. On steep slopes, the ruts have often been eroded by years of rainfall and wind. Changing altitude by several hundred feet, or approaching from a different direction can make the scars appear out of the background. The wagons most often followed the topography and avoided steep-sided ravines and low soft-bottom lands. In many places there are multiple swales paralleling each other and often small sections branching off to the sides. With thousands of wagons and many thousands of animals following the trail, the dust became unbearable, so the wagons often traveled several abreast rather than in lines as often depicted on TV. Some moved considerable distances from the main trail to avoid the dust and mud churned up by the wagons ahead. Miles of ruts are hidden from the ground searchers but are clearly visible from the air.
Forty miles west of Willow Bar is McNees Crossing. As I approached the crossing, I noticed a literal web of ruts intertwined on both sides of the dry river ford. There were so many ruts it took a few minutes to relocate the main route to the west. This area appears much the same as it did 150 years ago when two teamsters one named McNees rode ahead of their wagon train and stopped to rest near the crossing. Bad idea. Comanches killed them both. The famous Jedediah Smith met a similar fate along the Cimarron River in 1828 after surviving the harsh life of a mountain man for years. Indian hostilities increased during the life of the trail. As the Indians began to notice the effects the growing numbers of teamsters and wagons had on the buffalo and grass in their hunting grounds, they began to more actively defend their lifestyle. In later years, the Indian threat became so great that most of the traffic on the trail took the Mountain Route past Bents Fort.
I continued following the wagon scars westerly toward Clayton, NM. Flying low and slow, I found it much easier to track along the ruts than on prior trips when my old engine urged a more cautious altitude and higher airspeed. The air was smooth, so I opted to continue on my journey rather than stop at Clayton for a break. Soon after I passed McNees crossing, Round Mountain became visible in the distance. The teamsters on the ground used the volcanic cone as a landmark years before. Just east of the mountain, the trail ruts cross a paved road and a railroad. There is a monument at a pull off next to the road for those bound by gravity. The ruts leading to the next waypoint could not have been more clear if they had lights alongside. On previous trips, occasionally the ruts had faded away only to become noticeable a fraction of a mile farther along the route. Today, they appeared to be uninterrupted. The changing light and different seasons constantly change the appearance of the scars. I have found that early in the season, when the grasses are greenest, the contrast between the ruts and the surrounding surfaces is the greatest. Much of the topsoil in the rut scars blew away long ago. Because of this, there is often a slightly different type of vegetation growing in the swales that there is in the relatively undisturbed soil next to the ruts. From here to Las Vegas this phenomenon became most evident. If you fly this section in the afternoon, you will become acquainted with the same winds that scoured away the topsoil below.
Continuing toward the next waypoint, Point of Rocks, I checked my altitude because I remembered the ground rises rapidly to the west. Back at a safe altitude, I began to look for the abandoned foundations and splits in the trail I had noticed on earlier trips. Sure enough, they were still there! At the eastern edge of the Point of Rocks outcropping I circled the remains of an old building with cottonwood trees to the north. The base of the bluff was an attractive stop because of the spring that waters these trees. Since the teamsters liked to stop here, ambushes by Indians were common. There is a sizable cemetery here to attest to this fact.
It had been two hours since I left Willow Bar only 120 miles to the east. From here the route drops into the Canadian River drainage on the way to Wagon Mound. The light had changed noticeably. The shadows in the ruts were fading and they became harder to follow. Still-visible scars led me to the Canadian River Crossing. The wagons crossed here because upstream the river bottom is soft sand, and the steep canyons blocked passage downstream. The canyons became obvious as I crossed over the river where thousands of wagons had passed. The ruts ascend the western edge of the drainage. I lost sight of them for a few minutes as I looked for a microwave tower that could cause problems if I was too low. It passed well under my wing and I soon spotted the ribbon of swales that lead to the town at the base of Wagon Mound. The mound is actually a basalt-filled valley in which the surrounding, softer rock has eroded away, leaving the more resistant core intact. To the eyes of the teamsters, the outline of the formation resembled a wagon and team hence the name.
The ruts disappeared where the trail passes through the town of Wagon Mound. To the south of town, they reappeared next to the interstate highway. From here to Watrous, N.M., the ruts played hide and seek, appearing on one side of the highway only to disappear and reappear on the other side. Several branches wind through the rolling hills, with branches going in all directions. Some of the scars are the Santa Fe Trail, and some are from various military and stagecoach roads. All seem to converge on Watrous, NM, or Fort Union to the west. I opted to follow a set toward the fort.
If the light is right, Fort Union can be one of the most beautiful spots along the trail. In the spring and early summer, the emerald green grass creates an eerie contrast to the skeletons of the adobe walls of the fort. Unlike Bents Old Fort, Fort Union has been preserved as a ruin and not reconstructed. Ruts leading to the fort from all directions are clearly visible. Having been raised in the TV generation and growing up watching westerns, I have found it strange that military forts did not have walls as a rule. Private fortifications like Bents Old Fort had walls.
I spent a few minutes flying a five-mile arc around the fort, contemplating the effort it must have taken to haul the rock and wood that were required to build the fort, and supply the cooking and heating fires. I had spent several hours on the ground at Fort Union on previous trips. There is a great museum and a bookstore at the visitors center. It takes some time to wander around the ruins, but it is an experience I always relish. I have driven to the fort from Santa Fe, but never from the Las Vegas airport. Ground transportation had always been a problem on previous trips. I understand that the city has taken over the services at the airport, has built a new terminal, and is negotiating with several car rental agencies to have an office in the terminal. The airport is being actively marketed as an asset to the city with many improvements on the horizon. The courtesy car is only allowed to be used for lunch runs, but car rentals are available. Las Vegas will definitely be an overnight stop on my next trip. This time I settled for an air tour of the fort. Having experienced the solitude of walking among the ruins with only the sound of the wind, I was careful to stay 2000 AGL to avoid sharing the music of my new engine with the folks on the ground.
After a few circuits around the ruins, I headed straight for the Las Vegas airport, fifteen miles to the south. I swung to the southwest and approached the field from the south. Many years before, while on a commercial flight at 30,000 MSL, the pilot had announced that "ruts from the Santa Fe Trail are visible below
" One day on a flight from Santa Fe to Montana, I noticed the strange marks on the ground at the end of the runway. I followed them for ten minutes before it dawned on me what they were. My curiosity was sparked, and I began to research the trail history. The chance sighting of the ruts below at the end of the runway was the beginning of a journey back into time that led to my writing the book.
At the south end of Las Vegas main runway, I spotted the ruts that had fired my interest in the trail. With a smile on my face, I pushed the throttle to the wall and turned back to Clayton, NM. After four hours in slow flight, my 182 felt like a jet with a tailwind and full throttle. The smile turned to a grin as I looked forward to having my feet on the ground and a great lunch of New Mexican food. Clayton has several motels, but I wanted to camp under my wing and spend the evening reflecting on my re-discovery of the "Spirit of the Trail." This was the eighth time I had flown along the trail following the ruts, and each time had been different. The times I had flown the entire route from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe were memorable, but this flight, low and slow, was the best ever. I had not lost sight of the ruts for more than a minute, had smooth air, and eaten an incredible New Mexico burrito. I fell asleep watching a sunset like none other in the world and thinking, "Life doesnt get any better."
Many of the rut sections I saw on my trips have been preserved due to the efforts of the Santa Fe Trail Association. The SFTA sponsors research, mapping and trail marking projects. For those interested in trail history, they are a good source of information. They can be reached at 913-425-7312 or visited at www.santafetrail.org.
William White is a 1200 hr private pilot who has written several pilot guidebooks. The Santa Fe Trail by Air and The Oregon, California and Mormon Trails by Air are available from Western Airtrails at 888-755-0330 and at www. westernairtrails.com.
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