Seemed like a good idea at the time

Walking Back Through Time

Albuquerque Journal, May 27, 1993

Note: When I was 24, I quit my job in Wyoming to hike the length of a 19th century wagon road called the Santa Fe Trail, over fields, prairies and mountains, from Missouri into New Mexico. Whenever possible, I followed the exact route of the old caravans. The editors at the Albuquerque Journal were good enough to run my dispatches as a feature series, even though some of the writing now seems overcooked. Two of these stories are reproduced here.

ON THE SANTA FE TRAIL – There’s not a house in sight out here on the Flint Hills of Kansas. No roads, no cars, no gas stations, no kids on bicycles. Just sky, earth, grass and the deep wagon ruts carved into the soil by the wagons of the Santa Fe Trail.

And me.

It begins to rain as I follow the trail west and my clothes get quickly soaked. The hard prairie turns out to be as absorbent as rubber and water laps at my shoes. The next barbed wire fence is too high to climb, so I have to shove my pack underneath, smearing mud and goo all over the front. I get a taste of mud myself as I squiggle under.

I’m walking the route of the Santa Fe Trail, an idea that seemed noble two months ago when I quit my job to do it. Lately, and especially on days like today, it feels like a fool’s errand.

Now the rain is really coming down and it’s getting hard to see. I hoist up my pack, struggle to get my arms in, stumble, do a funny one-legged dance and go down hard. Mud is down my shirt, all my gear is waterlogged and the next town is over eighteen miles away.

Though I want to rage, I close my eyes and repeat what I’ve been telling myself for the last 100 miles: “This is life on the trail.”

It surely must have been harder for the merchants, teamsters, mountain men, soldiers, settlers and other brave souls who made the journey between Independence and Santa Fe when the old trail was in its heyday.

Blazed in 1821 by a canny redheaded salt merchant named William Becknell, the trail was a vital commercial link between the young American frontier and the Mexican outpost of Santa Fe. It preceded the Oregon Trail by more than twenty years and brought the common folk into the far Southwest.

Guns, ammo, whiskey, linen, leather, calico and all manner of manufactured goods were loaded onto huge freight wagons at Independence and hauled 775 miles over the plains and into the exotic pinon country to be traded for mules, furs and Mexican silver. The trail could make a man fabulously wealthy – or leave him dead from exposure, thirst or Indian attack.

But there was more to the lure of the Santa Fe Trail than the gleam of profits, historians say. At stake was the whole question of Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the West.

“Americans realized that the relationship with Santa Fe involved the question of what was to be done about the Southwest and California,” explained Bill Bullard, administrator of the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence.

“What people were seeing was more than just trade – it was a giant expansion into the Southwest. It was the key to the future of the United States.”

Significantly, the Santa Fe Trail was to play a key role in the New Mexico theater of the Mexican-American War. Gen. Stephen Kearney took his Army of the West down the trail from Colorado and captured Santa Fe without firing a shot in 1846. The American flag went up at the Palace of the Governors and the jewel city of northern Mexico became a part of the United States.

Goods and men continued to move down the trail, even through the dark days of the Civil War. The coming of the railroad finally spelled doom for the old road, which officially died in 1880 when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe reached the Sangre de Christos. Most of the ell-worn ruts were fenced off, plowed up or paved over.

But the Santa Fe Trail has had amazing staying power in the American consciousness, especially among those who live near its ruts.

Landowner and developer Louis Schmacher, for example, has plowed through stacks of old court records to trace the exact route of the trail through the leafy streets and back yards of suburban Kansas City. Just this spring, he found a new section – wagon ruts and all – in a school teacher’s yard in the Oldom Farms neighborhood.

“It’s there to be found,” said Schumacher, who wants to trace the exact route of the trail through Missouri.

Wayne Flory, a warm-hearted, black-suited member of an Old German Baptist Brethren Church near Pleasant Grove, Kan. has been living on the route of the trail since he was born. The older generations of his family were even baptized in Willow Spring, a favorite resting spot for travelers. “Plenty of water for baptizing,” he said.

And there’s 93-year-old Roe Groom, who has walked almost every inch of the trail through his native Kansas. “It’s the history of it, I guess,” said Groom, who can remember picking buttons from cavalry soldier’s coats out of the wagon ruts.

Nearly everyone associated with the trail talks enthusiastically about the ruts – those wonderful deep lines in the earth that tell a story without speaking. They are visible only on a tiny percentage of the route and are prized beyond description.

Farmer Charlie Noonan, who is proud of the ruts on his land near Burlingame, feels protective of his piece of American heritage. “It’ll never be broke up while I’m alive,” he said.

Council Grove, Kansas was an important stop on the trail. Wagon trains stopped at a pleasant spot on the Neosho River to organize their parties and mold bullets in preparation for their trek through Indian territory. The was also the last dependable source of hardwood and it was common to lash logs to the axles in case of future breakdowns.

The area where the wagons used to camp is today flanked by a gas station and a Pizza Hut, but it’s still not hard to imagine the sight of traders and teamsters enjoying a rest after the hard trek away from civilization.

My own journey from Independence has not been without its hardships. Kansas, for all of its quiet beauty, has a dark side – especially when the weather gets nasty. The hillsides begin to look bleak, each miles feels like eternity and the entire country takes on a quality of despair, much like the first grainy minutes of The Wizard of Oz.

It was around these parts in 1541 that the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado finally threw up his hands and abandoned his search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.

During the evenings when my legs feel; like burning embers and the sky grumbles with thunder, Santa Fe seems amazingly far away – tucked out of sight behind the western horizon and sealed off from the world, just as it was under the Spanish crown two centuries ago. I don’t dare look at a map; I don’t want to know how far away I am.

The Santa Fe Trail was said to have a curative effect on the body and the spirit: doctors used to prescribe a trip across the prairies for some of their patients. With luck, I’ll begin to feel a little of that before I cross into the summertime griddle of the High Plains.

And I can’t forget what a woman named Polly Fowler told me at Independence on May 2. She’s eighty years old, a devoted scholar of the trail whose eyes and mind are as sharp as a knife.

“When you get out there to where there’s nothing to do but live, you’ll see why the trail has a hold, even today,” she said.

Santa Fe, of course, means “holy faith.” And that’s about all I’m operating on as I hoist my pack once more and walk in the direction of the setting sun.


Journey’s End

Albuquerque Journal, June 16, 1993

SANTA FE – Here, at last, is the Plaza, the goal of thousands of overland wayfarers, the adobe square of long, long dreams – the end of the Santa Fe Trail.

“I doubt whether the first sight of the walls of Jerusalem were beheld by the crusaders with much more tumultuous and soul-enrapturing joy,” wrote Josiah Gregg as a caravan of wagons came into the city in 1844.

If his language verges on religious rapture, it is no wonder to me. After nearly 1,000 miles of slow travel over dangerous open country, the 19th century travelers had reason to thank God for their safe passage. A century and a half later, I feel the same way.

The Plaza in Santa Fe was the western shore of the vast prairie ocean separating the U.S. and Mexico. As a marker near the beginning of the trail put it, they had come “from civilization to sundown.”

A journey down the Santa Fe Trail, complete with mule-driven wagons and cursing teamsters used to take about 72 days. My journey – on foot, with a fifty-pound pack – moved at about the same pace. I was on the trail 68 days.

Santa Fe was essentially the first civilization travelers had seen since Missouri and most of them were ready to party. The monte games and all-night dances – known as fandangos – separated many a waggoner from his silver.

Disappointment usually set in as the excitement wore off. The adobe buildings and helter-skelter streets of Santa Fe looked filthy and disarrayed to most gringo eyes. Frederick Wislizenus referred to an “irregular cluster of low, flat-roofed, mud-built dirty houses called Santa Fe” upon his first visit to the city in 1846. It looked more like a “prairie dog village” than a proper capital, he said.

After the wagons were parked and the customs paid, the real business of the Santa Fe trade could commence. Los Americanos, as the merchants were known, laid out their exotic wares in front of the Palace of the Governors, in much the same way Pueblo Indians sell their jewelry today.

The day I came into the city was warm and breezy. That I’d walked to New Mexico from Missouri seemed impossible – like some strange dream I’d had the night before. And before I was truly aware that this was it – that the long trail was really over – I was walking into the Plaza.

I myself had nothing to trade in Santa Fe, not unless you counted my worn backpack and some sweaty clothes. But I did have some stories. And while they didn’t possess the drama of a 19th-century encounter with a bear or the Comanches, I’ll carry them with me the rest of my life. I think of them they way I think of the Kansas prairies – not spectacular, but they have a quiet, private pleasure all their own.

  • Just south of Lawrence, Kansas, I stopped at a dairy farm to examine some wagon ruts in a nearby pasture. The farmer wasn’t home so I rested my aching legs on his front stoop until he showed up. Wayne Flory came along in a pickup ten minutes later. He was a member of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, in the best black-suited Anabaptist tradition. I spent a wonderful evening listening to him talk about the two things that meant the most to him. First came the Lord. Then came his family, which had farmed for five generations. He and his wife took me in and fed me more food than I care to remember. There were no radios or televisions; they read Psalms instead. After I left the next morning, it occurred to me that we’d totally forgotten about looking at the ruts. It was OK; they didn’t seem so important anymore. “People like the Flory’s are what this walk is – or should be – about,” I wrote in my journal that night.
  • A vicious thunderstorm swept through the area the night I camped on the southern edge of Raton Pass. My four-foot-high tent caught the wind better than any canvas sail and rain leaked in through the seams soaking my sleeping bag. Lightning flashed all around, bright and constant enough to read by, almost. I had stupidly picked a high piece of ground and a well-placed lightning bolt would mean the end of everything. My only company was a shortwave radio and I found a public station out of Colorado Springs playing ballet music. I rode out that strange and violent night with the strains of “Swan Lake” in the tent.
  • One of the only times I ran out of water was near Apache Mesa, about 20 miles from the town of Wagon Mound, N.M. There was nothing in sight but buffalo grass, a few hardy pinon, and a grayish line of mountains to the south. The little Ocate River was nearby, but I wasn’t sure where. After bushwhacking up the side of a mesa, I found a surprising sight: a man making improvements on his windmill. After a leathery handshake, he invited me to fill up at the windmill trough. It was straight from the aquifer: cool, clear and delicious.
  • The folks at Philmont Scout Ranch at the base of the Sangre de Christos were kind beyond measure. They fed me well and helped repair my broken backpack. I stayed in a museum built on the site of cattle baron Lucien Maxwell’s 1860s house. The Boy Scouts had reconstructed the hacienda and decorated it in period style. I slept that night wrapped in buffalo robes with an old Colt .45  Peacemaker lying on the ledge above me.
  • Countless people stopped to offer me a ride, sometimes as many as 15 a day. It happened on city streets and dirt roads. I had to refuse each one.
  • A storm kicked up outside Overbrook, Kansas – one that seemed to come in weird waves of lightning and sun. Tornadoes had been spotted twenty miles to the north and I made slow progress, crouching in ditches when the lightning came near. As darkness fell, I took shelter in the lobby of the Santa Fe Trail High School, a consolidated school serving three towns in the middle of farmland. They were have play practice in the lunchroom: Arsenic and Old Lace. I stood there in my dripping cloths and looked at the waxed floors, the trophy case, the rows of lockers. High schools all over the country have the same distinctive smell: maybe they all use the same kind of floor wax. Or maybe it’s the smell of nervous energetic youth. I felt absurdly out of place. It seemed impossible that I had once gone to high school and lived a normal life, instead of walking the roadside and sleeping in bushes like a lost dog. How many others, traveling long ago, felt the same thing on the Santa Fe Trail?
  • On one deserted Colorado road, a gravel truck stopped for me. “I seen you back there at the junction,” said the driver, “and I was wondering if you’d had your breakfast yet.” He handed me a sweet roll, a bottle of orange drink and a Pepsi. It was a nutritionally terrible meal, but I almost wept with gratitude. Would I have done the same thing for a stranger in a backpack? It was a question I asked myself whenever people were kind to me. Which was often.
  • Between Raton and Cimarron, on a lonely road that seemed to go on forever, a battered pickup truck swung in front of me. It was yet another offer of a ride, this time from a rough-looking guy with tattoos of crosses on his bare chest. He squinted at me after I told him I couldn’t get in.

“Are you on a pilgrimage?” he asked me.

Pilgrimage? I had started in the soft river valleys of Missouri and watched the land give way to flat rolling hills and widen to the immensity of the Great Plains. Then a hard climb over mountains to the floor of this desert. For sixty years, the Santa Fe Trail cut a cultural path on the frontier, bringing the Anglo, Indian and Spanish cultures together. It married a young America to its frontier future.

In the end, the trail was about more than commerce. It stood for adventure, romance and undiscovered territory. I am privileged to have traveled it.

“Yeah, I guess I am on a pilgrimage,” I told the driver. “Something like that.”

Daily Show interview

Buy tom’s books

Zoellner at Amazon
Zoellner at Barnes & Noble
Zoellner at Indie Bound

Reader sites

Reader sites