- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
I scramble gleefully up a concrete incline six feet above the cobblestone road, but Hal Jackson saunters. We stand in the ruins of what was once a large house 20 minutes outside Zacatecas, Mexico. The air is cool. Scrubby mountains pocked with old silver mines sweep across the landscape. Jackson is uneasy. I collect several pebbles, fallen pieces of wall. Jackson shakes his head, wanders the brush. “This is disappointing,” he says, eyes scanning, GPS in one hand, notepad in the other, camera slung round his neck. Why? “It just seems.…” He trails off, gingerly steps over a sharp rock embedded in the earth. He was once a marathoner, and though it’s been 13 years since his last, he maintains a runner’s lean grace. At 70 he looks perhaps 55. “I thought it’d be bigger,” he mutters. “This doesn’t seem right.”
We are in Pánuco, the birthplace of Juan de Oñate, the last of the Spanish conquistadors, whose hand likely had more influence on the American Southwest and northern Mexico than that of any other single explorer. In 1598 Oñate blazed the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, a trail that became the most used and most significant route of commerce and culture for 300 years. At its peak the Camino Real ran 1,800 miles from Mexico City north to Santa Fe. Spaniards used the trail to settle towns and villages all along the way, Franciscans used it to spread their gospel, troops from the United States and Mexico used it for waging battles and building forts, Indians used it to fight the swelling tide of foreigners, and traders used it for commerce. All morning Jackson and I have searched for the remains of the Oñate family hacienda, and now, with the Jeep Cherokee parked conspicuously on the narrow road, clouds in full bloom beyond the mountains, and my pocket full of pebbles, Jackson’s doubt continues to deepen.
A man in stained white jeans and a thinning white undershirt wanders down the road below us in sandals. He greets the two gringos standing atop a ruined wall in a pool of packed dirt bursting with purple wildflowers. Jackson tells him we want Oñate’s villa; the man looks bemused, then beckons us down from our perch.
A quarter-mile up and three minutes later we find the hacienda for real: an enormous hillock of pink cobblestones with a wall running around the circumference, a turret in the middle, the remnants of an ancient pool, a burrowed garden. The place is grand and empty. Silent with a cool breeze. It bears not a single marker indicating what it once was or who lived here. We three wander about it. Now Jackson is gleeful, running to take pictures, climbing up on the walls to peer at the vistas, his dusty white baseball hat nearly flying off behind him. “Now this”—he grins, index finger poised in the air—“this is what I pictured. This…is…it! ”
Throughout New Mexico and Texas, Oñate’s trail is clearly marked, but in Mexico many parts of it remained unknown to modern explorers, and Jackson and I set out on a mission to find them. We carried minutely detailed topographical maps and aerial maps from the early twentieth century, which often showed a trail obvious from a bird’s-eye view but elusive on the ground. We also carried copies of travelers’ journals that contained specific descriptions of the natural landscape, of mountains and valleys that wouldn’t have changed much, and of rest areas for caravans that still bore names Oñate had given them. Thus we had a decent idea of where things should have been if they hadn’t been paved or farmed over. “Trail finding,” Jackson assured me, “can be an exact science.”
Certain facts held true about the trail regardless of any particular location. For example, it always ran above the flood-plain. Also, water was a constant concern, so the caravans went for a route where it was accessible and where attacks by hostile Apache or Comanche Indians came infrequently. Acequias—irrigation ditches—often paralleled the trail, and they do even today in pueblos and small towns where they are still used. Oñate’s hacienda marked the final discovery of our journey, and the apex above all the others. Without Oñate the trail might never have existed. Without Oñate geographical boundaries, language, culture, battles, history, food, family, ethnic and racial intersection, economics, trade, and travel would have been vastly different. Without Oñate, Jackson and I—a generation and 1,500 miles apart from each other—would have never met 400 years later.