- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
In a long-abandoned acequia we heard voices, followed by two distinctive pops of a shotgun. “guess we’d better not linger,” said Jackson.
To say that Jackson is a map man is like saying that astronauts enjoy air travel. He doesn’t just like maps; he lives by them. He keeps topographical and aerial maps organized by route in a box in the back seat of his car, next to atlases, road maps, Lonely Planet maps, and historical maps. In his home office, he has maps framed on the walls, maps in filing cabinets, and maps laid out over his desk. Each morning after breakfast, maps cover his dining room table. He has computer programs to make maps. At various points during our journey, he offered to make me maps including or excluding such features as power lines, bodies of water, villages, and mountains. He doesn’t like to be lost. He told me once that he figured he looked at maps a hundred times a day. “I’m the where guy,” he says. He respects maps, and they in turn have given him the assurance of one who always knows his place in the world.
Our route began north of Santa Fe in the San Juan Pueblo, which Oñate occupied in July of 1598. Large excavations have been done in this area, so the location of the original mission church and central square are denoted by a marker, in the midst of a field of chamise and juniper beside a graveyard. “In northern New Mexico there’s still a lot of resentment today toward Oñate, whose soldiers were said to be savage,” Jackson said. He illustrated this with a story about the Acoma Pueblo just outside Albuquerque. The tale claims that the Indians were living peacefully when Oñate’s men descended on them and chopped off the right foot of every man over 16. As the Spanish tell it, the Acomas attacked the Spaniards first, and the latter were merely retaliating. Several years ago, on the eve of the opening of a new Oñate museum, north of the San Juan Pueblo along the road to Taos, someone chopped off the right foot of Oñate’s statue.
With close to 500 people following him, Oñate, whose soldiers often marched in full body armor through the desert heat, averaged 15 miles a day. Jackson and I covered 15 times that. Remarkably, Oñate managed to establish the first American thoroughfare, predating the colony of Jamestown, yet has never received much historical credit. The author Marc Simmons, who wrote of Oñate’s perilous journey in The Last Conquistador , said that along with everything else the conquistador did to establish the shape and character of North America, he also “made a notable contribution, through his wide-ranging explorations, toward an understanding of the true geography of western America.”
Just 10 miles outside Santa Fe, Jackson showed me my first swale, a carved-out bowl of earth, where deep cuts from wagon wheels could still be detected. “I get excited about swales,” he told me, “but not everyone does. Standing where something happened is very powerful to me.” In the distance La Majada Mesa loomed black and foreboding. In Oñate’s time the mesa was a near-insurmountable challenge to cross. Wagons had to be emptied, and their goods carried steeply uphill on horseback while the carts were routed through the shallow river that cleaved the mesa. Loaded with their cargoes, the carts would have gotten mired in the riverbed. In Commerce of the Prairies , perhaps the best traveler’s account of the Camino Real, Josiah Gregg, a midnineteenth-century trader, wrote of the treacherous crossings: “In some places, if a wagon is permitted to stop in the river but for a moment, it sinks to the very body. Instances have occurred when it became necessary, not only to drag out the mules by the ears and to carry out the loading package by package, but to haul out the wagon piece by piece—wheel by wheel.”
We drove to the base of La Majada Mesa, parked in the dust, and got out to walk along the old trail. “Look at this.” Jackson shook his head, pointed to where the trail had created an obvious swale, then disappeared from view round the bend of the mountain. Jackson believed few people even noticed the mountain. “Ten miles outside Santa Fe and not a single footprint,” he said.
As we drove, the terra-cotta countryside gave way to rich, red clay hills and low cliffs, and I began to learn how to read a landscape. Jackson pointed out that curved roads in a grid city, for example, were very likely just old trails paved over. The entire city of Boston is the most famous example of this. Parts of the Camino Real that are paved prove the fact. “The caravans took the best route, not necessarily north, east, south, and west,” Jackson told me, as we drove trail areas near his home in Placitas, New Mexico, just outside Albuquerque. “A crooked street in a city laid out by gringos? You can be sure it predates the grid.”