- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
In a flat plain, carvedout swales often collected rainwater and runoff, so a long row of green bushes in a mostly barren landscape might mean the trail had run through there. Or a straight cut through a lush green area might signal the trail’s presence. Jackson was a landscape detective alert for clues. An oddly shaped mountain had been mined; a mound of dirt was a melted adobe house; a shallow gully, an ancient trail. In nature, context is every-thing. We scanned the land for the easiest route, the most level, and then we looked for angles. Where north-south paved roads ran, the Camino Real often bisected them today at 45-degree angles. We spent a lot of time in the Jeep slowing down, reversing, advancing, retracing our path. At one point, south of Socorro, Jackson remarked that the oxen from trail-day caravans ate beans off the mesquite tree, and the beans left behind in the cattle’s droppings eventually grew into trees, so there were areas where long, straight rows of mesquite trees amid otherwise random vegetation were obvious clues to the Camino Real.
Later we drove to San Pedro, a ghost town in New Mexico and once a stop along the trail, where a field of long-abandoned adobe houses has slowly dissolved during years of rain, sun, and neglect. One small ravine, once surely an acequia, was now host to tangles of weeds, paddle cactus, and thornbushes that crackled under my hiking boots. In the far distance Jackson and I heard voices coming from several trailers, followed by two distinctive pops of a shotgun. “Guess we’d better not linger,” he said, making his way slowly back toward the car. I was reluctant to leave. There are places on the trail today still populated, some large, some small, but none that I had seen like San Pedro, whose ravaged buildings so powerfully suggested the sad place between existing and forgotten.
From New Mexico, Jackson and I made our way south toward Mexico, via the infamous Jornada del Muerto—in English, the Journey of the Dead Man. Christened after Oñate’s day, it maintains the name still. A 90-mile swatch of desolation between Socorro and Las Cruces, this was one of three long jornadas through enormous chunks of desert. The flat, sandy plain was punctuated by paddle cactus and what Jackson called, in geographer’s parlance, “desert pavement”—rocks blown by the wind off nearby mountains. Caravans often left after 4:00 P.M. and traveled through the night to avoid the jornada ’s relentless sun. Water was a constant worry, and travelers’ journals again and again described the white bones of man and beast littering the landscape. Even I, a modern traveler with all the conveniences, did not escape the jornada , when I pulled out a blood-tipped mesquite thorn that had gone through the sole of my shoe and lodged in my foot. Gregg’s section of the Jornada del Muerto told of the luck his party had had in not losing a single person during the crossing. “One thing appears very certain,” he wrote, “that this dangerous pass has cost the life of many travelers in days of yore…we felt truly grateful that the arid Jornada had not been productive of more serious consequences to our party.”
In El Paso we met up with CARTA ’s president, George Torok, and Ben Brown, an archeologist employed by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Instituto Nacionale de Antropo-logia e Historia), whose work has led him to study various areas around or on the Camino Real. Brown and Torok showed us around several border areas where the Spaniards took up residence after their expulsion in 1680 during the Pueblo revolt.
We drove first through pecan groves and cornfields, to Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican urban extension of El Paso and, after the Pueblo revolt, the northernmost boundary of the Spanish territory. Two Camino Real routes led south from Juárez. One, through sand dunes, has horrific accounts of carcasses in the sand like those in the jornada ; the second was less direct but easier. Next to Juárez’s enormous cathedral in the central square stands the original whitewashed mission church built in 1659 and the oldest mission along the trail still functioning. In the square this day, preachers shouted Protestant theology into crackling loudspeakers, and pigeons commanded the immediate airspace. Just south of the mission a three-story covered market sat where the central market had stood during trail days, when it marked an important resupply spot famous for El Paso’s wines, brandy, and fruit. Then it was the only place between the Mexican city of Chihuahua and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where lush green vegetation flourished, a fact no longer true in modern-day Juárez, with its increasingly short water supply. “The Camino Real is really a communication trail,” Ben Brown told me. “Its social impact was with knowledge and items going north and south. It’s not just a trail in the physical sense; it’s really a concept of communication.”