- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
We drove through various settlements where the Spanish retreated after the 1680 revolt. Ysleta del Sur, Senecú, San Elizario, San Lorenzo, and Socorro del Sur all were small communities and are laid out today as they were in trail days, with a mission-style church, a central square, and a small but growing sense of their place in history. At these settlements, Torok told me, the names had changed, the Camino Real path had changed, the river had changed, and the people and the culture had continually changed. The Rio Grande, which is the established border between the United States and Mexico, constantly shifts its location. The earth is not silent, not static, even if we wish our boundaries to be so. The river is far south of where it was in Oñate’s day and, as a result, makes for a rather odd choice for an international boundary line.
In a little town called Bracito, which was a resting stop along the trail in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a small but significant battle took place during the Mexican War of 1846–48, right in front of today’s Bracito School. Brown and Jackson stood at the mouth of an acequia respectfully debating the trail’s location (Brown: underneath the acequia; Jackson: alongside it) and why the Americans who were outnumbered three to one by the Mexicans won the battle in 20 minutes (Brown: Mexicans were an ill-treated peasant army with low morale; Jackson: Americans were Missouri volunteers well used to their weaponry). As they talked, each with one leg resting atop the modern concrete wall of the old acequia, the sun began to set, lighting up the school. Lightning shot down from the clouds in the distance, and sheets of rain rolled in. Whether the Camino Real ran below or adjacent to the acequia, today a railroad track crosses where we all stood discussing what happened here once, watching as the storm and nightfall came on.
In Mexico, Jackson and I were alone again, searching for the first of many areas we hoped to find that had eluded modern-day explorers, including Ojo de Lucero, a spring that nearly every journal mentioned that had watered a rest stop from Oñate’s day. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Jackson scanned the placid golden landscape, and I felt the Jeep slow. He pulled the car off the highway onto a two-track dust road in the middle of the desert. I hadn’t even seen the two-track, let alone whatever infinitesimal clue between this swatch of desert and the last had made him turn off for closer inspection. To Jackson each new vista of desert offered a slightly altered landscape, a tiny promise of discovery. The Lucero spring would have once held enough water for a thousand people or more to drink, wash, and cook from for a few days in a trailside camp, but today it would be only an enormous indentation in the earth. If we found Lucero, we would be among just a handful of people in the world who knew where it was now and who knew that it once meant, for many thousands of people, survival.
EACH NEW VISTA OF DESERT OFFERED A SLIGHTLY ALTERED LANDSCAPE, A TINY PROMISE OF DISCOVERY.
Jackson drove a mile off the highway on the two-track until we reached a private ranch in the midst of new construction. A man in a construction hat walked briskly to our car and peered in suspiciously. Jackson waved a greeting, rolling down his window. The man told us that what we wanted was across the highway. “ No aqui ,” he said several times in a voice meant to warn us away from our folly. Jackson gunned the engine, backed up, and retraced our route to the highway, at which point he grumbled, “He doesn’t know what the hell we’re looking for.”
Moments later he spotted a flash of aqua blue up ahead. “Aha,” he said enigmatically. Jackson read the landscape as an artist reads a blank canvas, wrought with possibility and inherently full of layers and details that the rest of us nonartists could not imagine. The blue dot became clearer as we drove, and I saw that it was an alberca , a public swimming pool. Jackson conversed with the alberca ’s maintenance man, and he pointed in the direction we had come from. Afterward Jackson turned to me rather as a superhero might to his faithful but somewhat ineffectual sidekick and said, “Let’s get the maps!”
WE FELT AS IF WE HAD BEEN GRANTED THE MEMORY OF EVERY TRAVELER WHO EVER WALKED THAT LAND.
Ten minutes later, Jeep parked askew amid mesquite trees and choya cactus with pipe-cleaner arms, we stood at Ojo de Lucero. We’d driven along a two-track past scattered ranches, then turned into the desert until the trees got too thick to drive, and then we walked, carrying bundles of papers, maps, and Jackson’s digital GPS. Several hundred yards away was a tiny village, so Jackson knew there was a water source from somewhere. We noted nearby power lines, which showed up on the topo maps, and after a brief tromp through the desert, we stood at a shallow dry indentation in the earth, a small pipe pumping water through the desert.