- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
The finding, though, was remarkably anticlimactic. Jackson marked the spot in his GPS device, then grinned for a moment until his mind jumped to what we had yet to find. In the world of Hal Jackson, if something hadn’t been found in 400 or so years, it wasn’t so much a matter of its concealment as that no one had ever really bothered to look. Lucero was an auspicious sign of things to come.
We drove on through the Mexican desert. At Carrizal we stopped at what had once been a presidio. The walls had dwindled to a rectangular speed bump in the earth. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Spaniards bribed Apaches with food to ward off thievery in what was likely the first real attempt at social welfare. Later, in 1916, Americans—mostly Buffalo Soldiers—lost a small battle to Mexicans here. In the distance, dust devils flitted across faraway plains. You could watch your dog run away for days in land like this, I told Jackson, a phrase often said of the Midwest, where I happened to live. Jackson laughed, then ,grew thoughtful. Every place you ever go will be compared with where you came from: the weather, the architecture, the context. “You never escape your own landscape,” he said. “It’s like gum on your shoe.”
Later we searched for another ojo : Caliente. Like Lucero, it was mentioned in every journal; unlike Lucero, Jackson didn’t know of many people who had ever managed to locate it. Using topo maps, we pulled off the highway onto a two-track and searched through the flat-planed dust for a road shown on the map. We drove up, looked, reversed, drove back up, looked again, and reversed, over and over. Between the irrigated alfalfa fields, the russet land managed only an occasional barrel cactus. Suddenly a migrant worker appeared at the window of our Jeep. After the man gave us directions, Jackson and I easily spotted the tiny road that had eluded us. We lifted a metal-wire gate off its wooden hinge and drove in till we had to hoof it through the mesquite. Two things appeared in front of us: an enormous ocher-and-bronze-colored church—too new to be Caliente—and a lone brown cow.
We split up and searched through the trees, more animals appearing as we wandered: horses, cows, quail, a blackeared jackrabbit. Suddenly, in the distance, I heard Jackson hollering. He was buried deep in the trees, so I followed his voice and saw first the old church. It was just as Gregg’s journal and so many others had said: graveyard next to the church, padre’s home opposite. If this was really Ojo de Caliente, we could expect an enormous ojo and the Camino Real trail leading smack-dab into the church.
I found Jackson standing in the middle of the hole. It was dried up now, probably 40 by 20 feet, but huge trees around its circumference suggested that water abounded deep down. Jackson was downright giddy. Around the ojo and church were mounds that had once been adobe houses. “It’s probable that no modern explorer has ever been here,” he said. “And certainly no settlement for 90 or so years.” He jog-walked from end to end in the ojo , measured the whole thing, and took a GPS position. Lizards darted across the ground. We felt as if we had been granted the memory of every traveler who ever walked that land. We ran atop and through the ojo , took pictures in the padre’s quarters, padded over the mounds where houses once stood. Then we wandered around to the back of the church, and there it was, clear as day: a single straight brown swale surrounded on both sides by overgrown mesquite trees. The Camino Real with all but street signs pointing it out. Our elation was so great we simply stared, overwhelmed, silenced.
We found other things: the route of the trail in a charming, colorful village called Valle de Allende, where the air was cool, the trees were voluminous, and the town smelled of wet earth and roasted chilies. Oñate and his minions had crossed a stream there. We drove on past rolling green hills, out of the desert and into a land of eucalyptus and pine, to a town called Villa Hidalgo today and Cerro Gordo back in the trail days. We found the makings of an old presidio wall possibly from those trail days.
On a side road made of what appeared to be a scattering of stones embedded at random in the dirt, Jackson peered so close for so long that a pattern emerged. “Here,” he told me, “a straight line of rocks. You see that? That’s not accidental.” He got so excited he had to take a breath. “That was put there by someone. On purpose .” A moment later an old Indian couple walked out of a nearby doorway and greeted us. Jackson pointed to the rocks. “ Camino Real, aqui? ” he asked. The woman shrugged and invited us into her home, where her husband, in peasant hat and beat-up jeans, confirmed that indeed his home was on the trail. The rocks, he told us, were the old method of paving. We sat then and talked with them about what we were doing: a fusion of generations, cultures, and languages, exploring a history of generations, cultures, and languages.