Santa Fe Trail
One of the most notorious driving hazards in America loomed between Albuquerque and our next destination—Santa Fe. It was La Bajada Hill, according to travel lore one of the prime death traps in the country. Long before leaving Michigan we had heard of it, and in this part of the Southwest the hill and its death toll held a place in conversation similar to that customarily reserved for the weather.
The car which had the honor of carrying us over this monster of the western highways was a Cadillac. We had met its owner at an Indian pueblo near Bernalillo, where we had stopped to admire and absorb the colorful beauty of the village and its inhabitants. “This Indian wonders who you are?” a well-dressed man said to us. It developed that he knew these Indians personally and could speak their native tongue. He told us interesting facts about the village, then, finding we were headed for Santa Fe, invited us into his Cadillac. Shortly after that, he began telling us about La Bajada Hill. An elevated plateau had been visible for some time, but we came up on La Bajada rather suddenly.
Rising from the level plain, the road snaked upward for a mile at the steepest angle we had yet encountered on our trip. The switchbacks were so sharp that our driver had to back the Cadillac up occasionally and maneuver to make the turns, being careful not to back off the edge. When the trail emerged at the top, it again struck across level country. This was merely a huge step between two flat surfaces. From the top, one came on it with such suddenness that it could take a driver’s breath away.
The view from the summit was marvelous as the plains stretched away below for leagues into the hazy blue distance, dotted here and there by the Indian pueblos. We found a string of tourists at the top getting up nerve to make the descent. No doubt they had been warned beforehand, as every Blue Book (road guide) listed the hill, in big black letters, as a killer. Many times, families would walk down, leaving the driver to take his own chances.
Santa Fe greeted us at dusk, just before post office closing. With our precious mail we retired to the tourist camp. In the morning the investigation of the ancient town awaited us. According to literature we found in a hotel lobby, this quaint old city, in the heart of romantic America, was located in the most interesting fifty-mile square in the Union.
“Look what it says here,” Win pointed out to me as he continued reading the descriptive folder. “I can hardly believe it. Santa Fe was founded in 1609. That’s eleven years before Plymouth Rock. How could anyone find his way clear out here, that long ago?”
We poked around Burro Alley where one could see the sleepy little burros staggering under their loads of juniper faggots which supplied many Santa Fe residents with fuel. We tramped the narrow lanes, with adobe houses lined like cells on either side. There were no sidewalks in this quarter and the eaves hung out over our heads. We spent a day of wonder in Santa Fe.
We’ve always liked capital cities, and this one, hid clear out here in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo range, was the oldest capital city in the United States.
Although warned that a severe storm was brewing in the mountains, we set out for Las Vegas, New Mexico, seventy-five miles distant. As night approached it seemed evident that another set-to with Mother Nature was about to occur. We made camp in the junipers, cooked supper, and then—since the storm warnings were getting ominous—set out to look for a safer place to spend the night. A little shack offered its friendly shelter, and half an hour of work made it reasonably waterproof. The wind howled, the rain beat down, our little shelter rocked violently, but we slept without a worry. It was almost as though we were Little Red Riding Hood defying the big bad wolf.
This section of New Mexico was most appealing. Green pinyon and juniper-clad valleys rolled into green hills, green hills rolled into green mountains, and green mountains stretched far up and reluctantly gave way to hite snowcapped peaks. The green seemed good after the drabness of some of the areas farther south.
Travel was slow. Being lazy for a change, we selected a strategic position, dubbed “Lookout Point” by us, and here played for cars all morning. Our lookout was so located that we could see an automobile a mile before its occupants could see us. Just before we came into their view we would start walking and try for a ride. If the car passed us by, as it invariably did, it was back to our lookout to wait for another chance.
On these “watches” there was the choice of a number of occupations; we could think and daydream, sleep, eat, write letters or diary, plan future trips, talk over anything from college and politics to love and religion, or just read. While in Burke both of us had tried to read the New Testament through, but had failed miserably. There just hadn’t been enough time. However, more recently, moved perhaps by the vastness of the desert and its subtle inspiration, we both had streaks of reading the Bible, and became so absorbed that meals and even cars were neglected. Some of what we read was forgotten, but a lot soaked in.
Our car came at last and took us over the Glorieta Pass to Glorieta, where there was a chance to buy grub before hiking out of town. Near an old Mexican adobe we found a well and made camp in a clump of pines and junipers. A generous meal was disappearing when a visitor arrived. A large shaggy dog walked into camp and lay down.
Generally strange dogs and strange tramps do not connect peaceably, but this dog only wagged his tail and bellied closer to our fire. A quieter and better behaved canine was never created. After finishing our meal we romped and played, but no matter how much the roughhouse, Apache—that seemed like a suitable name—never emitted a bark or yelp. Although he eagerly ate the bits of food we threw him, he never touched our open larder without permission.
Bedtime came and we rolled up in our blankets. Apache crouched between our feet and the fire, his head between his paws. I awoke once to find him snuggling close to my warm body, again to find him on his feet, the hair on the scruff of his neck bristling as he glared into the darkness when a coyote had the audacity to howl near our camp. I smiled, reached out and patted a paw, then drifted off till morning.
Our silent watchman was still on guard when Win’s “Roll out, you lazy tramp,” brought me back to New Mexico. Win said I looked tough and I guess he was right. We were a mile-and-a-half above sea level and the nights were cold. To keep my ears from frosting I had tied our dirty dish towel around my head, Turkish fashion. Blood from my lips, which bled frequently while on the desert, was smeared artistically around my face, and bits of tousled hair sticking out in tufts, probably did give me a rather gruesome look. Our dog still liked me though, so we had a hearty scuffle before cooking another stomach-stretching meal.
“I can’t bear to leave him,” was my expression of feeling to Win, when the time came for us to be on our way.
“That’s just the way I feel,” he responded. Apache reminded us of our own dog, Jack, which we had romped with and loved back in Michigan.
All good friends must part. As we headed along the road we gently prevented Apache from following us. He doubtless belonged to some rancher.
Cars were few and far between. Most were heavily-loaded tourists without room for hikers. The U.S. Mail carried us four miles, but even the mail car had a puncture, and we had to handle several hundred pounds of letters and parcels to get at the tools.
Night found us camped in the low trees near the little town of Rowe, with eleven whole miles behind us for the day. That was the minimum record, so far, on our entire trip. It is true we were traveling slowly, but we were catching up remarkably on our eating. In fact this item alone was now costing $1.50 a day for the two of us.
Win had lost twenty-five pounds in the month or so since leaving California. He began to gain now. Our diary recorded that on this day two dozen eggs, two cans of corn, six pounds of spuds, milk, shredded wheat, four cups of cocoa, and five loaves of bread were consumed. But witness that we were not living by bread alone; before supper Win finished the New Testament and I was making great advancement.
Long hours on the road with very little success at hailing cars were common. An early morning ride carried us through San Jose, a real Mexican village, and then there was hard walking until noon. A side trip took us to the old pueblo ruins of Pecos from which the Andover Academy in 1922 took 11,000 skeletons.
A high nest of rocks some miles from San Jose provided another ideal lookout. A back view for three miles gave us ample time to repack and be ready for a car. All afternoon we watched but had little desire to travel, for this was a neat little camping place entirely surrounded by huge boulders. We loved the area; it provided inspirational opportunities to relax, after days and weeks of hard travel. Our evening view overlooked a vast expanse of junipers, with the setting sun dipping below the far western peaks. I tried to create a word picture of the view in our diary but it was too deep, too subtle for words. Our whole world seemed to expand. We removed our hats and loosened our coats so that we might breathe more deeply.
The wind blew that night but, secure in our rocky fastness, it caused no problem. At daybreak Win started rummaging in our packs for cooking utensils and food.
“Do you remember that poem about Old Mother Hubbard?” he asked me.
“Yes sure, but why?” I replied. Before he could answer I got his drift and started repeating the doggerel, quickly coming to the line about Mother Hubbard’s bare cupboard.
Our “cupboard” yielded only rice. All our water was gone. Win recalled having seen some in a wheel track a half mile back, so he retraced our trail and skimmed off enough to cook with. We boiled it thoroughly for purity’s sake, then added our rice. The result was chocolate pudding.
The hours slipped happily by, filled with talking, reading and watching. Getting out our tiny U.S. pocket atlas we devised a new game.
“Which state touches the greatest number of its neighboring states?” I asked Win.
He guessed Texas. Wrong. “Maybe Montana,” he reasoned, since that was the country’s second largest state. He was picking them by size and was wrong again. “I know full well it’s not California,” he asserted, referring to our third largest state. “The Pacific Ocean takes up most of its borders.”
Together we studied the atlas and began making counts. The honors, we concluded, went to Tennessee. It brushes elbows with eight other states. Missouri came in close second. In studying our atlas, we found that by the time we returned home we would have been in every one of the thirty-five largest cities in the United States. Thinking about reaching home caused us to look up. There was our car. An old Ford pulled up and the three occupants shouted, “Pile in.”
The driver said they were all nearly broke, and for two bits apiece they would take us into Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was a deal. Ten miles down the road we overtook three Mexicans on foot. Our driver made them the same proposition. There were eight in the car when it ran out of gas. We all pushed it up the hills and coasted down. It was delightful as an exercise but rather monotonous for travelers. At one o’clock in the afternoon we pulled into Las Vegas, having been four days making the seventy-five miles from Santa Fe. Some hikers! But, oh, the reading, writing, and relaxing we had accomplished. We decided the proverbial “Three Rs” would be a lot more popular with school kids if they always substituted “Relaxing” for “‘Rithmetic.”
Next day a bad wind was blowing and there were no trees to stop it. From the road and barren plains, sand and dust was swirled into the air, then sucked along in enveloping clouds. We tried to eat some sugared bread and water, but gave up the attempt in disgust; when it reached our mouths it was bread and sand.
As the wind became worse and the dust devils more dense it was necessary to take hold of hands so as not to become separated. Once we did get separated. “Francis, where are you?” I heard Win call. In a moment we found each other again. After standing all we could, we crawled off the trail, got down on our knees, and covered our heads like ostriches. When the wind let up we hiked as fast as possible for more hospitable regions.
Out of the dust popped a Ford coupe. Soon that coupe became our dream chariot, carrying us out of the sand and dust. Its driver, Dan Vinson, was one of the two or three best remembered hosts of our entire trip.