JORNADA DEL MUERTO: Retracing the Dead Man's Journey
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This article originally appeared in New Mexico Magazine, September 1994
Copyright 1994 Douglas Preston


In 1670, a German trader known as El Aleman was imprisoned by the Inquisition of New Mexico for witchcraft. Two years later, he escaped and fled southward on El Camino Real, the Royal Road linking Santa Fe with El Paso and Chihuahua. He was accompanied by his Apache servant Atanasio. South of Socorro, New Mexico, the two started across 90 miles of desert, the most dangerous section of the Camino Real.

After two waterless days of travel, El Aleman, exhausted, stopped and asked Atanasio to travel ahead and bring back water. The Apache took a horse and a harquebus and found water a day's ride south. On the way back his gourd of water broke. He backtracked and, with nothing else to carry water in, soaked a saddle blanket and loped back to where he had left El Aleman. But the German, desperate with thirst, had taken one of the horses and disappeared. A search party combed the desert, finding nothing.

Five weeks later, a group of travelers came across a dead horse tied to a tree. Nearby they found a doublet, lined with otter skin, which had belonged to El Aleman. Scattered about they found several ribs, some chewed bones and a mass of hair. They gathered El Aleman's pitiful remains for Christian burial back in Santa Fe and erected a cross at the spot, which became known as La Cruz de Aleman and later, simply Aleman.

El Aleman was not the first to die in this terrible desert crossing, and he would not be the last. But it was his death that would give this trail (and the desert it crossed) its name: Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man. Nobody knows how many people died along the Jornada del Muerto. One historian guessed that there might be, on average, one grave for every 500 feet along its 90-mile length.

This particular fact was uppermost in my mind as I packed camp with a friend in preparation to cross the Jornada del Muerto on horseback. We spent the night near a place called the Paraje de Fray Cristobal, the Campsite of Friar Christopher, on the east side of the Rio Grande. It was fall and the cottonwoods in the bosque had turned a glorious yellow. A breeze from the river brought with it the smell of wet sand and the cries of sandhill cranes. The morning fire was smoldering its last embers and the horses were buried in a breakfast of tobosa grass.

Very little had changed in this place since Don Juan de Onate camped here with his settlers in 1598. He named this campsite and the mountains behind it after Fray Cristobal de Salazar, his cousin and close friend, who died here on his way back to Mexico in 1599.

To the southwest, we could see the barren slopes of the Fray Cristobal Mountains lying quietly in the yellow light. Rimming the opposite horizon was the long blue serration of the San Andres Mountains. But ahead of us lay nothing. It was a landscape of emptiness, a treeless despoblado of sand and lava rock as far as the eye could see.

My partner in this ride, Walter Nelson, fetched the horses while I packed up our supplies. In an hour we were ready to move out. We were bade farewell by an irritated rattlesnake, which buzzed its displeasure from the shade of a nearby bush. We gave it a respectful berth and turned our horses southward into the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man.

The Jornada was the most dreaded part of the Spanish trail known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior Lands. This 1,800-mile road, stretching from Mexico City to Santa Fe, was one of the three great trails in the American West. Although less well-known than the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, it is, in the opinion of many historians, the most important of the three. El Camino Real was the first European trail in what would become the United States. For many years it was also the longest road in America, carrying the first permanent European settlers into this country, 22 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The first breeding stock of horses, cattle and sheep were brought into the West along this route. The wheel, written language, iron metal, the saddle, the gun, Christianity and European culture first permanently entered our country via this trail. For better or worse, El Camino Real affected the course of American history as no other trail since.

It was not exclusively a Spanish trail. Centuries before Columbus, it was a Pueblo Indian trade route, connecting the Rio Grande pueblos with the great civilization centered at Casas Grandes in Mexico. The Apaches, including Cochise, Geronimo and Victorio, occasionally rode the Jornada on raids into Mexico.

Zebulon Pike and Susan Shelby Magoffin were among the first Americans who came this way. Kit Carson crossed the Jornada as a wagon master on his first trip to New Mexico, and later led a Union Army down El Camino Real to defend New Mexico from a Confederate invasion. At the far end of the Jornada, the Civil War Battle of Valverde was fought. Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, immortalized by Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop, made a lone journey down El Camino Real and across the Jornada. Indeed, Cather's book opens with the bishop lost in a desert landscape that is probably the Jornada itself.

Recognition of El Camino Real has come belatedly. President Clinton recently signed legislation calling on the Park Service to study El Camino Real for designation as a National Historic Trail. The U.S. also is working with the Mexican government to commemorate it as the first International Historic Trail--a symbol of the growing relationship between our two countries.

The Jornada del Muerto is almost unchanged since 1598. So uninhabited is this desert that it was chosen as the site to detonate the first atomic bomb. We only reached the Fray Cristobal campsite, our starting point, after driving 30 miles over terrible dirt roads.

Walter and I rode southward into the desert, tracing the hypothetical route of the Jornada drawn on our maps. This northern section of the Jornada ran between the Fray Cristobal Mountains and a great malpais or lava flow. Most of the actual trail had disappeared under shifting sands, but once every few miles we found an eroded swale that looked like it might be its remains.

Six miles southward, at a place called Lava Gate, the trail squeezed through a narrow gap between the lava beds and the mountains. As we approached Lava Gate, we rode into a bottomland carpeted with foxtail grass. For the first time the trail was unmistakable: indeed, the ground was ribbed with the very ruts made by the iron-clad wheels of the wagons over a century ago.

We dismounted. I knelt and laid my hand in a rut, touching this ancient mark of history on the landscape. I had a sudden, indescribable feeling of the weight of the past: Here was the very route of the conquistadores, the trail trod upon by Onate, Espejo and Don Diego de Vargas. The first European settlers in what would become America journeyed along this route, in hopes of a better life in the Tierra Nueva, the New Land. It was this trail that would change the Native American's world forever.

I stood up and looked about. The landscape was fearfully empty and silent. Walter and I were probably the only two human beings within 20 miles. The wind stirred the grass. The Fray Cristobal Mountains were almost colorless in the noonday light. A pair of pronghorn antelope stood against the southern sky, watching us. My horse snorted, wondering why we had stopped, and ran his muzzle through the unpalatable grass. It occurred to me that his ancestors had probably traveled this trail.

We rode on. The ranch that covered the northern Jornada had gone bankrupt--ranching being a tough business out here--and the cattle had been pulled out several years ago. As a consequence the wildlife had rebounded. As we journeyed southward, we spotted hundreds of antelope and desert mule deer, as well as eagles, coyotes and foxes, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs and tortoises. The terrain was mostly sand dunes anchored by yucca, Mormon tea and Indian ricegrass, alternating with gravelly, deflated flats covered by mesquite or creosote. Here and there a vicious lava flow or black volcanic hill interrupted the monotony of the horizon.

On the second day we discovered a strong trace of the trail, a deep cut in the landscape that ran for three or four miles. It ended at a landmark on the trail called the Laguna del Muerto, Dead Man's Lake. This playa was dry most of the year, only filling up briefly after heavy rains. When the laguna was dry, overland travelers would unhitch their teams and lead them to water at a spring five miles west, called Ojo del Muerto. The ojo was the only reliable water source on the entire 90-mile stretch of the Jornada.

In the early days, the best time to cross the Jornada was during the August thunderstorm season, when the Laguna del Muerto was more likely to have water. The Laguna del Muerto was usually the second camp for caravans going south on the Jornada. Southbound caravans rested their livestock at the Paraje de Fray Cristobal and set off around four o'clock in the afternoon. They traveled most of the night, arriving at the Laguna del Muerto 12 to 14 hours later, where they would camp and unhitch the teams. The teams were either watered at the laguna or driven to the ojo five miles west.

In good years there was usually grass along the Jornada, but never much wood. Most travelers, like us, burned sticks of mesquite, creosotebush, and the dry husks of yucca. Northbound caravans also traveled at night, usually stopping a few hours before sunrise to graze the livestock on the dewladen grass.

We, like so many before us, found the Laguna del Muerto dry, a cracked bed of silt shimmering in the heat. We rode across it, the horses' hooves rattling the dead alkali weeds. We camped midway between the laguna and the Ojo del Muerto on a hill that commanded a sweeping view of the vast Jornada desert. As night fell, the soapweed yucca plants stood darkly against the landscape, looking uncannily like human beings. Travelers on the Jornada sometimes shot at yuccas, mistaking them for Apaches, especially in the twilight hours.

Many who crossed the Jornada likened it to the sea. It is an apt comparison. We, too, felt like we were crossing an ocean, where we traveled for days without appearing to go anywhere. It was a hypnotic experience, the endless riding in the warm sun, with the wind luffing through the grass, the horse swaying, the rhythmic creaking of the leather. Here was also the silence of the ocean. In this great empty space there were no busy sounds of cars, people and planes, the omnipresent white noise of civilization that you don't even notice until it is gone.

The afternoon of the third day, Walter and I saw a cluster of cottonwoods and some low rooflines that marked the Aleman Ranch, built near the place where the unlucky German died. The Aleman Ranch was homesteaded in the 1860s by Lt. John Martin, a former mail escort along the Jornada, which by that time had become an Anglo stagecoach route. Martin built the first way-station here, and in 1869 hand-dug the first well in the Jornada del Muerto, breaking forever the waterless grip of the desert.

The trail went right through the Aleman Ranch headquarters--also called the Bar Cross Ranch--between the barn and the house. Two quarter horses grazed along the fence and whinnied a greeting to our horses as we approached. We tied up in front of the barn and I went to knock on the door of the house. It was an old fortified hacienda made of whitewashed adobe, with an internal courtyard and outer walls a good 3-feet thick. We had no idea who lived here or what kind of reception we might receive. If the truth be told, we were trespassing.

A man came slowly to the door, wearing a black cowboy hat tinged with the red dust of the desert. His face showed the work of many years in the sun. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Ben Cain. He had been born in the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto and had spent all his life there. I told him about our journey.

"Now that's a ride," he said, nodding slowly.

He brought us into the yard and pointed out some landmarks of the trail. Along the barn, he showed me where an old adobe wall marked the road. "If you boys ride out there in the mesquite," he said, "you can still see the trail if you squint your eyes and look sideways. And bring a little imagination to the effort."

We could not see any trace of the trail in the mesquite, no matter how much squinting we did. We camped at a windmill and cattle tank two miles south of the ranch house. It was a desolate spot, but it was our first camp with real water. Before dinner I lay in the water of the tank, loosening the dust of the trail, watching the sun set over the Caballo Mountains. An evening of immense peace and solitude settled down, followed by a moonless night. The stars were so numerous that they looked like great phosphorescent clouds of light.

On the fourth day we rode for hours toward one of the important landmarks of the Jornada, Point of Rocks, which slowly rose above the horizon like a great island in the ocean. We came across two antelope and for fun raced alongside them with our horses until they left us in the dust.

Just south of Point of Rocks was a campsite known as Los Charcos del Perillo, the Pools of the Little Dog. This was the Spanish Conquistador Onate's second camp in the Jornada. He arrived here on May 23, 1598, tired and discouraged, not having found any water during the long march. As the Spanish explorers prepared for a waterless evening, a little dog came back into camp with muddy paws. They retraced the dogs' steps and found a series of shallow pools left by rains, and thus gave this campsite its name. We camped at a windmill about 100 yards south of the old Spanish campsite, next to the rocky arroyo where pools of water still collect after a rain or flash flood.

The afternoon of the last day we heard a new sound. It was a rumbling--a hissing--coming through the clear air of the desert. We paused our horses and listened. The sound rose and fell on the wind, but we could see nothing ahead but an endless plain covered with creosote. It was only when I got out the map that we realized what it was: the sound of Interstate 25. Not two miles from us, the interstate swung around the southern end of the Caballo Mountains and drew parallel to the ancient trail.

The noise from the superhighway was a sad, tired sound, a reminder of how much our world had changed in the centuries since Onate first rode this trail. We sat around the fire that night, eating a dinner of chile and biscuits, and thought about winging our way back tomorrow to Santa Fe on that other trail, that 20th-century ribbon of asphalt, covering in 90 ugly minutes what had taken us four beautiful days to ride.


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