Santa Fe Trail – the landmarks

 Head That A Way.

We are a mobile people. A modern society on the move, crisscrossing continents, traversing countries. Haulers and freighters, families and tourists traveling highways, following signs, red lines on maps and ever more common trusting the voice on a small GPS. These days its easy to go here and there, hard to get lost about anywhere but what if you stopped your car and walked to the side of the road and looked out at the landscape. Would you know where you are? If you closed your eyes and turned once around, would you know which direction is north or which is east, the name of the creek or the far distant peak?

Travel on the Santa Fe Trail in the early days had plenty of challenges and knowing which direction one was supposed to go was a major one. When William Becknell made his first journey to Santa Fe the road was uncharted. He simply followed the Arkansas River westward until he reached the foothills of the Rocky Mountains turned south, was approached (luckily) by a large contingent of militia several days later outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico and they then escorted him westerly and into Santa Fe. Seems pretty easy but men in those days had a knack for finding their way through the wilderness. On his return trip to Missouri he made note of several prominent peaks and land forms, calculated the distance between each and had a pretty good idea which way to go when he made his second trip. Knowing how to read the land (and a compass) were valuable skills in his day and are still just as valuable today. Even when using a GPS its still a good idea to take a sight reading  and get familiar with your surroundings.

A mountain peak, a hill, a line of trees, a creek or ravine are natural signposts and that was all there was in the early days of the trail to Santa Fe.

After traveling for three to four weeks across the open prairie the first sighting of the Rocky Mountains would have certainly lifted the spirits of weary travelers. I know the excitement I have felt on first spying the Rockies after hours and hours of driving west  across the flat lands of Kansas or Nebraska. I’m sure it was even more exciting for the pioneers.

From a distance of twenty or thirty miles the points of profile on the mountain range would have been recognizable and a course of direction could be determined and adjusted to head towards Cimarron or Taos. In this case to reach Santa Fe from here it would be time to start moving in a southerly direction.

A good days travel, maybe thirty miles by horse or wagon the next landmark of Wagon Mound could be reached. Easily recognized for its distinctive form resembling a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses.

Following a south westerly heading after leaving Wagon Mound and keeping a sharp eye a solitary peak will be exposed taller than any other in the distance. Head that a way.

Once you get to within fifteen  miles or so of that solitary rock known as Hermits Peak turn due south. A few miles more and you will be on the outskirts of the old Spanish town of Las Vegas. There are meadows and good grazing there.

On the south edge of the town are some low striated banded cliffs where you turn west at the pass in the hills. Starvation Peak will be visible after about ten miles. Stay to the north of it and continue traveling west.

In twenty miles you will begin to encounter the red colored walls of one of the Southwests peculiar landforms, the mesa. Continue westward with the mesa to your south.

Mesa (Spanish word for table) is an independent elevated area of land with steep sides and a flat top. Rowe Mesa rises to an elevation of 8,000 feet and the top is over 100,000 acres. It is one of the largest mesas in the world. Keep going.

Continuing with a westward heading the tail end of the southern Rockies loom ahead. Don’t worry, Glorietta Pass provides a natural passage between the steep hills. Santa Fe and the end of the trail is only thirty miles distant.

Weather on horseback or foot recognizing landmarks is an important aspect of travel. It is not something to be relegated to history and pioneers. It is a skill that hunters and hikers should know to safely make their way through woodlands and forests. It is also useful in strange cities and urban settings to recognize a building or monument to provide a reference and bearing to keep from getting lost. Giving directions to others is another way that knowing landmarks is still important in modern society.

We are a mobile people. Someday the battery in your GPS will go dead. Learn to recognize the landmarks (and the beauty of the Earth).

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
This entry was posted in earth, history, Nature, the hungry brain and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Santa Fe Trail – the landmarks

  1. Very nice series of blogs on the Santa Fe Trail — we shared the one on Fort Union on our page and hope to share more in the future. Wonderful photographs that capture the feel of the old the Trail

  2. pavanneh says:

    Nice post, very informative and great photographs. Thank you for visiting my site as well.

  3. laswain says:

    Fantastic site. i want to read more. Thanks for your hard work. Great photos too

  4. eideard says:

    Experiment a bit with Google Earth. I’ve followed a couple variations of El Camino Real over the southern half of the Caja del Rio to La Bajada. Difficult to see at ground level; but, I was able to plot a compass course from a few landmarks above the Petroglyph parking lot on CR 56.

  5. thanks for visiting my blog
    i love to note landmarks and with a father who sailed i grew up with a compass in one hand … it still travels with me and is a great aid when bush walking particularly on cloudy days. after reading this i am going to look at the landscapes i pass through with fresh eyes
    thanks for sharing love your blog

  6. mabbsonsea says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to prefer paper maps to GPS. Your piece is fantastic. I love the idea of the pioneers going into uncharted territory & those wide, open spaces which must seem endless. We have nothing like them in the UK, but one advantage of a crowded island is that, when your navigation skills let you down, there’s usually someone around to ask.

  7. McEff says:

    Another great piece, Dohn. I have nothing but admiration for those early pioneers. They put us modern walkers and travellers to shame.
    On the GPS thing, I’ve been holding off getting involved with it for many years, being a bit of a stubborn map and compass bloke who would rather trust his skill and sense of direction (doesn’t always work for me, but I’m still here). Having read your piece I feel reassured that I’ve taken the right decision. I want to be in control of my own destiny like those pioneers, not dependent on technology and a few batteries. And if things go wrong for me at some point in the future, then what the heck. Mine won’t be the first bleached bones to be found in the wilderness.
    All the best, Alen

  8. jmatthewlake says:

    Great post, and great blog. I received a GPS for my birthday in December, and my wife accidentally broke it about two months ago. She apologized profusely, but I was secretly quite happy. The truth is, without the GPS unit, I paid a lot of attention to landmarks and street names around me, I always knew the direction I was travelling, and I could always trail back the way I came. If I was using the GPS, I knew none of those things, and I was totally lost. So I really like your comment that recognizing landmarks and generally paying attention to your surroundings is not something to be relegated to the past.

  9. Lovely piece, thank you, loved the pics, and especially the names of the landmarks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s