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.
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.
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).