From Reriding History:Horseback over the Santa Fe Trail by Curtiss Frank

(Click image with hand to enlarge)

In 1872 the Atchison,Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad entered the valley of the Upper Arkansas. In that year,twenty four years ago, on a delicious October afternoon, I stood on the absolutely level plateau at the mouth of Pawnee Fork where that historic creek debouches into the great river. The remembrance of that view will never pass from my memory, for it showed a curious temporary blending of two distinct civilizations....On the sides and crests of the sparsely grassed sand hills south of the Arkansas a few buffaloes were grazing in company with hundreds of Texas cattle, while in the broad valley beneath, small flocks of graceful antelope were lying down, quietly ruminating their midday meal.

In the distance, far eastwardly, a train of cars could be seen approaching; as far as the eye could reach, on either side of the track, virgin sod had been turned to the sun...Half a mile away from the bridge spanning the Fork, under the graceful shade of the largest trees, about twenty skin lodges were irregularly grouped...These Indians,the remnant of a tribe powerful in the years of savage sovereignty, were on their way,in charge of their agent, to their new homes, on the reservation just allotted to them by the government, a hundred miles south of the Arkansas....

Further to the west, a caravan of white covered wagons loaded with supplies for some remote military post, the last that would ever travel the Old Trail, was slowly crawling toward the setting sun. I watched it until only a cloud of dust marked its place low down on the horizon, and it was soon lost sight of in the purple mist that was rapidly overspreading the far reaching prarie.

It was the beginning of the end...

These words were written in 1896 by Colonel Henry Inman, a man who had spent his entire career on the Western Frontier and had mingled with men whose names are now legends: Lucien Maxwell, Kit Carson,Satanta the Kiowa chief, the Bents; indeed the introduction to his book was written by William F.Cody and the illustrations were by Frederick Remington. His first hand observations are among the many tales of hardship and struggle left to us by those traders and travelers who rode the Santa Fe Trail in the days when a hat was one's only shelter from burning sun, when teamsters sometimes slept in piles for the body heat, and starvation and thirst on occasion drove men to eat their horses first, then their shoes, or to drink their own urine. And there were tales of adventure: Matt Field describing the passage of great herds of buffalo which he saw in 1840 (today the huge circular wallows are still visible along the Trail, especially when spring rains fill the depressions.) Susan Magoffin , as an 18 year old bride with tragic few years to live, described Bent's Fort on a trip closely connected to Kearny's occupation of New Mexico for the United States; and Lewis Garrard described the environs and uprising in Taos which followed the American occupation.

Fired by accounts of pioneers, and encouraged by glimpses of the Trail still visible on the dry plains of eastern New Mexico,in 1972 I began to dream of recreating the experience. What would it be like to take a horse, old maps of the Trail's route, eyewitness accounts by Sibley (1825), Gregg (1831) and others and follow the actual trail cross country from Kansas to Santa Fe? So with a local friend, Jack Underhill, I began to research and plan such a trip. Apparently people had followed portions of the Trail or had driven highways near the old route , but no one had, at that time, tried to ride the ruts to Santa Fe. Of course the eastern end of the Trail is obliterated by plowed fields today so we decided to ride the last half, where the prarie remains, from the point where the railroad had reached 100 years before; thus retracing the Trail in use in 1872. So on a hot day in early July, 1972, we rode out of Wagon Bed Springs, Kansas, on the Cimarron Cutoff, two men and a pack horse headed west towards Santa Fe 400, long walking miles away.

The heat, boosted by a slight breeze, is rolling across the prairie. The river bends and we turn south as we see the tracks o£ packingthe Trail, several sets side by side nine feet apart, eroded several feet deep with weeds and brush growing in them, but here they are coming down the side of the hill into a cutaway bank and the shelter of trees. These ruts are to be our guide and campanion as well as our doorway to history for the next four weeks.

We are having our difficulties: sliding packsaddles, broiling heat,biting horses and kicking flies. But today is just beautiful. A slight haze gives a sea like quality to the broad, flat landscape. As we ride on, the trees marking the Cimarron bottom thin out to an occasional cluster in the sandy bed. We can see the river stretching endlessly ahead with its countless meanders adding to its distance. The thinning trees off towards the shrouded horizon appear like the tips of rounded icebergs rising gracefully from a yellow prarie sea. The day is completely peaceful with nothing stirring; sounds of cicadas and cattle and heat, muted by distance, rise unimpeded to be dissipated in the all absorbing vastness of the sky. As we pass a lone, windswept house on a hard mud road, a Mexican boy runs out after our horses. "Where are you going to?" "Santa Fe" we answer. He stands in the road seeming to wonder,"Only Gringos would be foolish enough to do such a thing when you can take a car."

lower springsThus began our adventure with lost horses, lost riders, rattlesnakes, heat and exhaustion, storms, lurking coyotes, and quicksand. But there was also the companionship of man and horse, the discovery of an old campsite by an outcropping of rocks with stone tipi rings marking the place the Indians chose for shelter how many years ago, the Oklahoma "no man's land" and riding into the deslolate ruins of Camp Nichols where Kit Carson had commanded during the War Between The States. Looking over the sides of the mesa you could reconstruct the logic in the defenses: small circular stone pits on the hillside near the bottom enabled the first shots at the advancing Indian warriors, then while reloading, the next higher line of defense provided cover, or if necessary a fall back position not far away; and when we entered the parade grounds and rode a slow circle before the ruined stone buildings, it seemed we could hear bugles calling some military formation. And at night there was always the canopy of stars overhead.

But mostly it was just riding: getting up early enough to eat and saddle up before the sun rose so high ascending rutsas to be enervating,watching things off in the distance growing only gradually closer during the day (things which were only minutes away in a car,) doing without the simplest items which normally provide comfort, like sitting on a chair or being able to get into complete shade. And gradually our perspective shifted. The trappings and rewards and difficulties of civilization became remote, then non existant. This became the reality. Heat, horses, distance, grazing, time; eating became the major source of refreshment, nothing was ever really cold but wearing clothes soaked in a cattle tank was cold aplenty. Or if it rained and everything was wet and there was no way to build a fire and get dry, you lay there waiting for morning, dozing, hoping to find the sun tomorrow.

The Trail provided a sense of purpose and direction. The first time we lost it for a couple of days, some of the certainty went with it, some of the meaning. It felt like wandering, until, first a faint disturbance in the surface ecology, a fragmentary line of tumbleweed growing in a wide arc towards the river; the lessened erosion, the heavy vegetation had changed the signs, the Trail was no longer an obvious set of ruts, just a higher rate of thistle and weeds defining more a direction than a path. It was like finding an old friend. After that we developed an eye for the signs; and if we lost it, we would choose the point of easiest passage for a wagon which usually meant drawing a straight line from a northernmost bend in the river to the most distant observable bend. In this way we almost always managed to intercept the ruts on some gradual slope which produced the erosion necessary to identify the Trail.

It was suprising how little the country seemed changed. Apparently most of it was unfenced until about W.W.II, and often when we encountered a fence, there was a gate right where the Trail crossed. Beginning where we did, we did not encounter a town until we reached Wagon Mound, New Mexico.

Riding into Colorado the country is sand hills, sage, and sorry footing. In the '30's this was all blowing, drifting sand. Today another generation of abandoned farm houses testifies to the depopulation of the countryside. The temperature is in the lOO's and surviving is so important that I could care less that this is the Santa Fe Trail or how many thousands of people came by here. We cross the Texas Trail, a twelve mile wide "National Road" from the Panhandle to the tick free open ranges of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakodas. Right now it rates only an apathetic glance. We're looking for water and all the windmills are shut off. Sometime in the afternoon we ride up to a once elegant but now deserted farmhouse which posseses a porch and bay windows. One of its inheritors, a huge owl, flies out of the livingroom. Tall weeds grow in the yard and varmit tunnels undermine the foundation. Behind is a pond of water and a stock tank. The tank is green and stagnant with a large, dead frog floating in it and another sharing his last days with the corpse. The horses sniff the water and turn away. We ride over to another tank and climb the windmill to turn it by hand and draw water, but it's useless. We return to the corral and the horses drink from the puddle. We can resist that temptation.

Remounting, we ride down the road through the still green tumbleweeds, among the darting lizards and rasping cicadas which fly up before us and bounce off of our bodies. I am in the lead and Jack is leading the pack horse. Suddenly, on the ground before me, a large snake slithers ahead. About the time I see the rattles, I call to Jack "rattlesnake" and pull my horse to the side. The snake coils practically beneath the horse's front feet as we dodge to the side. I can hear his rattles as I grasp at the scabbard for my rifle. My horse, Red, who was unaware or indifferent to the snake until now, catches my excitement and is swept by fear. As I try to dismount, he starts bucking and I am barely able to get the gun. A (lucky) shot through the back and the snake begins to twist and roll. Red is twisting and circling at my side. Another shot and the snake is dead. To make sure we step on his neck and cut off his head. He is a big one, measuring several feet, and as we skin him out he continues to writhe and coil about my arm so that I occasionally steal a glance at the head lying over there to reassure myself he's really dead. Tonight we will have our first fresh meat.

We ride on and up a draw. At dusk we find a windmill near a small hill. We unpack the horses as it's getting dark. Two are down at the tank drinking and eating the grass in the swampy overflow. One is too tired to move and stands framed against the twilighted sky near by us. Suddenly, around the hill,some two or three hundred yards beyond us and towards the river, a pack of half a dozen coyotes start shreiking and howling. The horse starts and is soon trotting down the hill to join the protection of the others.

buffalo wallowThe night is beautiful. The late, golden twilight is strong and rich creating shadows by every clump of grass and giving the ground a depth of colored light and shadows which makes the landscape vibrate with vitality. Then the bright glowing afterlight makes red contrast to the even shade of the gently rolling hills and the winding tree lined river bottom, the brilliant red and orange shining horizon, and ultimately the deepening dark blueness of the overhead sky. In places the great stacks of feather pillow clouds present a multitiered panorama of light: brilliant white and cadmium yellow in the afternoon dissolving into red and orange and pink in the last daylight. The sky is still bright and clear, but the earth is in shadow. First the detail of the ground is lost. Game emerges from daytime hiding into the dusk, almost indistinguishable from the dabs of dark detail in the background. Around us the coyotes are closer than they've ever come, prowling, whining their plaintive bark, and giving a simultaneous sense of nature's comforting presence as well as danger. Our saddles lay on a log opposite the fire which crackles beneath a kettle of boiling onion, potato, pepper and rattlesnake. When we're full we stretch out under the starladen sky, and the melodies of the harmonica swirl on the breeze through our camp. Then, all quiet but for the prolonged serenade of the nearby coyotes, we drift into welcomed sleep.

Images above: Me and pack horse, Jack riding into lower springs, ascending Trail ruts, buffalo wallow in eastern N.M.

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© 1995 by Curtiss Frank

The full account of this ride along with fotos is being published by Sunstone Press of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1997 and will also be available by contacting me.