I don’t know about you, but I grew up with cowboy movies and television shows that often referenced the Pecos River as a major dividing line in skill and danger. Remember “He’s the fastest gun west of the Pecos!” And then there was something like “He’s the meanest man west of…” Well, I’m sure I heard it said often and with great weight. So imagine our apprehension in crossing over that river.
(We were actually in the town of Pecos last week, but we didn’t seem to be on the bad side of the river. Sidebar: The guidebook says that the cantaloupe was invented in Pecos, and that the very best ones in the world come from here. Bet you didn’t know that. Note to self: Place an order early next spring.)
We started our day by leaving lovely Santa Fe and driving to the Pecos National Historic Park, focused on yet another familiar story of major Indian pueblo life interrupted by the arrival of the Spanish, who built (with Indian ‘assistance’) a major church and changed life there forever on the Santa Fe trail.
There was a wonderful video telling the long history of this place, narrated by a newcomer to the area, who fell in love with it and lived there for many years at the end of her life. This unlikely convert to the world of New Mexico? None other than Greer Garson. (How about that, June and Alan?) She married a man named Fogelson, and they contributed to the creation of the visitor center we saw today. Nothing like the zeal of a convert. Always adored her on the screen.
We walked through the ruins all by ourselves. The weather was fabulous and the views are amazing. Have to admit to now having a slight feeling of irritation if there is another car visible on the highway, even when we can see for 100 miles. And sharing an historic site with other people? No, that is just not on.
This site allowed us to enter a kiva, a sacred ceremonial underground room common to most Indian tribes. The Franciscans thoughtfully filled them in with sand, but when the Indians revolted in 1680 and ran off the Spanish, they built a new kiva right outside the church.
This was an amazing pueblo and a major trading site on the Santa Fe trail. The buildings were four stories high and as many as 2,000 people lived there. It was ultimately abandoned by the handful of Indians remaining in 1838, who walked 80 miles to the Jemez pueblo we saw several days ago. Their descendants live on in that reservation.
Now, I’m done harping on the injustices done to the Indians, you will be pleased to know. But here’s my new realization. The Spanish conquistadores arrived at this pueblo in 1518. The Jamestown colony was founded in 1607 and the Mayflower landed in 1620.
The Spanish under Coronado were quite well-established in the New World long before the English started visiting our eastern shores. Yet, isn’t it remarkable that unless you live out here, you learn little about the civilization of the western part of our country? Our history is told in terms of English settlements and the run-up to the revolution. And while I get that the action took place in the original 13 colonies, it is somewhat of a revelation that the history here is ignored, perhaps because we didn’t ‘own’ this land then, so it was a Spanish/Mexican story, not an American one. I’m just saying it’s interesting to think about.
Next we drove to Las Vegas, the one in New Mexico. While it was a big deal in the 19th century, you could sleep in the middle of the town square today and not be bothered. We had lunch in the venerable Plaza Hotel, a really really big deal in its day, a bustling stopover on the Santa Fe trail from Missouri.
All the who’s who of the west hung out there: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and his girlfriend Big-Nose Kate Elder, Jesse James, as well as other desperados like Hoodoo Brown, Cock-Eyed Frank, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler, just to give you the general flavor. And – back by popular demand – Pat Garrett once escorted Billy the Kid across the plaza for a short stay in the jail. (Their story is starting to feel like a Roadrunner cartoon.) Herewith, the hotel with restaurant and lobby, plus some other buildings and the main occupant of the plaza today.
As we were leaving, the only person we saw in the entire plaza started talking to us in typical nutcase fashion. He was complaining that he couldn’t find a cloud in the sky, and that he had come out special to do that. Some people have real problems here.
We then headed up to Fort Union, a very major outpost on the Santa Fe trail, which housed a garrison that helped turned the tide on an important Civil War battle. Yes, there was a western front to the war, and the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862 the Union forces drove the Confederate army out of New Mexico. The fort is basically in ruins, but its location at the intersection of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe trail made it very strategic and important.
Part of the reason we went here was because they say you can still see the ruts from the wagon trains on the trail. Full disclosure: I am one of those of people who can never understand those ultrasound pictures of babies in the womb. I just ooh and ahh and wonder what on earth the parents see that I don’t see.
Well, I’ll share my pictures of the wagon ruts, and maybe the magic of photography rendered them a bit clearer. At any rate, I’ll show you what I have, and that’s the story of our first day west of the Pecos.