Dodge City, Kansas to Socorro, New Mexico | Visiting Fort Union National Monument and Pecos National Historic Sites | November 28, 2021
On Sunday morning, we awoke in our tent and tried to put off the moment we had been dreading all night: coming out of our warm sleeping bag cocoons and facing the brisk late November air. Curtis turned on the propane heater, and it certainly helped make it easier. We packed up as quickly as we could and then hopped in the car. At 7:30AM, the temperature read 26 degrees. Were we crazy? We got back on the road and continued our journey heading Southwest. Things would only get warmer from here!
Since we had chosen to pass on Fort Larned, today’s drive would take us from Dodge City, Kansas, to Socorro, New Mexico. According to Google, this drive should only be 8 ½ hours, but we found a way to make it longer and occupy as much of our day as possible. We continued on US-56 all the way to the Kansas border and into Oklahoma, entering the last of the counties in the panhandle we had yet to get. One of our plans for our return trip the next week was to hike to the Oklahoma high point near the OK/NM/CO border. So far, the weather this morning was warming up and turning out to be a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky. We started wondering if we were making a mistake by not hiking to the high point today — sure the weather was perfect right now, but that could easily change in just a week. I checked the 10 day forecast and saw no precipitation predicted…and since it just worked out better to hike it on the way back, we decided to take the risk and save it for later. Instead, we carried on with our plans and entered New Mexico. The scenery was becoming more and more desert-like and we were remembering just how much we love the Southwest.
Now, this was Curtis’ 10th time making the drive between Iowa and Arizona, and my 9th. We’re proud to say that we’ve never driven the same route twice. Sure, we’ve repeated sections, and we have a few favorite highways along the way, but each trip has been a little different, and none of them have been solely on interstates. Because of our many routes across New Mexico, we had covered many of the counties and only had 5 left. For this trip, our plan was to finish the state by hitting the two we needed in the Northeast corner on the way down, and the last three on our way back. To do so, we left US-56 for NM-120 where we successfully drove through one of the hardest counties to enter, Harding county. (Fun fact, we report our counties to the Extra Miler Club every month along with all the other members, and we were only the second ones to have visited this county this year!) After an enjoyable detour on a very narrow and empty county road, we got on the I-25 and continued on to our main attractions for the day.
Since crossing into Kansas in Kansas City, we’d been following the general course of the Santa Fe Trail across the plains. This 200 year old trail was originally conceived in 1821 to connect the new Louisiana Purchase with the Northern commercial center of the newly independent nation of Mexico. Wagon trains brought trade goods and supplies across the great prairies for the better part of the 19th Century leaving behind wagon ruts that can still be seen today. In 1846, Colonel Kearney (for whom many places in the West are named such as Kearney, NE), led a bloodless expedition along the trail to take Santa Fe and secure New Mexico as American Territory during the Mexican-American War. As America spread westward, the US Army developed a network of frontier forts and garrisons (Fort Zarah which we had driven by the day before among them) and to supply them, built Fort Union at the crossroads of two branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Even more wagon loads of supplies now made a stop at this central Quartermaster Supply Depot through the 1860’s and ‘70’s, before continuing on to Santa Fe or returning to the Missouri.
Fort Union, sitting among the plains at the base of the Rockies, acted as a small city of logistical supply while the Army quelled the remaining tribes of the West. But with the creation of the Santa Fe Railroad, the overland wagon route became obsolete. And with the end of the frontier wars, the need for dispersed garrisons, let alone a supply hub, also became obsolete and Fort Union was abandoned in 1891. Today, it is protected by the NPS and similar to Fort Bowie, all that remains are some of the adobe and brick walls.
We wandered around the fort reading signs and playing PokemonGo, largely to ourselves, enjoying the distant snow capped Rockies and the pleasant afternoon warmth before getting back on I-25 and continuing further South West towards Santa Fe. But before we crossed into the Rio Grande Valley, we made a second stop at Pecos National Historic Park.
The beauty of New Mexico, which we failed to realize while we lived in Arizona, is that, in addition to the mountains, rocks, and natural landscape, New Mexico has very old history. Santa Fe was founded in 1607, only 42 years after Saint Augustine in Florida. But even before European peoples started living here, the Pueblo people lived in New Mexico (Acoma Pueblo, which we would drive by on our return home, has been continuously inhabited since 1144 CE). Related by culture and people, the people who inhabited the upper Rio Pecos Valley had likely been there in the 1100’s as well. The inhabitants were visited by the Spanish Explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado on his expedition to discover lost cities of gold. Allegedly, seeking to have him killed or simply lost, they convinced Coronado that the gold was to the East among the endless prairies of Kansas. The pueblo became part of the New Spanish empire, rebelled against that same empire, and were again its subjects. Eventually, the pueblo was abandoned in the mid 19thcentury and its residents migrated to the Jemez Pueblo to the West where there descendants live today.
Today, the pueblo sits on top of its hill, adobe ruins, kivas, and the remains of a Spanish church lie testament to the history. To the West where I-25 crosses into the Rio Grande lies Glorietta Pass where the Confederacy’s attempt at taking the West from the Union met an end. But really most interesting to us was that the Ancestral Puebloan culture – also called Anasazi; the people who built not only Pecos Pueblo, but also Mesa Verde, Wupatki, Walnut Canyon, even Canyon de Chelly and most all the ruins between the Colorado and the Rio Grande, didn’t necessarily ‘disappear without a trace’, but simply relocated based on changing climate and eventually became the Puebloan Peoples of New Mexico and Arizona like the Hopi, Zuni, and Jemez (notably not the Navajo – separate people group). While this idea is still contested, it has come a long way in explaining and supporting these people groups in their communities.
Once we were finished, we got back on the road for a few more hours of driving before finding a place to camp for the night. We drove through Albuquerque as the sun was setting, and loved how the mountains to the East lit up in red. We continued on down to Socorro, then exited the interstate and began driving West on US-60.
After searching through free campsites, I directed us to a free site in Water Canyon that was a few miles South of the highway and about 6800′ of elevation. Most of the road was well maintained until we reached the national forest and drove up the final stretch to the campsite. Once again, we found it empty and while it was still colder than we would like, it was a little warmer than the night before. Curtis set up the tent while I walked Charlotte around, trying to convince her to stay close to our site because I remembered something about mountain lions in a review for the campground. We enjoyed hot soup for dinner, a fantastic view of the night sky, and a mountain lion-free evening camping in the canyon. It wasn’t until the next morning that we realized there was snow on the cliffs surrounding us.