Riding The Santa Fe Trail: A Journey Back in Time From Missouri to New Mexico
In 1821, everything south of the Arkansas River was Mexico. Newly free from Spain, the Mexican government took new resources north to the provincial capital of Santa Fe and welcomed trade with America—we just had to get there. For centuries, Indian tribes like the Pawnee, Cheyenne and Comanche and other explorers had crossed the prairie that’s now mostly Kansas on what would become the Santa Fe Trail, following the river and the buffalo.
So, the pathway south and west was not exactly unknown when a merchant named William Becknell loaded up a wagon full of goods in the village of Arrow Rock, Missouri, and set out to make history as the father of the Santa Fe Trail. The lure of tales about silver, furs and pack animals in Santa Fe, along with booming settlement there, more than offset worries about angry natives along the way.
The general area where the town of Independence, Missouri, was to grow in 1827 was the jumping-off point for the Far West. It was there I started my 900-mile pilgrimage from the parking lot of the National Frontier Trails Museum. This place is a wonderful trip back into the rich history of westward migration and commerce, and provided the background from which to start my ride. A large painting there depicts the town of Independence on a hill as wagons and carriages and mules and hardy people set off on a four-month trek, a journey that I repeated in four days that changed my vision of the West.
The worst hour or so of the trip from Independence is dodging the Kansas City interstate traffic. Once clear of the city limits, turning off Interstate 35 onto U.S. Route 56 just south of Olathe, Kansas, puts you on the exact paved-over route of the Santa Fe Trail itself, heading west. All you have to do then is stay on 56 most of the way across Kansas—and be ready for ghosts.
Near the little town of Gardner is a sign marking the spot where the Oregon Trail branched off to the north, leaving me riding smack-dab along the Santa Fe. The warm silence of June, broken only by the
rumble of my big twin and the realization that I was all alone out there, carried me away. I saw 60-foot swales across the prairie, etched 190 years ago by wagons running four abreast through seas of grass higher than their wheel hubs. I looked right, left and ahead at exactly what the drovers and wagonmasters and westward-bound migrants had seen. Only the pavement was different.
The scattered towns dotting the route of the Trail were planted like seeds as the years passed. Prior to 1821, there was not much across Kansas but wilderness, buffalo herds and Indian nations. Places like Burlingame, Osage City, Council Grove, McPherson, Great Bend and Larned, most about a day’s horseback ride apart, were inventions of the Santa Fe Trail.
At Great Bend, the Trail turns south following the course of the Arkansas River to Larned. The Trail and Highway 56 are inseparable here. Looming up from the flat river plain is a high mound known as Pawnee Rock, and a small town sits around it. Here, passersby on the Trail stopped, carving their names into the stone and seeking shelter from the fierce Pawnees who raided the wagon trains from time to time. A short ride west ended day one of my odyssey in the sleepy town of Larned.
Diverting from Highway 56 down Kansas Route 156, I found one of the best-preserved frontier forts in the country sitting right astride the Santa Fe Trail: Fort Larned. Walking the parade ground here, the big stars and stripes flapping overhead in the wind that sweeps in gulps and gushers across the dry plains, there be ghosts all around, the phantom whispers of history. The buildings are much as they were in 1859, when the fort was built to protect the expanding traffic which rumbled over the Santa Fe Trail—a rich, booming trade with Mexico. I stood in the middle of the Trail just outside the fort. Grass billowed around my feet and swirled in green rivulets. I heard the wheels creaking to a stop, the horses and oxen huffing, traders and settlers stretching and seeking a bit of civilization for a moment.
The fort is so well kept, the rangers all dressed in period military uniforms, the buildings, barracks and armory all trim and perfectly outfitted, that you’re waiting for the imminent return of the cavalry patrol to ride in with another wagon train. This is heady stuff for an old cowboy alone on his steel horse, coming unstuck in time and drifting back to when Americans rode…not safe, but free.
I rode away, having passed most of the day talking to the rangers. The afternoon was turning dark, clouds scudded overhead, and I had miles to go.
The wind blows across Kansas. It’s incessant. Sometimes zephyrs play tag with your head; sometimes you lean into it down the long stretches of flat highway to keep from being blown over. As I rode down Route 183 to link back up with U.S. Route 56/50 into Dodge City, I believed the ranger at Fort Larned who told me that many people on the trail, riding in flapping canvas Conestogas, went “blind crazy” from the constant noise and struggle with wind.
I pulled up in Kinsley just long enough to snap a picture to send back to the missus; me in front of a sign proclaiming that I was exactly halfway between New York City and San Francisco. I expect the mercantile wagons never noticed.
I rolled past Fort Dodge, now the Kansas Veteran’s Home, and into Dodge City as dark settled, feeling like I’d been in a fight from the pummeling wind. I wondered if Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday really rode very far after the bad guys in this same wind, or if they just went to the Long Branch Saloon for a drink.
As for those mythic heroes, don’t expect to find them in Dodge City today. The original Front Street with the Long Branch Saloon, the jail and all the rest, burned to the ground some years back. The replacement is a tacky 5⁄8-scale replica inside a fence. So I checked into a motel and got out of Dodge the next morning on U.S. Route 50/400 to see if it was worth going on. It was.
Just west of Dodge City, the country turns to rolling, gentle hills. The highway follows the general path of the Santa Fe Trail Mountain Branch all along the Arkansas River to Colorado. There are several turnoffs from the highway to view the old swales and ruts. Twenty miles west in Cimarron, Kansas, the Trail takes what they called the Cimarron Cutoff, “the dry route.” For 40 miles south there was no water, no river, and no drink for animal or man, just the jornada del muerte, or “journey of the dead man.” Wagonmasters not prepared with water barrels on board were not likely to make it.
I kept to the Mountain Branch.
The ruts and swales of the original trail crisscross the highway. Out there by myself, riding, thrumming the highway and glancing at swales to either side of the pavement put me in touch with those rugged precursors of the long-haul trucker, those brothers of the highway who are tied in time to Becknell, Carson, Larned and Earp by the gossamer harnesses of the wagon trains.
There’s a dramatic change of scenery dropping out of Kansas near Holly, Colorado, where an explosion of green from irrigated farms and a jolly rollercoaster of hills replaces the dusky Kansas plain. This watery abundance makes it clear why the drovers chose this route over the plunge into the desert cutoff, even knowing they had to drag their wagons over the high mountains into New Mexico.
Highway 50 turns sharply south to Las Animas. Straight on Colorado Route 194 takes one to Bent’s Old Fort, located just between Las Animas and La Junta. Built directly on the Santa Fe Trail in 1833-34 by fur trappers and traders Charles and William Bent, in partnership with their friend, Ceran St. Vrain, the fort was a mecca for commerce with both Indian and white traders and a station for U.S. Cavalry troops. Today, the completely reconstructed fort stands on the exact site of the original. Interpreters in period dress escort visitors, living the life of 1846. It’s well worth a stayover.
It was past five o’clock when I shook the dust off my boots and rode the seven miles into La Junta to pick up U.S. Route 350 to Trinidad, which shoots straight as a laser across the Comanche National Grassland on the exact path of the Santa Fe Trail. In that 80 miles, I remember a couple of antelope, a single coyote that eyed me with contempt as I rumbled by, and a lone raptor circling high overhead; no other traffic. The sunset threw pastel oranges and yellows and pinks in the sky, and I suddenly understood freedom and the spiritual value of being alone on a bike.
In Trinidad, a colorful, interesting historic spot and the gateway to New Mexico, I slept and dreamt and woke again, driven onward. U.S. Route 25 climbs what would have been torture for the drovers and animals hauling those 6,000-pound wagons over the mountains into New Mexico through Raton Pass at 7,834 feet.
Rolling down into New Mexico, on my left I saw a flat-topped volcanic mesa, on my right a sudden view of railroad tracks down in a ravine. Across from them were the remnants of the Trail that I had seen from a frosty railroad club car months earlier. At that moment on the train, I had thought of John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Wagon Train, and being a kid riding a stick horse in a long ago backyard, and I knew right away that I had to ride the Trail. And now I’d come full circle.
For the most part, now U.S. 25 is the Santa Fe Trail. Riding the four lanes gives a false impression of what the old timers had, rolling along the last 100 miles of ruts and swales enduring frequent attacks by riled-up native folk. Just north of the last of the fortress monuments on the trail, Wagon Mound heaves up from the surrounding rills, looking like either a big shoe or a stylized covered wagon. A town by the same name nestles at its base. Thirteen miles farther is the turnoff to the most eerie and stark landmark left, the ruins of Fort Union.
The Trail was well worn by 1851 when some 5,000 wagon trains a year crossed to and from Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe. It was literally a superhighway of commerce, and following the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848, it all belonged to the United States. So our government built the first Fort Union near the western junction of the two branches of the Santa Fe Trail to guarantee peace and safe passage with military might. Nine years later, the Civil War dictated a bigger defense and the second Fort Union was built in a star shape about a mile closer to the trail crossings. In 1863, the final and most impressive fort in the nation went up on the exact spot where the three subsets of the Mountain Branch crossed. This was a virtual city in itself, constructed to subdue the Indian tribes once and for all, with quarters for six companies of infantry and cavalry in U-shaped barracks.
Today, what remains is the haunting, strangely beautiful red-earth decay of melted adobe, stone foundations surrounding the parade ground, pathways stretching hundreds of yards and a large swale marking the Santa Fe Trail directly through the center of it all. A single hawk screeched above the broken hospital as I stood alone again, listening to the wind, hearing distant thunder that could have been canons in the distance, and realizing how much I hadn’t known about America four days before this.
I rolled into Santa Fe late on that day, rumbling my big Harley right down past the cathedral and into the plaza that marked the end of the Santa Fe Trail. I shut it down, parked and sat there where the Conestogas had come to rest, and watched as lights twinkled on in the stores and tourists strolled by looking for trinkets, tacos or beers. Commerce was all around me. The Santa Fe Trail had done its job.
(This article Riding the Santa Fe Trail was published in the April 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)