Over the holidays while in Albuquerque, I ran into a longtime friend’s wife, Christina, in Old Town. I asked her to have Mike call my cell. The next morning we met for coffee then went to the Book Stop, a used bookstore, where we talked more.
Mike is one of those rare friends always in the back of my mind, even when time
comes between us and we have to catch up.
Our friendship started while we were at the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s. We did lots of camping and caving together.
April will mark the thirtieth anniversary of our 90-mile desert hike across the infamous Jornada Del Muerto in Central New Mexico.
Mike and I made the backpack journey in four long days. We went south to north, starting at the small village of Rincon near Las Cruces and ending at the long-abandoned San Marcial.
This segment of El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico was used by Spanish Caravans two hundred years before the opening of the Santa Fe Trail.
The English name for this section is “Journey of the Dead.” The reason for the spooky name is evident for those who know New Mexico geography and history.
The King’s Highway leaves the dependable water supply of the Rio Grande Valley and strikes out across the desert to avoid the steep arroyos of the precipitous river route. The Spanish carts pulled by oxen could not make it through this 90-mile stretch.
With its unreliable springs and sources of alkali water, it literally became a journey of life and death for travelers.
Though thousands of wayfarers packing tons of trade goods preceded us, Mike and I were the first archaeologists to try and trace the route on the ground. We followed the footsteps of many famous travelers.
There was the Onate Expedition of 1598, which was the first recorded use of the “shortcut.” In 1807, the Spanish arrested Lt. Zebulon Pike whom they considered a spy, and escorted him to Mexico over the Jornada del Muerto.
Another famous traveler was Susan Magoffin who wrote, “Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico.” Her detailed diary of 1846-1847 is a classic.
Mike and I should have written a book about the Jornada del Muerto. But Alan Boye beat us to it in 2006 with his “Tales from the Journey of the Dead-Ten Thousand Years on an American Desert.”
That four-day trip sealed my passion of looking for and documenting prehistoric and historic trails. Without it I probably would not have spent 20 years recording the Ute Trail over the Flat Tops.
It was my good fortune to help Mike and others on the Chaco Road project.
I worked with Mike on recording Piro Pueblos along the Rio Grande. We spent many a night camped in the desert under the stars. We fell asleep gazing at the heavens from our sleeping bags.
Happy New Year, Mike … and thanks for being a true friend.
With over 30 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories with readers every other week.
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