So named because of a particular death centuries ago, this desert has witnessed many tales of loss and destruction. Alan Boye takes us on a trek through the beauty and violence of this forbidding land. Traveling the wasteland by foot, Boye visits battle sites from the Mexican-American War, to the Civil War, from the lonely canyon where the Apaches fought to keep their homeland, to the isolated site of the world’s first atomic explosion. In the sand and dust and the ruins of war, Boye discovers stories of sadistic killers, directionless rebels, and gun-toting gauchos—but also tales of poets and dreamers, of ordinary men and women who lived their lives and continue to live under this wide and ruthless desert sky. He introduces us to many travelers who have tested the desert: mysterious ancient people who built cliff-top fortresses, Spanish conquistadors, Mexican farmers, old time cowboys yodeling classical poetry to their cattle, and modern range managers tracking livestock by satellite. This is the story of an American desert told through the eyes of those who knew it best and brought to life through Boye’s own travels across the Journey of the Dead.
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Tales from the Journey of the Dead
Ten Thousand Years on an American Desert
By Alan Boye
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Traveling the Camino U.S. 380
One hundred miles downstream from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the
sluggish Rio Grande slams up against a series of volcanic mesas and
dark, foreboding mountains. As if to avoid the desolate place, the
mighty river swings in a long, wide arc to the west.
Two parallel chains of mountains form a 120-mile-long barricade
that isolates a vacant, inhospitable, 50-mile-wide jumble of black rock,
dry lake beds, flesh-colored sand, and desolation.
This is the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead. Although
so named because of a particular death centuries ago, many other ill-fated
travelers have wandered the Jornada; mysterious ancient people
in cliff-top fortresses, Spanish conquistadores come to reap heathen
souls and uncounted riches, Apache warriors, Mexican farmers, and
cowboys yodeling classical poetry to their cows. Many of these died
here, while other travelers, like me, wandered the Jornada while on
some longer journey.
Each tale from this wild and rugged land is the story of a life, well
lived or not, set under a burning desert sun.
The earliest Europeans to see this land - Spanish men and women
from Mexico who came seeking domination,converts, and wealth - referred
to the distance between reliable sources of water as a jornada,
a single march, a journey. Because following the river meant traversing
a series of deep canyons and sharp-edged arroyos, travelers detoured
across the dry Jornada del Muerto. By the early 1600s the Spanish had
established regular travel between Mexico City and Santa Fe on a road
that cut across the Jornada. From then until the twentieth century,
when an automobile road along the river made the old road unnecessary,
much of the human history of North America marched across
Except for a few isolated wells, there is no reliable source of water
on the Jornada. Even today, no one - not cowboys in pickup trucks
or missile technicians in white, unmarked government cars - travels
without life-giving water.
The Jornada is the northern extent of the Chihuahuan Desert, the
largest arid region in North America. The Chihuahuan Desert extends
for over twelve hundred miles: from the Jornada del Muerto to the
Mexican state of Zacatecas. What rain there is on the Jornada falls
mostly from July to September, when moist, warm air from the Gulf of
Mexico piles high above the San Andres, the Caballo, and the Fra
Cristobel ranges in massive clouds. Then the air turns a deathly black
and dark, ominous curtains of rain hang down from the sky. Violent,
widely scattered, and isolated summer storms bring brief, torrential
showers. Lightning stabs the air; the dry arroyos flash to sudden flood;
playas of sand and clay turn instantly to axle-breaking quagmires.
Then heat waves reappear and soon are shimmering across the
desolation. After a summer cloudburst, you can see so far in a single
glance that your mind recoils at the enormity; instead it seeks smaller
details easier to comprehend: a single raven - a black ribbon in the
bowl of sky - sliding down the air, leaving no trail.
The moisture during the summer "monsoon" evaporates quickly in
the heat and remains only long enough to give shallow-rooted vegetation
like black grama grass a quick drink before it disappears into the
The relentless sun shines on the Jornada nearly every day of the
year. Once it rises above the Oscura and San Andres mountains, summer
temperatures can rise above one hundred by 10 a.m. The average
high in June is ninety-seven degrees, while the empty night sky in
winter can chill the Jornada to below zero.
In contrast to the brief, violent storms of summer, most winter
weather comes gradually from the distant Pacific Ocean and spreads
wide, gray blanket of clouds over the entire sky. These storms may last
for days. They don't bring much precipitation, but because of winter's
lower evaporation rate they are more effective in wetting the soil. This
benefits shrubs that sink deep taproots to capture moisture. Scientists
say the increase in these types of plants, combined with the decline of
grasslands, provides good evidence of the earth's changing climate.
Unlike the "lush" Sonora Desert, two hundred miles to the west, the
nondescript plants of the northern Chihuahuan Desert seldom rise
above five feet in height. Often, great sandy stretches of the Jornada
have nearly nothing growing on them at all.
The plants that grow here are scrunched-up, shriveled rabbit bush,
gnarled, stinking tarbush, and poisonous inkweed. The wispy leaves of
low-slung mesquite trees shield thousands of razor-sharp thorns the
size of darning needles. The tiny, juniper-like leaves of the creosote
have a stench like the urine of rodents.
But other plants, as beautiful and delicate as their names, grow here
as well: Apache-plume, chocolate flower, persimmon, desert willow,
four-wing saltbrush, prickly pear.
Like a knife-cut across the top of a long finger, sparsely traveled U.S.
Highway 380 slices the desolate northern tip of the Jornada. Except for
it, there are no other four-season roads open to the public in an area
nearly the size of Connecticut.
To get a feel for the Jornada, take U.S. 380 at a lonely exit off
Interstate 25 and head east through the village of San Antonio, New
Mexico. The highway ambles past the tiny village's main attraction, the
Owl Bar, where Rowena Baca serves her fiery green-chile hamburgers
for hungry modern travelers. At Rowena's Owl Bar the sleepy highway
intersects a dusty road. That road, used today by locals in pickup
trucks, is a fragment of the oldest continuously traveled road in the
United States, the one the Spanish called El Camino Real de Tierra
Adentro, the Royal Road to the Interior Lands.
Just beyond this intersection, U.S. 380 passes through the mosquito-haven
shade of a thick, impenetrable wall of salt cedar. It crosses the
blood-red Rio Grande and climbs into a series of sandy hills pockmarked
with thin desert scrub, colored a pale yellow. The hills soon
give way to a painted desert of bright red and purple ridges, slashed by
streaks of tan and gold. This is the Jornada del Muerto. Everywhere in
the far distance, dark walls of jagged, shark-toothed mountains stand
black against the sky. In the emptiness above burns the furnace of a
A half-dozen miles beyond San Antonio, the highway passes a reddish
peak in the open expanse to the south. Out there somewhere,
media mogul Ted Turner owns more than 300,000 acres encompassing
one of the world's largest remaining stands of black grama grass.
The highway curls around a few low, bleak hills and comes to a
marker announcing the site of a ghost town that existed here for a few
brief years at the beginning of the twentieth century. The village of
Carthage supplied coal for a railroad that had been completed across
the Jornada. In 1906 the town's population reached its zenith at one
thousand. Shortly after noon on December 31 of that year an explosion
in the coal mine killed several men and injured many others.
Some men who had been trapped were left to die when poisonous
gasses thwarted rescue attempts.
The Jornada del Muerto has witnessed many such tales of death and
destruction. On the Jornada are the bloody sites of battles of the
Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Apache Victorio's futile
fight to keep his homeland. And from the stark emptiness of
the Jornada del Muerto rose the vaporized dawn of the world's first
weapon of global war: the atomic bomb.
The Trinity site, as ground zero for the blast is now called, lies
several miles beyond the ghost town of Carthage, beyond a series of
round, high hills known now as the Stallion Range. From the relative
safety of those hills, a handful of soldiers and scientists watched the
explosion of the first atomic bomb.
Today, at the top of the tallest hill, a large white building sits incongruously
on an otherwise featureless landscape. The building has a
squat, roundish shape as if home to some giant, odd-shaped machine.
This is the northern entrance to White Sands Missile Range, a ninety-mile-long
area that keeps a large part of the Jornada off limits to
the public. When the range was established during World War II it
displaced ranchers like Florence and Frank Martin, who then spent
the rest of their lives fighting an unsuccessful battle to regain their
Once around the bulk of the Stallion Range, the view to the south is
of a single, unbroken plain that ends only at the edge of a distant,
dark range of peaks. In every direction the far horizon is ringed in
Somewhere out there once lived a strange hermit known as the
Wild Man. Somewhere out there Billy the Kid once crossed the isolation,
fleeing his approaching death. Now, out in that barren land is an
area called the Permanent High Explosive Test Site, which is used by
the Defense Nuclear Agency for conducting large, above-ground explosive
tests that replicate the destruction of a nuclear bomb without
releasing any radioactivity. Somewhere out there too the military is
currently testing strange new missiles that float on parachutes and are
able to hear sounds. The devices are so sensitive they can distinguish
the sound of a tank, say, from a jeep. They then release and direct
several infrared guided missiles to hit the most desirable targets.
A single metal sign announces the "town" of Bingham. On one side
of the highway a deserted building is plastered with fading signs:
Phone Cards. Art. Park. Camping. On the other side of the road four
standardized metal mailboxes are pitched in front of a tiny "Rock
Shop." In the front window of the small building a faded handmade
sign advertises Trinitite for sale, a greenish glass-like stone created
when the heat of the atomic blast melted the sands of the Jornada.
Bingham, New Mexico, consists of this and nothing more.
Only then does U.S. 380 begin an almost imperceptible climb out of
the Jornada basin and into the foothills of the Oscura Mountains
toward the lava wasteland of Valley of Fires State Park. The green-spot
of an occasional piñon tree appears on the hillsides. Low sand
dunes dot the landscape; they are flat and featureless and the color of
Just as the highway begins to climb out of the empty bowl of the
Jornada, the road passes a topless windmill; beyond it, the unbroken
plain of the Jornada ends only at the edge of a distant, dark range
Out there somewhere in the sand and dust and the ruins of war are
the stories of sadistic killers, of directionless rebels, and of gun-toting
cowboys. And out there somewhere too are the tales of poets and
dreamers, of ordinary men and women who spent their lives under
the wide and ruthless sky of the Journey of the Dead.
The Wild Man
He was a remnant of the Old West. Like cactus and coyote, like rattlesnake
and mountain lion, he belonged to this harsh desert. A shadowy,
elusive figure, the Wild Man wandered one of the most desolate wildernesses
in the continental United States. For his entire adult life he
lived outside in the open air of the Jornada del Muerto.
Most who remember him say he was a skinny beanpole of a man
who dressed in rags and buckskins, in wool and rubber. He wore a
combination of hand-me-downs and natural objects. His denim trousers
were always slashed to faded, blue shreds by thorns and rocks. At
the bottom of his trousers he often lashed a hunk of old automobile
tire. The rubber served to add an extra sole to his ancient boots and to
protect his lower legs from the multitude of stings, stabs, and poisons
that his unforgiving desert home provided.
He always wore a hat.
He carried all of his belongings in a hand-fashioned pack made
from materials found easily enough in cattle and goat country: a
burlap bag and some rope. In the burlap pack were all of his worldly
possessions: a blanket, a few shreds of extra clothing, and - if he was
lucky - a couple of cans of food.
He always carried a jug of water, often tied to the end of a yuccastalk
walking stick and slung over his shoulder.
He was a tramp, a traveler. The Wild Man spent more than thirty
years on the Jornada del Muerto and the rugged San Andres range of
its eastern flank. He wandered from ranch to ranch, from cow camp to
cow camp, from mountain to plains, from canyon to arroyo.
Only one night in his three decades of life on the Jornada did he
ever sleep under a roof.
Fugitive or broken hearted, outlaw or desert rat, what turmoil of
youth could have thrown a man so far from his fellow beings?
It doesn't matter which old-timer you talk to - there are dozens of
eyewitnesses - just about every ranch wife, cowboy, or schoolteacher
who once lived on the great open land of the Jornada remembers the
San Andres hermit.
Here is what remains of his life story.
The Wild Man was born around 1890 and was last seen alive a few
days before the mushroom cloud from the world's first atomic bomb
sprang up from the dry desert plains he called home.
The oldest account of him is from the early 1930s, but the woman
who remembered him from those days said by then he'd already been
roaming the area "for many, many years."
He never talked about himself much, and when he did, the stories
never seemed to match up. He wandered into Roy and Dixie Tucker's
spread one day, asking for food. He had leaned against a corral and
watched the rancher's horses. Then he said, "My boss used to have
mares like that in Canada when I worked on a farm up there." He told
them that he was from Canada, where he had worked before drifting
south. Dixie was curious; she prodded the Wild Man for details. "My
boss left on a two-week vacation and when he came back, I left," was
all he said.
Once, when he wandered in for food at another rancher's place, he
said that he had been born in Kansas and had run away from home
when he was very young.
Others said he had worked ranches in Wyoming and Montana in
his early years.
One story has him in trouble with the law. In the 1910s a team of two
bank robbers robbed several New Mexico banks. One of the bandits
had been killed, but the other was never found. Some people believe
the missing man was the Wild Man.
Others speculate that he was involved in some illicit trade, smuggling
something up from Mexico into the States. He traveled only
north or south up the long spine of the Jornada and its mountains. He
never moved east or west. When he was moving south, they say, he was
visible to the point of distraction, but when he was traveling north he
was reclusive and secretive.
Still others say that he fought in World War I, the bloody horror
that left many with the profound psychological scars of the first modern
war. Timid, shy to the point of nervousness, reclusive, polite, the
Wild Man could well have been a shell-shocked casualty of war. Some
say that what he saw so shattered him that he sought the most remote
place he could find to try and hide from that fear.
A recluse. A tramp. A hermit anchored in a hermitage one third the
size of New Hampshire.
Evelyn Underhill wrote about such people in her study of mysticism:
"The most highly developed branches of the human family
have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce - sporadically
it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external
circumstances - a curious and definite type of personality; a type
which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience,
and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to 'deny the world in
order that it may find reality.'"
To deny the world in order to find reality. No matter how often the
Wild Man wandered into a dusty cowboy camp, no matter how many
times he appeared at the kitchen door of startled ranch women, no
matter how many dozens of people saw him, his solitary, decades-long
life on the open and bleak Jornada desert remains unique in the
history of the twentieth-century American West. He knew every detail
of the craggy Fra Cristobels, every nook and cranny of the steep and
rugged San Andres; he knew every plant and every lizard, every mud-flat
and every water hole in this immense and empty place. He lived
here, just here, with only the most essential of elements: food and
"Old Red," seventy-two-year-old Walter Slayter called him. "He had
the reddest hair you have ever seen." His long hair and untrimmed
beard stood out like a bonfire on the darkest desert night. "He didn't
do a thing but wander around. He'd sometimes come into your house
when you weren't there - nobody minded, it was kind of expected.
The Wild Man would come and fix himself something to eat. He'd
wash his dishes and then turn his plate upside down over a quarter or
whatever he had in his pocket. He just traveled up and down the
country. He never bothered a soul."
Everyone who knew of him agreed on that point: the Wild Man
never hurt a fly.
Excerpted from Tales from the Journey of the Dead
by Alan Boye
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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