Santa fe trail

2.  Routes

This was my first motorcycle trip where I succeeded in finding a campground and pitching a tent every evening without booking any hotels. I was able to reserve tent sites a day ahead using my cell phone. There is a lot involved with tenting. You have to get into camp. You have to unpack, clean up, and buy tokens and laundry detergent before the office closes. Only then can you get supper. This cuts a couple of hours off the time available for riding and sight-seeing every day. By comparison hotel desks are open later. Here is a map showing the routes of my trip and the campgrounds where I stayed.

Many of the photos on this Web site are from my trip.

I see I managed to cover some distance and visited some places that don't show in any of my photographs such as Boise City in the panhandle of OK, the heart of the Dustbowl of the 1930s. I recall a succession of grain elevators (They use irrigation nowadays.) never out of sight for 160 miles along the railroad between Dodge City, KS, and Boise City, OK, that rise gradually out of the oncoming plain, tower over the terrain for an instant, and recede again into the monotony of my rear-view mirror. Then there was a 75 mile stretch between Trinidad and La Junta, CO, in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains without any roadside services. That was a true desert as far as I could tell. Yet the landscape was eerily peaceful and thus memorable.

2.1.  Location, Location, Location

Where is Santa Fe? Where's Boonslick for that matter? How do you get from one to the other? The first thing to do is look at rivers because the smoothest terrain is along their banks, so, if you're driving a wagon train cross-country, you pick a river that flows to or from the direction you want to go and follow it. Not only will you have fewer geological obstacles, but you'll also have water and forage for your livestock.

Consider the map of the Santa Fe Trail (U.S. National Park Service, Map, National Historic Trails). See how the important rivers tend to flow from the northwest to the southeast while the trail tends to cross them. The trail itself has many different cutoffs. Most of these were created by travelers choosing different places to ford the Arkansas River. Their choices depended on the weather and current: whether the trail was muddier or dustier on one side or the other, whether grass appeared greener ahead or on the other side, whether potable water was scarce on the other side or not. If you zoom in on western Kansas, you can count the number of principal crossings from Fort Larned to as far west as Bent's Old Fort in what is now Colorado.

There are two main routes: the northern, so called, Mountain Route and the southern, so called, Dry Route. The Dry Route was also named the Cimarron Route for the river it followed. The name of the river (Río de los Carneros Cimarrones in Spanish) means River of the Unruly Sheep (plural) in English (Wikipedia, Cimarron River). The routes were distinct between Fort Union in New Mexico and Fort Larned in Kansas (U.S. National Park Service, Cultural Encounters).

2.2.  Mountain Route

The northern route follows the Arkansas River from the area of present-day Great Bend, KS, to Bent's Old Fort near present-day La Junta, CO. Then it turns south to Raton Pass. This was the big obstacle against use of the northern route, and a toll road through the mountain pass was improved following the Civil War by Richard L. "Uncle Dick" Wooton.

2.3.  Dry Route

The southern route follows the dry bed of the Cimarron River, which flows only intermittently in these reaches. Not for nothing is the river called unruly. The trail cuts through the Cimarron Strip, the panhandle of present-day Oklahoma. The big obstacles against use of this route were lack of water and Indian attacks; nevertheless, it was more commonly used because it was shorter.

As the railroad pushed into Kansas and Colorado, it cut off traffic along the Dry Route because the trip from the end of track to Santa Fe and to the huge federal army supply depot at Fort Union was shorter over what was left of the Mountain Route. Thus, large freight contractors of previous decades were deprived of mileage-based revenue, and traffic resorted to local New Mexico subcontractors (Sperry).