A Journey on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

By Michael Taylor

The Jornada del Muerto (Dead Man’s Journey), is an eighty mile waterless stretch of desert along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail in central New Mexico. The name bodes a dangerous place, one that you wouldn’t really go out of your way to visit. But it is actually one of the most beautiful parts of the Desert Southwest, and it contains scores of stories that range from the tragic to the magical. The Jornada del Muerto is part of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road to the Interior Lands) which is the earliest European American trade route in the United States. Tying Spain’s colonial capital at Mexico City to its northern frontier in distant New Mexico, the route spans three centuries, two countries and 1,600 miles. The Jornada del Muerto was considered by those who traveled it to be one of the most dangerous and challenging sections of the entire camino.

Ever since I was a child growing up in southern New Mexico, I have heard stories of this isolated piece of America. On one side of my family, I am descended from many of the early Spanish colonists who crossed the Jornada on their way to colonize northern New Mexico, and from subsequent wagon train owners who dragged their payloads up and down the route during Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. Territorial periods of the 19th century. One of the first documented expeditions across this desert was that of Juan de Oñate who led the first European colony in 1598 into what is now the United States, consisting of 400 men (of whom 130 brought families), eighty-three wagons and carts to carry the baggage and provisions, and more than 7,000 head of stock. The soldier/scribe of the expedition, Gaspar Perez de Villagra, wrote the first epic poem of what is now the United States – La Historia de Nuevo Mexico, and in it he describes the hardship of crossing the Jornada:

“Water becomes so scarce
That, with their throats miserably dry,
The tender children, women and the men,
Affected, ruined, quite burnt up,
Did beg for aid from sovereign God,
For this was their last hope.”

 Jornada del Muerto Photo credit: NPS

Jornada del Muerto
Photo credit: NPS

The Jornada del Muerto came to be named supposedly because of a German trader named Bernardo Gruber who died of exposure in the desert fleeing the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1670, his bones found later by travelers who erected a cross at the site that later became known as Paraje del Aleman (the Campsite of the German).

As a teenager, I would go out to the Jornada with my mother, an avid amateur historian (as good, if not better than the real ones) who would take me with her to sleuth out where some of the old campsites were along the royal road. From her and my father, I learned how to read the desert landscape. Working early in my career as an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management I was assigned to “clear” fence lines and other range improvements before their construction in the Jornada, making sure there were no significant archaeological sites that could be damaged on the expansive federal lands that ranchers leased. I learned that Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the popular Western writer from the early part of the 20th century, had spent many years in the Jornada working as a rancher, using the magical landscape as a backdrop of his tales that have been read by millions.

I was also able to walk the Jornada in 2000 from beginning to end with a friend to see what it might have been like for the thousands who traversed the flat desert in centuries past. The journey took four days and three nights, averaging about 20 miles a day which was typical of travelers during its period of use. It was the best walk of my life. For the past eighteen years, I have been working as a cultural resource specialist for the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service. It is an office that administers nine of the eighteen congressionally designated national historic trails in the United States, one of which is the United States portion of the Camino: El Camino Real de Tierra Adento National Historic Trail. Through this job I had the opportunity to represent the National Park Service interests in the Camino by working to minimize impacts from the construction of Spaceport America, a large facility – basically an airport for spacecraft - sited right next to the Camino in the Jornada which has changed the desert feeling forever. The Jornada is no longer the austere isolated, pristine piece of landscape that it had been for millions of years. A paved road now runs north/south through the desert that will soon carry more traffic, and the skies may soon be dotted with space launches. But on the positive side, one can consider the Spaceport as the next phase of transportation in the Jornada: a transition from the terrestrial trail on the ground, to trails to space –Juan de Oñate meets Luke Skywalker! Recently, scientists from southern New Mexico who are mapping Mars from data received from the Opportunity rover 34 million miles away, have been using places names from the Camino Real in the Jornada area to name places on the red planet. Travelers along the Jornada 300 hundred years ago would be incredulous!

The Jornada del Muerto is embedded in my genes, to the point that, when I am walking on the desert floor, especially by myself, I can feel the presence of many of those who have passed along the same path before. Today, in spite of the construction of Spaceport America, one can still experience the expanse of the Jornada by walking along the original camino real in the footsteps of those who passed before – Spanish colonizers, merchants, priests, Indian slaves, soldiers, and entrepreneurs. The National Trails Intermountain Region, has worked with partners to develop opportunities for you to visit and hike along original the camino real.

Michael Taylor is a Cultural Resources Specialist with the National Trails Intermountain Region at the National Park Service.