The Journey of the Dead Man

“I 40 closed ahead. Seek local accommodations”.

This is not what you want to read on the interstate freeway sign. Nope. Especially not when you had planned to put in another hundred miles yet. Maybe it was a misprint? Surely they wouldn’t close a whole interstate freeway. Hm. Uh oh – there it is again and not a mile further. Well, the second time you read the same thing, there is unfortunately no denying it; face facts and exit. Not all was lost, though. There was a sign for my favorite el-cheapo hotel, the MicroTel, just on the right side of the road. Perhaps it was meant to be. Sigh.

After spending a whopping $52 (with tax) on my hotel for the night, I put in my earplugs, cozied up to my own pillow from home and hit the hay. That was fine for a while, but what to do the next morning? This is not a problem I have faced before. Evidently there is this thing called weather and it is responsible for all kinds of inconveniences. See, now, if you live in California, you put an umbrella in your car just in case. After that, you can safely ignore any additional weather concern. But we’re not in California anymore, are we Toto? Mere miles from my current locale, it was snowing, and heavily so. There were serious blizzards going through the mountains in New Mexico and the Texas plains. The weather line turned out to be as far south as Abilene. The only safe way around this severe winter storm was to turn right at Albuquerque and take the I-25 all the way south to Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas. That’s just steps away from the Mexican border and Juarez. It meant probably adding another 400 miles to my journey. But I didn’t have a choice. When the Interstate is closed, it’s serious. You’ve got to change your plans if you wish to continue.

Onward, then, into the New Mexico desert and the southland. I didn’t know much about this land as I’d never traveled south of Albuquerque but I was soon to learn that the road was built over what’s known as “La Jornada del Muerto”. For those of you rusty in Spanish, that’s journey or route of the dead man. Uh huh. Confidence inspiring, isn’t it?

It’s all desert once you pass the town of Socorro (Spanish for succor, which it provided to northbound men who’d made it that far). Called a xeric shrub zone by Wikipedia, it’s still uninhabited to the present day. Xeric seemed an understatement to me. It was rocks and dirt and creosote bushes as far as the eye could see for a long way. This is where the US detonated its first nuclear bomb, by the way, and I suppose I see why. They thought this land was as empty as it could get. In fact, it’s not, and there is more rodent and reptile life here than in all of Pennsylvania, they say. But you sure wouldn’t know it at first glance. According to an article in “The American Prospect”,,

The first American to survey these lands, John Russell Bartlett, described them in 1854 as an “unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless. … One becomes sickened and disgusted with the ever-recurring sameness of plain and mountain, plant and living thing.” A bookseller from New York with no formal education beyond high school, Bartlett traveled across the desert in a private coach, which he made into a bed at night. There, he found relief from the monotony of the landscape by reading Adolph Erman’s Travels in Siberia. Heading west from El Paso, Bartlett’s party lost its way in sandstorms, fought brushfire, and warded off hostile Indians. Bartlett himself was laid low with typhoid.

Talk about your negative reviews. Myself, I was tremendously relieved my car was reliable and that I had extra water. This place could kill you, fast, though it wouldn’t feel quick. It’s ninety miles through La Jornada. There are no springs, streams or reliable water holes. With temperatures soaring during the day and plummeting to well below freezing at night, most people unlucky enough to get lost here die of dehydration or hypothermia. A few hundred years ago, it’d have been the Apaches that would have finished you if the pitiless land didn’t. If that wasn’t enough, during Mexican times, the friars who ran the missions were quick to enforce the laws of the Inquisition. La Jornada is part of the (Spanish) King’s Highway that once ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

I first learned about the trail and the history of it at the rest stop. I noticed as I was driving that it looked bad outside, and I began to mentally inventory my water and gasoline. But having never been here, I didn’t know any more than my immediate sense of foreboding. I kept driving into the emptiness and wondering what on earth I’d stumbled upon. Eventually, there was something besides rocks, dirt and creosote: a building. I never saw a highway rest stop offer such temptation. Just the relief from the visual monotony was calming in itself. Still in its way, the Jornada is beautiful. It’s strong, stark, unforgiving and it goes on and on, without any care for you or your water-based weakness.

Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I saw a young dog, and he had no one to help him. I truly hope no one was cruel enough to abandon an animal here on purpose. Fortunately the little fellow was engaging and trying hard to make friends, and he got somewhere. Being highly allergic, I could not take him aboard, but another man did. As I was pulling out, I saw a man scoop the dog up, persuade the lady driving their SUV to go along with his plan, and they all got in the car together. I was forcibly reminded that in the Jornada, we have to help each other, because there is no quarter.

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