Trip Journal***: CDT Episode I, A Dry Heat (2002, Continental Divide Trail Southern Terminus, New Mexico)

***This is a copy of James’ article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Please do not distribute this article without permission.


Up a continent, back into history
The Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada runs into old land claims that have prompted violence, the Tribune’s James Janega finds.

By James Janega. Tribune staff reporter James Janega recently visited New Mexico
Published June 14, 2002

HACHITA, N.M. — Lurching off the tired blacktop of New Mexico Highway 81 in the early chill of dawn, Sam Hughes bounced his battered Ford Bronco up a nameless dirt road, trailing a cloud of dust toward the Mexican border.

He cursed quietly while muscling the truck between mesquite bushes and across axle-splitting washes, pausing with exaggerated gentility, an unlit cigarette an inch from his leathery face, to ask his three passengers if they’d mind him smoking.

The passengers were backpackers, and Hughes’ dusty route ended at the beginning of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a nearly completed 3,100-mile path already luring an ambitious few eager to attempt walking, biking or riding horseback along the trail from the Mexican border south of Hachita to the Canadian border at Glacier National Park.

Authorized by Congress in 1978, the Continental Divide Trail is the longest of eight National Scenic Trails that include the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Natchez Trace, Potomac Heritage Trail and Ice Age Trail.

Mist on a dream lifts

Little more than a fuzzy idea for decades, the Continental Divide Trail has undergone a flurry of construction since the formation of the activist Continental Divide Trail Alliance in 1995 and has seen an uptick of business since a guidebook for New Mexico’s section of the trail was published this spring. Despite guidebooks on the shelves, alliance founder Bruce Ward believes the trail is eight years and millions of dollars from completion.

Much of that unfinished work is in New Mexico–and it remains that way over a tense confluence of interests involving Jicarilla Apaches, hard-nosed cattle ranchers, descendants of 16th Century Spanish settlers claiming land on the trail’s proposed route, and the unflinching Continental Divide, which meanders through the whole mess like a blind man in a cow pasture.

To diehard supporters of the trail like Bob Julyan, an optimist whose “New Mexico’s Continental Divide Trail” hit bookstands in March, all those touchy issues add an air of authenticity to the undertaking.

“If you’re going to go anywhere and experience the Old West, this would be the place to go,” Julyan said.

Take Hughes, a product of the New Mexico backcountry with a working six-shooter and knack for finding money like water in the desert.

In the last year he has added a Hachita-to-Continental Divide Trail taxi service to a business card that already reads in part “Sam Hughes: Prospector/Treasure Hunter, Land, Whiskey, Manure, Gold, Snake Oil, Mining Claims. Tigers Tamed, Bars Emptied, Tax Free Investments.”

“About all you make is pocket change,” he admitted between pulls on a cigarette outside the Hachita Cafe. “But I enjoy taking people up the back roads.”

What few of his passengers realize is just how authentic an Old West experience they’re getting. In New Mexico, old-timers recall Apache raids in the state’s southern deserts. Descendants of Spanish conquistadors continue a fierce, generations-old opposition to federal authorities over ranch land.

The federal land around their ranches, they say, is on acreage their ancestors got from the king of Spain and emperor of Mexico. The United States is to them a Johnny-come-lately.

The whole shooting match, so to speak, had been brought to the fore by the impending completion of the Continental Divide Trail.

And here’s the shootout

“There are thousands of trails in New Mexico. They should just come get a compass and go across those,” said Rio Arriba County Commissioner and rancher Moises Morales, a leader in New Mexico’s Spanish land grant movement and staunch opponent to letting the trail cross areas claimed by old Spanish families. Doing so, they believe, is tantamount to releasing their claim on the land.

Somewhat of a frontier character himself, Morales took part in a daring 1967 demonstration at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in which he and a group of other locals attempted to place the district attorney under citizens’ arrest over the land grant issue. The demonstration dissolved into a shoot-out that ultimately involved National Guardsmen and sheriff’s deputies.

“Things have changed now. There are people willing to talk to us,” Morales said.

Still, he added, “It’s not going to be our people that use the Continental Divide Trail. It’s going to be people with money, and a lot of these people that are going to use this trail are going to be environmentalists who don’t understand our way of life.”

The disagreement has forced the trail onto a temporary route, often dozens of miles from the Continental Divide, a ridge up the Rockies that separates rivers flowing east from those flowing west. But not even the longest trail can avoid every problem.

“Everywhere you go on this trail, you run smack into these issues,” Ward acknowledged. “If nothing else, this trail is going to help focus visibility on them.”

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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