The desert deceives
The beautifully inhospitable desert and a German who lost his way

The desert deceives
David Feela - 03/28/2024

A BLM sign at the New Mexico Yost Draw trailhead depicts a mile-and-a-half path that ends with an overlook view of the historic 1598 route where “thousands of wagons, people and livestock migrated between Mexico City and the small New Mexican towns on New Spain’s northern frontier.” For me, this beautiful sunny morning with a cool March breeze felt great for taking a hike; for them, a harsh encounter along a rugged terrain with little or no water, firewood or forage for livestock. Spanish Conquistadors named it “Jornado del Muerto,” which translates rather flatly into “dead man’s journey.” I decided to stick with the overlook and avoid the 90-mile trek toward present-day Socorro.

My daypack provided hope: a water bottle, a spotting scope, extra sunscreen and plenty of room to stash my flimsy windbreaker as the day warmed. With a sunhat on my head, I headed out. 

At first a tidy border of stones was stacked on both sides of the path, which eventually disappeared and became slightly uneven, but perfectly navigable terrain.

As I hiked, many remarkable stones lay on both sides of the path. They prompted me to continually stop, pick one up, appreciate its colors and intrusions, speculate on its geology, then drop it back on the ground. According to fitness trainers, 1.5 miles amounts to 3,000-4,000 steps. It should take under an hour for someone like me ... tops. But it ended up taking nearly 2 hours, which I can only explain by my careful reading of each interpretive plaque along the way, and the generous amount of time I spent with my companions, the rocks. 

A short climb where the trail ended brought me to an overlook and a view of the south-north journey. Despite four centuries of wind, rain, sun and earthly upheaval, visible ruts from wagon wheels are preserved along portions of that track, but from where I stood they were too far away to see. I settled for the photo on the last interpretive panel, proof enough for me. 

The moniker for the landscape, “Jornado del Muerto” was inspired by the discovery of the grisly remains of a German trader, Bernado Gruber. Why is beyond me. So much beauty exists in the desert. The vistas I encountered continue to inspire me, but not like an Edgar Allen Poe story. 

Here’s my abbreviated version of a detailed account of Gruber’s sensational death from desertusa.com.  

The Spanish Inquisition crashed into North America’s Spanish territories like a riptide in the 1600s. A trader named Gruber made his living leading mules and horses packed with goods throughout the area. On Christmas morning in 1668, after chatting up his potential customers before church, he climbed into a choir loft and inscribed +ABNA+ADNA+ on some tiny scraps of paper. Then he whispered to the choir members that eating one would protect the consumer from harm for 24 hours. 

Little did he know a 19-year-old who’d taken one of the papers would later that day be repeating and demonstrating the same claim to some curious Native Americans in a ceremonial kiva. After swallowing it, he pretended to stab his hand with an awl and lifted his undamaged hand for his audience to see. They must have been amazed, and he must have giggled about the trick all the way home until his wife convinced him to report Gruber to the Inquisition. 

Gruber was arrested, found guilty of witchcraft and jailed, but he eventually managed to escape with meager supplies on a roan horse, heading south over “the desert trail.” Spanish authorities sent riders after him, but he wasn’t found until two years later. A trading party came upon the remains of his dead horse still “tied to a tree by its halter,” and nearby, a skull and some bones, all of them stripped clean by vultures. 

I knew nothing about Gruber until weeks after I returned home, but it’s clear a desert landscape can be deadly when travelers undertake that journey unprepared or rely on shysters who supposedly “have your back.” 

My focus as I headed back to the car was to rediscover the volcanic stone that had impressed me. Ovular in shape like an ostrich egg, it was black but banded by a tan stripe like a leather belt. The British might claim it only weighed one stone. When I spotted it again I thought, what a perfect marker to place beside the thriving desert willow back home, so I put it in my backpack and continued to the parking lot.  

Yes, the stone was heavy, but I had less than a mile to carry it. Only after reaching the car and putting the backpack down did I fully realize I’d just lugged a souvenir not only the size of a skull, but also heavier than a few cool, clear gallons of water, and in the desert water always carries more weight.

– David Feela

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