Rural America: The Desert Southwest   3 comments

The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.

We might as well face it.  America is no longer what it once was.  Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching.  They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies.  Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity.  Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation.  Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities.   To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes.  There are countless other examples.

Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated.  Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster.   And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas.  Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future.  But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot.  You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.

And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest.  This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.

It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.

Geography & History

The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau.  This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.  But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.

It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there.  Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension.  The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.

What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers.  It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other.  Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes.  One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel.  And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.

The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.

Appropriation

Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups.  Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century.  During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California.  Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe.  This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region.  Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).

But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that.  Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones.  Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years.  They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.

A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.

Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west.  That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century.  Santa Fe was founded in 1608.  That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil.  It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence.  It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico.  It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.

Taos to the north is also very old.  The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa.  They had eight children together.

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west.  Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country.  The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).

An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.

Mining in the Southwest

The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining.  While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache.  I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain.  If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.

When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued.  But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region.  For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find.  And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.

Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.

In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest.  Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country.  The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below).  Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.

Cowboys & Indians

One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective.  Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention.  In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang.  It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.

For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.

The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Road Tripping the Southwest

It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region.  You can too easily bite off more than you can chew.  And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation.  Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have.  Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.

In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips.  They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company.  The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest.  I’ll repeat myself:  whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once.  You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries.  That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset at Monument Valley.

Advertisements

3 responses to “Rural America: The Desert Southwest

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Loved this piece! My 12 year old and I just camped in the Valley of the Gods last week on our way back to NM. You are right…it takes forever to get anywhere. Thanks for your time writing about these places.

  2. What a fascinating combination of inspiring landscapes and interesting history, Michael!

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: