Bring me men to match my mountains
Bring me men to match my plains
Men with empires in their purpose
And new eras in their brains
–Sam Walter Foss, The Coming American
In the early pre-dawn of the Cimarron national Grasslands, with the coyotes making their last rounds, singing before they slunk to their dens for the day, I stood and watched the curtain of light unfold across an ever clouding sky. The grasslands, the plains of the southwestern corner of Kansas were awakening; and they appeared to be angry. As passengers on wagons along the Santa Fe Trail awoke on mornings like this they added another fear to the list of many — weather. Regardless of preparations or guile, of planning or purpose, this land decides what will happen at any given moment. And today, it would decide for me.
From the southernmost corner of what many regard as the greatest Indian empire ever assembled — that of the Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud — I set out to follow the Santa Fe Trail into northern New Mexico. Red Cloud was a plains Indian at heart and was largely afraid of mountains, preferring to use the low hills of the front range for religious ceremonies and stick to the grasslands. You could see people coming from a long way away on the plains and, if you were as ruthless as Red Cloud, you could build an empire there. With hands bloodied with the lives of other tribesmen and white men alike, he did just that. And as I rolled up the Cimarron Canyon and over the mountains of Taos Pines, I found some wisdom in sticking to the prairies.
The grade and terrain of the mountains ground my progress to a slow crawl and the pounding snowstorm threatened forward progress at all. I imagined Red Cloud sitting on Point of Rocks watching the plains and enjoying the satisfaction of ruling a land he knew, could predict and could manage. But I also thought of the people moving west, people who thought of a new era, people who viewed hardship as investment rather than omen. And so on I climbed, up and over the mountains of Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine, across the broad saddles dotted with high lakes, and down to Santa Fe. From there I followed an old friend.
Last Fall I spent a couple of weeks riding the southern edge from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, and for most of the entire trip, I had the Rio Grande river on my left shoulder. Today, after falling out of Colorado and gaining strength from tributaries in northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande was back, but this time, on my right shoulder. From Taos down through Santa Fe, the river led me out to the carved sandstone buttes and Mesas of central New Mexico and then bid farewell at Albuquerque as it turned south and east to the southern edge. I continued west to the New Mexico Arizona border where, after 10 1/2 hours at the wheel, I stopped. Tomorrow I will, as others before have done, continue west and cross the Mojave Desert, pushing to the Pacific again. Pushing to the edge.
From men like Red Cloud who built empires on the plains, to others who conquered the mountains in search of a new era, there has been one constant. The land alters us. It changes plans, it gives sustenance, it takes away will. In the end, the old ways of fear and bloodshed were replaced — with the help of the land — with a single, united piece of ground linking cultures, topography, families and foes, from east to west, north to south, into an unbreakable chain of liberty. Liberty birthed in the east, manifested and sustained by the sacrifices made pushing west, and matured by the certainty of common dependence. We didn’t build an empire after all. We built a nation.
But we had to get to the western edge to start knitting it all together. And I have a ways to go yet.