I know, you had your hearts set on Lincoln County. Me too. But I realized last night I was totally exhausted and needed to stay home and catch up on a few things before I went traveling again. So I decided to exhume some of the work I did back in 2007 just to get the ball rolling. So here is an essay and some pictures from Union County which I really don’t think I need to revisit given I’m pressed for time as it is.
Though buffalo no longer roam in Union County I did spy two deer at play and antelope are nearly as abundant as windmills. With a land area of 3,817 square miles Union County is somewhat bigger than Delaware and somewhat smaller than Connecticut. With a 2010 population of only 4549 there is plenty of elbow room in this far northeast corner of New Mexico. The county is bordered by Colorado on the north and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle’s on the east. It doesn’t touch Kansas but you can be there in just over an hour if you don’t dally.
I happened to be reading Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time at the time of my visit so I was looking for signs of the Dust Bowl as much as New Mexico while I was there. Egan’s map of the Dust Bowl places Clayton, the county seat, just at the western edge of one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters.
The Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands stand testament to that era. They represent homesteads bought back by the government in the 1930s in an effort to restore the once lush prairies that had gone to dust in a string of dry years between 1933 and 1938 after being plowed under by sod busting homesteaders only a generation before. Prairies could survive a drought where a dry land wheat farm could not. The homesteaders who had seen boom years between World War I and the start of the depression were literally choked to death by the land they tore up to plant wheat.
In Clayton, the old grain elevator stands idle. Much of the area has been turned to grazing. Feedlots near the edge of town announce their odorous presence to anyone approaching from the north. But the prevailing winds favor the community and the cows are soon forgotten when driving down Clayton’s broad streets lined by brick and stone buildings. Many of the buildings stand vacant and boarded up, especially a block or two off the state highways that intersect to form the central business district. The old Methodist Church has been turned into a museum where one can learn something about the dust bowl and view items from the county’s past. The old Eklund Hotel has been restored and welcomes guests for an overnight stay or just a meal.
The population of Union County saw its peak sometime in the1920s. Census figures show that there were 16,680 citizens in 1920 but by 1930, before the drought had really taken hold, before the dust could choke the life out of any farms, and only months after the stock market crash, over 5000 had already departed. Did the depression take its toll so fast or was it the declining wheat market? By 1940 the county had lost another 2000 inhabitants. The population decline continued at a fairly steady rate until 2000 when 50 more souls were counted than in 1990. By 2010 the population had jumped by another 375.
Whether or not Union County has a future, there is much evidence of the past. Near the spillway at Clayton Lake is what is considered one of the finest dinosaur trackways in the country. More than 500 Reptilian footprints were preserved in a muddy shoreline turned to stone and buried for about a hundred million years before being exposed during dam construction. It would take another thirty years before the prints were recognized as more than just random undulations in the rock. I was fortunate to visit the morning after a rainstorm which filled the tracks with water making them more easily identifiable.
In Folsom, a museum commemorates the discovery of the first Folsom Point which established human occupation in the area as early as 10-11,000 years ago. Although the actual discovery site was in neighboring Colfax County, we can be confident that these nomadic people spent time in Union County long before the arbitrary political lines were drawn.
Sometime between the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the emergence of Folsom man the area experienced several periods of volcanism. Union County is spared the monotonous flatness of the Staked Plains just to the south and east. Lava flows, cinder cones, and shield volcanoes dot the landscape in the north half of the county. The lava which flowed into valleys and cooled to their shape have long since seen the softer high terrain erode away leaving lava topped mesas One cinder cone, Capulin, has achieved the status of a National Monument. Formed 60,000 years ago in a matter of days, the small steep-sided volcano now sports a road spiraling to its top where visitors can hike into its small crater or around the crater rim.
Capulin may have served as a distant landmark for travelers on the old Santa Fe Trail along with closer features including Mt. Dora, Round Mound and Rabbit Ear Mountain near modern day Clayton. Clayton would not come into being until after the railroad had made the Trail obsolete. The Cimarron Cutoff offered a shorter but more dangerous route than the Mountain Route through southern Colorado and over Raton Pass. The Cimarron route avoided the rough mountain crossing in exchange for a fifty mile waterless stretch and a greater threat of negative encounters with indigenous tribes.
Guide books and interpretive signs assured me that I could still see ruts from the thousands of wagons that traveled the trail in its 6 decades as the primary transportation route between the U.S. and what would become its southwestern territories. Try as I might I could only imagine the ruts through the lush spring grass after a century and a quarter of disuse. But in my imagination I could not only see the ruts, I could hear the creaking of the wheels, the lowing of the oxen, the cracking of whips and the shouts of teamsters.