A Different Idea of Wild


The Santa Fe Trail: Untamed But Not Untrammeled

ABOVE: Noah Schlager at the site of the old San Juan Pueblo ruin at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Words and Pictures by Noah Schlager

“…possibly the day will come when [the Land] will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 1862: Close to the end of the Santa Fe Trail’s economic life, and long past the end of the Old Spanish Trail.

Vendors of both traditional and modern crafts during the the Spanish Market in the Santa Fe Plaza.

“It is our job as modern conservationists to see the wildness we so value in all places and peoples.”

A half dozen sets of bulbous black eyes were turned at our car. One reddish-brown and white patched heifer looked half bemused as she chewed her cud. Staring at the cattle blocking the road, I felt a familiarity I quickly realized to be false—up until this point I’d only encountered such situations in movies. There’s plenty of livestock along the highways north of my home city of San Francisco, but they’re all neatly partitioned from roads and towns by secure fences. I wasn’t sure what you really did in such a situation, but Pat seemed fairly confident. If not the car horn, her force of will convinced the cows that they ought to get out of the way.

“Come on get moving,” she shouted while striking a single honk. On that command they lifted themselves up and moved to the side.
“I haven’t actually seen cows blocking the road before,” I said, snapping photos as we passed.
“We’re way out here now, I don’t know if you’ll want to end up sending people out this way or not,” she said.
“I don’t know if it can be on the official tour,” I said. I looked out on the expanse of Largo Canyon—full of ranches, oil and gas extraction plants, Navajo ruins, and acres of sage brush.
After a second I added, “maybe it can be an option though.” 

A young cow likely annoyed at having just been forced to get up and out of the road in Largo Canyon


The highlight thus far was meeting Napoleon Garcia, a Genizaro storyteller (and former hand to Georgia O’keeffe) from Abique who sent us off with a bag full of ripe apricots.

Pat Kuhlhoff, the President of the Old Spanish Trail Association’s New Mexico chapter, is  an energetic woman with short silver hair and slight upper midwest accent. She was showing me the Armijo route of the Old Spanish Trail, used in the early-mid 19th century by Spanish traders taking woven goods from Santa Fe on pack mules to Los Angles. We were looking at sites that we might put into the growing National Trails’ media tour.


We’d already stopped at Navajo Canyon near Ghost Ranch, Amphitheater rock, The Chama and Rio Grande Rivers, and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo— where Juan de Oñate established the first capital of New Mexico. The highlight thus far was meeting Napoleon Garcia, a Genizaro storyteller (and former hand to Georgia O’keeffe) from Abique who sent us off with a bag full of ripe apricots. Now we were in the middle of Largo Canyon, known for being a bit of a ghost town. Despite the ubiquitous marks of modernity that have shaped the canyon, it doesn’t take too much to imagine the lines of mules headed out towards California.

Noah Schlager with Napoleon Garcia, a Genizaro storyteller and former hand to Georgia O’keeffe.

The National Trails don’t actually own any land, instead they are managed through collaborating with a variety of public and private partners. On this short this trip with Pat, our path went through the city of Santa Fe, several towns, private ranches, tribal land, BLM land, Army Corps land, and National Forest. With this diversity of organizations comes an equally diverse array of modern land uses along the trail. It is easy to be nostalgic for the times when pioneers had nothing but open wilderness to break trail through, but that reality only ever existed in the cinema.

To be sure there was a lower density of people and fences in New Mexico 200 years ago—but these lands have long been shaped by hunter-gathers, agricultural civilizations, nomadic plains warriors, Spanish conquistadors, Mexican rancheros, and Anglo traders. In this landscape many of the ‘hills’ are old pueblos, many waterways elaborate acequias (traditional irrigation), and many of the “wild’ flora cultivated by cuanderos (native healers). Here people have fought and compromised and melded together in a cultural and ecological negotiation that continues to this day. This negotiation is not tame or orderly or balanced, but wild in its truest sense. What is created is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

In conservation, we place much ethical and aesthetic emphasis on ideals of wilderness: “untouched” landscapes. The great wilderness preserves of the world are immensely valuable no doubt, but as many great environmental thinkers have argued (see William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness), wilderness doesn’t provide us with a very good ethic for the places that we actually live. Within Largo Canyon the exclusive focus on “untouched” landscape has actually been counterproductive to conserving the Old Spanish Trail. Although the canyon is rich in history, the oil and gas equipment makes it ineligible for historic designation. The logic is that because the valley has already been “spoiled” there is no reason to preserve it—no doubt there is a concern for not hindering further gas and oil development as well.

Is there not a balance to be found for the Canyon with consideration for both energy, natural, and cultural resources? Aren’t places such as Largo Canyon exactly where we need sustainability and conservation values? Thoreau is often misquoted as saying “in Wilderness is the preservation of the world”, when in fact he said not Wilderness but Wildness. Those are two very different statements, and what Thoreau valued was not a landscape that was removed from humanity—his Walden home was close enough to town he could get his laundry done weekly—but reflected the best elements of humanity. Kip Curtis, a Thoreau scholar and college professor of mine, wrote that “Thoreau found nature in places where we neglect it today and he expected the presence of people in places where we do not want them today” (Curtis, 21). It is our job as modern conservationists to see the wildness we so value in all places and peoples.

Chama River Canyon, Old Spanish travelers would have, just around the bend is the Abiquiu Dam.

Three major trails came and went from Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Trail to Missouri, the Camino Real to Mexico City, and The Old Spanish Trail to Los Angles. These trails connected cultures and landscapes crossing North America, and they all meet in the downtown Plaza of Santa Fe. Abalone shells, parrots, and canned peaches all met up here. One can find Saints, Kachinas and Bodhisattvas lined up next to each other. The Pueblo revival buildings of the plaza are a melange of Pueblo and Spanish architecture with more than a touch of Anglo romanticism. Santa Fe is known for being a city of syncretism, a blending of cultures. Who wants to live in a world divided up? The so called evil days Thoreau prophesied. Yes, a fenceless world means you have to deal with cattle in the road—there is a serious challenge in working with such a large number of people and organizations with differing visions. Yet it is in that challenge that we find something much more authentic, alive, and truly wild.

BELOW: Noah Schlager in Abiquiu in front of a trail marker and map of the Old Spanish Trail