So after Tallgrass Prairie I decided we should head STRAIGHT to Albuquerque so I changed the mapped directions. I had planned an overnight in Liberty, Kansas and head to Alibates Flint Quarry, but in Dodge City I called my Momma to tell her “WE JUST GOT THE HECK OUTTA DODGE,” and was so excited to hit home , I figured we could stop somewhere else. Note: When you stop living in the West you forget things. Things that you remember in the middle of the night while planning your trips, like when you go out of your way find a hotel stop. Because in the middle of the night at HOME you know there isn’t ANYTHING to stop at on the most direct route. This is how we ended up on a two lane road punctuated by grain elevators and feed lots, with tiny villages around the former, and stomped barren land around the latter, for a couple hundred miles. Also, incredibly intermittent internet service. Shout out to a college roommate (Lucy), because I knew that Clayton, NM was a decent sized town and it kept me from back tracking in Oklahoma. After a refreshing overnight, loading the children into the car, pulling away in record speed and forgetting to fill the gas tank we were off! We narrowly avoided running out of gas, filled up in Springer and finally hit I25, where I no longer needed the GPS. Cruising south on I-25 I saw the sign for Fort Union, and it became our next stop. Next time Alibates Flint Quarry!
Fort Union is an important site for a few reasons. It ties into Civil War History because the troops from here stopped The Texans who were trying to loot New Mexico silver to keep funding the Confederacy, and establish a path to California and Colorado goldmines. But the real purpose was to be the supply distribution hub for the entire New Mexico territory. Fort Union was actually built in 3 incarnations and these are the ruins of the last, which were being dismantled when the campaign to save them began. It was a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail and contributed heavily to settlement of the Southwest. It was an active military fort for 40 years, hosting calvary and infantry companies, as well as an impressive supply depot and Quartermaster system. The Santa Fe railroad sealed the Fort’s fate and began it’s 10 year spiral of uselessness.
We arrived at the Visitors Center and checked in, getting our Junior Ranger Books and settling in to watch the on request movie. They have a cozy little setup with rows of chairs and a couch in the back, which was perfect for nursing. We were able to do a lot of the book sitting on the couch after the movie. There is small museum with very nicely done exhibits which helped with some of the questions. Parasols are available for borrowing because the trail is really bright and long. We headed out the door with stern warnings to our East Coast kids about staying on the paths because Rattlesnakes love ruins. Then we promptly headed out and did it backwards. BUT if you had started the correct way, you would have headed past military tents and supply wagons and a great big sign that says “BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES,” which made me feel validated because my kids kind of laughed about the snakes! There is a speaker that also plays bugle calls which is startling the first time you hear it in the wide open stillness. The kids began by running on the path but the New Mexico sun eventually slowed them, there are benches spaced out to rest, but not much shade. Fort Union is also home to a colony of the fattest Jack Rabbits I have ever seen. Usually desert rabbits look more stringy, but these plump fellows barely even noticed us on the path.
There are informative signs throughout the ruins and that describe daily life and the functions of each area. The Junior Ranger book does a great job of needing you to actually read those signs in order to answer the questions, which made it slower going for Lemon who was discouraged by Ranger reading quickly and running ahead. In the center of the fort is a flagpole and sundial which fascinated the kids with it’s accuracy, but was hard to explain since watches ares so old fashioned now-a-days. One of the neatest exhibits was the old Wagon Depot, where they had blacksmiths, carpenters, and wheelwrights who supported both the army and civilian wagon trains. There were still wagon remains present and it is a really concrete thing to think about and look at in contrast to empty cisterns which were harder for the kids to imagine in use. Another feature was the munitions depot which was not accessible by trails, as it was well away from the fort for obvious reasons, but had prominent signs pointing it out. It is an interesting train of thought to think that all the bullets supplied to this region came through this point. That this fort supplied all the military campaigns for the region. I think about it like the dollar bills where people enter their serial numbers to see where they go. Where did those bullets all go? Their legacy protected by anonymity and time.
It really was a remarkable site. When you think of how massive the the Supply Depot was and how desolate the territory must have been for the colonizers. New Mexico isn’t exactly a bastion of population density now, so Fort Union must certainly have seemed like a miraculous thing to settlers. And of course it played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural changes throughout the area. This outpost served as the hub for colonizers, and was the staging point for numerous campaigns against New Mexico’s Native Peoples in the name of protecting these settling interlopers. Many of these sites inspire such awe in regards to the “Man against Nature” paradigm, as it is such a hard landscape for survival, that it easy to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of that feat. But it is really important to remind ourselves, and our children, that there were people here who had learned the subtle ways of survival in the desert, lived entire lives and built civilizations that were obliterated.