BURY ME OUT ON THE PRAIRIE by Dr. Donal W. Key
In 1902, the railroad began construction of a series of trestles up Abo Canyon, the first and largest at the western base of the Manzano Mountains where the confluence of drainage enters Abo Wash on its way to the Rio Grande some twenty miles across the prairie.
Three smaller trestles on the north side of Abo Wash were put in place approaching the curve in the rail-line crossing the wash. To undertake this massive endeavor, the railroad hired some 700 men, mostly from Kansas and China. Right-of-way for the project cut through a large cattle ranch where water wells had been dug to an abundant under-ground water source.
The railroad made a deal with the rancher to set up camp on the east end of the ranch and south side of Abo Wash, very near the largest trestle. A corral, expansive enough to hold 500 mules and horses, was constructed near-by.
As the work progressed, so did the difficulties of camp life. With a little money in their pockets, and not much to do after hours, the men gambled and otherwise entertained themselves by settling disputes with force. Those who did not survive these rough encounters were buried inside the corral under the cover of darkness, so that by morning, all evidence of the graves had been thoroughly stamped out by mule and horse hooves. No record or remaining evidence exists of the number of men buried inside the corral.
At some point during construction, or shortly after the line opened to rail traffic in 1906, a family of five traveling by covered wagon got caught in a massive snow storm, taking refuge under the smaller trestle. They did not survive. Their bodies were discovered by a rail worker, and they were buried on a slight rise within the railroad right-of-way on the north side of the track, about fifty yards from where they died. Their graves were marked with natural stones and the area was fenced to preserve this family’s private cemetery, protected to this day by the railroad.
La Puerta Natural Burial Ground lies on the south side of the tracks about 500 yards to the west of the site where this family was buried over a hundred years ago. A half-mile to the south and east of La Puerta, across Abo Wash, is the location of the mule corral that became a cemetery of unmarked graves. In the spirit of the history and the choices made to honor the dead, La Puerta allows graves to be marked by natural stone or native plant, or to remain unmarked.
The setting of La Puerta is peaceful, beautiful, and historic. The Manzano Mountains rise to 10,000 feet on the northeast; Abo Wash is a short distance to the south. The two 100-foot railroad trestles that cross it are always in view, with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains coming and going at close intervals throughout the day.
The canyon is home to Bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lion, and birds both large and small. At several hundred feet of elevation, crystal clear spring water flows from inside the mountain to collect in natural rock basins, while vegetation growing on the upper banks allows a hidden and cautious approach to the stream, providing a rich wildlife meeting place. Life and death are close neighbors.
Standing in the sunlight near the stream, the mountains rising sharply a thousand feet on either side, a feeling of serenity is unavoidable. Flying through the pass from east to west, the earth drops away sharply and the expansive view ahead widens abruptly fifty miles in every direction. Being held close by nature or soaring free in the space above it causes something to awaken at the core, reaffirming how valuable each moment truly is.
JOHNNIE RAY - BURY ME OUT ON THE LONE PRAIRIE - YouTube
1.) Harvey House Museum, Belen, NM
2.) Robert Bilbry, ranch owner south of La Puerta
3.) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad
THE JOURNEY with Dr. Donal W. Key, Natural Burial New Mexico
Every individual life matters, or nothing matters at all.
In a series of writings, my intention is to share stories of an individual nature in the hope of inspiring those who read them to give value to their own unique experiences and to find meaning at that level, as well as collectively.
For thousands of years humans have struggled with making sense of their evolutionary journey. One of the major components preventing clarity of understanding has always been the brevity of time allowed for personal experience. In other words, life is too short to sort it out.
For this reason, as a species, beginning long ago we placed our trust in structures spanning longer duration. We have been taught to embrace numbers, large numbers. If a belief, a thought, a perspective can endure over a large number of years, it must hold more value than individual ones. The larger the number of people embracing a value, the greater the proof it must be so. Without a doubt, there is something to be said for deference to those collective concepts.
However, there is much to be lost if life only has value at this level. In fact, a central point has been overlooked – life is lived one life at a time, not collectively. We are not born together, we are not experiencing life the same, we die as a single life extinguished, even if we die together in some mass event.
Yes, every individual life matters, or nothing matters at all. Please read on -
It was a warm, early summer day. Dad was in the lead carrying a toy boat he made for the occasion. Mom brought up the rear, avoiding the thorny branches on either side of the narrow trail. From the right, just a little way off came the gentle sound of a stream meandering through the forest undergrowth. The trees were tall and had been racing each other to the sun above their canopy. Over the briars, Yaupon, and grape vines was an unobstructed open space where small birds flew this way and that, calling to each other and meeting up on the branches above them. The deep blue ones, Jays, and the bright red ones, Cardinals, could be seen and heard above the others. Way off, crows chattered to each other, and flew above the top of the forest to destinations higher up on Gee Mountain. Cottontail rabbits were everywhere, scurrying across the path to crouch motionless just out of reach, watching as we passed by.
We came to a small grassy clearing where the world became bright again and the hidden stream collected itself into a deep, narrow sandstone pool. Near the bottom of the pool, yellow and silver-sided perch, lazily opening and closing their gills extended their fins periodically to hold themselves in place in an invisible current.
Our farm house was a few miles south on higher ground, cleared a generation before to grow corn. The soil had already lost much of its richness and the rains didn’t come consistently. Soon my dad would be forced to take a truck-driving job in town to make ends meet. Our way of life would change and we would move from this place to a boarding-house apartment some sixty miles to the north. Another world entirely.
But, not so fast. Stay with me on Briar Branch. Here, all nature seemed to have what it needed to thrive; the sounds joyful, the setting peaceful. Life was everywhere.
Dad helped me put the boat in the pool and we followed along the bank as it slowly drifted to the far end and stopped, waiting to be carried back for another trip. As the boat moved along the surface, its shadow, clearly defined, followed along the bottom some eight feet below, passing over the fish and pebbles. Neither moved.
Over the years of my life, I have returned to that day again and again. There, walking between my parents listening to their voices – calm, natural, and expressive, as though the present moment, this present reality, would always be, would never end. I had nothing to fear.
As you know, everything changes. My mother did not stay twenty-three, and my dad did not stay twenty-nine, and in a few months, I was no longer four years old. As time moved on, Briar Branch, as I experienced that day, ceased to exist. All of that rich bottom land fell prey to the oil boom. The trees were dozed, the stream became mud-laden, and the spring that fed it dried up. Later, the land sold to a large ranch and where all that nature had been, only cows grazed on what was left of the grass. Gee Mountain turned out to be a hundred-foot-tall hill with an abrupt rock outcropping on the north side overlooking the stream below.
This may seem like a sad story, and in some ways, it is. But, what would be truly sad would be to have never experienced that day; to have that place never exist, to not know about a reality so well-balanced that everything seemed possible. What a gift my parents gave me. The gift did last a life-time.
If you are afraid, you may need to run. Know when to do so. When you run, run under briars, not into the clearing. When you are well out of reach, crouch down and watch for the danger to pass. Never run through the briars, as they will cut you. Learn to live in the middle; in the open spaces between the dense undergrowth and the top of the forest. That’s where you can truly fly and sing your own song. While at rest, if a cloud passes over, don’t panic. It may only be a small boy’s toy boat sailing on a clear day over the surface of a perfect world.