Quitman Pass and the Guadalupes

FOLLOWING THE WARPATH: Quitman Pass to Dog Canyon

This is a terrible scan of a fragment of Texas road map, but it gives some idea of Nana’s tactical position and his probable movements after he crossed the river below Fort Quitman. To the east was Fort Davis, headquarters of Grierson and his vigilant 10th Cavalry. Northwest was Hueco Tanks, once a favorite rallying point and rest stop for cross-border raiding parties but now virtually under the eye of Fort Bliss. Nana’s best bet was to follow the western flank of the Sierra Diablo up into the Guadalupe Mountains, which in turn led into the Sacramentos.

Although it’s not shown on this map, there is an unpaved farm road (#192) running southeast from I-10 below Fort Hancock along a relatively flat shelf between the river valley and the escarpment of the Quitman Mountains. The once wild Rio Bravo del Norte has been thoroughly tamed over the last century and diverted through a maze of acequias to irrigate the fields on what was once the river’s flood plain. Adding insult to old injury, the feds have now installed a 12-foot high iron fence, the ugliest security barrier this side of the North Korean border. The fence, together with a succession of locked gates leading to the fields below, prevents even a glimpse of the river in the distance.

The road peters out into a maze of sandy tracks in the brush before it reaches Ojo Caliente/Indian Hot Springs. Turning back, I found Quitman Pass road clearly signposted.

The road is an unpaved dirt track, mostly unimproved and apparently largely unmaintained. It’s a challenging drive for a high clearance 4WD, and I wouldn’t try it with a passenger car. I had little attention to spare for the scenery as I wound my way upward, and found no place to even pull over to take pictures and admire the view. I chiefly remember steep and narrow curves punctuated by sudden drops into deep arroyos — in one of them an abandoned car lay beside the road riddled with bullet holes, a grim reminder that this is still a lonely and dangerous place – and up a rocky escarpment broken with the thick underbrush locals call the Brasada. It’s not country I’d care to hike.

It was someplace along here that Maj. Gen. (ret) James Byrne encountered Apaches in August, 1880.  As chief engineer for the Texas & Pacific Railroad, then building westward toward a planned junction with the Southern Pacific and the A.T.&S.F. in New Mexico, the 39-year-old Byrne was tasked with selecting a route for the rails through the mountains and deserts of West Texas. But the border country was exceptionally dangerous that summer. Victorio was probing for an opening that would allow him to bring his people back across the river, and there were Mescalero and Lipan raiders and even a few renegade Comanche on the prowl as well. Hearing that 10 people had already been killed in recent weeks, Byrne wrote his last will and testament and a final letter to his wife before boarding a mule-drawn mudwagon headed east. Incredibly, especially given his forebodings, the general was unarmed and the driver had only a Winchester with two bullets.

In Quitman Pass the attackers so botched the ambush that the driver managed to get the wagon turned around and make a run for it, the Apaches in close pursuit. They made it to the fort, but Byrne took a bullet through the vitals. He lingered in considerable pain for several days, with no nursing but the clumsy ministrations of the post telegrapher and no medicine but the sutler’s whiskey.

“During all that time he was as cool as a cucumber,” the telegrapher later said. “I never saw a man die braver in my life.” (Selcer, Richard, “A Premonition of Death,” Wild West Magazine, August 2014)

Once over Quitman Pass, the country flattens out onto the Diablo Plateau, a sunbaked, waterless stretch of deep sand and scrub mesquite – hard going for horses and in the summer a Baptist’s vision of hell for men on foot. Nana and his band probably followed the foothills of the Sierra Diablo to the east. But those mountains are now part of the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area, strictly off limits to visitors.

Wildlife protection was not even a gleam in the Texas Legislature’s eye when Nana last passed through this country, and he wouldn’t have paid any attention to locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs had they been in place in 1881. But for the traveler following his tracks today, there are only two really feasible routes north, either west of the Diablos on Texas Ranch 111 or east of them on Texas Highway 54.

Forty miles north of I-10 and Sierra Blanca, Ranch Rd 111 intersects with US 62/180, running east from El Paso toward Guadalupe National Park. The Guadalupe Mountains are on the horizon 30 miles ENE.

Don’t bother to stop at Guadalupe NP Pine Springs campground, which is grim even by Park Service standards. RVs are crammed together in a paved area smaller and less attractive than the average WalMart parking lot, and the tent sites are grouped tightly around a single parking lot, necessitating carrying your gear through the underbrush to your “designated site” without offering the least illusion of solitude. All this, governed by more rules (no pets, no campfires, no grills, no smoking, stay on the trail, quiet hours strictly enforced, etc. etc.) than a convent school’s junior prom, seem specifically designed to discourage visitors. Backcountry camping is possible for backpackers with the usual PS proliferation of rules and regulations. The closest overnight accommodations for the rest of us are motels or private RV parks in Whites City. Nearest public campground is Brantley Lake State Park, 15 miles north of Carlsbad off US285.

A few miles off US62/180 about halfway between the NM state line and White City, Rattlesnake Springs picnic ground is not the same waterhole where Grierson laid his trap for Victorio, but it’s a pleasant oasis in the surrounding desert for a lunch stop and a siesta under the cottonwoods.

There’s a good road running east from near Brantley Dam back toward the Guadalupes. Where the benchland is broken up with steep, narrow canyons, you’ll find Sitting Bull Falls.

Sitting Bull Falls is east of Nana’s direct route to the Mescalero Reservation, but if I were making my last tour of New Mexico, this is one of the places I would have on my itinerary. Although the picnic ground is heavily used, the Forest Service (with the help of local volunteers) has done a great job of preserving the natural beauty of this desert oasis.

According to Grayson (Victorio, p.11) “the Guadalupe Mountains, where the Mountain Spirits resided, were central to all of the Chiricahua people.” If I were a Mountain Spirit, I’m not sure the Guadalupes would be my choice for a home place. They’re hot and dry even at the higher elevations, forested but not lush and not particularly scenic. But they do offer one outstanding advantage – a rough but passable dirt road (FR67) runs along the spine of the mountains, where the gentler eastern slopes abruptly drop off in nearly vertical cliffs to the desert far below. Views into the Tularosa Basin to the west are spectacular.



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