The dunes of Samayaluca.

Author:Leach, Joseph

Thirty miles south of El Paso, Texas, beyond a green ribbon of cotton farms along the Rio Grande, lies a cluster of pink and gold dunes. Towering five hundred feet above the dry plains, the Medanos de Samalayuca are not only hauntingly beautiful, but over the centuries as the constantly shifting sands posed a treacherous obstacle to travelers heading north and south, they have also become a storehouse, indeed an archive of items that prehistoric Indians, Europeans, and their descendants dropped as they struggled to survive and pass on. Today, after a wind storm, the slopes are often peppered with potsherds, arrow points, corn-grinding stones, broken majolica dishes, brass bullet casings, harness buckles, rusted canteens, beer cans, and Coke bottle caps - as well as bleached-white human skulls.

More fortunate travelers - like Spanish colonist Don Juan de Onate, who trekked through the area in 1598 - lived to write down their memoirs. And, during the next three centuries as the Camino Real trade route from Veracruz through Mexico City and Chihuahua to El Paso and Santa Fe became Mexico's busiest highway, travelers related their woes of passing through the dreaded dunes.

In 1766 the Spanish explorer Nicolas de Lafora found the dunes "very troublesome" and that approaching the only water near them required moving cautiously, for the Apache Indians "are wont to surprise and kill passers-by."

Plodding south with his wagon train in 1839, the American merchant Josiah Gregg found that Apaches "continue to lay waste the ranches in the vicinity, and to depredate at will." Two year later George W. Kendall and a group of political prisoners of the Mexican army were trudging south when they arrived at "large mountains of loose sand" over which it was impossible to drag the wooden carretas without doubling their teams. In that "dreary Sahara," the horses sank below their fetlocks, and the men and animals were exhausted before they could pass the sandy "pyramids which raised their heads high in air."

One night, Kendall and his companions invented a welcome diversion. Directly in their path lay a stone weighing some two hundred pounds. Years before, they were told, a band...

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