A Day of Exploration One Hundred and Thirty-One Years Ago

Casa del Ainsworth, if you will, rises on a small bit of ground about midway in elevation between the Organ Mountains to the east and Las Cruces to the west. From the downward slope of the range’s west side, the geological strata are slightly higher above sea level than the nearby capital city of Doña Ana County. Ironically and with a touch of human hubris, this bench is referred to as the East Mesa, due to its location relative to the man-made settlement. More properly, though, this natural feature ought to have a more poetic name. In bland binary terms, the East Mesa is so-named to distinguish it from the West Mesa, which rises beyond the right bank of the Rio Grande. Thus, an east-west cross-section of Las Cruces reveals the Organ Mountains, a mesa at the foot of its western slopes, the town itself, the river, and then an uplift to complement the opposite bench. Bland or not, though, those are the names of the mesas we’re stuck with. Missed was the opportunity to call them Tierra Seco or Conejo Wash or Sagebrush Plains or some such whimsical and intriguing name. “So it goes,” sayeth Linda Ellerbee.

Despite the uninspiring appellation of “East Mesa,” its natural beauty awed a three-man party in the spring of 1891. From faraway Boston, Massachusetts, Charles H. Ames had learned of the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico, and as a climber, he set out to see this range for himself. He brought along a fellow enthusiast named B. K. Benson, a denizen of New Orleans, Louisiana. Ames was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a group organized in his hometown whose members reveled in the thrill and danger afforded by mountaineering in the late-Nineteenth Century. The club published a journal containing accounts of their exploits of discovery, often writing about the difficulties and hardships of climbing into unknown reaches of one mountain range or another. Undoubtedly, one reason Ames traveled to the Territory of New Mexico in May of 1891 was to write about an excursion of his own design to regale his kindred climbers in New England.

For Ames and Benson, the journey to the Chihuahuan Desert from their distant locales surely was an arduous trip. Not only were the miles long, but upon arriving in El Paso they bore the brunt of a common hazard of travel in the West. “Ordinarily the connection is easy by rail,” Ames later wrote of the route between El Paso and Las Cruces, “but extraordinary floods had prevailed, and both railway and carriage-road had been washed out so seriously that I was obliged to make a wide detour and to approach Las Cruces from the north.” He and Benson, therefore, “went on northwest by rail by the Southern Pacific to Deming, some fifty or seventy-five miles; then northeast nearly as many more, to Rincon, where we again crossed the Rio Grande to its eastern bank, only to find that on the north as well as on the south approach to Las Cruces by rail was cut off by the turbulent river. There was no way for us but to secure the best conveyance we could and make the forty-mile trip across the desert,—there known as the Jornado del Morte [sic], or the Journey of Death, in grim commemoration of disastrous expeditions across its waterless and treeless expanse in early times.” At long last, though, upon slowly approaching Las Cruces one long mile after another, the two wayfarers constantly observed the jagged uplift “which presented a very striking and peculiar appearance of vertical ribs of stone of great size and regularity, and at once provoking the comparison to organ-pipes; and later on we were interested to know that they bore this very name in both the Spanish and English tongues.”

A view of the Organ Mountains from west of the Rio Grande a few decades ago. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The mountaineers arrived in Las Cruces on about May 15, 1891, and their inquiries of the local populace about the routes to ascend into the Organs proved fruitless. No one they spoke with had ever attempted such a foolhardy act due to their conviction that it was impossible to climb to those lofty summits. [Editor’s note: The leopard in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” assuredly would have disagreed!] Their thwarted efforts to gain any first-hand knowledge of the mountains was somewhat lessened upon making the acquaintance of Elmer Ottis Wooton, a professor of botany on faculty at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Only sixteen months earlier, in January 1890, Wooton had received an appointment as the Territory’s first resident botanist when much of the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Organ Mountains remained to be discovered. During his two decades at the college, Professor Wooton identified and cataloged numerous previously unknown species of bushes, trees, flowers, and weeds native to the region, but I ought to keep on with the story at hand.

Settled only forty-two years earlier, Las Cruces embodied many of the attributes of a town on the frontier. Its appearance likely startled Ames and Benson somewhat, being more accustomed to the architecture, streetscapes, and society of Boston and New Orleans. The town’s dusty lanes stretched out along the one- and two-story buildings fronting Main Street and indeed throughout the town. On the north end of the town’s main thoroughfare rose St. Genevieve’s Church, while the Loretto Academy anchored the street’s south end. In between these two edifices, as the two wayfarers strolled along this Western promenade, their eyes were not treated to the visual delights of the architectural blending of Spanish and French tastes of the buildings on the banks of the Mississippi River nor to the fashionable and elegant buildings fronting Boylston Street and Clarendon Street in Boston. Rather, their eyes feasted on rough-hewn but comfortable jacales, adobes with thick walls and flat roofs, and a scattering of wood-frame or adobe residences displaying the peacock feathers of the Italianate, Queen Anne, and Territorial styles. In his written account of his time in the West, Ames neglected to mention where he and Benson hosteled, but chances are pretty good they found accommodations at the Rio Grande Hotel, standing majestically on the west side of Main Street. For three days, they assembled their outfit, made inquiries about the Organs to the local populace, met botanist Wooton, and braced themselves to ascend into the mountains.

St. Genevieve’s Church, the corazon of the Catholic community in Las Cruces, as it appeared in 1891. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Main Street, 1891. Las Cruces, NM, Looking North from Convent.” With the photographer’s back to the Loretto Academy, one sees Martin Lohman’s residence on the east side of the road, while the Rio Grande Hotel stands on the opposite side further away. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The Rio Grande Hotel, when she was majestic and grand. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Our start from Las Cruces was made on the morning of May 19,” Ames later wrote. “For days the Organ range had confronted us on the east, like a file of tall sentinels, and challenged us. To-day we accepted the challenge.” At 7:30 that morning, they rode out, Professor Wooton on horseback, and Ames and Benson in a buggy drawn by two horses. “Straight eastward by a wagon-trail we proceeded across the mesa. A gentle rise for twelve miles brought us to the base of the Organs. There they stood, straight and tall, their sharp needle-like points and spires piercing the blue, looking to be not more than one third of their true distance away. … Our road was fairly good, and we bowled merrily along, shouting to the jack-rabbits and cotton-tails which every minute scurried away on either side. … Every now and then the beautiful mountain quail, in pairs, would run swiftly out of the path, the peculiar head-plume of the male giving it a striking beauty.” [Second editor’s note: By “mountain quail,” Ames is referring to Gambel quail, an indigenous species known for its lovely and distinctive song. Right about this time of the year, we see them shortly after dawn and as dusk settles when a male and female, especially if they are new parents, are out and about with their young ones in search of sustenance. The male often perches on a high point, whether a creosote bush, a desert willow, or a roof top, to keep an eye out on things. Meanwhile, the female and her little ones scurry about in the brush in search of something to eat. Through it all, the male and the female talk to each other in a series of songs, just to let the other know that all is right and well. That’s rather humane, from a quail’s perspective, I suppose. People can learn a lot from quail, I know.]

Throughout the forenoon, as the small party crossed the mesa, Ames noted the diversity of bird and plant species, but he was struck by the lack of animal life and the land’s silence. “But the vegetable world presented much that was interesting,” he penned, “and many a specimen found its way into Professor Wooton’s botanical case. Often the graceful rider would, in true ‘plains’ fashion, stoop, and without dismounting pluck from the earth some low flower or grass.” While the botanist intermittently gathered specimens, they drew ever nearer to the mountains. Exactly where the explorers approached the Organs is unclear, but based on Ames’ description, one can reasonably conclude the site resembles Bar and Soledad Canyons. “We passed up the dry bed of an arroyo, or gully, to the foot of a great, vertical uplifted sheet of rock, precisely similar to those formations which are so well known to visitors to the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Here were a ranchman’s hut and an artificial reservoir of water.” As an aside, in recent years, road improvements have been made at the trail head leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons; from a much earlier day, there stands a water tank for livestock and a windmill, but those features may not have been there in 1891. However, at that exact point an arroyo meanders from the mountains’ western slope, and uphill into Bar Canyon closer to the Organs that wash cuts in front of the ruins of a homestead. This stacked-stone cabin offers silent testimony to the isolation some settlers endured in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century as they mined for precious metals in the Organ Mountains or raised cattle in the upcountry meadows. These ruins I have examined during hikes in Bar Canyon, and they show competent skill in building; if indeed this was the cabin the gentlemen passed by in May of 1891, then they saw a welcoming shelter flanked by the skyward uplift of granite.

The trailhead leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Perhaps the mountaineers passed this point and trekked for the point of uplift on the extreme right edge.

As the three men prepared to climb, they “tethered the horses to some brush, near the piles of glittering ore, and improvising alpenstocks from the stiff and dried blossom-stems of the century plant,” as Ames dramatically related, “we attacked the mountain.” Unexpectedly, dark clouds began appearing from the west, and Ames surmised that rain would begin falling soon and probably while they were in the mountains. The climbers remained undaunted. “Up we toiled over a spur of one of the high peaks, picking our way around and over the spiny enemies before referred to,” he wrote, “now and then stopping to take a look at the widening landscape on the west, and to speculate as to the chance of rain. But the serrated peaks above were still in the blue, and mocking us; and on we went.” With the clouds gathering and the climbers cautiously seeking a path upward, Benson became separated from Ames and Professor Wooton and remained so for several hours; his absence was doubly unnerving because he carried with him their only canteen of water. Nor did the duo remain together, either. With Ames in the lead and uncertain of Benson’s whereabouts, Professor Wooton “tarried now and then to secure some coveted flower or plant new to him,” and his slowness of pace compelled Ames to press on but remaining within ear-shot. “Down into a kind of gully, then up, up, we went, through the thickest of thickets, and every step requiring the greatest care on account of cactus and yucca spines. No amount of care availed to prevent many a savage home-thrust. Huge bowlders obstructed the way. In and out and over and among them we crawled and scrambled, oftentimes for some distance crawling flat on the earth or over the tops of the scrub. Most Appalachians know well what good, thick, stubborn ‘spruce scrub’ is, as it covers the northern shoulders and spars of some of our New Hampshire and Maine mountains.” In addition to the rugged natural beauty Ames was enjoying, he was, however, fretful of an encounter with centipedes, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, or any other poisonous inhabitant of the rocky crags, but on he and Wooton climbed.

A Momentary Interlude: while writing this short piece, on several occasions I’ve regarded the west face of the Organ Mountains from our backyard or while out on a walk through our neighborhood to consider exactly where the mountaineers ascended. Undoubtedly, the appearance of the Organs one hundred and thirty-one years ago hardly differs from the view of the present day; after all, in geological time, what is a paltry century to a mountain range? But I look, and I ponder. I wonder how similar or how different are my own excursions into the Organ Mountains from the first known ascent into their mysterious creases and heights. Quien sabe?

While in the Organ Mountains, Ames, Benson, and Wooton easily gazed toward the western horizon from on high among the hardy flora and the old rocks.

Now, back to May of 1891. On they climbed. With Benson’s whereabouts still unknown, Ames and Wooton continued upward. “The situation was not without peril,” Ames acknowledged, but “[s]till, I knew I was very, very near to the summit, and I kept on; at last I knew I was at the very top of the ridge”[my emphasis]. With a nod to the Muse upon attaining that height, Ames triumphantly declared, “The wind whirled the fog up from the other side, and hurled it in my face, and shrieked at me for coming there, and yelled to me that I should not see one glimpse of the vast prospect beyond. I shouted my cheerful defiance, and then hastily crept down on my own side of the mountain, glad that I could be pretty sure of the right slope, and knowing the terrible peril of the least blundering in this respect.” Rain was falling steadily as Ames and Wooton scaled down the western slope, and en route they finally regained Benson. Their good fortune endured a punch when they discovered that they had lost their way and an enormous crag blocked their path. The mountaineers, short on water late in the day with a storm menacing their every move, feared they would have to tough it out and stay the night in the wilderness. They conferred and decided to find the way to their horses and buggy. Downward they went. The rain storm began moving away and “with the peaks above us now all clear and standing mockingly out against the blue,” the wayfarers soaked in “a wonderful view of western New Mexico and Arizona and northern Mexico beneath and beyond us.” Fatigued, thirsty, and hungry, “[w]e clambered down, getting many a stab from the yucca spears, which we had now hardly strength enough to avoid, and finally, rejoining Mr. Benson, we reached our horses and rode down to the carriage by the little ranch in the valley, and were soon bowling rapidly home across the mesa to Las Cruces.” Later, Ames informed his Appalachian readers that the townspeople in Las Cruces insisted that a climb into the mountains would require at least two days, so he must have enjoyed considerable satisfaction accomplishing the feat of ascending into the Organ Mountains in only one day.

Six months after his excursion into the Organ Mountains, Ames wrote Professor Wooton from Boston to ask for his assistance with a number of questions about the mountains. While Ames’ letter was not published, Wooton’s response of November 28, 1891, was, and one can surmise that Ames sought affirmation to support his assertion that the Organs were largely inaccessible to bolster his claim of an unrivaled extraordinary feat. After all, upon the party’s return to Las Cruces late in the day of May 19, Ames described the occasion vividly. “The next day,—ah, that next day! Well, we did not enter for any foot-races, nor attempt to win the prize in climbing a greased pole; but though our joints were stiff and our muscles sore, I for one, as I looked at the great organ-pipes piercing the eastern sky and tried to copy their profile on paper, was glad that I had stood on their highest ridge and proved that they could be ascended, and in one day, from Las Cruces.” Ames and his two companions certainly achieved a remarkable accomplishment in the spring of 1891, and they accomplished something no Anglo-Saxon was known to have done before them; perhaps in the unwritten chronicles of the earlier inhabitants of this stretch of the Rio Grande Valley, a comparable feat had long already been achieved. Quien sabe? But in his written account months after the climb, Ames tipped his hand about what he and his compadres actually accomplished. “With my present knowledge,” he noted about the climb, “it could be done with certainty and comparative ease; but I firmly believe that the ascent is hardly possible save in the place where I accomplished it, and I think the very summits are quite unattainable, for they are sharp and steep shafts of stone, which afford no foothold whatever. The peak to our left as we climbed reminded me constantly of the Aiguille du Midi, in the Alps, as one sees it from the hotel at Montanvert or the Mer de Glace.”

From my perspective, a close reading of Ames’ account and a bit of first-hand knowledge of the Organ Mountains, something his readers and fellow Appalachian members would not have had, is sufficient to simultaneously appreciate his ascent into the mountains while also recognizing the extent of his accomplishment. Mind you, I am fascinated and intrigued by Ames’ story of his time in Arid America, and I’m delighted that he had the gumption to journey to the Territory of New Mexico despite the distances and hardships to attempt a difficult task. Nonetheless, with a wink and a nod to The Who in 1971, Ames doesn’t fool me; I see what he was trying to do. With a subtle wordplay twist, Ames pulled a fast one on his New England readers with his use of “ridge” and “summit” in a manner to bluff the distinction between them. [Third editor’s note: This type of distinction is woven into the narratives Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Dangerous Summer (1960). In this case, the distinction between implied and real danger to the matadors in the corridas in España, an overarching notion that figures centrally in many of Hemingway’s works.] No doubt about it but that Ames reached one of the high ridges, but he admitted that the “very summits are quite unattainable.” More than likely, the peak to his left during the ascent (that is, to the north) was either Razorback, Wildcat, the peak named in honor of the plant species Vaccinium erythrocarpus (keep your sophomoric snickers to yourself), Lost Peak, or The Wedge. So, yes, he demonstrated that in one day an excursion from Las Cruces and into the mountains to a high ridgetop and back to town was possible, but perhaps he recognized that a successful ascent to the highest point of the Organ Mountains could not be done in one day. “Poo-tee-weet,” chirps the songbird to accompany Billy Pilgrim’s “So it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade (1969).

But don’t misconstrue my appreciation of the arduous day the three climbers endured on that spring day so many years ago. Rather, I reiterate that in the grand design these three intrepid adventurers added to the incessant accumulation of knowledge about Earth in an age defined by exploration and the National Geographic Society. Lest we forget what occurred on May 19, 1891, in the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico: three men stood on a high point on a stony uplift and later wrote about it, and Professor Wooton collected and later named and cataloged several previously unknown species of Chihuahuan Desert flora. Both actions are hugely significant; their additions to the overall knowledge of this corner of the world deserve recognition and thanks, and I, for one, am pleased to have discovered Ames’ narrative. But moreover, my sense of delight of reading his story amplifies greatly because I happened to become aware of his words on Thursday, May 19, 2022, exactly one hundred and thirty-one years to the day after the events foretold. Not too shabby, eh?

A solitary sentinel in Bar Canyon on March 18, 2019.

Note Bene: Over the past two weeks as I’ve worked a bit now and again on this piece, my references to Hemingway are occasionally reflexive, but I would be remiss if I neglected to note that on this day one hundred and four years ago, young Ernest arrived in Paris with a group of Red Cross volunteers en route to northern Italy where he had a rendezvous with Destiny.

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