Seek out the small stories with your airplane

An airplane is a wonderful history teacher. From above I have surveyed the battlefield at the Little Big Horn; I have followed the Oregon Trail through the plains, and the original path of the Transcontinental Railroad through the forbidding Sierra Nevada. I flew over the mouth of the Columbia River, 200 years to the day after Capt. William Clark wrote in his journal, “Great joy in camp, we are in View of the Ocean, this great Pacific Ocean which we have been so long anxious to see.” Seeing each of these, and others, from the air gave me a better understanding of what happened and what it meant.

Canyon de Chelly
The view from above always gives you a different perspective.

Then there are the smaller stories of the past that we can track down by air as well. Those are often just as fascinating; and they are stories we can relate to, because the players are ordinary people, neither deified nor vilified over the years by history books or popular culture.

Not long ago I flew to Farmington, New Mexico, to seek out a small story from the waning days of the Old West.

The inspiration for the trip came from a folksinger/songwriter friend of mine, Randy Sparks, founder of the 1960s folk group The New Christy Minstrels. As Randy tells it, about forty years ago an old man attending one of his concerts in California came up to him and said, “Your music took me back to my days as a cowhand in Farmington, New Mexico.” Randy remarked that must have been the wild frontier in those days. “Yes, it was,” the man said. “I remember Armistice Day (today we observe November 11 as Veterans Day, but not so long ago it was “Armistice Day,” the date in 1918 on which the Armistice was signed, ending the First World War) in Farmington, and I’m ashamed to tell you I was wishin’ that we had not won the war!”

Randy asked the man to explain. He told Randy of the day when news came to Farmington that the war was over. That evening at his hotel Randy took what the man had said—almost word-for-word—and put it to song, later recorded by folk icon Burl Ives.

Every day I live I love my country more

I would never leave this land that I adore

But in Farmington New Mexico on Armistice Day

I was wishin’ that we had not won the War!

South of Farmington
The rugged terrain south of Farmington, New Mexico.

And so it was that on November 11, 2018, exactly 100 years later, I aimed the nose of my Skyhawk for Farmington. Enroute I flew over the vast flatlands and rugged arroyos south of town, the scene of cattle drives of the early 20th century; and in the distance to the northeast were the high Colorado mountains that had to be crossed in order for the cattle to be delivered to market by railroad.

Me and the boys was bringin’ cattle down from the Reservation

A hundred and fifty head out on the trail

Denver then was a cattle town, that was their destination

We had a date to load ’em at the rail

We pushed ’em through the bright of day and bedded down at nighttime

Slickered up to drive ’em through the rain

We caught and counted every stray and just about the right time

They was in the pens to meet the train

Only a few remnants of the branch railroad from Durango, Colorado, along the Animas River south to Farmington, can still be seen from the air. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway built the Farmington Branch in 1905 in standard gauge, while the connecting lines from Durango north and east through the mountains were all narrow-gauge. Thus in 1918 the cattle would have been loaded onto standard-gauge cars in Farmington, but only for the 47-mile leg to Durango. There they would have to be re-loaded onto narrow-gauge equipment for the trip eastward over Cumbres Pass to Alamosa, and on to Pueblo and Denver.

FMN
Landing at FMN, where the exploring on foot would begin.

I landed at Four Corners Regional Airport (FMN) on the mesa overlooking Farmington, and drove the FBO’s creaky old Ford Taurus courtesy car into town.

Where the railroad tracks once led into the center of town there is now a nature walk along the river. The last train chugged out of Farmington in 1968. The stock pens, the depot and the tracks are all gone. But the ghosts are still there. And it’s still cold in November.

Me and the boys was havin’ beers but actin’ rather sober

Drinkin’ just to wash the dust away

We heard the guns, we heard the cheers, we knew the war was over

The whole damn town went crazy on that day

Our cattle broke the barricades and joined that celebration

It looked just like the wild and wooly west

It took four days to catch the ones that stayed around the station

I don’t believe we’ll ever see the rest

 

Every day I live I love my country more

I would never leave this land that I adore

But in Farmington New Mexico on Armistice Day

I was wishin’ that we had not won the War!

(Armistice Day in Farmington by Randy Sparks; copyright 1980/2019 Salmoni Songs & Psalms – used with permission)

The Animas river
Beautiful fall colors by the Animas River, proving that the views from the ground aren’t always bad.

Thaddeus, who greeted me at the registration desk of my hotel, was a very pleasant twenty-something of Navajo heritage. He had never heard the term “Armistice Day,” but he had his family’s own story to tell about November 11, 1918.

Thaddeus grew up on the reservation near Farmington. His Navajo grandmother had a brother named Louie Ben. Louie Ben served and was wounded in the Great War. He was recovering from his wounds in a hospital somewhere in France, and had improved to the point that he was ready to be sent back home. Just before his last meal in the hospital, word came that the fighting had ended. The war was over. When the nurse came back to check on him after the meal, Louie Ben was dead. It was unexpected, because they thought that he was healthy enough to go home that day. Back in Farmington, the Navajo medicine man told the family that Louie Ben had served his purpose in this life, and once the war was over it was time for him to go.

Thadddeus enjoyed hearing the story of what happened in Farmington on the very day that his great-uncle died.

I spoke with several other people in this friendly town, but none knew anything about the events of Armistice Day in Farmington; only one or two had even heard about the cattle drives of the early 1900s. Had the old man not told his story, and had Randy not written the song, this snapshot of life at that time and place might have been lost forever.

The next morning I coaxed the old Taurus, and its uncertain suspension, back up the mesa to the airport. It was 23 degrees F, clear and calm, when I fired up the Skyhawk and took off. But the history lesson was not over.

Ship Rock
Ship Rock is hard to miss from the air, a sacred site for the Navajo nation.

Rising almost 1,600 feet above the high desert floor thirty miles west of FMN is Ship Rock, the solitary “winged rock” sacred to the Navajo nation. Further southwest, across the Arizona border, I saw the narrow, twisted channels and sheer cliffs of Canyon de Chelly, home to Native families for thousands of years. One can only imagine the fascinating dramas that have played out in these places over that time.

Heading home I flew over “the corner in Winslow Arizona” (to recall another song), and yet more history. Winslow, at 4,500 ft. MSL, was once the highest-elevation airport on TWA’s transcontinental route. In 1933 the prototype Douglas DC-1 took off from Winslow at gross weight, on one engine, to prove the airplane could meet the stringent requirements of the airline and its advisor, Charles Lindbergh.

There are innumerable small stories, like Armistice Day in Farmington, that may disappear forever without anyone noticing. Seek one out, and use your winged history classroom to track it down, experience it, and keep it alive. The small stories often lead to bigger ones. You may be amazed at what your airplane teaches you.

25 Comments

  • Delightful and thought-provoking essay, thanks. The illumination of not just history but of natural and man-made environmental changes are sometimes best appreciated from a light aircraft. Aerial inspection before buying any real estate can help identify the good, bad, and ugly of the parcel, including undesirable nearby uses and flood risk. As an exclusively high-wing flyer, I say that’s the best airplane type for explorations such as yours.

    • Thank you! Part of my pre-flight planning on a long cross-country is to read up on the history of the areas we’ll be overflying. It adds to the experience.

  • I much enjoyed your vignette encompassing your friendship with Randy Sparks (yeah New Christy Minstrals!) and the history surrounding the railroads and cattle drives. You managed to include many aspects of your story that a more superficial recounting might have left out – the differences in railroad track gauge for instance, and your mention that today’s pleasant nature walk in Farmington follows the old track bed – details that history buffs just love. Very well done and thank you!

    Readers who enjoy your article may well enjoy Russel Munson’s DVD called “Flying Route 66” – available from Sporty’s.

    • Thank you! I admire people like Randy Sparks, who is not only observant but also in awe of his surroundings. He is passionate about historical accuracy in his lyrics. He’ll be 87 this year, still writing songs every day.

    • The boisterous and noisy crowd, with folks firing guns in the air in celebration, caused the cattle in the pens to stampede! “It took four days to catch the ones that stayed around the station; I don’t believe I’ll ever see the rest!”

    • He was wishing the war hadn’t ended right at that time. The noise from the celebration in town spooked the cattle, and they broke out of their pens and disappeared.

  • Very enjoyable. Have made dozens of trips driving through the area and a couple of roundtrips between Phoenix & Tulsa in a C172. Always interesting and fun.

    Thank you for taking the time to research and publish your story. Much enjoyed.

    • A 172 may be slow, but while flying over that country I can’t help but think of what folks endured traveling through there in days gone by, and what a miracle my pokey little airplane is by comparison. “Vanished Arizona” by Martha Summerhayes (available on Kindle for $2.99) is a fascinating glimpse of Southwest life in the 1870s and 1880s.

  • Jeff – kindly give us some insight regarding your historical research methodology prior to departing on a flight to an unexplored part of the country. Thank you.

    • It varies. Often I’ll just check Wikipedia entries for the names of towns and prominent physical landmarks along the way, and follow up the references for anything particularly interesting. Railroad history books can sometimes be helpful where there is an existing or abandoned rail line in the area. For some states I have books on the origins of place names.

      More often than not there are some fun surprises.

  • Triple hit day: great story! Railroads, Farmington, and a connection to the New Christy Minstrels! Tell Randy that they have brightened my day more than once. Ride, Ride, Ride!

    • Thanks, Mac! I just sent you a private e-mail. Randy would like to e-mail you to tell you how the song “Ride, Ride, Ride” came about. It’s quite a story.

  • Very much enjoyed your history lesson. I’ve been to those western states just a couple of times, but by car. Unfortunately, my past and current private flying have been confined to Indiana and surrounding states Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Even those states have many historical sites worthy of a visit. One example is the Tulip Trestle in Southwest Indiana. Built in 1906 to carry a railroad across a valley, it is still being used today to haul coal from Southern Indiana and Illinois easterly. I’ve lived in Indiana all my life and never even heard of it until just a few years ago. At some 2700’ long and 110’ high it is one of longest and tallest in the US. YouTube has several videos, some by drone, of this early engineering achievement. Still, the western states have some of the most interesting natural formations anywhere. If you are so inclined I have written two articles for Air Facts Journal. The first is about Growing Up Near a Grass Strip and watching small planes do things they weren’t designed to do. The second was about my early flight mistakes. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    • Thank you, Mike! I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never been to Indiana. I just looked up the Tulip Trestle — wow! That would be an amazing sight from the air — and I think I’d feel safer looking down on it from an airplane than riding across it in a train! That’s quite some engineering for 1906. I’ll check out your Air Facts articles.

  • Jeff, I’m based at KLGB, and have been for more than 25 years. When and where were you instructing during your time here? Maybe we crossed paths at some time. I go to Scottsdale at least twice a year and feel the Southwest is one of the most interesting places to explore. Full of history, scenery, and wonderful people. I would enjoy hearing from you on unique places to explore.

    • I was at Belair Aviation at LGB in 1971-72. It was on Spring Street where the “Terminal II Jet Center” building is now. That building was under construction while I was there. You’re right; the Southwest is one of the best places for aerial exploring!

  • Thanks, Jeff! What a great idea for an article. I enjoy following abandoned railroad lines from the air here in Indiana, which has quite a few of them, unfortunately.

    You might be interested in reading this, from a friend’s website, about his father, an early American Airlines pilot, who did the same thing you are doing, except from airliners!

    https://jonproctor.net/heath-proctor-pioneer-aviator/

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