During my recent visit to Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico, I discovered that the ruts of the Santa Fe trail look more like a tangle of random arroyos than a tidy set of tracks across the short grass prairie. I am told that tourists often ask how to find the Santa Fe Trail while they are standing in one of those arroyos that are the trail.
I thought Google Earth might help me find the “real” trail. The iron tires of all those wagons, which were capable of carrying as much of 6,500 pounds according to Mark L. Gardener’s Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail published by the National Park Service must have left tracks that look like a road.
Not really. Those wagons may well have all started in Missouri (either in Fort Leavenworth or Independence) and followed one of two routes, the Mountain Branch and the Cimarron Cutoff. Many of the journeys actually ended at Fort Union, for much of the freight on the trail was military. But the trial, up close and personal is an enormous collection of nice straight lines.
In some ways, this makes sense. As a hiker and cross country I have often been on trails that turn into a confusing tangle, usually when hikers or skiers try to bypass a mud hole or find a smoother path. I’ve gone around a few mud holes myself. I have noticed the same need to go around mud holes as I develop the story of the great quarrel between the Valkyrie Brynhild and Gudrún, her sister-in-law. Brynhild, under the name of Brunhilda, is best known in her operatic form. She is soprano, often wearing a completely inaccurate horned helmet, in Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” The trail that I am following has two main branches and in some places, those branches contradict each other.
The first of these branches, The Saga of the Völsungs, compiled by an unknown Icelandic author during the 13th Century. This work is primarily prose and was drawn from the oral tradition in the form of Eddic poetry which is, in its turn, based on oral tradition. The second of these branches is a set of Lays, skaldic poetry, that are part of The Poetic Edda, which was also compiled by an anonymous Icelander at approximately the same time.
And why am I comparing the literature of medieval Iceland with the Santa Fe Trail? Because both processes – the formation of the trail, mud holes and all and my decisions while I craft my story – involve decisions.
What to do? Which way to go? What do I use, what do I not use as I work on The Fight of the Valkyries, which will be part of the upcoming (September 20th, 6:30 pm) MYTH MOB performance in the South Mountain Community College Performance Hall. Some hear my decisions and those made by my fellow Mobbers – Liz Warren, Marilyn Omifunke Torres and Sulé Greg Wilson.