As the kids locked their arms around the bows, the wagons twisted, bounced, and turned through the tortuous Cerro Alto Mountain Pass about 30 miles east of El Paso. On this, the 4th day of their Texas adventure, the 13 San Joaquin Valley teenagers were finding out just what it was like to have traveled the gold rush trail of William P. Huff in 1849.
They were carrying the old pioneer’s diary and were accompanied by his great-great grandson and his family. The kids also had an escort of Buffalo Soldiers and a dozen employees of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as well as their own Madera Method Wagon Train crew. For 21 days and nights they lived life on the trail together, enduring one another, enjoying one another, and depending on one another.
Their route led them from near El Paso across some of the most desolate areas of West Texas to the Pecos River. From there the trail took them across oil fields to the Texas Hill Country, and then into Austin, where they met with state legislators on the steps of the capitol to present evidence for the authenticity of Huff’s diary.
Their mission all along had been two-fold. First they wanted to give Huff’s 1849 journal a field test, since it had been the subject of some academic skepticism, and second, the young scholars wanted to transfer what they knew of pioneer life from the books to the heart. They wanted to feel 19th century life - not just read about it.
Well, they found that for which they were looking, through the indefatigable efforts of the Madera Method Wagon Train crew and the generosity of local sponsors who provided funding for the trip, although it wasn’t always what they expected.
No one ever told them that 48 hours after leaving civilization they would have to endure 20-degree weather at 7 o’clock in the morning. No one ever told them that nearly every plant on the desert protects itself by sticking, pricking, or biting passersby. No one ever told them what it was really like to go without showers for a week at a time. No one had ever sat down and explained all of the exigencies of life on the trail. It didn’t take long, however, for reality to set in, and the kids rose to the challenge.
Everybody took his turn at hitching and driving the mules. Everybody helped unharness the animals, feed and water them, and put them away. Everybody helped with the multitudinous chores that had to be done. In short, everyone had to find his own harness and pull for all he was worth.
Finding the original trail was not that difficult. Huff described and drew enough landmarks so as to make connecting the dots a fairly simple task.
The first such trail marker was Hueco Tanks, El Paso about 25 miles from El Paso.
The young historians knew they had reached the spot when they saw the 50,000 gallon natural cistern in the mountain cave and the same Indian drawings recorded by Huff when he visited the place more than 150 years ago.
Next they followed the trail to Alamo Mountain, where Huff claimed to have found a running spring near three cottonwood trees. After setting up camp, the kids followed John Diedrich up the mountain in search of the springs, and sure enough, about 1,000 yards up the mountain, they found three dead cottonwood trees just above what used to be a flowing spring. Numerous petroglyphs gave further evidence that they had found Huff’s “Cottonwood Springs.”
The next dot to be connected was Cornudas del Alamo, which contained Thorn’s Well. Huff’s description and drawing of the well and the Indian drawings on the wall of the cave in which it was situated were perfect guides to the site.
Traveling precisely in Huff’s wagon ruts, the trail took the train right to Cornudas del Alamo and a rent in the mountain wall, which invited the traveler to enter and explore. The invitation was eagerly accepted, and once on the inside the kids saw a mirror of what Huff had recorded. The huge monolith was fixed above them. Indian drawings were on the walls, and the well was right where it was supposed to be. For some, a drink of the pure water was irresistible, especially for John Diedrich, who was determined that his mules would drink from the same well as Huff’s mules.
And so it went, landmark after landmark - Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River, Castle Gap, the ruins of a presidio on the San Saba River, and House Mountain - all standing as monuments to the authenticity of Huff’s account.
Then, before it had hardly begun, it was over. The wagons reached Austin, and it was time to assemble at the capitol steps to announce the verdict. Two students, Celena Duran from Texas, and Mike Willey from Madera read a “proclamation of authenticity,” in which they affirmed the veracity of Huff’s account from their field test. Members of the Texas State Legislature responded by announcing that the Senate and the House, anticipating the students findings, had just a few moments earlier passed resolutions accepting the authenticity of the Huff diary.
From that point, there remained just one more item on the itinerary. The kids had to put a period at the end of the sentence by visiting Huff’s grave, so off to Houston they went.
Twenty-six days after they left California, the Madera Method Wagon Train, with its escort from Texas Parks and Wildlife, made its way to Huff’s grave in Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery. A host of his descendants joined those assembled there in presenting an oral and floral tribute to the forgotten pioneer who had really started it all by keeping that meticulous journal.
A light rain added to the melancholy mood, which pervades the end of every trail ride. Tears were shed by some when it came time to say goodbye. Others stood mutely under the tent, deep in thought, and then it was time to part.
The adults - Texans and Californians - went their way, and the kids were jolted back into the 21st century by boarding vans for the return home. For the next three days, before arriving in Madera, they would acclimate themselves to radios and television once more. But somehow they were different.
They walked a little taller. They spoke with a bit more confidence. They had met history on its own terms, and it had changed them. They would never be quite the same.