Facebook Page
Jornada del Muerto

the Southwest Railfan

"Jornada del Muerto" explained

the Jornada del Muerto north of Rincon, NM

the Jornada del Muerto north of Rincon, NM

The story below appears in the book The Royal Road: El Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe by Douglas Peterson and Jose Antonio Esquibel (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1998). A brief background: the Camino Real was the route traditionally used by Spanish colonialists and explorers to travel from the interior of Mexico, northward to the regions of present-day Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Jornada del Muerto, a part of the Camino Real, was a hundred-mile shortcut across the desert (roughly between Las Cruces and San Marcial, located south of Socorro) which avoided the rough territory and steep canyons along the Rio Grande to the west. The drawback of the shortcut was that no reliable water sources existed along its route, which made it the most dangerous section of the Camino Real. Below, a passage from the book The Royal Road explains how the Jornada del Muerto is believed to have gotten its name.

Journey of the Dead Man

The Jornada del Muerto (as Larry McMurtry translates it, Dead Man's Walk) gets its name from the fate of one Bernardo Gruber, a trader at Quarai Pueblo in New Mexico, who was called El Aleman (the German) by his friends. El Aleman was not the first to die in this terrible desert crossing, and he would certainly not be the last. But it was his death that would give this trail (and the desert it crossed) its grim name. Nobody knows how many people died along the Jornada del Muerto, although it probably numbered into the dozens, if not hundreds.

Gruber became drunk on Christmas Eve in 1666 and during midnight mass bragged to some friends about a spell he had learned. Word got back to the Inquisition's agent at Santa Fe, and Gruber was arrested for witchcraft. After several years imprisoned in a makeshift cell at an estancia near present-day Albuquerque, Gruber made a daring escape and fled southward on the Camino Real with his Apache servant, Atanasio. They headed through Lava Gate and across the desert. After a harrowing ride, Gruber, parched and exhausted, halted at a place called Las Penuelas and sent Atanasio ahead for water. The servant rode like the wind, filled up a gourd, and flew back -- only to break the gourd in his haste. He returned to the water and, with nothing else to carry it with, soaked a saddle blanket. When he got back to where he had left El Aleman, the man had taken a horse and disappeared.

A month later, travelers across the desert found Gruber's horse tied to a bush, dead. Nearby was a mass of human hair, a skull, and a few gnawed bones. They gathered the pathetic remains for burial and erected a cross, which stood for many years, becoming a well-known landmark known as La Cruz del Aleman, the Cross of the German.

  station sign - Aleman, NM
Traditional Santa Fe station sign at Aleman, NM
March 2003. Photo by Wes Carr.
To tie all this together (with at least slight relevance to me), the BNSF El Paso Sub, which extends south from Belen, NM to El Paso, runs through the Jornada del Muerto region south of San Marcial. I dispatched this line from 1998 to 2000 and again during 2003. There is station on the El Paso Sub known as Aleman (actually just a short setout track). It's located just south of milepost 1056, or about 12 miles south of Engle.


BNSF cars stored along the Jornada del Muerto at Grama, NM
BNSF cars stored on the El Paso Subdivision
along the Jornada del Muerto at Grama, NM
March 2003.

I always liked the name "Jornada del Muerto" and used it for my e-mail address for a few years -- kind of my own small tribute to the El Paso Sub, a dispatching desk that was always one of my favorites to work.

email Wes Carr

Return to the Southwest Railfan - Home

Unless otherwise credited, all images on the Southwest Railfan © 2000 - 2004 by Wes Carr.
All rights reserved.