EL PASO, TEXAS – A traditional terra cotta construction material used in the Southwest comes from North Central Mexico and can be found covering floors in missions and mansions throughout the region: Saltillo Tile. Simple, functional, sturdy and as beautiful in its aged patina as a hand made heirloom.
Raw Saltillo tile ready to install.
Some date from a time not long past and some are very ancient. The old way of fabricating these gems is quickly being replaced by machine-fed conveyor belt processes. Traditionally, the red river clays from the Coahuila region of Mexico provided the material and craftsmen in the area provided the expertise and labor to mix, set, dry and fire each one-square-foot tile into a unique handmade expression. In some much older settings, these tiles bear testament to countless millions of foot steps in their softly scolloped surfaces worn away slowly by passing feet over time.
Ysleta Mission in El Paso
Saltillo tile is a type of terra-cotta tile that originates in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. It is one of the two most famous products of the city, the other being multi-coloured woven sarapes so typical of the region. Saltillo-type tiles are now manufactured at many places in Mexico, and high-fire “Saltillo look” tiles, many from Italy, compete with the terra-cotta originals in the consumer marketplace.
Real Saltillo tile vary in colour and shape dramatically, ranging in varying hues of reds, oranges and yellows. Tiles are shaped either by pressing quarried wet clay within a wooden frame, or carving out the desired shape from the wet pressed clay. Depending on the raw tile’s placement among other tiles in the kiln at the time of firing, its color will range from yellow to a rich orange/red.
Casa Donnybrook study with flooring of Saltillo tile
There is a tradition in the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico, near superstitious significance, that every floor laid with Saltillo tile must have a “protector” tile set within its boundaries for good luck. That protector tile will bear the imprint of an animal’s foot print – an animal that stepped on the wet clay tile during the drying and curing process while it lay in the open-air yard of the factory before being fired in the kiln.
Tiles can be found that bear the print of a dog, a coyote, a wolf, a pig and sometimes of a cat. You can imagine a quite night in the countryside outside Saltillo, Mexico with animals prowling the fenced yard of the tile factory looking for prey. Some tiles will even feature the print of the peacock, which has been used for years as the natural guardians of factory yards throughout Mexico!
Large dog or wolf print in Saltillo tile
Beware of recent creative commercial imprints made by those conveyor-belt tile makers. The paw prints are only real if your Saltillo tile is authentic and handmade from the clay found in riverbeds in Coahuila Mexico. If your Mexican tile is in fact “real”… then your paw prints are most likely real as well. They contain a glimpse of a fascinating origin to your floor covering!
Our home in El Paso, Texas was built in the late 1950’s, and was probably fully tiled by the second owners in the 1960’s. Our Saltillo tile are definitely the real thing, as they have developed many chips, cracks and spots over the years revealing the “soft” clay from which they are made. Within our home, several thousand square feet of Saltillo tile cover the main living areas.
Captured for eternity in our floor tile are a remarkable collection of animal footprints embedded in the clay tiles – representing creatures whose lives crossed ours in a factory yard in Saltillo, Mexico over half a century ago. Each set of prints are unique in the story they tell, and are a blessing to us and to our visitors. Our granddaughter recently remarking with a shriek during a visit “Grandee, there’s a doggie print” in the doorway to our kitchen! There was indeed and so it shall remain, for a long, long time…
Twin Cat Prints-Rear and Front Paws-in Saltillo tile
Careful examination indicates the stride of a single feline in these Saltillo tile prints…approximately eight inches!
Single Cat Print in Saltillo tile
Large bird print, probably a Peacock, commonly used to guard tile factory yards in Mexico!
(With apologies to Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”)
Liverpool Legends Kenny Dalglish (“King Kenny”), Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush – Chicago 2014
EL PASO, TEXAS – This is a more personal blog post than most, and longer than some. The story began a long time ago, though, and has roots winding back to my earliest years. Televisions were only black & white, signals were analog, radios were mostly AM and music was just becoming available with stereo sound on vinyl records. We lived on Cincinnati Avenue, fourth house on the right…up from Madeline Park… in Kern Place only a few miles north of the Mexican Border and the Rio Grande in Downtown El Paso. According to my mother, I learned Spanish from our live-in housekeeper before I learned English.
I was a Border Gringo.
The Etzold home near Madeline Park in Kern Place c. 1960
Father and son, on the front porch of our Cincinnati Avenue house c. 1960
To set a tone for these early formative years you have to understand the context of life for this eight year-old boy in El Paso. My father built the first real Bomb Shelter in the neighborhood, dug right into the middle of the driveway and accessed from a steel door cut in our basement wall. That addition to our home came thanks to Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev who cooked up the Cuban Missle Crisis in October 1962. My father was a Korean War hero and knew well enough what the next great war might mean, even in this remote dusty high desert border town with a big military base. Heroes were a good thing to a young boy. Looking back, I thank God we never had to use that shelter for its intended purpose.
My first sport passion was American professional football in the form of the Dallas Cowboys. My father introduced me to the Cowboys at an early age, probably soon after the team gained its franchise in 1960. I grew up on Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Randy White, Michael Irvin, and Tony Dorsett. They became my sports heroes.
Games on the television on Sunday afternoons after church were a ritual in their own right. From 1970 through 1979, the Cowboys won 105 regular season games, more than any other NFL franchise during that span. In addition, they won two Super Bowls, at the end of the 1971 and 1977 regular seasons. These were my formative high school and college years and by now I was a true believer in “America’s Team”, as it was called.
Of course, this story isn’t about the Dallas Cowboys or even American football. Read on.
You see, after the rise of the Dallas Cowboy Football Empire there came a stretch of years…two or three decades long it seems…where that empire suffered a fall, a long fall. New ownership stepped in, new goals emerged, coaches came and went, and the sense of honor and passion that characterized the team of the sixties, seventies and early eighties had slipped away in the capital gold rush of the nineties. The turn of the millennium saw a mediocre team struggling to hold its head up among its peers, compared to decades prior.
A move in 2009 to the largest domed stadium in the world in Arlington, Texas wasn’t even enough to kick-start this sputtering franchise. Even in El Paso (640 miles west of Dallas) the naysayers found their voices. As the years crept by, all of the excuses I had formulated began to wear thin in my heart. I needed heroes back in my life.
From purely a consumer’s point of view, the football games themselves seemed to get longer and longer, as more official commercial time outs seemed to be encroaching on the field of play. You could hardly watch six or eight minutes of football without some whistle stopping the action and the networks inserting a commercial advertisement. One had to allocate three to four hours to take in a sixty-minute football game on television and, given Dallas’s performance, it wasn’t always the best use of that much time.
The “Commercialization of the National Football League” was in full swing. Even the Super Bowl, as it has evolved, is as much about the teams vying for that Championship as it is about the half-time entertainment show and the television commercials surrounding the game itself. Big money had hit the big time.
Beyond the team itself, the National Football League (NFL) was making my sports experience more uncomfortable: attempts to introduce American Football to Europe and Asia, frequent and almost experimental rule changes, internal investigations of all sorts, cheating scandals, drug use on and off the field, intentionally violent “play for pay” and even off-the-field criminal behavior.
By 2012, medical research studies brought on by lawsuits rather than concern for the players were looking into long-term effects of sustained high-impact play on mental function and neurologic diseases. Tony Dorsett, my old hero, was a victim of such tragic brain damage and had become a TV spokesman for that cause. Things weren’t looking any better in the league, or in the sport of football as whole. It had become very painful to be a Dallas Cowboy football fan.
However, again, this story isn’t about Dallas Cowboy Football, except in the way you must break an egg to make an omelet!
I was asking: Was there something better?
or even,What could I do about it?
I realized that I needed to believe in a sports team again, with a passion like I remembered from childhood. I wanted to trust ownership, management and players to deliver an exciting, professional and honest game…whatever kind of game that might be. I wanted to enjoy a journey through the seasons of a great team growing, adapting and blooming. I needed those sports heroes from my childhood.
The truth was that for years my passion for almost any sport had been drying up. I was aching inside, watching my team unravel in plain sight. I considered following another NFL football team, for regionally we had a choice of Denver, Arizona and Houston besides Dallas, but many of the same faults applied to the whole league. I considered other professional American team sports: baseball, basketball, even hockey. Other than finding a soft spot with our local University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Miners men’s basketball team, which I followed closely, I continued on as a nominal Dallas Cowboy fan–but, my heart was wandering and looking.
The Franklin Mountains, looking north from Downtown El Paso and the Mexican Border at the Rio Grande, where El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico share a valley and a 400-year history.
During the 1990’s while working at a large local commercial real estate firm, Best Real Estate, our managing broker would occasionally bring in his portable analog television with the “rabbit ears” and perch it on his credenza near the window of our 11th-floor offices on Main Street in Downtown El Paso. His office, like mine, faced north from the twelfth floor toward the dramatic Franklin Mountains overlooking the Paso Del Norte. El Paso’s three main network television broadcast towers perch along it’s 6,000-foot ridge line. In our sister city of Juarez, Mexican television stations broadcast from the tops of the Sierra Juarez mountains, south of us on the other side of the river. We had true international television access here at the Pass of the North!
View of Downtown El Paso and Juarez Mountains to the south. Photo by Lewis Woodyard.
Winter storm covers the Juarez Mountains south of Downtown El Paso
I mention this because Jack Mooney loved to watch soccer on his old portable analog TV, and sometimes back then a particular game might only be broadcast on the Mexican television networks, in Spanish. Not to worry, most of us were conversant in the language.
I remember how curious it was to see Jack fiddling with those antenna, seeking that best signal, trying to follow the match as he worked at his desk, volume almost turned to a whisper. Now and then a muffled shout or cheer would echo down the hallway to my office. Sometimes I would drop in to see what was going on and hang around, asking him to explain the game.
It was through my friend Jack Mooney that I first glimpsed what a passion and love of soccer actually looked like. Jack would watch national team competitions such as World Cup matches or the lead-up qualifiers. He would watch professional club competitions. I can remember the sparkle in his eye when a soccer game was on.
Jack learned to love the game while in the Army, stationed in Italy. After marrying and settling down in El Paso, he and Brook raised a family of soccer players. Jack even coached a successful local girls soccer team. His knowledge of the game flowed easily through our occasional sport conversations as we huddled around that little TV in his office.
I remember during one game, he pointed out a distinct difference in the playing styles of the two teams: Italian “long ball” passing, versus German “dribble and control”. I’ve remembered that observation to this day. Point being, he subtly introduced concepts of game play and nuances of strategy beyond just the rules of the game.
The tutelage under Mooney opened up a completely different way for me to see this sport. I should have known then how this story would turn out.
This was the beginning of my journey into the world of true football, a Border Gringo’s visit to “King Kenny’s Court”…a place we will understand and explore in more detail later.
Time passed, Melinda and I raised a family, sport drifted off the radar screen for me.
South America taught me more about the world’s most popular game. In February 2010 I had an incredible adventure with two old high school friends: Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Beginning our four-day hike at Kilometer 82 on the rail line to Aguas Calientes, we disembarked civilization and began a journey into the Andes Wilderness.
The INHL Team of Jim Davison, David Etzold and Chris Multhauf embark at Kilometer 82
Graphic depiction of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Our first night’s camp was a town called Wayllabamba, at a trail junction before the steep ascent of Dead Woman’s Pass. There, in the evening twilight, I watched from the top of an ancient Incan wall as a pick-me-up soccer match unfolded between native porters in a remarkable high-altitude setting amid Inca ruins and monstrous peaks. I was mesmerized. It was obvious that there was a passion for the game which overcame that day’s tedious trek. What amazing shape these men were in! They had just spent all day carrying tens of kilos-worth of baggage up the trail, but had the heart and soul for a competitive game I was barely understanding.
I have wondered about the significance of that moment, as I watched the setting sun catch the tops of the nearby peaks, deep in the Andes Mountains. Looking back now, its remarkable how the tug of soccer would have been felt in such a remote setting, but there it was.
Soccer game at Wayllabamba, Peru…at over 10,000 feet above sea level…on the Inca Trail Trek in 2010.
Official Geodetic Marker – Wayllabamba
So, to my present predicament, what were the qualities or criteria I sought in a sport franchise? Over the years, I had put together a casual check list covering subjects needing to be addressed in the filtering process for this new sport team of mine:
1. Experienced sport franchise owner (Qualities: Humble, Intelligent, Resourceful)
2. Historical context for greatness within the club
3. Coaching staff and player excellence, on and off the field
4. Sport accepted world-wide
5. International competitions
6. Televised access to games (Live games preferable)
The Summer after returning from Peru, I was posing questions based on this checklist and seriously considering a wholesale shift in my allegiance as a sport fan. Coincidentally, the FIFA World Cup 2010 was about to take place in South Africa…and all over the television.
The World Cup pits teams representing each qualified country in a tournament for World Glory every four years. Those teams are made up of professional soccer players who are citizens of each respective country. Their livelihood is generally derived from their professional club salary and commercial endorsement packages, but they set aside time to “volunteer” for duty to their national teams during each four-year World Cup qualification and playoff cycle. It was the first time I remember such broad coverage in the mainstream media in the United States.
Up until this point in my journey, soccer was simply one of a number of choices in my inevitable sports allegiance shift. Circumstance and recent experience seemed to be proving that my field of choices had narrowed dramatically. Given what I had so far experienced in this search process, I had to consider whether this sport called “soccer”,played by most of the world’s population, might actually hold those special qualities that I sought.
One thing was certain, this World Cup event in 2010 got a lot of broadcast attention, and made one point that rang true to me during the course of the television coverage: the game was about the “game”. Two forty-five minute halves, with a fifteen-minute break, and no time outs for commercials! A little less than two hours of focused, intensive sports action, virtually non-stop. For that, and several other reasons, I got hooked.
FIFA World Cup-South Africa 2010
So, this was it….it would be soccer!
By the end of the World Cup 2010, I knew that my new sport would be soccer. The world calls it futbol or football, the “beautiful game”, even though the term soccer had been coined in England in the late 19th Century. Whatever it was called, it certainly met the test: a world-wide sport, international competitions, interesting travel opportunities, broad television coverage, and an historical context.
I had never played soccer in school (it wasn’t offered in the El Paso school systems at the time). But, many years back, I was a fan of our college soccer team at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where a famous American soccer player and classmate gleaned significant national attention in the early years of the NASL: his name was Kyle Rote, Jr. Back then, however, I was really just an observer to the sport.
Now, as a dedicated nascent fan, I had to task myself to really learn the rules and nuances of the sport from the outside, as it were. I studied the history and rules of the sport, going back to its beginnings in the public schools of England with the Cambridge Rules in 1848 and the founding of the Football Association (FA) in 1863. I learned about the international professional club leagues and competitions, delved into the history and system of the international World Cup competition, and watched as much narrated television coverage as I could find.
Which brings us back to the World Cup 2010.
I immersed myself in World Cup coverage, following national teams filled with the professional club players whom I was learning about. In fact, the World Cup is a stage of immense proportions and significance every four years for those professional players. The “transfer windows” for player acquisitions by club teams seems to be the most active in the period just following the World Cup, in late summer. Team management and owners always have their eye on the shining stars of the World Cup, for good reason. Here was where the interests of the national teams under the World Cup structure of FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) and the interests of the professional club teams of the world crossed paths.
With the sport decided, I now had to concentrate on the search for my team.
The world was a big place, with lots of clubs from which to choose. It would be easy to decide on my favorite World Cup national team. When it came to that national team competition, I would always be a supporter of the United States Men’s National Team, an American Outlaw. Some of those USMT players actually played in Europe on several professional club teams, a majority were on teams within the North American MLS system. I could be consistent both as an American Outlaw and as a professional soccer club fan somewhere else.
United States Men’s Soccer Team logo
Now, which professional club?
I could have looked at the North American model, Major League Soccer (MLS), to search out my future professional team. However, in 2010-2011 the MLS was just coming into its own and hadn’t achieved the acclaim that has come from most quarters of late. Back then, I didn’t have to look very hard to realize that the best teams in MLS (LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, and others) just weren’t at the same level as the teams that came from the leagues that delivered the champions of Europe. The MLS league schedule and the player acquisition process are also different from other world soccer leagues. The opportunity for synergy between MLS and the other professional leagues in the world was limited.
Major League Soccer Logo (United States)
It would probably be a European team.
Selecting my professional club team would prove to have more subtle nuances than I expected. There was a rich European history to some clubs – stretching back over a hundred years in some cases – which I had to understand. The whole system of club affiliation, organization and play was new to me. So, I dug into it.
Each major country in Europe has several professional soccer leagues of various skill ranking. The top tier of club teams in Europe are found in the following professional leagues: La Liga (Spanish), Ligue 1 (French), Premier League (English), Bundesliga (German), and Serie A (Italian). Each league has twenty teams who play each other twice each season – home and away. The season runs from August/September to May, for a total of 38 league matches – called “ties” in the English vernacular. A win earns three points, a draw one point each team, and a loss nil to the loser. The League Champion is the team with the highest points earned in league play over that season.
Those European professional soccer clubs are organized under an athletic association called the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the administrative body for association football in Europe and part of Asia. UEFA consists of 54 national association members, and runs national and club competitions in Europe including the UEFA European Championship, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, and UEFA Super Cup. It controls the prize money, regulations, and media rights to those competitions.
So, beyond the success achievable by teams within their league, the Champions League and Europa League competitions organized by UEFA pit the finest club teams in Europe against each other through a playoff process to determine the best club team…much like an annual version of the World Cup for professional teams.
For instance, the Champions League competition will include the top four teams from the English Premiere League, the German Bundesliga and the Spanish La Liga; the top three teams from the French Ligue 1, the Italian Serie A, and the Portuguese Primeira Liga; and the top two from Russia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, etc. The higher the UEFA coefficient for that country, the more teams allowed to play in the Champions League competition. Even the lowest ranked country-leagues send one team, their champion that year, to the UEFA Champions League competition. Tracking historical achievements within these championships, as well as within league competition, could give me an insight which clubs I might consider as my finalists. Winning traditions beget strong fan bases and great drama.
Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) logo
UEFA is one of six continental confederations of world football’s governing body FIFA. North American, Caribbean and Central American soccer is organized under CONCACAF, as one of those six continental confederations, also. FIFA is the international governing body of association football. It is responsible for the organization of soccer’s major international tournaments, notably the World Cup, which began in 1930, and the Women’s World Cup, which began in 1991.
Fédération Internationale de Football Association est. 1904
FIFA was founded in 1904 to oversee international competition among the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Headquartered in Zürich, membership now comprises 209 national associations. Member countries must each also be members of one of the six regional confederations into which the world is divided: Africa, Asia, Europe, North & Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania and South America.
I pared down my set of choices significantly by eliminating Asia, South America and Africa – each presented challenges to me ranging from limited television coverage, to time zones and even cultural affinity. I decided my choice would be a professional club team from one of the European Leagues for the access to television and print media coverage, cultural affinity and for the high quality of the clubs and players themselves. It would be a European team, a club team in UEFA.
How would I watch and enjoy these beautiful games?
Access to televised games was very important, especially live broadcasts, and of course the quality of those video images and the commentary and network support that came along with them had to be considered. Fox Sports had just landed a deal to televise the English Premier League, sponsored by Barclays Bank. Those games were broadcast live on Saturday and Sunday mornings, seven-hours time difference between El Paso (MST) and England (GMT).
Honestly, after a lifetime of afternoon and evening NFL games, it was difficult getting used to games sometimes beginning at 5:45 a.m.! Needless to say, this was a real paradigm shift for a fan used to a beer and pub environment for the big sports game. Fox Sports made the difference in my early decision-making process.
Gareth Bale, at the time with Tottenham Hotspurs, on a Times Square billboard helps promote NBC sports new coverage of the Barclays Premiere League in 2013-2104
NBC Sports picked up the exclusive North American broadcast rights to the English (Barclays) Premier League in the Fall of 2013, announcing it with a huge promotional campaign. Viewership soared as live access to every Premiere League match was facilitated by the NBC network’s many digital broadcast/satellite channels.
Likewise, MLS soccer in the United States and Canada had been televised on Fox Sports for several years, but in 2012 moved to NBC Sports where it doubled its domestic television viewership. From 2012 to 2014, MLS matches were successfully televised by NBC Sports, with 40 matches per year—primarily on NBCSN, and select matches broadcast on the NBC network. Success can be a bitter reward in this game of sports television coverage. Another competitive MLS television deal snatched the prize out of NBC’s hands late in 2014. Beginning with the the 2015 season that starts in March, Major League Soccer matches will be broadcast nationally by ESPN networks and Fox Sports in English, and Univision networks in Spanish under an eight-year contract. Soccer was going mainstream.
Broadening the landscape of televised soccer coverage in 2012, a new global network of sports channels jointly owned and operated by Qatari Sports Investments called beIN SPORTS came on the scene. Its coverage is carried domestically by the major cable and satellite systems. In the United States and Canada, beIN SPORTS holds the rights to broadcast the English FA Cup and Capital One Cup tournaments, the La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 league games, Copa del Rey, South American World Cup Qualifier and Football League Championship matches, in addition to Barca TV.
However, I digress, back to the task at hand: picking a professional football club to follow.
First decision, within European soccer, which country or league would I want? Then, which club team in that league? The global popularity of the sport had created legendary giants within each of UEFA’s major European Leagues, teams such as:
Real Madrid CF
Manchester United FC
Manchester City FC
FC Bayern Munich
Forbes 2014 Ranking of the World’s Richest Football Teams
As much as it would have “felt” good to select a European team that was presently top of their game and winning every match they played, it struck me as a bit of a short-cut to the glory that I wanted to bask in once again. Certainly, selecting Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Manchester United as my true team would bring an instant rush of success to the experience. However, I felt the glory would seem a bit hollow, having not experienced the cyclical process of rebuilding, changing and adapting that time brings to the life of a sports team.
To use a metaphor: I resisted jumping into the race at the finish line of a marathon, having not suffered through the grind of running the whole 26-mile course! I had to look carefully at the both the present performance and the past history of these clubs that I was considering. Maybe a current champion wasn’t the best choice to learn the pulse of a club and experience the rise of a phoenix.
I wanted to have a chance to get personally involved with this club that I would choose. I wanted the opportunity to travel to see play in their home league, or especially at their home field…called a “pitch” in the English vernacular. A chance to see this team on tour occasionally somewhere in North America would be a strong draw, as well. On a deeper level, if the team I found played in England, I would even have an ancestral reason for that affinity. Much of my family history played out in England, Wales and Scotland before my precursors came to America.
I had visited London twice recently and had a truly life-changing experience there in 2007 – when I suffered a heart attack and had emergency surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital on the Fourth of July. The memory of that adventure is seared into my psyche, and can be found in several posts in my “London 2007: Somewhere in Time” blog, at the link in the upper right-hand column. Certainly, England held an allure that other European counties couldn’t match.
The “Broken Hearts Club” St. Mary’s CCU Ward, London
I would love to find the perfect team within the ranks of English professional soccer clubs. English soccer was organized in a very elegant system, run by the Football Association (the FA) for over one hundred thirty years. Some say the game got its start in England. That was a track record I could trust, check that box.
At the top of English professional soccer competition, the Premier League (sometimes called the English Premiere League) is the most-watched football league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. During the 2010-2011 season, its average game attendance was second only to the German Bundesliga with 35,363 per match, and stadium occupancy was a whopping 92%. The Premiere League has been sponsored by Barclays Bank since 2004 and is commonly referred to as the Barclays Premiere League.
English Premiere League, Sponsored by Barclays Bank
There were twenty teams to choose from in the English Premiere League. These teams represent a palette of history, regional British culture, sports tradition that painted a rich landscape for me to appreciate. Many of those clubs were now owned by non-English individuals or groups: Russian oil tycoons, Arab sheiks, Malaysian barons, American investors. Many of the teams in the Premiere League fielded more foreign national players than English players.
The world was paying close attention to English soccer, but how would or could the ownership structure of a team or the passport array of the starting eleven impact the fan experience? In my own experience, an odd “tycoon-like” character had changed the face of ownership of my old Dallas Cowboys team. Why couldn’t another similar kind of buccaneer be as damaging on this particular English field of play?
Another point of comparison: How did those twenty Premiere League teams respond year after year to the intense international pressure at this level of professional soccer? Since the League was founded in 1992, the undisputed leader of the pack in historical top division titles has been Manchester United (20), followed by Liverpool FC (18), Arsenal (13), Everton (9), Aston Villa (7), Sunderland (6), Chelsea (6), and recent newcomers, Manchester City (4) – the Premiere League Champions in 2013-2014. Of those leaders in top division titles, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Everton have never won the Premiership, as it is called. Here was fertile ground for me to grow my personal soccer experience, it seemed.
I wanted to appreciate the complete process of learning about a team, following their progress and appreciating the rapture of a championship trophy earned the hard way. Therefore, it would almost be self-defeating to short-cut the process by jumping on an existing team’s successful “band wagon”.
It seemed appropriate, in this respect, if I were to look at a top division team but not one of the recent Premiere League champions. If I pursued this track, I would be excluding the so-called “safe bets” of Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City or Chelsea, in favor of a Tottenham, Everton or Liverpool FC. Now, where would I turn for help with this final stage of my decision?
You’ll Never Walk Alone….
“Meddle” is the sixth studio album by English progressive rock group Pink Floyd, released 30 October 1971 by Harvest Records.
Enter “Meddle”, the iconic sixth studio album by the British rock group Pink Floyd, an album I knew intimately almost my entire life. Critics would point out the significance of this album to the group and to the evolution of modern rock music. I probably bought this album my senior year at Coronado High School (1971-1972) or during my first year of college at the University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee) in 1972-1973 and it has been a favorite of mine since then.
I would listen to the classic instrumental “Echoes” on Side Two of the album for years thereafter, putting it on my record changer and drifting off to sleep in my room with that erie and haunting tune in the background. I even remember it playing in the common room of a youth hostel in Copenhagen that I visited on a Summer backpacking trip in 1973.
But, many times I’d also listen to Side One of the album. It was there on Side One where several very interesting songs lived. One tune in particular carried a haunting intertwined sub-track which sounded like a chanting or singing crowd at a live sports venue in the background of the main song. That tune was called “Fearless”, and it is the third track on Side One. I must have played it hundreds and hundreds of times over the years. It is embedded in my psyche.
Throughout “Fearless” one can hear a recording of fans in Liverpool’s Kop (the cheering section) singing a fan anthem called “You’ll Never Walk Alone” superimposed within the Pink Floyd music. That famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song became the official anthem of Liverpool FC sometime after Gerry & the Pacemakers had a number-one hit with their recording of it in the 1960’s. It is sung by the crowd before every home match at Anfield.
However, I never knew the story of this anthem when I first appreciated the album “Meddle”. It was just one of my favorite college music albums, that was all.
“Fearless” and that haunting, embedded anthem of Liverpool fans chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, would live with me for years before sprouting into the miraculous master stroke that ended up clinching this long search process for a sports team I could believe in again, a football team from England by the name of Liverpool FC.
CLICK ON THE EMBEDDED AUDIO TRACK BELOW OF “FEARLESS” BY PINK FLOYD, FEATURING THE KOP SINGING “YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE” INTERTWINED WITHIN, AND ENJOY:
Back to the selection process.
With Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham all in the running, the details which made a difference to me between the clubs were surfacing: manager, owner, player age, player home country, and team history. The two teams from the city of Liverpool (Everton FC and Liverpool FC) had an interesting history, having once been one club team. Everton FC split off from the Liverpool FC faction and left their original grounds at Anfield in 1892.
They have had a gentlemanly rivalry between them ever since, called the Merseyside Derby (pronounced “Darby”) – after the River Mersey that runs though Liverpool to the sea. These two Premiere League games each year, home and away, are not much of a travel problem. Their home stadiums are only separated by a quarter-mile distance, across Stanley Park in Liverpool, England.
The close proximity of rival clubs across Stanley Park in Liverpool
Liverpool is famous as a music city, the Nashville of England in rock and roll terms. The Beatles came from Liverpool, forever marking that place in music history. The story behind Liverpool FC’s famous anthem emerged in a surprising twist one day while I watched a game on television broadcast from their home field, Anfield.
The stadium was alive with an electricity in the crowd, the television coverage hovered over a wild fan scene at one end of the stadium which the announcer called “The Kop”, one of the most famous home-fan seating areas in the world of soccer, located in the southwest end of the stadium behind the goal.
Anfield, Liverpool FC home ground, and the Kop in full voice and motion before a game.
The camera’s microphone picked up a chant-song being raised by those wild fans in the Kop, and throughout the stadium. It sounded familiar to me sitting in my living room at Casa Donnybrook in El Paso. The announcer explained, as the cameras scanned the crowd standing and singing together, that this was the timeless anthem of Liverpool FC, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
Whoa! I knew this song! Hauntingly familiar it was! That tune was seared in my memory, forever connected to my college years and those nights listening to Pink Floyd while drifting off to sleep. I jumped up and pulled out one of the drawers that hold my vinyl record collection in the entertainment center…reached for the Pink Floyd albums and grabbed “Meddle” from the stack.
The cover was worn from years of handling. Sliding the vinyl out of it’s sleeve and onto my turntable, I put the stylus on track three of Side One…turning up the volume to match that of the televised game just getting started. There is was! That live recording of the chant-song intertwined into the studio recording by Pink Floyd, it was the same one as they were singing at Anfield on the television!
I was stunned. A strong subliminal message had been planted long ago in my brain by one of my favorite rock groups, a message in the form of that crowd singing/chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at a Liverpool soccer game in England! For me on that day, the message in that song was loud and clear: “This must be your team! It has always been your team!”
LIVERPOOL FOOTBALL CLUB
So, it seems, the choice had been made for me many years before. Liverpool FC had always been my team and I now understood how, through the forty or so intervening years, I could say with my whole heart that Liverpool FC were destined to save my passion for sports!
I absorbed everything Liverpool FC that I could get my hands on. Finding out that Liverpool FC were now owned by a famous American sports entity, Fenway Sports Group-owners of the Boston Red Sox, only further reinforced my decision. These owners were experienced and intelligent, operating with a humble and steady hand. They also knew intimately the process of re-building a once famous sports franchise into greatness.
Title Screen to “Being: Liverpool” Documentary Series on Fox Sports
The American connection, team ethic and new coaching staff under Brendan Rogers was featured in the mini-series: “Being: Liverpool”, a 2012 fly-on-the-wall six episode documentary television series about Liverpool Football Club broadcast on Fox Soccer in the United States, Sportsnet in Canada, and Channel 5 in the United Kingdom. It followed the team behind the scenes on their pre-season in North America in July 2012 and the build up to their 2012–2013 season in the Premier League. I must have watched it five or six times. I was hooked.
In the summer of 2014, I was blessed to be able to see Liverpool play in person, when they came to the United States to tour in the Guinness International Champions Cup tournament. Some of the world’s greatest professional soccer teams were participating in that tournament: Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Olympiacos, AC Milan, AS Roma, and Inter Milan. Of Liverpool’s five matches in the United States, I was able to see threeof them in person:
Chicago, Illinois at Soldier Field against Greek powerhouse Olympiacos on Sunday July 27th. I flew to Chicago and met Melinda and two of my children, daughter Devin and son William. We spent the weekend enjoying Chicago and seeing our friends Chris and Lynn (Osmond) Multhauf, and I immersed myself in the excitement of my first live Liverpool game! I even had the opportunity to meet Liverpool Legends Kenny Dalglish (former player and coach, known as “King Kenny”), Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush at a special presentation by the Chicago Architecture Foundation the day before the game, thanks to Lynn Osmond, president of the CAF. Liverpool won that game against Olympiacos 1-0, which was a beautiful cap to a wonderful first LFC experience.
Chicago Architecture Foundation representative receives a signed team jersey from Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler in front of the Water Tower in Chicago, Summer 2014.
The author, David Etzold, with Liverpool Legends Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush in Chicago, Summer 2014
Brunch at the University Club, Chicago, with Chris and Lynn Multhauf
Devin and David Etzold, Soldier Field, Chicago on Sunday 27 July 2014
The author with his children, Devin and William (Liam) Etzold, Chicago Marriott
Marriott Hotel – Downtown Chicago
Charlotte, North Carolina the next weekend, at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday August 2nd against their old nemesis, AC Milan. After suffering through moving to my new office back in El Paso in the middle of the week, I flew east to Charlotte, NC on Friday August 1st to meet my son-in-law Joseph Perry, who had discovered a new found sports affection for Liverpool FC, as well. The City of Charlotte embraced Liverpool and it was fun to appreciate the lead-up events to the game. As if on cue Saturday evening, Liverpool won again, this time 0-2.
Pre-Game Party Headquarters in Charlotte, NC
The Liverbird mascot meets some young fans as the party gets started in Charlotte
The party heats up as Liverpool Legends are introduced to the crowd in Charlotte!
Huge welcome for Legends Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler!
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Rebecca Lowe and Robbie Mustoe at the anchor desk for the pre-game television commentary, Liverpool vs. AC Milan, Charlotte
Joseph Perry (L) and David Etzold (R) with great seats for the Liverpool FC vs. AC Milan game!
Liverpool FC wearing their away colors, in yellow, against AC Milan in Charlotte, NC on 2 August 2014
“Maximus Moment” on Bank of America Field in Charlotte: Gerrard greets Baloteli..soon to be teammates at Liverpool, with Emre Can in foreground!
Base of operations: The Dunhill in Downtown Charlotte
These two wins that I had witnessed in person, plus a draw against Manchester City played in New York City mid-week (when I was moving into my new office), qualified Liverpool for the 2014 Guinness International Champions CupFinal to be held at Sun Life Stadium on Monday, August 4th in Miami, Florida.
Next stop: Miami.
Coincidentally, I had purchased two tickets to the finals when the tournament was first announced in February. It was to be played in Miami, only a few hours drive from my son-in-law and daughter who were living at the Naval Air Station in Key West, Florida, and I thought maybe we’d be visiting during the summer. It was pure serendipity to have those tickets in hand in Charlotte and know that our team would be facing their arch-rivals Manchester United on American soil…and we would be witnesses!
Joe and I flew from Charlotte to Fort Lauderdale International Airport to pick up Joe’s car on Sunday, the day after the win over AC Milan. I had reserved a nice room at a convenient Holiday Inn on Miami Bay and we spent a great evening Sunday exploring Downtown Miami and South Beach together.
Loverpool FC team at practice in Miami before their Final match against Manchester United in the Guinness International Champions Cup 2014
South Beach, Miami
The game on Monday, drenched in constant waves of summer thunderstorms blowing through South Florida and overwhelmed with a huge crowd of Manchester United fans to put up with at Sun Life Stadium, proved to be a let-down: Liverpool lost 1-3. However, almost in consolation of that outcome, Joseph and I both got Liverpool FC sports shirts autographed at a meet and greet event with Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush at a Dunkin Donut shop on the morning of the final match.
Super Fan, David Cruice, accepting a donut sale from Robbie Fowler
David Etzold with Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush
Joseph Perry with Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler at Dunkin Donuts, Miami on 3 August 2014
Today I have one of the finest examples of framed, autographed Liverpool FC memorabilia hanging in my Great Room, above my pool table in a place of honor. Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush signed both my shirt and each of their hand-out photos. That shirt now serves as a permanent memory of an incredible Summer soccer adventure!
David Etzold’s Liverpool FC fan shirt autographed by Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler
This is why I can now say that my passion for sport was saved by Liverpool FC, and why this Border Gringo will forever know what it means to be a courtier in King Kenny’s Court! Kenny Dalglish, King Kenny of Anfield Fame, welcomed me to my new sports kingdom. My excitement and passion for sport is back.
Martin Skrtel, Philippe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren celebrate with passion….
I now have a sports team, a club, and a world-wide fan base to call brothers and sisters. I eagerly await each game, and look forward to the near future when Liverpool FC will top the Premiere League Table and be able to hoist the Premiership Cup! Then, on to Champions League greatness, once again…
I know this to be true: You’ll Never Walk Alone…
El Paso-Juarez Chapter of “Liverpool Reds” at the Corner Tavern in Kern Place, El Paso,TX – Fall 2014
Key West, Christmas 2014…
Y N W A…. Heroes are hard to find, cherish them when you do!
(Please click on any photograph for a full sized image)
EL PASO, TEXAS – What do the mummified remains of an 11,000-year old ground sloth and this author have in common? We both have seen, in our respective lifetimes, the bottom of a huge volcanic fumarole in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert of Southern New Mexico, about an hour’s drive northwest of El Paso. I survived the experience, barely. The sloth didn’t. Aden Crater was our common ground, though separated by one hundred ten centuries of time.
Panoramic view of Aden Crater
This particular adventure began for me as a youngster in Boy Scouts, when our Troop 165 would take its annual “Aden Crater Weekend” camping trip out into the desert west of El Paso, off of what we called the “Strauss Road” (now NM AO17) near the base of the relatively recent volcanic formation. That formation is set within a beautiful landscape: wild grasses filling in the sandy swales between creosote bushes which yield the aroma of a Summer rain (known as petrichor), mesquite bush mounds, and various yucca and cactus species – outcrops of black and dark brown lava accenting the light brown patina of blow-sand covering everything except where plants, rocks or mountains protrude.
The Union Pacific’s main transcontinental railroad track between Los Angeles and New Orleans purposely skirts this area of volcanic “badlands” and that early route, carved in 1880 by the railroads around this difficult terrain within the Gadsden Purchase, is easily discerned from an aerial perspective. The sound of those trains rumbling by in the distance is the only thing that anchors a person to the present in this place, for the vast landscape has an ancient and timeless quality once you immerse yourself in the quiet solitude.
It was this general area of volcanic badlands, looking so much like the landscape of the Hawaiian Islands, that Marty Robbins immortalized in the ballad “El Paso“, with the line “...out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran…out to the badlands of New Mexico…”
Satellite photo of Aden Crater locale west of El Paso
Aden Crater sits up above the sand hills and broad expanses of lava beds that form its skirts. The crater had belched out a huge amount of lava eons back, some 30,000 years ago according to the geologists. Those lava fields flowed from this, and several other, volcanic crevasses in the region during an active historic period which could have been witnessed by America’s first native inhabitants. Later generations would memorialize their history and record their passing by etching petroglyphs on the same dark surfaces of those ancient volcanic stones.
Ancient petroglyphs on volcanic rocks, Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Tularosa, NM
The timelessness of the area lends a magical quality to musing over these histories around an open air campsite as sparks drift into the starlit sky from a sweet mesquite-wood fire. In those ancient times that our Native American predecessors knew, this region had more rainfall and a different ecosphere than today. Grasses waved in the winds, trees dotted the landscape and a virtual savannah spread out across the horizon. The wildlife was also different than we see today. Grazing animals abounded, and ground sloths sauntered along poking for termites and grubs and other food their digging skills could excavate.
One particularly unlucky ground sloth some 11,000 years ago found the newly-formed volcanic prominence of Aden Crater enticing and wandered up and into the formation, eventually sniffing and snooping its way over to the rugged southeast wall of the crater where it thought the gaping maw at the mouth of the large fumarole cavern looked inviting. Unfortunately for the sloth, the fumarole presented too steep an adventure for his climbing skills to handle. Either the ninety-some-odd-foot fall to the bottom or his inability to extricate himself after that fall led to to the sloth’s demise, and he was preserved on a large mound of bat guano at the bottom of the cavern for discovery 10,000-odd years later by a team of explorers from the Peabody Museum of Yale University in August of 1928AD.
A 1929 report was published by Yale University Press and, henceforth, generations of Boy Scouts have learned this story, a genuine tragedy in natural history terms, which played out within this grand landscape long before the arrival of modern man.
Title Page: Peabody Museum of Yale University – A Remarkable Ground Sloth 1929
Introduction: “A Remarkable Ground Sloth” Yale University Press 1929
Introduction and Map: “A Remarkable Ground Sloth” Yale University Press 1929
Old location photographs: “A Remarkable Ground Sloth” Yale University Press 1929
For reference here, the photographs on Plate I (above) are described as follows: A) Aden Crater seen from a distance; B) The “notch” that marks the location of the fumarole on the southeast rim of the crater; and C) The mouth of the fumarole opening just outside of the southeast crater rim.
Reproduction – Aden Ground Sloth: Peabody Museum of Yale University
What a story! What a discovery! How in the world could a group of young Scouts NOT be intrigued with such a tale? It was always one of my favorite camping trips in Boy Scouts. But, we never saw the inside of this awesome cavern, and that haunted me. It took 25 years or so, but in 1991 this former Boy Scout made that sloth and the volcanic fumarole the purpose of one of the first expeditions ever undertaken by the International Natural History League (INHL). This is how it was:
I had been married only seven years, Melinda and I had two small girls at home in our our old Kern Place neighborhood when the Executive Director of the INHL, Dr. James Davison (a life-long friend who now lived in Nashville), flew into El Paso for one of our regular adventures, this one planned around Aden Crater. This expedition, however, proved to be a rather irregular adventure…as you will soon see.
The Ford Bronco was loaded with our camping gear, that new-fangled cellular “brick” phone I had recently acquired for my real estate work was charged and the cooler was full of food and drinks. The rutted dirt road paralleling the Union Pacific railroad tracks out past the Santa Teresa Airport and then past ruins of an old frame home and corral – what had been Strauss, New Mexico – carried us into the wild wide open spaces of Southwestern Dona Ana County. The terrain was familiar to us, having grown up taking many camping and hunting trips out into these areas all of our lives. The music from the car stereo was cranked up, and the dusty plume behind us trailed off into the distance toward El Paso.
We were looking forward to using the climbing equipment that I had been practicing on with other friends, Vic Kilstrom and David Malin up in the Franklin Mountains, and Jim and I wanted to see if we could finally get down to the bottom of that famous fumarole. Several times we’ve camped at Aden Crater and hiked to edge of its maw, but never had we attempted a descent. Ropes and climbing had been something that I had tried occasionally (along with spelunking) while attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee back in the mid-seventies. I liked the thrill of a long rappel drop off a big cliff. This would be cool.
Soon the dirt road was crossed by the first of several spines of lava rock that the road engineers failed to remove from the roadbed. These “speed bumps” were a signal that the crater formation was approaching and the turn off to the left would be past the last such lava spine in the road. Before long, a meandering narrow sandy roadbed took us off to the south and wound back behind and up into the actual volcanic crater itself. I was glad we had a high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle. There, inside the crater, we found a nice flat niche up against a lava cliff for our campground and we spent the afternoon setting up camp – enjoying the pristine air, landscape and sky.
INHL Campsite-Aden Crater 1991
Dr James Davison at the INHL Campsite-Aden Crater 1991
A quick hike around found some of the “shrink cracks” that formed narrow deep canyons within the crater. Along the upper ledges of this canyons, huge white owls lived and the bones of their prey left telltale signs on the rocks below. The view off to the horizon seemed endless.
Campsite at Aden Crater 1991, tucked into the crater rim.
It is a wondrous place. Giant blocks of lava, black and brown colors thrown up and around by forces too massive to even imagine. Golden grasses now filling in the low spots and flat areas, wafting in the almost constant desert breeze from the West. The sky that night lit up like a light show, stars so bright they looked like a million pinholes in a black sheet stretched in front of a blazing fire. We talked and drank late into the night, but each of us had a bit of a queer feeling in our gut about the task ahead the next day.
Jim Davison photographing the grand desert sunset.
Morning dawned early, the crisp high desert air refreshing, as we rousted from our cots under the tarp we had set up. A hearty breakfast, one good check of the climbing gear, and we’d be off to the southeast rim and the yawning maw of the fumarole. Jim borrowed a Korean War era helmet of my father’s to protect from being beaned by loose rocks. I couldn’t help but be amused at the sight of Dr. Davison with that helmet on, as if we were going into battle!
We referred to the diagram of the fumarole drawn by the Peabody-Yale Expedition of 1928 to orient ourselves for the descent. One long climbing rope, a sit harness, a custom made rappelling descender, two Jumar ascenders, heavy leather gloves and a good dose of confidence were the tools for this adventure. The descender we had used often up in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso. We had practiced with the Jumars on the short cliffs next to our campsite and had a feel for the system. The Bronco with our cell phone (the “brick”) stayed at the campsite, and we packed our equipment, cameras and supplies over to the fumarole by foot. There, looking into the black hole, we could feel the steady rush of cool air coming out of the earth…a sure sign of a deep cavern below us!
Diagram of the Aden Crater fumarole from the Peabody-Yale report of 1929
I went first, dropping the rope into the opening, and hooking my brake bars of the descent equipment into its strong fibers. Before slipping over the edge, I made a seemingly random off-the-cuff comment to Jim’s video camera: “If I don’t make it, I love you Melinda!” How ironic that would be to watch later! Putting my weight on the rope and leaning back over a precipice is always the hardest part of rappelling. Once I was over the edge and inching myself down, the passage slipped away to my right at about a 45-degree angle until coming to a place where I had to crouch and peer over the lip of a hole in the floor down into the main chamber. With my flashlight, I could not see the bottom. This was going to be intense!
Dropping through that hole and down into the large cavern, the walls quickly receded and I was dangling on the rope – slowly spinning around with no wall to stop the rotation. I could yell up to Jim, far above it seemed, but our voices were muffled by the angles of the chambers I had just passed through. Slowly, I allowed the rope to slip through the descender as I lowered myself into that dark chasm, aware of the musty smell of bat guano in the air and noticing the slight echo of the sounds I was making. Eventually, I landed on a solid flat platform of rock where I stopped and stood up, gaining my composure and deciding that this would be a fine spot to wait for Jim’s descent.
Off came the harness and up went the rope and descender equipment to Jim, waiting at the top. Soon, I could hear Davison coming down the passages above, then I heard him above me on the edge of the hole at the top of the huge cavern. Within a short time, and with a lot of banter between us, Davison was by my side and, in wide eyed excitement, we slapped a celebratory high-five. Now what?
As any good adventurer usually decides to do in a moment like that, Jim pulled out his video camera and started filming us in infra-red. There wasn’t much to say, we were both hyperventilating and our pulses raced. Words would get caught in our throats and the musky air made it hard to catch a deep breath. A little posed conversation for the video, and soon we attacked the real issue: Do we go further, or call it a conquest? I must say, I was rattled. That last descent, with no walls for stabilization, was a real feat. Thinking of climbing back up it on the Jumars was daunting to say the least. I voted to call it a success and not risk further descent. There was no telling how long it might take to get out.
We only had the one set of climbing gear, so one of us would have to ascend and then throw the equipment back for the other to use. Who would go first? I’m not sure to this day whether there was a conversation on the subject, or whether Jim volunteered to go out first since I went in first. No matter, it was Providence that looked over our shoulder on that decision. Jim strapped on the harness, got out the Jumars and attached the clamps to the rope, one above the other about chest high as the rope dangled to his feet. From those Jumars hung two rope stirrups into which one places each boot.
The process is to stand in the stirrup, where your weight on the clamp presses it against the rope, pushing with that leg and with the corresponding hand holding at the clamp until the other boot presses into its stirrup and its clamp grabs the rope where your other hand holds as the other leg pushes up and the hand releases its clamp to move up another foot or so. The hands and boots move sequentially up the rope in this way, clamping and releasing, moving up, clamping and releasing, moving up. Spinning around on that thin strong rope while executing this process adds to the tension and increases the strain. We did not have a “sit harness” with a carabiner and separate Jumar ascender clamp that would have allowed us to pause, sit with our weight on the third Jumar, giving our legs a rest. Lesson learned.
Jim made it to the hole in the floor above and, with noticeable grunts and groans, heaved himself over the ledge onto the “First Landing”. Soon he was out, and with a very faint shout, down came the rope and harness and Jumars. My turn.
I can remember doing something as I put on the equipment that I had never done before. I had extra boot laces, quite a bit actually and, as I was carefully putting each boot into the stirrup of its Jumar, I took the extra boot lace and tied it securely around the stirrup and each ankle…so I couldn’t step out of the loop of the stirrup as I climbed. Then it began.
Each step was a physically and mentally exhausting process, a balancing act and a crushing push to move the clamp up in sync with the corresponding boot. One, two….one, two….all the time, spinning around as the rope disappeared into the inky darkness above. It was hard, but I finally made it to the ledge above, that shelf of rock where the tunnel headed off in the 45-degree angle and where there were walls, and a floor!
Now, I just had to get those two clamps up and over the rock ledge. Knowing I would need some movement room, I got each clamp up against the other, my hand clenching one above the other. Since all my weight was on the rope, and the rope was taught and running over the face of the ledge, I’d needed a way to get my weight off the rope for a split-second in order to get the clamps up the rope and over the ledge…there was no way I could push the clamps up the rope and over the ledge with all my weight on the rope. How do you do that while hanging on the rope you need to get off of?
All I could think to do was to hop. So I hopped. I hopped again. When I hopped, I’d push in sync with both legs and hope that the rope would slacken enough to be able to push the clamps up and over the ledge. Then, on a third attempt, I pushed with both legs hard and hopped again, and for a moment it seemed to work….and then the rope slapped back against the rock with my full weight…and my grip on both clamps was sprung by the force of the impact of my knuckles with the rock and the Jumars. I hung there, standing in the stirrups, balanced for what seemed forever ….and then I fell backwards, my nails clawing at the rock ledge as I flipped upside down. The stirrups caught my boots at the ankles, I snapped to a bouncing stop, swaying in that huge dark chamber….upside down!
My hat and several things from my backpack fell out. My arms dangled above my head, pointing to the dark bottom of the cavern. I took a breath. I was still alive. What a feeling….that few mili-seconds between when the fall began and actually happened seemed like ultra-slow motion replaying it my mind. The stirrups saved me. That little voice that whispered to me to use my extra boot laces to tie the stirrups onto my ankles saved me. For now, that is.
I was hanging upside down in a dark, huge chamber, no walls to touch – much less see – and filled with bats. I yelled out to Jim. He could barely hear me. Finally he understood, and I could sense his anguish. There was an urgency to his instructions to keep my head up and to manage a way to prevent blood from pooling in my brain. Right, that made sense. I won’t die from a caving fall, I’ll die from a stroke…induced by the pressure of blood on my brain! Not this guy.
So, I tried being an Olympic gymnast, and pulled myself up the rope to my feet. Surely, if they could do this on the rings I could, too. Not in this life! I was only able to get my head and shoulders up to about my waist height, into an “L” shape, where I could hold onto the rope and let my heart pump some of the blood up to my legs and feet. This was painful, and I could only hold that position for so long. Maybe a few minutes of this position at a time was all I could muster, and then I’d have to let go and drop upside down again to rest and catch my breath. This went on for some time…a long time.
Jim, in the meantime, had rushed back to the campsite where he found the car keys. Thank God I had not taken them with us on the cave expedition! He also found the cell phone and grabbed it…a bad signal, maybe better at the crater rim. I think the Bronco was never the same after Jim’s drive out of the crater and cross-country through the lava ridges along the flanks of Aden Crater over to the entrance to the fumarole. He made it, and the car was still running, suffice to say. He yelled down to me that he was going to attach the trailer hitch to the rope and try to haul me up with the car. In a minute I felt a tug, then another, and another and I seemed to move up some…enough to get me wondering what I’d do when my feet and legs made the rock ledge first. They were getting numb and beginning to ache. Not to worry. The tugs stopped, and Jim was soon yelling down to me faintly that the rope was fraying on the sharp volcanic rocks…badly. He had to stop, fearing the rope would break. That felt bad.
I had been furiously pulling myself up hand over hand to a sitting position for an hour or so. I was exhausted and my hands hurt, even though I knew I had gloves on. Maybe blisters were forming, in fact, that was very likely I thought. Great. Now what? This was serious.
Jim now had pulled out the cell phone and was trying to reach the “911” service to get emergency help. The signal was bad, intermittent at best out in the desert so far. No telling where the closest cell tower was in those days. The 911 operator transferred Jim to Fort Bliss Army Air Defense Center, our huge base right in the middle of El Paso. The thought was that they had a Med-Evac Helicopter that might be able to help. No, that wasn’t such a great idea. Call transfer after call transfer, Jim was on hold for what seemed like an eternity. The battery power was draining fast on the cell phone and we had no car charger. Finally, a young officer got on the line who seemed to know something. There was a problem, though. Just a few months earlier, the main Med-Evac squadron at Fort Bliss had been transferred to Saudi Arabia to prepare and execute Desert Storm. The crews at Fort Bliss now had been called up from the Army Reserves, and they were new to the area and mostly from North Carolina. They were lost trying to find Aden Crater on a map…and in the field from air, as dark descended….well, spotting a parked Bronco truck in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert was a stretch. As Jim was just finishing his explanation of where we were, the battery went dead in the cell phone.
Down in the cave, I knew nothing of this. All I knew was that it was getting on two hours and I was hurting pretty badly. That ache in my legs and feet was more pronounced, and my arms and shoulders were cramping from the rope work. My hands felt like the palms were burning. My head hurt, it was hard to take a deep breath and I needed to pee. Yes, I needed to urinate. Imagine, there you are, hanging upside down, bladder telling you that you needed to void pretty soon. What would any good Boy Scout do? Take a piss, of course…so, I carefully arched my back as far away from vertical as I could, opened my fly and let loose as hard as I could…hoping to not have a missed shot. Just for good measure, I clenched my mouth and eyes shut as hard as I could, it seemed to help….and soon I was relaxed again…at least as best I could be under the circumstances.
Jim yelled down to me that he had reached Fort Bliss and a helicopter would be on the way. I needed to hold on a while longer. Good…some hope. I had not had a lot of that down there and was on a rather sobering prayer cycle with Jesus. It’s interesting looking back on what you ask for in prayer at moments like those. Only here, those moments went on, and on, and on, and on…interspaced with the serious work of pulling myself into a situp position again.
Three hours or so, and I heard the whoop, whoop of helicopter blades descending. They had spotted the truck next to the hole and were landing right there above me on the edge of the crater! God, thank you! I yelled. As the engine noise died down I could hear people yelling down at me. Faintly it sounded like “Hello, are you alright?” Really? You’re kidding? Hadn’t Jim told them anything? I yelled back something less polite, pretty aggressive, along the lines of get me the frack out of there! There was more yelling and commotion that I couldn’t discern, and then a strong new voice yelled down…”Sorry sir, we don’t have any ropes or rescue equipment…we’re going to have to call in some other help.” What? No….no….no! I can’t take it! You’re kidding? No rescue equipment on a Med-Evac helicopter?
That was the worst time. I was nearly done. My hope was fading, my body hurt terribly, my hands could hardly hold the rope to pull me up to waist height any more. As far as I knew, if my brain burst a blood vessel I’d get a shrieking headache and pass out. Maybe that was best, though. I relaxed and hung there. It seemed like a long time passed. Some energy inside me helped pull that body of mine up that rope every few minutes. I was dead. No, I was a zombie. This was a dying place. I was face to face with Death for the first time in my life.
Take me fighting, or never take me! I won’t be that easy, Mr. Reaper…you’ll have to work a little harder. Thoughts of my children, who would never really know me…and my sweet beautiful wife, Melinda, who would wonder how this stupid thing happened…all crossed my mind. Then, I thought of Jim…poor old friend, how could he come to terms with seeing his best friend dangle to death out of his control? He’s an emergency room doctor, but couldn’t help his best friend? How would he live with that? How could he tell Melinda? Time seemed to creep to a halt. I felt woozy.
Then, a shout from above! What was that? Another shout…yes, I’m still here…get me the frack out of here! It was, as it turned out, a Mountain Rescue Team from Las Cruces (the Mesilla Valley Grotto Club) that usually works the Organ Mountains for hikers stranded and hurt. They had been called by the State Police, who had been called from the helicopter radio by the Med-Evac Team. Down they came, though it seemed like another hour it was only half that time before they were at the rocky ledge above my feet, and three strangers/angels were giving me encouraging support and slowly pulling me up by the rope …to finally be dragged across that sweet rocky ledge and be able to lay out flat! My legs were dead, I couldn’t feel them, numb and painful at the same time. My feet and ankles, though numb too, hurt like they had been crushed. My shoulders and arms were blazing with pain and my hands were like pulp under the shredded fragments of those leather gloves. But, I was alive…
They wanted to strap me into one of those rescue stretchers, but I refused. Please let me just wait a minute and restore the circulation in my legs…I want to walk out on my own…please! Half an hour or so later, after several bottles of water were guzzled and a granola bar chewed for energy, I took my first step in five hours. One rescuer in front and two behind, I slowly emerged to the surface. Spotlights, flashlights and camera flashes greeted me, as I fell on my knees and kissed the ground! There was a crowd there…and a reporter from the Las Cruces Sun. The helicopter crew still was there to make sure all went well. Back slapping and cheers went round and round. Jim came up and gave me the biggest hug he’s ever given me…and I knew where it came from. It was over. I lived!
Before everyone, I turned to the Rescue Crew chief, handed him my ropes and climbing gear, and said “Here, please take these as a donation…I’m not doing ropes again!”
I invited the crew, rescuers, reporters, Army guys and all, over to the campsite for a beer. They couldn’t believe it. Yes sir, let’s tip a cold one together tonight boys…for tomorrow I’ll wish I had. About eight followed us over the rocky trail back to camp, where Jim popped the tops of several six packs for everyone…my fingers couldn’t do the pop-top, so Jim insisted. My good doctor friend slipped me several good pain pills as goodbyes were said, and I curled up in my sleeping bag knowing that the morning would have its own surprises, but thankful to God for delivering me that night from an awful experience.
Melinda and I talked about it quietly, and alone after I got home Sunday. I couldn’t use my hands, nearly all the skin was gone from their palms. She gently washed my hair for me the next day in the kitchen sink before I went in to the doctor’s office. Within a few weeks, it was all just a horrible memory.
Today, though, I recognize it as a second chance. We don’t get many of those…I’m taking this one quite seriously.
Years later, I have returned to Aden Crater and looked down that hole several times. My son, Liam, who would never have been born had that day in May 1991 taken a different turn, was with me on one of the more recent trips back. So was my son-in-law, Joseph Perry, a Captain in the US Army and married to my oldest daughter Bailey. They know it was a major event in my life. We talked about it all the way out there, within the crater, and on the way home. Events such as this are etched in ones memory forever, crystalline sharp. It is still very real and personal in my recollection for this blog post. Only I know how close the story came to ending that day, though. I faced Death and I now fear not.
2009 visit to Aden Crater and the fumarole…no, I didn’t go in!
Joseph Perry, William (Liam) Etzold and David F Etzold at Aden Crater 2009
Recently, on May 21, 2014, President Barak Obama signed a Presidential Proclamation designating 500,000 acres of remarkably beautiful land in Southern New Mexico as the “Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument”, the boundaries of which include some of the most interesting geologic and historic locales in my favorite playground of a state. Aden Crater and its surrounding lava fields, the original “Badlands of New Mexico” per Marty Robbins, is now part of and protected as a National Monument.
Map and Legend of the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument
A link to the site for the actual Proclamation creating the “Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument” on the White House website:
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,800 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
(Please click on any photograph for a full sized image)
EL PASO, TEXAS – North and west of El Paso is a giant hole in the ground in the middle of a vast stretch of Chihuahua Desert that covers northern Mexico, most of Southern New Mexico and all of West Texas. In fact, there are two giant holes right near each other in that great empty desert, both volcanic-rimmed craters amidst sand dunes, cactus, creosote bushes, ocotillo and yucca near the base of the East Potrillo Mountains: Kilbourne Hole and its smaller neighbor to the south, Hunt Hole.
Between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago the Aden Crater Lava Flow (part of the Afton Lava Flow event) covered the light brown sand dunes west of the Rio Grande Valley with a thick layer of dark brown lava from a series of low-intensity volcanic eruptions. That lava flow is reminiscent of the ‘a’aand pāhoehoe flows found in Hawaii today – examples of both being readily visible from your vehicle as you drive around the edges of the Aden Crater flow mass to the north of Kilbourne Hole itself.
Subsequent to that ancient Aden Crater Flow, some 20,000 years ago, long after that layer of lava had hardened into a 100+ square mile, several-yards-thick cap over those ancient desert sands, another volcanic eruption from deep below that desert floor drove a column of superheated water, gas, basalt rock and pyroclastic material through several seismic crustal cracks that run north-south in this region to the surface, bursting through the earlier volcanic cap and begining the formation process of these huge craters we now call Hunt and Kilbourne Hole. This geologic wonder that we have called a “hole” is technically called a “maar”, however.
Devastating eruption of a maar volcano: Ukinrek Maar, Alaska 1977 (R. Russell, Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
This aerial view toward Ukinrek Maar, Alaska (above) illustrates what the explosive event might have looked like that formed Kilbourne Hole in New Mexico some 20,000 years ago. In this image a lava dome erupted in the 100-meter deep crater during a 10-day eruption cycle in 1977. This maar is about 300 meters in diameter, compared to the 1.7-mile wide Kilbourne Hole crater.
A maar, then, is a low-relief, broad volcanic crater formed by shallow explosive eruptions. The explosions are usually caused by the heating and boiling of groundwater when magma invades the groundwater table from mantle levels deep below the Earth’s crust. Maars often fill with water to form a lake, making them less likely to be discovered or studied.
In our locally-destructive event near El Paso, steam and pyroclastic eruptions along the Fitzgerald Fault broke through the Aden Lava Flow, belching destruction over a vast area of the Rio Grande Rift Basin to the south and east – downwind of the craters. Hunt’s Hole, ten miles south of Kilbourne Hole and the Potrillo Maar, even further south on the U.S.-Mexican Border, together threw millions of tons of ash and pyroclastic material into the atmosphere over several hundreds or maybe thousands of years of eruptions.
The Kilbourne Hole maar event itself is huge in comparison with the Ukinrek Maar event pictured above: a 1.7-mile diameter hole in New Mexico versus a 300-meter diameter crater in Alaska! The Kilbourne Hole maar eruption, alone, would have generated a gigantic column of ash and pyroclastic material some fifty times greater than the Ukinrek Maar. With the additional eruption events at nearby Hunt Hole and Portrillo Maar, the environment of the West Texas-Southern New Mexico region was dramatically changed. The landscape surrounding the Kilbourne maar and the area within a huge downwind ash swath to the East-Southeast, toward El Paso and Fabens, would have been severely impacted. Today, distinct layers of curious ash-like material are visible within sedimentary layers exposed in the escarpments near Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Fabens, Texas (in a geologic feature called the San Felipe Arroyo) and along the Interstate 10 route east of El Paso…some forty to sixty miles away.
From what we know of the earliest Native Americans in this region, it is very possible that some of North America’s first inhabitants, the Ancient Ones – who were here long before the Anasazi and migrated from the Northwest into the Southwest Region, witnessed those cataclysmic eruptive events that shaped this volcanic feature and others in the area. One can only imagine the place these stories might have held in their mythology.
Prevailing winds carried the ash clouds Eastwards, towards El Paso and Fabens in the Lower Valley, from the maar fields at the base of the Portrillo Mountains
Satellite view of volcanic formations West of El Paso, Texas in Southern New Mexico desert.
Detailed aerial of Kilbourne Hole
Throughout my life in this border city, the vast desert area surrounding El Paso has been one of our favorite playgrounds and weekend destinations. Only about an hour’s drive on washboard-rutted dirt roads west of the city limits, the sprawling geologic formations within the Potrillo Volcanic Field gave us dove, quail, snakes, coyote and rabbits to hunt by day, incredible sunsets in the evenings and inky dark skies decorated with millions of bright stars all night long. During a full moon, it is so bright you could almost read a book as you sit outside in that beautiful, clear, dry, high-desert air. After all, we’re at an elevation of over 4,000 feet MSL. Nighttime brings a chill to that desert air and as much as a thirty degree temperature drop from daytime.
Many a summer and fall weekend during childhood were spent with my cousins (Warren Brown and his sons) and other friends exploring the West Sandhills at the foot of Mount Riley – where Aden Crater, Hunt’s Hole and Kilbourne Hole reside. A campout among the sand, cactus, creosote, ocotillo and mesquite bushes, sleeping out under the dark desert sky, changes your perspective on life. The stars are almost as tangible as the mesquite wood crackling on the fire. Having a gigantic 1.7-mile wide geologic feature such as this on your doorstep when you arise at dawn puts a different point of view in play. When I first knew this crater, I had no concept of the ancient cataclysmic events that had formed it. Then, the conventional wisdom was that it was a meteor crater.
Oblique aerial view of the 1.7-mile wide Kilbourne Hole…Mount Riley is in the center background.
Late 1960’s target practice and hunting along the edge of Kilbourne Hole with Warren Brown.
Kilbourne Hole panoramic view from south edge – this maar formation stretches to the horizon.
Occasionally, when walking through the dunes on the eastern edge of the crater, or just below the east escarpment, we stumble upon treasures thrown out of that volcanic eruption so many tens of thousands of years ago: olivine-filled basalt xenoliths. You have to look carefully to discern these volcanic “bombs” amidst the other volcanic ejecta surrounding the crater. The surface of the xenoliths containing the olivine treasure looks slightly browner and more ropey than normal basalt lava, and the stones are more round and very heavy…heavier than the rest of the rocks you might pick up and investigate.
You might also see the remnants of previously-discovered xenoliths glistening like emerald green crystal sand in the sun on the occasional flat rocky surfaces…where earlier treasure hunters used hammers to smash them open, hoping for those rare large olive crystals that can be cut to produce the exquisite Peridot semi-precious stone. Kilbourne Hole is one of only a few places on Earth where peridot of gem quality can be found absent heavy mining operations.
Peridot Gem cut from olivine found within a basalt “bomb” from Kilbourne Hole
So, how again did this beautiful and fascinating geologic artifact form? Kilbourne and Hunt’s Holes are classic examples of a maar crater, as we described earlier, that formed as a result of the explosive interaction of hot basaltic magma carried up from deep underground with groundwater during a volcanic eruption. When a steam-saturated eruption column forms during an explosive event and then gravitationally collapses, a ring-shaped surge of ash and pyroclastic material (a super heated water-ash-rock slurry) travels radially outward from the central vent along the ground. The stratified, cross-bedded pyroclastic surge deposits surrounding the crater at Kilbourne Hole are spectacular and were formed as a consequence of such explosions from the center of the large crater, each explosive event forming beds of material in differing cross-layers full of small “volcanic hailstones” called lapilli. The area surrounding the rim was pelted by basalt “bombs” containing the mineral olivine thrown up from those deep eruptions, layer between ash and pyroclastic surge material.
Geologic cross section of Kilbourne Hole
Basalt lava flows, very similar to a’a lava in Hawaii, which erupted between 50,000 to 80,000 years ago through a set of vents called the Afton Cones (the Aden Crater and Black Mountain lava formations) located north-northeast of Kilbourne Hole, flowed southward and covered the present area around Kilbourne and Hunt’s Holes below the East Potrillo Mountains. The explosion that formed Kilbourne Hole erupted from deep below in what is known as the Fitzgerald Fault, and up through the Afton lava cap, indicating to us that the Kilbourne and Hunt craters are younger than the Afton Lava Flows themselves.
Pyroclastic surge beds and vent-associated breccia blown from those craters (including our precious xenolith “bombs”) overlie the Afton basalt flow. So does eons-worth of desert blow-sand. The crater we see today formed during the final stages of that huge maar eruption, partly from collapse of the edges inwards as the magma intrusion deep below subsided, and partially from expelling surface material during the explosive eruption events in the huge column ash and dust these maar generated.
Dramatic horizontal multi-colored layers of different textured grains illustrate the various surges of pyroclastic flow from the crater.
To get a good glimpse of these strata, walk around the east rim of Kilbourne Hole, starting from a large cleared area just off that long ranch road you just rode for an hour and half of rutted washboard adventure out of El Paso.
See the lthick black-brown horizontal layer of basalt lava exposed along the edge of the crater rim, broken off and tumbled down the slope into the crater itself? That dark brown layer is the Afton Lava Flow which once covered the desert surface for miles around in several feet of lava, and pre-dated the explosions that created the crater. Eons ago, and deep below that lava covered surface, magma-heated steam, sand, rock and ash surged to the surface and broke through in a series of large cracks, spewing pyroclastic emissions into the air – spitting chunks of the Afton basalt lava surface all around.
One stunning gift today of that cataclysmic eruption: olivine-filled xenoliths thrown from that boiling caldron. Those layers of surge flows and their treasures are now exposed above the dark lava edge of Kilbourne Hole. Notice carefully the texture and makeup of the soil at your feet and the colors and textures of the layers in the exposed sediments as you wander around the rim trail to your right. They give clues about the makeup of each explosive eruption. That “cauldron” is now the present crater you are overlooking, almost 1.7 miles across – an artifact of a huge regional tectonic feature called the “Rio Grande Rift System”.
Look at the texture of the grains in those multi-colored bands, notice the occasional layer of “volcanic hail stones” – small light round spheres of ash material formed in the furious rush of updrafts and downdrafts created by the volcanic eruption and pyroclastic flows. Once in a while you might come across a large lava bomb embedded in those layers of surge flows. You might observe how its mass penetrated and deformed many layers of the surrounding sands, thereupon being buried itself by subsequent layered flows. You might even be fortunate enough to find a xenolith, untouched since landing in the ejected tuff and pyroclastic outflow around the crater, waiting eons for someone to open and find it’s glorious green olivine crystals inside.
A huge volcanic “bomb” thrown out of the crater during an explosive event landed in the soft pyroclastic surge beds tens of thousands of years ago…deforming the surrounding layers…and being buried by subsequent pyroclastic surge layers in due course.
Kilbourne Hole is unique because of the remarkable abundance of both crustal and mantle (peridotite/olivine-bearing) xenoliths found in basalt bombs ejected during the eruption and scattered throughout the area. Xenoliths are inclusions of rock made from pieces of once-molten mantle and crust, that were incorporated into the magma as it moved from a depth of about 40 miles (60 km) to the surface. Once ejected, the core of the xenolith cools, and the longer it takes to cool, the larger the crystal structure inside becomes. Of course, like Forrest Gump was so famously quoted as saying in the movie of the same name, the process of finding and opening a xenolith is a lot like exploring “a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”. Small green crystals indicate quick cooling, large crystal structure mean that the xenolith cooled slower. Slower is better.
Diagram of forces creating the Rio Grande Rift and attendant volcanic incidents and features.
Rio Grande Rift and other adjoining large-scale geologic formations of New Mexico, north of El Paso.
Mega-geologic features making up the landscape that cradles this huge volcanic crater are part of the Mesilla Basin. “Mesilla” (Spanish for “little table”) is a common name for many places around the Northwest El Paso-Las Cruces corridor. Another geologic basin adjacent to the east and separated from the Mesilla by the range of the Franklin Mountains, is called the Hueco Bolson (Basin). Both basins provide deep and abundant sources of drinking water for the communities nearby.
These basins are part of a series of linked basins between central Colorado and west Texas that began to form about 36 million years ago when the earth’s crust extended or stretched in an east-west direction here. Normal faulting associated with this kind of crust extension and thinning led to the development of these deep basins and prominent rift-flank uplifts, producing this continental-scale tectonic feature now known as the “Rio Grande Rift”. The Franklin and Organ mountains to the east and the East Portillo Mountains to the west of Kilbourne Hole are examples of rift-flank uplifts in our south-central region of New Mexico and West Texas.
The rate of rift-flank uplift and basin subsidence likely peaked between 4 and 10 million years ago.Crustal thinning during extension periods tends to trigger volcanic eruptions, which is exactly what happened in this region of Southern New Mexico. The crust thinning triggered a series of significant volcanic events up and down the Rio Grande Rift system. The basalt lavas at Kilbourne Hole are on the eastern edge of the extensive Potrillo volcanic field, which was active between 1.2 million and 20,000 years ago. Twenty thousand years is not that long ago, geologically speaking. This youthful volcanism suggests that the Rio Grande rift extension process is still active in this region. The more than 100 vents of the Potrillo volcanic field are aligned along older faults. Kilbourne Hole, Hunt’s Hole, and the Potrillo maar are aligned along the newer Fitzgerald-Robledo fault system.
Extension of the crust in this part of the Rio Grande Rift began about 36 million years ago. Rock debris that eroded from the developing rift-flank highlands, as well as wind-blown and playa-lake deposits, accumulated in the subsiding Mesilla Basin – the area between the north-south mountain ranges where the Rio Grande flows today. These basin-fill deposits of sand, clay and silts, known as the Santa Fe Group, are 1500 to 2000 feet thick beneath Kilbourne Hole today. The uppermost sand, silt, and clay of the Pliocene to early Pleistocene “Camp Rice Formation”, the youngest unit of the Santa Fe Group in this part of the basin, are exposed for us in the bottom of Kilbourne Hole. The Camp Rice Formation was deposited by a south-flowing braided river that emptied into a playa lake in the vicinity of El Paso.That huge ancient playa lake which extended for hundreds of square miles has generally been referred to by geologists at the University of Texas at El Paso as “Lake Cabeza de Vaca”.
The La Mesa surface, a flat surface that developed on top of the Camp Rice Formation, represents the maximum basin fill of the Mesilla Basin at the end of Santa Fe Group deposition about 700,000 years ago. This “La Mesa Surface” is about 300 ft above the modern Rio Grande floodplain, and is the “escarpment” or “West Mesa” that we see from El Paso or Las Cruces as we look across the Rio Grande toward Santa Teresa and Mount Riley to the west. This surface formed during a period of landscape stability, meaning during a time of relative volcanic quietness.
Basalt flows from the Portillo volcanic field are layered within the upper Camp Rice Formation and lie on top of the La Mesa surface. The material we know that makes up west El Paso’s alluvial fan formations is eroded and layered deposits from that same playa period. The Rio Grande started to cut down through those older Santa Fe Group deposits some 700,000 years ago in response to both climatic changes and connection of the upstream river system with the Gulf of Mexico as Lake Cabeza de Vaca was breached and drained southwards. This downcutting was not a continuous process; there were several episodes of downcutting, back-filling, and renewed incision. The episodic development of the Rio Grande system led to the formation of several terrace levels along the river between Las Cruces and El Paso that can be easily identified today.
Historically, the area we know so well around Kilbourne Hole could have been part of El Paso and Texas, but by the stroke of a pen between politicians far removed from the region. On the east side of the Rio Grande, the Franklin Mountains and the city of El Paso are now part of the State of Texas, whereas the Potrillo Mountains and Kilbourne Hole, on the west side of the Rio Grande, are in what is now New Mexico – a historic addition to our country that was part of the original Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, one of seven major territorial expansions which created the United States that we know today.
Gadsden Purchase shown in relation to Kilbourne Hole area west of El Paso
The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 is remarkable in that the United States purchased a strip of land from the Mexican government along the U.S. – Mexico Border for $10 million at the time (equivalent to $279 million in present day terms), today that land is part of New Mexico and Arizona and begins on the extreme west edge of Texas at El Paso, marked by International Boundary Marker No. 1 on the west banks of the Rio Grande near the former ASARCO plant at Executive Center Boulevard and Paisano Drive.
International Boundary Marker No 1 on the United States-Mexico Border at El Paso, marking the Southeast corner of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. The former ASARCO smelter main stack (828 feet tall) can be seen in the background, now demolished.
This territory grab was intended to assist the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad route (now the Union Pacific Railroad), taking the easier way westwards by traversing the Continental Divide south of the difficult passes of the Rocky Mountains to the north of El Paso, and just skirting the Afton lava beds we know so well at Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater. The train whistles still echo across those vast Western sandhills today.
Winter Dust Storm on the Mexican Border from NASA Aqua satellite February 20, 2013
Snow-covered Franklin Mountains and alluvial fan deposits in Northwest El Paso, looking north.
On May 21, 2014 President Barack Obama signed a Proclamation designating the area around Kilbourne Hole and other nearby regional historic and geologic features as “The Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument“. Now, over one-half million acres of Southern New Mexico land are protected for posterity. Though the National Monument is made up of three distinct non-abutting regions, together they form a huge historical natural canvas that speaks to us of the remarkable time-line painted in this portion of the Chihuahua Desert.
Here is a link to the White House website and a copy of the actual Presidential Proclamation:
EL PASO, TEXAS – Nine human lives, the largest intercontinental bomber in the world and a 7,000-foot urban mountain range fuel a $4,000,000 Cold War mystery. Lost in a horrendous crash into the Western slopes of the Franklin Mountains during a dust storm-infused early-season blizzard in December 1953, the wreckage of a U.S. Air Force B-36D was shredded across the steep terrain as the booming explosions echoed between the mountains on each side of the Rio Grande flowing through the Pass of the North.
Only known photograph of B-36 circling over Central El Paso before the crash
An investigation was undertaken by the Air Force which wrapped up onJanuary 26, 1954 with an official full Accident Investigation Report submitted by the Inspector General’s Office (see images below). The report contains some interesting information including medical reports, citizens who witnessed the final, low flight path over Downtown El Paso and back into the clouds, statements by air controllers of the final radio communication between the ground and the aircraft, and a few grainy photographs and maps used as evidence during the investigation. Tragically, the conclusion was “pilot error” including an unfamiliarity with the geography of the El Paso region and use of VFR versus IFR approach. But, then, how many cities have a 7,000-foot mountain range running right down their center?
Cover Page of El Paso B-36 Accident Investigation Report with several conclusions.
B-36D Crash Site photo from USAF Accident Investigation Report showing the burn scar across the flanks of Mount Franklin.
El Paso B-36 Crash Accident Report – Page 1
El Paso B-36 Crash Accident Report – Page 2
Pieces of the giant plane and other artifacts, still strewn across the rugged mountainside at about the 6,000-foot elevation, bear testament to a terrible tragedy that took place during the height of the Cold War. This aircraft was designed for one purpose: to deliver huge nuclear warheads to Russia from bases within the continental United States. It could fly without refueling for nearly two days, and held a record of sustained non-stop flight on a mission that lasted 45.3 hours. The huge bomber’s nickname was the “Peacemaker”… as in “carry a big stick”.
It could load one of the immense Mark 17 bombs, a 40-Megaton Thermonuclear (Hydrogen) bomb, which would not fit into the B-52 years later without modifications. The technology was cutting edge for the time, the first of its kind. The airframe was made of magnesium with an aluminum skin. It weighed over 400,000 pounds without bombs. Before the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, this aircraft was the only way to assure our national security by carrying our most potent weapons to the edges of the Soviet Union, where it would fly just outside of their radar zones in constant rotations of weaponized air crews and their huge planes.
Mk-17m Thermonuclear Bomb designed for B-36 delivery
The crash site is a tough day-hike (two to three hours up, and one or two hours back down) from the top of Stanton Street, where a El Paso County Historical Commission Marker was just dedicated in honor of the 60th Anniversary of the incident, or from the top of O’Keefe Street in West Central El Paso. You can also wind your way by foot from the end of Kenyon Joyce Lane off of North Stanton Street, up through the North Palisades Canyon (next to the Jewish Temple Mt. Sinai and the Camelot Condominium project) and on up to the Jeep trail and the crash site just under the crest ridge of the Franklin Mountains, behind Crazy Cat Mountain.
Jeep trail above Crazy Cat Mountain, at the toe of the slope before the ascent up to the B-36 crash site in the Franklin Mountains above El Paso.
You’ll find a pyramid-shaped rock along that Jeep trail running along the toe of the steepest slopes…the one used by the El Paso Electric Company to service their big transmission lines that cross over the mountain. Turn uphill at that big rock marker and scramble up the water courses (we call them Arroyos) which become canyons strewn with boulders, staying away from the lechugilla-infested steep sides. This will be an unmarked, boulder-hopping, steep, windy climb for the next hour or so. You’ll come across big pieces of the landing struts and frame of the aircraft soon, as the terrain gets steeper – some surfaces approaching 60% grades at times. Take care as you climb…both up and back down!
Location of the crash site on the West slopes of the Franklins
If you look carefully around, many artifacts lie scattered amongst the rocks and cactus. Remember that this area is now part of the largest urban state park in Texas, the Franklin Mountain State Park and artifacts are protected. Large pieces of landing gear frame, propellers, engines, titanium turbine blades, small pieces of plexiglass from the windows, wire, instruments, and hunks of aluminum skin…some melted into droplets stuck to the rocky slope…all testifying to the horrific impact and raging fires of the crash.
In the photo below, the slight warping bend and discoloration of a Major’s gold oak leaf collar insignia probably bears mute testimony to the devastation which played out at the time of the crash! The bent titanium jet turbine blades you might spy or the huge broken and bent landing struts all speak to the immense forces at work as the plane stuck the rocky slopes.
Two officer insignia, a Lt. Colonel and a Major, and a titanium jet turbine blade recovered from the crash site.
It all began with a routine ferry mission from the Strategic Air Command Base in Fort Worth (Carswell) to the SAC Base at Ft. Bliss (Biggs Field), located in the flat desert plains spreading out from the Northeast side of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso. In command of this Cold War pre-ICBM nuclear delivery system: Lt. Colonel Herman Gerick. By his side, Major George C. Morford as Co-Pilot, from Pennsylvania. Though the record reflects a huge number of flying hours experience between the flight crew, nothing in the accident investigation report mentions anything at all about the aircraft commander or crew’s background except for one slight reference in the Medical Report of Lt. Colonel Gerick about the possibility of “emotional stress or trauma” from the accident he was involved in six months earlier in England. More on that strange British B-36 accident with this same crew in February 1953 will appear in a later chapter.
Medical Report from Accident Investigation on the Aircraft Commander LTC Gerrick
Suffice to say, this Friday afternoon flight to El Paso to bring in a new B-36D for Biggs AFB seemed normal…until they hit a typical West Texas winter dust and snow storm moving down into the high desert from the Rockies. The crew’s plan for a night of fun in El Paso’s sister city of Juarez at the Dog Track or the Kentucky Club would never happen. Their friend, 1st Sgt. Taliaferro who hitched a ride on that fateful flight with them to the Border Town for a good time that Friday, would never see his new daughter born just a month later in January 1954. Neither would Airman First Class Edwin D. Howe see his daughter, Denine, born in August of 1954.
To help set the scene of the moments before the crash as the B-36 approached El Paso from the east, sit back, relax, close your eyes, and listen to a “radio play” recreation written by the author, based on the actual transcripts from the accident investigation and produced by Capstone Productions Here, then is our interpretation of the final few moments of communication between the crew of AF5003 (the flight number assigned to this B-36D ferry flight) and ground controllers in El Paso and Biggs AFB on that fateful winter day:
…CLICK ON THE IMBEDDED AUDIO TRACK BELOW FEATURING THE CAPSTONE PRODUCTION RADIO PLAY….
B-36 Forward Cabin layout and detail, note the two deck levels within the forward cabin.
Actual photo of snow storm descending over the Franklin Mountains, taken one hour before the crash from the Downtown Federal Courthouse roof on 11 December 1953 1:30pm
Witness Statement by C.H. Coffin whose office was on the 7th Floor of the El Paso Electric Company Building in Downtown El Paso
It ended tragically with a confused few moments of radio chatter, the surge of the jet booster engines roaring at the tip of the wings, and the groan of the airframe against the pull of the flaps trying to avert disaster as the rocky mountainside suddenly appeared and rushed at the wide-eyed crew out of the blanket of snow and dust that had hidden it from their view. It was over before they could do much.
Accident Investigation map of flight path over Downtown El Paso just before the crash.
George Saucedo at one of the first large wreck pieces encountered on the hike.
INHL Director Multhauf illustrates the massive scale of the front landing strut, with the steep terrain and West El Paso in background.
Jim Davison and Chris Multhauf examine a propeller and other big pieces of the wreck at the main impact site…note red crosses painted on rock in background.
One of the B-36D jet engines, with the titanium turbine blades shown closest to camera. Note the blades are bent in a direction indicating the turbine was spinning upon impact.
Dave and strut from landing gear looking out over West El Paso
Liam Etzold, Joseph Perry and David at the wreck site with B-36D jet engine.
Joseph Perry and piece of landing gear strut on rugged slope.
Left wing B-36 propeller assembly.
Yellow-painted tip of B-36 propeller in the left-hand canyon.
Melted aluminum covers the gears of one of the B-36 propeller shaft assemblies.
Hand drawn diagram used in the accident investigation, showing the wreckage dispersal across the steep flanks of Mount Franklin (West is up, North right).
“Bad things happen when you run out of airspeed,
altitude and ideas all at the same time”
In December 2014 we received communication from Richard Tenglin, a retired military Flight Surgeon who has participated in similar accident investigations and has researched this particular El Paso B-36 crash extensively.
HIS ASSESSMENT, QUOTED BY PERMISSION:
“We have, since 1953, incorporated much “human factors” into accident investigation. Such would have made the report in 1954 much more accurate, I suspect. I spent many hours at the Franklin crash site when I was in El Paso. It is one of too many testaments to what happens when fallible humans involve themselves with complex machines and unforgiving natural forces. I’ve been there, read the report….and I know what happened….I think.
LTC Gerick ran a B-36 out of fuel over England in February 1953 after he missed 3 (IIRC) GCA (Ground Control Approach) tries.”
[His fuel gauge indicating empty, LTC Gerick ordered his crew to bail out as he set the auto-pilot and planned to ditch the huge plane in the English countryside. Ironically, the tanks had more fuel than indicated and the plane flew on for several dozen miles, almost crashing into a small village. No one was injured in that incident, thankfully, but one can imagine the accident left him and his crew quite spooked. Some of that crew were on the fateful El Paso flight in December of that year. -added by the author DFE]
“One has to wonder if he felt the guidance from the ground was not good….even in bad weather, GCA landings would not have been a problem for an experienced pilot. He’d done many before.
So on that fateful day over El Paso, he was (inappropriately some say) handed off from El Paso flight control to Approach Control at Biggs Airfield. The controller told him to take a heading of 370 degrees! Gerick responded that there was no such heading, and the controller corrected himself and said 10 degrees.
Now…..here’s a stressed pilot who lost an aircraft 10 months ago due to (possibly) bad ground guidance….and now he gets an incorrect heading from ground personnel at Biggs. That would not have done much for his confidence for attempting another landing in bad weather.
The B-36 was a notoriously “wet” aircraft, and it was wet out. I suspect he lost his radio coms about that time and went to orbit SW of town to try to fix the problem.
Now, here’s another failure of the official report……it states he crashed while on approach to Biggs field. Nonsense. The aircraft was flaps up/gear up…….the report states this……that’s not landing configuration. I’d bet he decided he’d had enough of El Paso and decided to head up to Alamogordo…..but preflight brief probably didn’t include the “local terrain hazards” part (as PIC, his responsibility) and he plowed into the mountain in the clouds.
Bottom Line: I think the Official Report failed to fully account for the impact the problems with ground flight control personnel in England had on LTC Gerick’s mind as he attempted to bring the aircraft into Biggs AF in the face of more bad ground guidance, again in bad weather, and failed to understand that the aircraft was not on approach to Biggs AF…..that, when he headed north out of his orbit SW of town, this had likely become an aborted mission due to bad ground guidance, weather, and faulty equipment.”
-Richard Tenglin, Retired Flight Surgeon USAF
Aircraft Commander Lt. Col. Herman Gerick, and seven members of his regularly assigned Select Combat Crew: 1st Pilot Major George C. Morford; 1st Navigator Major Douglas P. Miner; 1st Flight Engineer 1st Lt. Cary B. Fant, Jr.; 1st Radio Operator M/Sgt. Royal Freeman; Gunner A/1C Edwin David Howe; Gunner A/2C Frank Silvestri; Flight Engineer 1st Lt. James M. Harvey, Jr.; plus one passenger, 1st Sgt. Dewey Taliaferro.
60th Anniversary Memorial invitation from El Paso County Historical Commission
December 14, 2013 – EL PASO: On a crisp, clear Saturday morning in Downtown El Paso, families of two of the lost aircrew, Sargent Dewey Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolifer”, the family informed me) and Major George Morford, gathered in El Paso with members of the El Paso County Historical Commission and interested citizens to honor all nine men who perished sixty years earlier in service to their country. Present at the event were two lovely ladies, widows of two of those lost airmen, supported by scores of their children, grandchildren and other close family. We gathered at the El Paso Community Foundation facility to memorialize that crew and their mission. Later, we drove up North Stanton Street to dedicate the new Historical Monument installed at the end of Stanton near the entrance to the Camelot Condominium.
One family, the Taliaferro’s were from the Fort Worth area, the home of Carswell Air Force Base and big aerospace plants. The other family, the Morford’s, came all the way to El Paso from Pennsylvania for the event. A Military Color Guard from the U S Sargent’s Major Academy at Fort Bliss presented the flags, silence was observed for a moment and the pledge of allegiance began the Memorial Program. Special guest speaker was the retired Commanding General of Fort Bliss, General James Maloney. The event was moderated by the Chairman of the El Paso County Historical Commission, Bernie Sargent.
Bernie Sargent introduces the program at the Memorial in the Foundation Room.
The family of aircraft pilot Major George C Morford, from Pennsylvania. Major Morford’s wife Carolyn, at right, passed away in December 2015. Her son, George, sits to her right.
Mrs. Dewey Taliafero, wife of the unlucky passenger whose friends had invited for a trip to the Border that fateful Friday, and her family at the Memorial Program.
Bernie Sargent, President of the El Paso County Historical Society, helps unveil the new monument.
Mrs.Taliaferro reaches for her husband’s engraved name as Mrs. Carolyn Morford and her son admire the newly dedicated marker.
El Paso County Historical Society Marker dedicated to the El Paso B-36D Crash of December 11, 1953
Grandson of Sargent USAF Dewey Taliaferro, the unlucky passenger who hitched a ride on the fateful flight to El Paso that Friday afternoon…with the author.
Please take a moment to watch this Capstone Productions video of the actual 60th Anniversary Memorial and Commemorative Event from December 14, 2013 at the El Paso Community Foundation …and later at the Dedication of the Historical Monument placed at the top of North Stanton Street, all sponsored by the El Paso County Historical Commission:
The directors and officers of the International National History League (INHL) wish to offer this record of that fateful flight as a testament to the bravery and dedication of these, and so many other, service men and women who have perished in the line of duty for this country.
Skilled Radio Controlled (RC) modelers recently released a video of the flight of a scale model B-36 RC Plane which we feel captures a glimpse into the stunning combination of mechanical coordination and artistic balance this behemoth represented, the largest flying machine of its time:
INCA TRAIL, PERU – In the vicinity of Machu Picchu there appear to be two locations commonly referred to as Llactapata: one is a site about 5 km (3.1 mi) to the west of Machu Picchu, and visible from the “back side” of those ruins near the Quarry if you know where to look; while the other is a site some 15 km (9.3 mi) to the south east of Machu Picchu, at the confluence of the Urubamba River and the Sisaypampa. Both sites have been commonly known as Llactapata; both sites have Incan ruins; both sites are on different stretches of an Andean Mountain trail known as The Inca Trail.
The first day’s trek on the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu leaves from the main checkpoint and crosses a bridge over the Urubamba River, near a village named Piscachuco on the rail line at Kilometer 82, sandwiched between steep flanks of the Andes and the raging river. It’s there where the little market sells your supply of coca leaves for the trip in a neat little green plastic bag. The bridge and checkpoint are down river from the village about a quarter mile.
Bridge over the Urubamba River and Checkpoint at start of the Inca Trail near Piscachuco
Coca leaves, highly recommended for high altitude hiking.
Literature provided by Llama Path, the outfitter/guide we retained, and the research material each of us had read, informed much of the experience we were about to take. Our guide Julian, who had been a guide for over ten years and walked the trial five hundred times, added another layer of quality information as the trek unfolded. Julian would pause and explain a vista, a ruin or the plants along the trail in good, but heavily-accented English. I liked practicing my Spanish with him and the porters in camp and along the trail.
After crossing the bridge, the first day begins with a leisurely walk along the southwest side of the Urubamba River through villages and hamlets, fields and farms. Uphill from the trail, one can catch a glimpse of herdsmen and flocks on the steep slopes. The landscape is lush due to the river and the moisture in the air. We are, also, in the prime rainy season – a fact not lost on us as the miles slipped away underfoot. Julian points out some gloriously-blooming plants along the trail and tells us they are hallucinogenic. We fell like we have stepped into another world.
Hallucinogenic blooms and misty slopes loom over a surrealistic start to the trek!
Our guide points out a lush, blooming pant covering a small hut on the side of the trail: The droopy, gorgeous Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia), native to regions of South America, packs a powerful punch of toxins containing atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. He attributes hallucinations to the use of this plant, but it is far more than that. As documented in the 2007 VBS.tv documentary “Colombian Devil’s Breath“, criminals in Colombia have extracted scopolamine from the plant and used it as a potent drug that leaves victims unaware of what they are doing but entirely conscious. Scopolamine can be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes, allowing criminals to simply blow the powder in a person’s face. The documentary is filled with scopolamine-related horror stories, including one account of a man moving all of his possessions out of his apartment (and into the hands of his robbers) without remembering any of it. This chilling description reminds of the Walking Dead, a real-life zombie poison!
Soon the trail traces up the first of many hills and slopes to come. There’s a flat mesa ahead of us, part of an alluvial fan that slipped off the steep slopes to our left and was now a hill above the river. I could see the top had been prepared for planting and there were men working in those fields.
The trail took us up to that mesa and beyond, to what would be our first good view of an Inca ruin from the trail – at the juncture of a stream coming down from the slopes of Salkantay to our left (southwest) and called the Sisaypampa, and the Urubamba River, a strategic spot for an Inca trade and civic center. We were far above that ancient city, its ruins terraced up the flanks of the pointed hunk of mountain that split the two streams. Julian gave us a little lecture on the significance of this first “Inca City”, which he called Llactapata, from a beautiful flat bench along the side of the trail.
View from above of the trade and civic center called “Llactapata”
Julian explaining the significance of the location for this Inca city, at the confluence of the two rivers.
There are even official signs painted and placed along the Inca Trail that specifically call the first ruin along the trail after the start at Piscachuco “Llactapata”!
Sign along the Inca Trail
Detail of sign at Inca Trail checkpoint, clearly indicating name of ruin was “Llactapata”!
It wasn’t until returning from the journey, actually a couple of years later, that I uncovered this mystery surrounding the two places named Llactapata. You see, there’s another ruin in this region with that name. The other place called Llactapata is also on the Inca Tail, but on a branch far away from the one we were on that day with Julian. The other Llactapata sits on a ridge with a panoramic view across a valley to Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, and isn’t as massive as the ruined city now laid out at our feet. As far as we knew, and for some time thereafter, these ruins that Julian showed us on the way to Wayllabamba were the Inca ruins known as Llactapata.
However, relying on the accounts from the original discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, we found that the name of the place Julian showed us should actually be Patallacta! According to Bingham, who passed Patallacta on his exploratory adventure to find Machu Picchu, this place sometimes is given the name of Llactapata – as evidenced by the photograph above of a sign at a check-point along the Inca trail. According to Bingham’s writings, Llacta Pata is a descriptive term: “llacta” means “town” and “pata” means “a height”. Thus, more than one site has been, and is, referred to by this name. Here was the answer to the mystery!
His associate Mr. Herman Tucker reported that the name of the large Inca ruin next to the Urubamba River was actually Patallacta, commenting that it contained about one hundred houses, a better match for this first major ruin we studied on the trail. This name was confirmed by archeological work in the area years later by Ann Kindal.
Had we seen this sign post on our journey, it would have raised a few questions and created some interesting conversation, I am sure. I can’t imagine how we missed it, our photos look to be taken from the same spot off the trail.
Official signpost along the Inca Trail….whoops!
Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cusco in 1536 to discourage Spanish pursuit. In part due to these efforts, the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or any of its settlements. Above that ruin, were several important sites including Wayllabamba, our night’s destination camp, on the banks of the Sisaypampa.
Map of Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – erroneously labeling Patallacta as Llactapata
The “real” Llactapata was a smaller, more elite establishment, higher in elevation and with better vistas. The Llactapata on the ridge to the west of Machu Picchu (at: 13°10′32″S 72°35′10″W) appears to be the site originally reported by Bingham as having this name. Although the site was little explored by Bingham, it was more extensively explored and mapped by the Thomson and Ziegler expedition of 2003.
View East to Machu Picchu from the ridge where the real Llactapata rests.
Topographic Map of Inca Trail
Hiram Bingham first discovered the real Llactapata in 1912. “We found evidence that some Inca chieftain had built his home here and had included in the plan ten or a dozen buildings.” Bingham locates the site “on top of a ridge between the valleys of the Aobamba and the Salcantay, about 5,000 feet above the estate of Huaquina” and said, “Here we discovered a number of ruins and two or three modern huts. The Indians said that the place was called Llacta Pata.” This is much smaller than the trade center at Patallacta down in the Urubamba River valley. Bingham did not investigate the ruins thoroughly, however, and they were not studied again for another 70 years.
A mid-2003 study of the site conducted by Thomson and Ziegler concluded that Llactapata’s location along the Inca trail suggested that it was an important rest stop and roadside shrine on the journey to Machu Picchu. The complex is located some four to five kilometers west of Machu Picchu high on a ridge between the Aobamba and Santa Teresa drainages. Llactapata may have been a member of the network of interrelated administrative and ceremonial sites which supported the regional center at Machu Picchu. It probably played an important astronomical function for the Inca during solstices and equinoxes.
This 2003 Thomson-Ziegler exploration and subsequent investigations have revealed an extensive complex of features related to and connected with Machu Picchu by a continuation of the Inca Trail leading onward through Llactapata and into the legendary Vilcabamba region. Vilcabamba was a city founded by Manco Inca in 1539 and was the last refuge of the Inca Empire until it fell to the Spaniards in 1572, signaling the end of Inca resistance to Spanish rule. Extensive archeological work by Vincent Lee, and especially his exhaustive study, “Forgotten Vilcabamba” in 2000, gave further and even more precise confirmation that has made the ruins known as Espíritu Pampa the definitively accepted site of the historical Vilcabamba.