They call New Mexico “The Land of Enchantment” because every highway is a bracelet laden with charms.
Highway 84 south from Colorado, for example, is overrun with wonders.
There’s the famous Ghost Ranch of painter Georgia O’Keefe. You see lakes and rivers, peaks and valleys.
At one point, the small town “Coyote” comes trotting along on the heels of another town called “Gallina” (hen).
Old churches abound, as do historical markers.
And one of my favorite markers sits just off I-25. It's a little "gem” celebrating the Mormon Battalion.
In other states the monument might have been an afterthought. But in New Mexico it’s viewed as a jewel, meriting a blacktop parking lot with spaces for 20 cars. The monument shows up in high-relief in guidebooks and in tourist manuals. Websites label it a “should see” and huge freeway signs make sure motorists keep it on their radar. (Take exit 257 west off of I-25 to get there)
Most historical markers are plain-Jane affairs. Usually there’s a plaque bolted into a boulder or a slab of concrete featuring names and dates.
But for the Mormon Battalion, the marker-makers — like the battalion itself — went the extra mile.
They created a 25-foot high pyramid with a metal wagon wheel balanced on top.
From the freeway the display looks like the all-seeing eye of God on the back of a dollar bill.
The Mormon Battalion Monument off I-25 in New Mexico features a wagon wheel balanced on top of a stone structure. | Jerry Johnston, Deseret News
It looks like a wagon wheel on an altar being offered to the Almighty.
In fact, with the magic of New Mexico in the air, one's mind flashes on all kinds of things.
It looked a bit like a square and compass.
The wagon wheel, like the battalion, had risen above the stony ground to roll on to glory.
(Sorry. New Mexico does that).
Historical accounts say the Mormon Battalion was greeted at Santa Fe with salutes of cannon fire and welcoming cheers. They were seen as heroes.
Today, the inscription on the monument comes from the writings of battalion commander Col. Philip St. George Cooke, a first-rate military man with a poet’s heart. The inscription, in fact, may be one reason the monument remains a favorite.
He writes of his troops marching “half naked and half fed and living upon wild animals” as they clawed and scratched their way toward California.
He brings the ordeal to life and gives the trek its epic due.
After Santa Fe, the battalion marched down across what is today the boot-heel of New Mexico and into Old Mexico. I’ve driven that route. They are the baddest badlands in the American West. (Mark Twain, bless his heart, thought he was “roughing it” when he crossed the West in a coach).
Driving away, I thought again about that wagon wheel balanced on the pyramid. It seemed to be a “circle of life” thing.
“My business is circumference,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
As was the business of the Mormon Battalion. The soldiers eventually came full circle, like migrating birds.
Like all the rest of us.