We passed Walsenburg; suddenly we passed Trinidad where Hal Chase was somewhere off the road in front of a campfire with Ginger and perhaps a handful of anthropologists and as of yore he too was telling his life story and never dreamed we were passing at that exact moment in the hiway headed for Mexico telling our own stories. Oh sad American night! The Original Scroll, Jack Kerouac
by Joseph Tarabino
In May 1950, on the night of the full moon, Jack Kerouac and two of his early Beat movement friends drove south from Denver toward Mexico City on what was then called the Colorado to Gulf Highway, now known as US 85/87. This episode is recorded as the last great trip of his landmark novel, On the Road.
US Highway 85 was originally an extension of Route 466, proposed in a 1925 plan to develop the south-to-north United States highway system between Mexico and Canada. Sections of it were also known as the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway. U S 87 was established as a partial extension and realignment of U S 85 and completed in 1936.
Much had changed between 1913 and when Kerouac headed south from Denver to Mexico in the final north south trip in what had originally been primarily east-west trips. The roads he knew in many ways do not exist anymore; he was ‘flying and rattling south’ in a ‘little Ford model 1937 –Model T—T-Zone V-8’ on a great adventure which does not compare with modern cars, roads and, most importantly, a different attitude.
Even more has changed since the narrow, two lane highways sauntered through Colorado Springs down Nevada Avenue, or Pueblo on Lake Avenue, or wound through downtown Trinidad on the Arizona Street Parkway and up Country Club Drive. Now General Eisenhower’s vast interstate highway system bypasses Walsenburg, Aguilar, and Raton, and soars bumpily over Trinidad and its thirty year old gateway Colorado Welcome Center.
The final chapter in the history of this fabled road was completed with the final section of Interstate 25 replacing U S Highway 87 and most of Highway 85 for north/south traffic. With the construction of Denver’s Valley Highway, begun in 1948 and completed in 1958, the final 21 mile segment from Walsenburg to Trinidad was left to be completed in 1969. The original cost of the highway was $125 million, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation website.
While the Colorado to Gulf Highway remains an important artery from the southern states into Colorado, especially from Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, its cultural and economic value declined during the latter half of the twentieth century.
A more successful transformation of a historic trail into a major roadway during that period involved the Santa Fe Trail. Its growth, however, was the result of the most successful tourism promotion of the period: Fred Harvey and his Indian Detours program, which utilized the Santa Fe Railway to develop interest in and support for the cultural, artistic and scenic attributes of the region. Its primary successes involved developing sites like Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but it failed to find lasting support north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Eventually, rail travel was all but driven out of business by the boom which followed the Depression and Second World War, resulting in the popularity of automobiles, cheap gas, and the interstate highway system.
Another recent development involving southern Colorado and northern New Mexico involved the I-25 Eco-Development Project which sought to link Colorado Springs with Trinidad by working with public and private sectors to market that southern Colorado corridor. Begun in the spring of 2013 with meetings in Trinidad, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, it featured a website highlighting the major attractions along the route and a comprehensive calendar of events. The site, although very visitor friendly and efficiently designed, was not well supported by tourism interests and has recently been closed.
A reminder of its goals to “experience southern Colorado,” however, continues to exist in its brochure which is still on display at the Colorado Welcome Center in Trinidad.