CIMARRON, N.M. — Forest Road 1950 is a shortcut through distance and time. Sixty miles long, it shaves 20 miles off the trip to the Ski Rio resort. But it also covers 4,000 years of history; the ancestors of the Ute and Apache lived here.
Scattered along the roadside and byways are the ruins of logging and mining towns, toppled trestles, decaying 19th-Century ranches and 20 abandoned sawmill sites.
There are pit houses, stone weapons, hunting blinds and stone drawings from Indian prehistory, set against rolling green valleys and the craggy Sangre de Cristos, more than 13,000 feet high, snowcapped all summer long.
It is all preserved or under the care of the U.S. Forest Service, but it is an adventure open to anyone to whom a road is more than a means to get from here to there. All along the way, people long dead have left the artifacts of their lives, a rambling museum of the way we were.
Almost as soon as a car leaves U.S. 64, with which the gravel road intersects east of Cimarron, motorists are in the ancient land of hunter-gatherers.
U.S. Forest Service archeologist Jon Young said a 4,000-year-old fire hearth was removed within the road's first mile. It was believed to have been used by ancient hunters seeking elk or buffalo.
Asked if he isn't concerned promoting might spoil it, he said it's a slice of nature that belongs to the U.S. public, here to be shared by everyone.
At the end of the road, near the Colorado state line, is the meandering Rio Costilla and the ski resort that bears its name.
"The history or the prehistory of this part of the world is, in the beginning 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, man made his living here by hunting big game," Young said while driving the road.
But then the big game began disappearing, he said. Man had to find another way to make a living. He became a farmer, which meant moving to more arable land.
"You can't farm here, but they still came back to hunt it," he said. "I've got a (hunting) site up here that goes back, say, 2,000 years. It comes right up to yesterday's Apaches, so it was used continuously for 2,000 years off and on, over and over again."
The road passes beneath a series of bluffs and overhangs. Young pointed ahead at one of them.
"I excavated a pit house there that dates to about AD 1200--about 800 years old. . . . The pit houses here were really just scooped-out holes in the ground, probably more windbreak than anything else."
Young gestureed toward a roadside boulder of sandstone, saying similar stones found nearby were worn smooth by grinding in prehistoric times--probably to make acorn meal.
"We know the Apaches make an acorn stew," he said. "I think they also make a bread out of it."
As he described fish-tailed leaf fossils found along the creek below, a red-tailed hawk soared overhead.
"I've also seen bald eagles in here," Young said, "and I've seen quite a few golden eagles."
Other wildlife along the road, he said, include bear, elk, deer, turkey and mountain lion.
"We have the world's largest herd of trophy elk," he said.
During a side trip down the southern Valle Vidal, Young pointed out a pictograph of an elk drawn on white stone in a 300-year-old Indian hunting shelter. The rock overhang--stained black by smoke from centuries of campfires--looks down on the abandoned timber town of Ponil Park.
Ponil Park once was a thriving community with two railroad bridges. Now only a few upright timbers remain of the trestles. The cabins that once housed loggers are collapsing.
The town cemetery has a unique carved limestone obelisk with a cross made of four elongated hearts and topped by an eight-pointed sunburst or star. Young said he has not been able to learn its origin.
Another gravestone bears the inscription: "In memory of Jane Matilda Moore. Born Nov. 28, 1864, Died July 2, 1883." Young said she died at 18 after nursing a younger brother back from scarlet fever which then claimed her life.
Other ghost towns a short way off-road include La Belle, forerunner of Red River, and Ring, N.M.
At the Ring Ranch, two miles north of Ring, the Forest Service has halted the collapse of old ranch buildings. Motorists driving Forest Road 1950 will find an interpretive trail leading to the ranch from McCrystal Campground, about halfway between U.S. 64 and N.M. 196 at Ski Rio.
The ranch, with its authentic two-story log cabin, barn and root cellar, is part of a 100,000-acre addition to the Carson National Forest donated about 12 years ago by Pennzoil Corp.
Timothy Ring came to the United States from Ireland just in time for the Civil War, fought on the Union side and took a bullet in a lung.
Ring purchased the 320-acre ranch in 1890 for $960, Young said.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, Ring married Irish-born Catherine Byrnes in Chicago after the Civil War. They had seven daughters--Margaret, Mabel, Mary, Maud, Myrtle, Amy and Anna. The last of them, Anna, died in 1984 at age 92.
The Rings had no sons, and only Margaret and Amy ever married. When Timothy Ring died in 1903, there were no men to run the ranch.
Catherine Ring sold it in 1906, but the property continued as a ranch until the 1980s, Young said.