Vista Grande fifth-graders go 'back in time' with field trip to El Morro
Monday, May 12, 2008
By Gary Herron, Observer staff writer

One-hundred and fifty years after Sallie Fox traversed the Santa Fe Trail on her way to a new life in California, some fifth-graders from Vista Grande Elementary did likewise.

The latest batch - 150 students, all told, made the field trip. Two classes headed west on I-40 on Thursday morning, eagerly anticipating a visit to El Morro National Monument.

On March 11, 1583, Spanish expedition camped there and named it El Estanque del Penol, "the waterhole of the rock." Famed explorer Don Juan de Onate visited there many times, even engraving his name on "the rock" on April 16, 1605.

El Morro once was regarded as a welcome landmark for weary travelers, where water could be found, and thousands of pioneers camped there.

Young Sallie Fox was among them, and the class recently read a fictional account of her journey west, "Sallie Fox, The Story of a Pioneer Girl," for background information.

Fox and her family passed through the area in 1858, and the 12-year-old girl had etched her name on the sandstone bluff, also known as "Inscription Rock," on their journey from Independence, Mo., through Albuquerque and all the way to the Colorado River. A bout with rampaging Indians resulted in the death of her father and a retreat to Albuquerque, more than 400 miles away.

Sallie and what was left of her family later took an alternative southerly route to safely arrive in California, where she became a schoolteacher and spent the rest of her life.

Vista Grande students didn't face any hostile Native Americans, get seared by intense heat, battle fatigue or become dehydrated. Nor did they have to kill buffalo for food.

All these kids did was have a great time. A few had visited El Morro before, and Turrietta said he’d taken older siblings of several of his current students in previous trips there.

"They (were) revved up and excited to go see a rock - and El Morro is just a big rock," Turrietta said.

The weather was excellent, although the wind kicked up in the mid-afternoon, but nobody was blown off the top to El Morro.

Although the charter bus arrived on the Vista Grande campus 90 minutes later than scheduled, teacher Cindy Shafer took the initiative of being a "scout" of sorts, leaving before the bus and arriving at the Dairy Queen near Grants with the food order to save time at that stop.

The bus was a buzz of noise, some students chatting, others listening to music, some sending messages back and forth via their "DS" devices. "Alvin and the Chipmunks" played on the in-bus DVD system, so there was plenty of laughter, too, on the way west.

After exiting I-40 and winding along NM 53, which passed through a portion of El Malpais National Monument, Turrietta grabbed the bus's microphone at 1:44 p.m. to announce majestic El Morro rising in the distance.

After a quick bathroom break, students - a few boys even seeing a snake along the way - hiked to the base of El Morro to view the countless inscriptions, many ravaged by hundreds of years of wind and rain, some even vandalized. (Coincidentally, KRQE-TV ran a segment about that subject on its 10 p.m. news that same night.)

Ranger Gayle Weaver, only in her fourth week of duty at El Morro, was available for questions, but Turrietta was the best source of information for the combined classes.

"They don't have docents and that's the way we like it," Turrietta said of the adventure. "I like this age and teaching history, too."

He recalled one memorable trip there when "We saw rain, sleet, hail, snow, thunder and lightning all in one trip."

Some field trips are just for fun. This trip "had to be earned," he said, and was a learning experience, capping the reading of the book and getting to know more about the state's glamorous history up close.

"My interest has never been to just go on a field trip," he explained.

After viewing and photo-graphing many of the names from the past, the students - some grudgingly because they were out of shape - hiked to the top of El Morro, where they saw what was left of two ancient villages, now called "A'ts'ina" (Navajo word).

The ruins, built about 1375 A.D. and once homes for at least 1,500 people, were abandoned about 1400. Students asked Ranger Bob Stealey several questions before hiking back down and stopping at the visitors center for souvenirs.

After a final stop at the restrooms, students boarded the bus for the ride back to Rio Rancho.

Turrietta has taught in Rio Rancho Public Schools since the district began in 1994. A graduate of Valley High School, he taught in Dolores Gonzales, La Mesa and Montezuma elementary schools in Albuquerque Public Schools before starting with RRPS at Rio Rancho Elementary.

The students weren't allowed to etch their own names into El Morro. Federal law enacted in 1906 prohibited further carving there.

The trips were made possible through a $900 Target field trip grant and was one of 1,600 projects selected from more than 16,000 submitted by schools across the U.S.