. What common substance, made of little white flecks, has played a major role in the development of cities and empires throughout history?
. What common substance has been used as a food preservative for about 12002 years, give or take twenty minutes?
. What common substance has been a convenient source of sodium, and is frequently paired with pepper?
. What does a cow like to lick?
. What common substance is referred to as NaCl?
I’ve given you some big hints. Here’s another one: it’s salt. In the 19th century, Liverpool, England grew enormously when it became the prime exporting port for salt. Poland became a great empire in the 16th century partly because of its salt mines. Throughout history cities and states along salt roads exacted heavy duties and taxes for the salt that others carried through their territories.
Before Lewis and Clark set out for the Louisiana Territory, President Thomas Jefferson in his address to Congress talked of a mountain of salt that was supposed to lie near the Missouri River. He used the expected revenue from the salt as justification for the expense of the explorers’ trip. In a famous march for independence, Mohandas Gandhi organized the Salt Satyagraha, a protest against the British salt tax.
In the days 12002 years ago, give or take twenty minutes, being able to preserve food allowed human tribes to venture farther away from home. Salt was the key to preventing food spoilage. Ta-da! Exploration! The spread of civilization!
Eating salt gets sodium into our bodies. The right amount of sodium helps maintain a balance of electrolytes and keeps us properly hydrated. Sodium plays a role in cooling down the body after intense activity. This is important to hikers, such as your two current Highpointers. Without a balance of sodium, all kinds of nasty biological things can happen to us, including the possibility of exhaustion or stroke.
The National Academies of Science Health Medical Division recommends an intake of 1500 milligrams of sodium per day for healthy living, with an upper limit of 2300 mg per day. How much is that in real life? One teaspoon of table salt is the equivalent of 2325 milligrams of sodium, just over the maximum. Keep in mind that about 75% of our salt intake comes from the foods we eat, so that means we’d be smart not to shake so much at dinner.
We Americans are experiencing an epidemic of obesity and other health problems due to our crappy eating habits, including the overabundance of ingested salt. Just stop by at your neighborhood Walmart for substantiation.
The daily average adult intake of sodium is — now heed this — 3400 milligrams. This is more than twice the recommended daily intake for a balanced diet. C’mon people!
Salt plays an important role in the Bible. In Genesis 19:26, we have this verse about a famous boner: “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”
In Matthew 5:13, it says, “You are the salt of the earth.”
There are a number of other salt references in the Bible although this book of tales does not offer parables about the use of salt on icy roads. We figured that one out ourselves. Cows use salt licks to get needed minerals into their bodies. Also moose, sheep, squirrels, porcupines, elephants and goats lick these things. We use salt to soften our hard water.
During food preparation, salt is used to remove blood from meat. This is part of the koshering process used by Jews who have a prohibition against consuming blood. Answers the age-old question about why there are no Jewish vampires. Read and learn.
And of course, two peanuts walk into a bar. One was a salted.
Why, why am I going on about salt? It should be obvious by now that salt is an integral part of our nutritional and commercial lives. Also, out here in the Texas west, there is a hell of a lot of salt.
Driving west from McKittrick Canyon after our little summit hike, winding among impressive mountains of rock through Guadalupe Pass, straightening out and shooting through the brush and cactus of the Chihuahuan Desert, we see what appears to be an ocean ahead. We know this flat, light grey, shimmering visage is not water. Getting closer, the brown dirt of the surrounding terrain fades into white salt. Behold the Salt Flats, a remnant of an ancient shallow lake.
But first… In the midst of all this salt and geology and history lies a small town called Salt Flat. Whatd’ya think it was gonna be called, Cleveland?
The distance between the two largest populated areas around here, El Paso, Texas and Carlsbad, New Mexico, is about 165 miles as the crow drives. Circa 1929 a highway was completed connecting these two cities to each other. Enterprising vegetable farmer J W Hammack built a store and a gas station half way between, perfect for travelers to refresh. No dummy, he. In no time soon, a guy named Arthur Grable, holder of a lease to this land and possibly a bit of an authority on the salt flats, built another store and a gas station just a few minutes up the road. No dummy, he too. They both opened cafes and what were called “tourist courts” or what we now call motels. Hammack’s doubled as a bus station.
Things were going full on when, in response to an American Airlines plane crashing in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains, the government built a landing strip here. This was to provide a safe place to put down on the occasions when the Guadalupes were fogged in or weather conditions were too rough to fly over the mountains. This helped business considerably, you can imagine.
This small pocket of humanity in the midst of the salt flats became the unincorporated town of, you guessed it, Salt Flat, Texas. Salt Flat got its own post office in 1941 and over the next dozen years, the population soared to 20 citizens. In ten more years, it had exploded to 70. The population dropped off until now, according to Ranger Mike at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, there is one family that still lives here, in the house out back of the cafe. Mike says that the woman who lives there keeps the restaurant open, a sporadic operation at best. The rest of the place is a collection of abandoned and deteriorating buildings, various artifacts and genuine crap.
Let’s poke around. Confirming Ranger Mike’s description, we see, as we peer through the front windows of the closed cafe, clear sign that the place is still operating. Today is Easter Sunday so we don’t expect anyone to be here. On the front porch are a Coca-Cola machine and a telephone booth. Telephone booth? Really. Do you know what a telephone booth is? A Greyhound Bus sign is sunk into the ground on the side of the building.
I’ll tell you what. If I were the Salt Flat Visitors Bureau, I would proudly put up a sign that says…
VISIT THE SALT FLAT SALT FLATS
Exactly two miles up the road from the Hammack café in Salt Flat, we see the ruins of a building. We wonder if this is the second store, the Grable property.
Let’s go on a history journey. Cast your minds back to the days before you were born. Come to this area of the midwestern United States. To the Apache and Tigua tribes, the locals, salt was sacred. It had so many uses, including the tanning of animal hides and the preservation of food (remember, no refrigeration.) Salt was used to remove odors from the hands, to keep ants away and to reduce the pain and swelling of bug bites. Salt was even used in the smelting of silver and gold. And oh yes, salt was a popular condiment.
The first known expedition to collect salt was led by Inigo Montoya in 1692. No, that’s not true at all. It was Diego de Vargas who led the expedition. Señor de Vargas, who also painted portraits of impossibly voluptuous women for Playboy Magazine (also not true,) led journeys in search of salt deposits in and around the Guadalupe Mountains. An Apache prisoner led de Vargas and twenty Spanish soldiers to the base of the Guadalupes after a four day trek across the desert. There, behold, was salt. And quite a lot of it. de Vargas collected a sample of the salt and returned to what is now Mexico, thus paving the way, so to speak, for future Spanish expeditions.
After the Mexican-American War, some 5000 Mexicans chose to remain in the El Paso valley region as citizens of the United States of America. They supplemented their income from farming and livestock grazing by collecting salt and trading it for other valuable commodities. Sometimes traveling as far as 70 miles, they would transport the salt on mule drawn wagons in the desert heat, resisting the occasional attack from Apache. What a life!
Before the war, Spanish law was clear that the salt flats was common land, not owned by any one individual, open to all. After the Treaty, the American government, recognizing that unowned land was unclaimed land, reasoned that anyone who filed a claim could take possession. The Mexicans, after so many years of carefree sharing, didn’t give much thought to filing claims.
Bad move, my neighbors below the border. Because of your lack of action, things began to rapidly, uh, turn south. All that salt you had been collecting for free? Fahgettaboudit. No more.
The story of the El Paso Salt War, or the Salt War of San Elizario, is a long story with a wealth of characters and it does go on. The cast includes businessmen, a senator, lawyers, judges, priests, Mexicans and Americans and more. Several of the businessmen formed alliances in order to claim as much of the salt flat as they could. They succumbed to greed, turned on each other and made a mess of things, exploiting thousands of the area’s residents, both Mexican and American. This one betrayed that one, that one murdered another, shaky alliances were forged and dramatically dissolved. An execution closed out this chapter utilizing a firing squad to lay waste to one of the key players as well as several Texas Rangers.
Scratch the surface and you can always find a fool. Here’s one, for example. After the shooting, one of the executioners ran up to the baddest of the bad as he lay on the ground lifeless. Obviously not understanding that dead is dead, the executioner tried to slash the dead man’s face with a machete. Instead of adding more cuts to the deceased, this moron missed his target and deftly sliced off two of his own toes.
Put salt in that wound, eh?