In April, 1942, 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers were captured by the invading Japanese army on the Bataan Pennesula in the Philliphines. The prisoners were made to endure a 90-mile forced march to their prison, which took a week. During the march, the prisoners were brutalized, beaten, and killed by their captors. Of the 76,000 who started the march, only 54,000 reached their destination.   

Every year, thousands of people gather in the high mesas of New Mexico to honor those brave men and the suffering they endured. They honor them by taking part in the Bataan Memorial Death March. 

I first heard about the Memorial Death March from a magazine article. I had just completed the Tulsa Run 15K marathon; I was feeling pretty sure of myself, and  figured it was something I could do. I already knew the history of the Bataan Death March, and saw this as something unique. As the March grew closer, other reasons became clear...

The Journey West

The day before I headed out for New Mexico, the Death March sent an email to all participants, warning of wind gusts could get up to over 50 MPH! Mother Nature was not working with me. Friday morning, March 27th, I was up at 6 AM. The first thing I did was check the Weather Channel. It was 50 degrees out in Broken Arrow, cloudy and windy. A big storm was dumping tons of snow on the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, right in the direction I was headed. They reported I-40 was closed? That would mess things up. I pulled out of the driveway at 7:30. Crossing the river, the Tulsa skyline was shrouded in mist. It started to sprinkle as I hit the turnpike at 8 AM. Ten minutes later, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning, which included nickel-sized hail on a line near Bristow. Just then, I passed a sign: 14 miles to Bristow.

An emergency truck hurried past me. The air soon grew icy. Lightning flashed on the horizon, soon followed by heavy, pelting rain that pounded down on me. I kept waiting for it to start hailing. To the west, the sky brightened as the tail end of the front began to get closer. I knew that if a tornado was going to drop down, that was the part of the storm where it'd come from. Directly ahead, a brilliantly bright bolt of lightning crashed down about a half mile up the road. I continued along the highway as the trailing edge rolled overhead. There was another line of clouds coming up behind it. At the toll booth, I stopped to ask the attendant about conditions ahead. He said western Oklahoma was "pretty rough." A sign ahead flashed "no delays" on the interstate. At 8:40, I stopped at the midway McDonald's. I was feeling a little shell-shocked from driving through the storm. There was ice on the sides of the road. There was a TV in the restaurant set on the local TV station. It said I-40 from Amarillo to New Mexico was closed, which was okay, because I planned on heading south on I-27 at Amarillo. It also said there was 6 to 10 inches of show ahead near Clinton. I headed west into a thick drizzle. A sign said it was 38 degrees out when I got to Oklahoma City and turned onto Interstate 40 west. Northbound highways were being closed off. The sky was a uniform bluish-grey. There was a fierce crosswind out of the north. A little pond by the side of the highway had whitecaps from the wind. Flags stretched straight out from the poles. I had to keep alternating between using the heater, to stay warm, and the defroster, so I could see where I was going.
About three hours after leaving home, I stopped at the Cherokee Truck Stop off Exit 108 and got a Dr. Pepper. When I turned off the engine, the car still bounced around from the wind. That was where I put on my parka. It was still 215 miles to Amarillo.I started getting text messages about road conditions ahead:  warnings of ice, snow and blizzard conditions around Amarillo. It seems both I-40 and I-27 were closed. I found Weatherford under dreary, grey skies. The clouds were hanging very low around Clinton. It was foggy ahead when I rolled into a curtain of rain. The rain pounded down until it turned to hail, and then sleet for a half hour. Fields beside the highway were white with falling ice. I kept getting text message warnings from friends: "find another route" and "once you hit the border, it's BAD." Twenty miles from the Texas border, I finally took the hint and got off I-40, turning south on Highway 283. It was 32 miles to Mangum. Once I got away from I-40, the landscape was much less frozen. Parts of the road were even dry as I drove past wild, lonely farmland. Scrubby trees poked reached out of fields. A mountain loomed in the distance. A sign on a barbed-wire fence read simply GOD BE WITH YOU. I arrived in Mangum, Oklahoma at 12:40. A sign proudly proclaimed it was the hometown of Braden Looper, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. The water tower announced it wasn't just the county seat of Greer County, it was "the Capitol of Greer County."

Highway 283 turned east, so I went through downtown Mangum and turned south on Highway 34. It began to rain again. The Texas map I had didn't show all of Oklahoma, but it did show the town of Hollis, right on the border. I headed south to the town of East Duke (founded 1907) and took Highway 62 west towards Hollis. I passed a big gypsum plant right as the rain turned to sleet. The wind picked up, too. The almost limitless expanses of western Oklahoma leave nothing to slow down winds that had been building up speed since Canada. The wind doesn't just come sweeping down the plains-- it hauls ass. I went through the town of Gould, about two intersections big and 43 miles from Childress. At 1:19 I arrived in Hollis, which proudly proclaims it's the birthplace of several major league players and university coaches. I made a pit stop and ate one of the sandwiches I'd brought. When I was done, I went down Broadway, headed west. Five miles down the road I crossed the border into Texas, buffeted back and forth by harsh winds. On either side of the two-lane road were fields frosted with ice. Frozen mist hung in the air. It looked worse and worse ahead as I passed the Loco Cemetery, so when I got to an intersection I turned south towards Childress. I kept thinking I could circle around the storm that seemed to have taken over the Texas panhandle. Precipitation stopped as soon as I turned south. Several snowplows passed me northbound into frozen territory.

The sky started to sleet again just before I got to Childress, where I turned west on Highway 287. Four miles out of town, snow began blowing across the road in front of me. It was odd to pass fields of cactus, frosted with snow. At 2:22 I went through the town of Estelline, past an old-time red & white roadside diner, and turned west on Highway 86. It looked like 86 would take me the rest of the way through Texas. Highway 86 was a lonely road, with almost no other traffic. Right before 3 PM, I stopped in Turkey, Texas, home of musician Bob Wills, who was remembered so fondly back in Tulsa. I made a pit stop and got $20 of gas at the Allsup's station. Driving through the small town, I passed a Bob Wills Museum, a monument to the musician in the city park, and the Turkey Fire Department (that's a t-shirt I need). Just outside of town, snow drifts lined the highway... alongside a sign announcing a burn ban was still in effect. I think the home team is the Patriots. Down the road was the charming little town of Quitaque (pronounced "kitty-quay"). It sits near the entrance to Caprock Canyons State Park, and the road out of town offered some amazing views of snow-covered canyons and buttes.
That was where snow started blowing across the road in little waves, and the pavement started to get slippery. Luckily, the landscape soon flattened out. The frigid weather seemed to have driven everyone indoors when I passed through Silverton, Texas, the county seat of Briscoe County. (I wondered if Briscoe County Jr. was down the road...) The highway became straight, flat and pointed directly west as snow blew across my path. The air was icy and bitterly cold.
To the south, a break in the clouds showed a patch of blue... and then more snow. The snow really started coming down hard near Tulia, where I turned left at the Sonic Drive-in to follow 86 west. By the time I crossed over into Castro County, visibility was about 100 yard. Going through Nazareth, Texas, I was surprised to see their high school football team was the Swifts. (I would have guessed, gee, I dunno, the Saints? The Angels...?) The girls team is the Swiftettes. This was where visibility went down to zero as the snow hammered down on the broad Texas landscape. I slowed down to a crawl until I could find the road again. Several miles ahead, the town of Dimmit spread out into wide, empty streets and towering grain elevators. Ice was caked around Satori's radio antenna. Snow drifts were piling up alongside the highway. Ahead, the semi trailer truck fishtailed on the slippery asphalt but regained control.
For a couple of miles, I could not make out the road at all-- it was all covered in snow, and I just guessed where it was by staying between the rows of telephone poles. When the snow did poke out between the clouds, the glare was blinding. Tall grain elevators lined the town of Bovina, where I turned south on Highway 60 towards Clovis.
When I passed through Texico, Texas, it was 5:23 PM, but just over the border it was 4:23. I was in Mountain Time. It was another 8 miles to Clovis, New Mexico, elevation 4,260 feet. I stopped for some supplies. Ice covered my van, and spread out in Spirographic patterns around the hubcaps. The main road through town is Prince Street, and as I headed west the road looked clear, but the sun was getting low in the sky. As bad as the roads had been all day, I did not want to be out on them after dark. Snow swirled in the road and piled in much smaller roadside drifts. I passed a dog racing track.
It's hard to tell where Clovis ends and Portales ("A good place to live, dine and shop.") begins, the roadsides are so developed. I was on Highway 70, which twists and turns through downtown Portales before heading off to the southwest. I seemed to pass out of the area of snowfall. It was still very cold. Beyond Portales, Highway 70 turned into a wide, clear 4-lane road with almost no traffic. I found myself cruising along at 80 MPH when I spotted a police car and realized I had no idea what the speed limit was. I slowed down to 65. Satori's gas light came on just before Elida, New Mexico ("Home of the Tigers"), so I stopped for some gas. The nozzle at the gas station was frozen; the attendant had to set me up at another pump. From there, it was 62 miles to Roswell. It began to snow again, blowing pretty heavily across the road. My neck was stiff from all the driving and stress. My cellphone registered no service. The snow stopped.
Sunlight broke through the western clouds; heavenly light drifted down through the low-lying clouds like the stained glass windows of a cathedral. Cobalt blue mountains rose on the horizon. The landscape spread out for hundreds of miles ahead, a dozen colors of purple and blue. I found a Roswell radio station ("Greatest hits on the planet!") which reported I-40 was completely closed all across the Texas panhandle. I was glad I heeded the warnings and turned south when I did. At 6:32 New Mexico time I pulled into Roswell. It seemed like a regular, prosperous town, with stores, malls and shopping centers, until I spotted a design on a bridge railing: the green face and big eyes of an extraterrestrial. I made my way across town to the RV park I'd found online. I pulled up alongside the office at 6:48, just as the Sun was right on the horizon. The ground was dry. Inside the office were two big aquariums, stocked with... piranhas? I checked in: $29 for the night. I asked about the snow, or lack of it. "We had a dusting this morning," the manager said, "about a quarter inch, but it melted away." I pulled into my spot for the night and got out to stretch my legs. The bathroom had a combination lock on the door. Inside, it was clean, warm (well, warmer) and had big showers. I called home, sent texts to friends, and got settled in for the night. Supper was two hard-boiled eggs and an apple. I spread out my sleeping bag in the back of the van and tucked myself in for the night.
It was a miserable night. I couldn't seem to get comfortable. I kept waking up every hour, shivering from the cold. It was absolutely frigid out. Even with two sleeping bags, it was all I could do to stay warm. All the heat just kept getting sucked out of me. About 3 AM, the temperatures plunged even lower, so I got out the third sleeping bag. Cocooned within all those layers, I was finally able to fall into a sleep deep enough to dream... I woke at sunrise, Saturday morning, the early morning light glistening off the ice crystals on the windows.
I went to the bathrooms to take a hot shower, and managed to warm up a little. An inspection of the van found ice all over. The Friday sleet had coated the interiors of the wheel wells with about two inches of ice, and there was a layer all along the undercarriage of the vehicle. No wonder I was so cold that night-- I was sleeping inside a big ice cube! I got into my stores and ate a big breakfast: two hard-boiled eggs, an orange, cheese and a can of V-8. As I sat there, an old man appeared at my window. He wondered where I'd been to get so much ice all over my car. He was headed for Springfield, Missouri, but with all the unstable weather around, he was thinking of spending an extra night in Roswell. Better safe than sorry was all the advice I could give him. I went for a little walk around the campground. Most of the slots were full. It was a clean, safe place. A black bird with a song that sounded like a squeeky hinge creaked at me from a high branch.
Cleaned-up and with a full stomach, I headed out towards downtown Roswell. A sign said it was 40 degrees out. I found the visitor's center, but it being Saturday it didn't open until late. Roswell acts like it would much rather be known as "the dairy capital of the southwest." The whole "UFO connection" is understated, until you get into the downtown district, where they play it for all it's worth. Stores sell alien trinkets and souvenirs all over the place. Even the steetlights are shaped like alien heads. I had to go to the UFO Museum "and Research Center." (Admission $5.) I think used to be an old movie theater. They had exhibits about the "crash landing," investigations, theories, and the "big cover up." There were some enlarged pictures of the "fragments" found at the crash scene and, I'm sorry, but blown-up, the pieces really do look like parts of a weather balloon. Still, it was clean and entertaining, and despite the logical fallacies it was kind of fun. I was surprised at all the orange and white University of Texas shirts for sale. I got some trinkets, then got some gas and took off. Leaving town, I passed motels that had cartoons of green aliens on their signs. "I feel at home," said one alien, relaxing in a motel bed.
Whatever happened in 1947, Roswell didn't get around to making a buck off it until the 1980's. The guy that owned the land where the UFO was supposed to have crashed started charging money for people to walk around the "crash site." One of his neighbors, seeing there was money to be made, announced the UFO had landed on his property, too, and started charging people to walk around his land. Years later, there are at least eight "official" UFO crash sites in New Mexico alone, each with alien swag for sale to curious tourists.
The land beyond Roswell was wide and flat; mountains loomed to the northwest. I listened to some music. The radio news reported 10-foot snowdrifts in the Texas panhandle. The Sun was bright, and I felt like I was finally warming up. Alongside the road, sheep and cows grazed in the same pasture. I crossed over into Lincoln County just before 10 Mountain Time. I was in the Upper Hondo Conservation District. All around me was barren, rocky land. I was on the Joe Skeen Memorial Highway, named after a local congressman. I saw dry hills covered with grass of dull gold. The road twisted and turned as I drove into the hills. Past the town of Hondo, I went through San Patricio, home of the Hurd LaRinconada art gallery. I wished I'd had time to stop and look around. The Billy the Kid Scenic Highway took me deeper into the mountains. By the time I got to Glencoe, the hillsides were greener as more trees rose around me. I crossed Eagle Creek and climbed higher until I topped the summit at 6,600 feet, just east of mile marker 270. I think it was on the slopes of Hightower Mountain (7,333 feet), possibly in Cherokee Bill Canyon. I was surrounded by the beautiful green mountains of the Lincoln National Forest.
I crossed the Rio Riudoso and saw cows grazing along the road just before arriving in Riudoso Downs (elevation 6,400 feet). There were many RV parks among the tourist businesses, as well as a flea market called Lotza Stuff. I stopped at the Billy the Kid Visitor Center and got a crushed penny. The bathroom had a big carved bear standing at one of the urinals. The center was next to the entrance to a big museum, the Hubbard Museum of the American West. The famous Riudoso Downs Racetrack was just down the highway. I had neglected to pack a proper pillow, so I stopped at the local Wal-Mart and picked one up for $3. There was snow on the hillsides overlooking the town. Heading southwest on Highway 70, it was 46 miles to Alamogordo. Tall, majestic trees lined the way. The highway climbed a steep grade to top off at a 7,591-foot summit. That section of highway was adopted by the Mescalero Apache Fire Rescue department. That's a t-shirt I'd like. My ears popped as the road angled downward, past offices and a big church. I came over a little ridge, and off in the distance the horizon gleamed a bright white line. It was White Sands. The startling contrast in landscape was kind of a shock.
The descending hillsides alternated with ruddy reds and sandy yellows. I got to Tularosa (elevation 4,520 feet) at 11:41 New Mexico time, about an hour after leaving Roswell. An ambulance and three police cars zoomed past me headed back eastward. I stopped at McGinn's for a picture of the World's Largest Pistachio, then headed down the road to Alamogordo. Mountains loomed over the town. It got warm enough to crack open a window. 
I filled up with gas at the Chevron station just west of town. I didn't know it, but that was the last gas station until Las Cruces, over an hour down the road. Heading out of Alamogordo, a sign warns about delays up to one hour on the highway ahead. The road gets closed whenever missiles are being moved to the missile range, 48 miles away. Down the road is White Sands National Monument. I was in a hurry to get to the Death March, but I made a point to stop on my way back, if I had time. The sand dunes beyond the highway were bone white. That was what I saw on the horizon miles back. 
I found myself, appropriately enough, on the Bataan Memorial Highway. It's a long, lonely, hypnotizing road. Yucca plants appeared in the fields. A craggy mountain range rose before me. At mile marker 170, I pulled off the highway towards the missile range. There were already cones in the road, getting ready for the March. About 2 PM, and 840 miles after leaving Broken Arrow, I arrived at White Sands Missile Range. I circled around in a parking lot until I found the signs for checking-in. There was a long line outside the community center. As I waited in line, two guys with video cameras were interviewing people. One guy interviewed the pretty brunette girl in front of me. Her friend was a very cute blonde girl; I think her name was Heather. Most of the people in line with me were in their 20's, I noticed. Inside, the lines got held up as we passed tables giving away free stuff. I was too old for ROTC, but they gave me a free pen anyway. The first step was to get checked-in. A lady was giving out our membership packets and bib numbers. The lady said, "We've got a lot of people from Oklahoma." "Really?" I replied. I should've organized a convoy. The website told me we'd be lining up at 4:30 Sunday morning, but the check-in lady said to be there at 4 AM. There were over 5,000 people signed-up that year, and she was telling everyone to be there a little earlier to handle the overflow. Some kids behind me mentioned that this was the 20th year for the March, and a friend commented, "They've been doing this for as long as we've been alive."

I spoke to one guy from the Bataan Military Academy in Albuquerque. He brought a team of students with him to do the Death March. "This is kind of our thing," he said. From there, we went to a lady with a laptop, who checked out our race chips to make sure they worked. At the next station, they printed out my certificate, making sure my name was spelled right, and gave me my t-shirt. There were several veterans and former POW's on hand at the community center. They were signing autographs, posing for pictures and selling their published stories. I got to shake hands with one of the Bataan survivors! Three of the vets signed my certificate. I thanked each of them for their service. An older lady asked me if I was going to run or walk the course. That was when I decided: I was gonna march it.

All branches of the armed services seemed to be represented there, including... The Green Lantern Corps!
Once I got through checking in, I drove Satori over to the "overflow lot" at the top of the hill from the community center. The regular RV area had long since filled up. It looked like an undeveloped neighborhood, with streets and curbs but no houses. I pulled in under a tree. The lots began to fill up as the afternoon progressed. Thinking ahead, I moved Satori closer to the porta potties. Supper was a sandwich, chips, cheese and water. I'd been drinking extra water all day, hydrating myself. Filling my water bottle from a nearby, uncooperative faucet wasn't easy. An older gentleman walking by commented, "You need a bigger cup!" "Or better aim," I replied. Later, I watched the guys from across the street come over to fill their water bottles from the faucet. "Guys," said one, "we don't need five guys for this." That was when a sixth showed up to help.
More people arrived in the overflow lot. RV's, buses and trucks showed up. Tents went up. Across the street from me, a dozen people arrived in several cars and set up camp. They soon had a kitchen going under a shade structure. The grounds started to fill up quick. Some people brought their kids: the happy squeals of children filled the air. It kind of reminded me of the camps at Burning Man, maybe crossed with a big tailgate party. Camps and vehicles quickly surrounded the porta potties. Some guys played Frisbee on the grass. Birds chirped in the trees. There was a festive attitude everywhere. Some little girls rode by on bicycles. I overheard some people across the way said it was going to be 75 degrees on Sunday "and no wind." I could only hope for no wind. The wind picked up a little after 4 PM.

I had a beer. I knew it wasn't a good idea to mix alcohol before a marathon, but I needed to relax. I only got about 5 or 6 hours of fitful sleep in Roswell, all together, and if I didn't get some rest that night I'd never have the energy for the marathon. I figured, if I fell asleep at 8 I might be able to squeeze in 7 hours of sleep. If I fell asleep right away. I kept waiting and waiting for the sun to go down, hoping it didn't get too cold that night. As I sat in my camp, a couple of ladies walked by. They said it was supposed to get to 46 degrees after dark. That was a relief-- way better than the deep freeze Roswell was. "See you tomorrow," they said as they left. A guy in a nearby camp offered a friend a beer. When the friend declined, the guys said, "Hey, carbo-loading is carbo-loading!" The Sun fell behind the jagged mountains right at 7 PM, and almost immediately silence fell over the area. It was not hard at all to fall asleep after that.

The Journey West
The March
The Journey East
All original content copyright 2009 by Tim Frayser
Volunteer Park campsite 
World's Largest Pistachio 
Roswell UFO Museum 
Billy the Kid Visitor Center 
Turkey, Texas 
Lincoln National Forest 
2009 Blizzard 
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