A Journey Back In Time


Runaway!  I’m holding onto the halter of our 1300 lb. Percheron Cross Mule named Jake who doesn’t want his bridle back on and has decided to see some country without me.  My son Cody sitting on the wagon seat only has lines hooked to Pete, the far mule (right side) on our wagon hitch.  As we build up speed I’m hollering whoa and Cody with lines to only one mule is doing his best to pull them up.  Mule speed quickly exceeds human speed and my legs go flying as I do a flip into the top of a huge green bush.  My first quick thoughts are “I hope there’s not a dang big rattlesnake taking a siesta in the shade of this bush”.  If there was one in there he’s probably still wondering what fell on him.  I bounce out, roll in the dirt and come to my feet to see the wagon already a hundred feet away going between two parked wagons.  Cody finally manages to get them to circle and as they come back Jake decides it’s too hot to run and comes to a stop.  By the time I get there, except for breathing a little hard, Jake is standing calmly and acting as if nothing had happened, which is a typical mule reaction.  And so the excitement for our first day on the Spanish Trail Wagon Train is over.

This is the second year we have joined with a group put together by Summit Trail Adventures to retrace the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, CA.  The part of the trail we are presently following is in the San Luis Valley, which is approximately sixty miles wide and one hundred twenty five miles long.  It is a semi-arid desert like area lying at an average elevation of 7,500 feet, that only gets about seven inches of rain a year.  The valley is surrounded by beautiful mountains, many of which are over 14,000 feet high. 

The trail was originally opened by Indians many centuries ago.  After the Spanish settled New Mexico in the 1600’s they learned of these ancient trade routes and began to use them.  The original trail was strictly a pack mule route, being too rough for wagons.  It wasn’t until about 1848 that the first commercial goods were hauled by wagon.  There were several branches of the trail as traders were always looking for a better route.  We are following the north branch of the trail.  There are seven wagons, twelve horseback riders, and several walkers in our group.  There’s a people hauler with benches so that when the walkers get tired or the riders get too sore they can take a break.  We also have the comfort of a shower trailer and portable toilets that the early pioneers didn’t have.  Even with these modern conveniences let me say that this isn’t a ride for everybody.  It’s hard work, dirty, and you sleep in bedrolls on the ground.  However, if you’re tough and adventuresome and want to experience a little taste of what it was like to be on a wagon train, then it can be a great adventure that few people will ever get to experience.

The first night camp and meeting place is just south of Antonito, CO. on the ranch of Demetrio Valdez.

It’s Saturday and we’re the last ones to arrive.  As soon  as we get unloaded it’s time to shuttle the trucks and trailers ahead to the finish which is in the middle of nowhere, five miles south of Saguache, CO.  That night everyone gets acquainted and has a good meal from the chuck wagon, which is trucked ahead to meet us each night on the trail.  Our cook is Joe Bob Leake and he does a great job all week.

Eight am, Sunday, wagons roll with our wagon in the lead.  We cross a beautiful wide flowing creek, climb a steep hill and we’re on our way in the ruts of the original trail.  This ranch is rich in Spanish Trail history as it was an original Spanish land grant given to the Valdez family.  Dementrio is the 5th generation family member to operate the ranch.

The trail passes in front of our Lady of Guadeloupe Church, which is said to be the oldest church in Colorado.  Built in 1824, destroyed by fire in 1825 and rebuilt in 1826.  I wish we could have seen the inside of this beautiful old church.  Due to private ownership and fences it’s not always possible to follow exactly in the original trail but we do manage to follow it pretty closely.  Lunch today is when Jake puts on his run-away act.  That night in camp, since all turned out well, everyone has a good laugh.  Comments like, “All I saw was your feet in the air”, you disappeared in the bush, “Will you do it again tomorrow so I can get a picture?”

The second night camp at Capulin is on property owned by Charles and Wanda Garcia.  It’s a beautiful pasture by a clear running stream with towering mountains in the background.  That night it rains and to our surprise the next morning, the mountain tops are covered with snow, a real picture post card type setting.  Today we climb a long rocky hill and at the top worn several inches deep into solid rock are wagon ruts!  The Forrest Service has put a fence around it to protect it for future generations.  I wonder out loud at how many thousands of wagons had to have crossed here to wear deep ruts into solid rock.  Talk about a piece of history!  If these ruts could only talk.  If they ever invent a time machine I want to go back, sit on the bluff, and watch the wagons cross.

Cindy McCullough, the owner of Summit Trails puts on the entertainment today, as her horse stumbles to both knees, she does a flip over his head and lands on her back laughing.  I ask her to do it again so I can get a picture!  That night in camp we laugh about Cindy’s accident and our run-a-way and ask who’s going to put on the show tomorrow?  No volunteers.  Our good friend Willard Forman comments that if we think we’ve had accidents and problems just imagine what kind of problems those early pack trains and wagons must have experienced.  The pack trains could vary in size from fifty to one hundred and fifty pack mules.  The mules were turned loose at night to graze and might wander off as far as a mile.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to catch a hundred mules and load their packs every morning?  Mules kicked, horses bucked, wagons broke down and turned over, and there were rattlesnakes and Indians to watch out for.  Yeah, those folks had a lot more problems than we did. 

By the second day everyone is pretty well settled into the routine and has gotten to know each other.  Summit Trails puts the tents up each night (and takes them down) for the horseback riders and walkers so all they have to do is unsaddle and head to the chuck wagon.  We have to put up our portable hotwire for the mules, unhitch, unharness, feed and water the mules, put our tent up, and unload the bedrolls from the wagon.  My grandson Colby soon learned to hate the words “Colby, get in the wagon”, when it was time to load and unload.  He also learned how to totally disappear in a small camp the minute we pulled in.

All the creeks and irrigation ditches in the San Luis Valley run cold clear water.  History says the first irrigation ditches were built at San Luis in 1852.  Other ditches and reservoirs soon followed and the era of irrigation in the San Luis Valley began.  It seems that when you apply water to this arid desolate looking land it comes to life.  Alfalfa, Barley, and potatoes seem to be the main crops.  We were told that in the fall the water is shut off.

The third night camp is in the city park at Del Norte.  The Spanish Trail Association is putting on a fundraiser and silent auction to benefit the association.  Western singer Rick Devin who rides with us and sings around the campfire each night, has his band come in and they put on a great show.  They ask us to park our wagons in the park so people can get a close up look at them.  Colby manages to con me and his uncle Cody out of enough money to get a belt buckle at the auction.  The turnout wasn’t bad considering the weather, which was cold, rain threatening, and a very strong wind.  Joe Bob has a time with the cook fire and has to round up some wind breaks.  We cater chuck wagon cooking so I can sympathize with him.  The old chuck wagon cooks on trail drives didn’t have sheets of plywood, plastic tarps, or horse trailers for wind breaks, but chuck wagon cooking is a whole other story.

The fourth night we camp at Rock Creek on a private ranch owned by Bruce & Kris Steffens.  The folks that live along the trail couldn’t be nicer and go out of their way to help us.  They eat at the wagon with us, visit, look at the wagons and teams and seem to enjoy it as much as we do.  Without the cooperation of these private landowners, retracing the trail would be impossible and a special thanks is due these people.

The last night’s camp on BLM land is a scene out of an old Gene Autry movie.  We are camped below a bluff of boulders that look just like the ones in the movies where the bad guys hid and shot at Gene.  We encounter big Red Ants beds everywhere but they are particularly bad here and it is also very snaky looking.  You have to be careful not to pitch your tent or put your mule corral over one of these ant beds.  Mules have a dislike for ants just below that of bees!  Someone knows where there are petroglyphs said to be Comanche in origin so a few of the guys take a four-wheeler to go look at them.  Colby rides out of camp on the handlebars and I’m thinking, “his mother would die if she saw that and then kill me.”  However, in this terrain, it’s impossible to go fast so I just look the other way.

Day five and the end of the ride is near.  Willard offers to let Colby ride Rebel today.  Rebel is a twenty two year old gelding that Willard has owned since he was a two year old and has been down more trails than most people.  Colby jumps at the chance to get out of the back of the wagon, but if you think it’s impossible to sleep in the back of a bouncing, rattling wagon I have pictures of Colby to prove different.

Today we spend most of the day in the original trail.  I spy the rusted band off an old wagon hub on the side of the road.  If it was only possible to follow that old hub band from the wagon factory to its final resting place by the side of the trail, what a story that would make!  The trail comes up on two man made water tanks built by the Forrest Service.  Being a native Texan I’m used to seeing windmills by water tanks but there is nothing as far as the eye can see except these two tanks made from giant rubber heavy equipment tires.  The water they tell us is piped to these tanks from reservoirs in the mountains.  Each tank has a float, which shuts the water flow off when it’s full.  We water and move on.

We finally see the trucks and trailers parked in the distance.  We leave the trail and cut across the desert to the finish.  My wife Cheryle, Cody’s wife Morgan, and my daughter Jamie, Colby’s mother, are all there to greet us having spent the week shopping.  There are lots of hugs, handshakes, and we enjoyed being with you and hope to see you next year, and then everyone goes about the business of breaking the wagons down and loading the teams for the trip home.  We’re the last to pull out and it seems strangely quiet and empty as we head to Alamosa for a soft bed and hot shower.  I think of all those pack trains and wagons that went before us when there was nothing here but wilderness.  They were tough brave people and we owe them a debt of gratitude for blazing trails and opening trade routes that brought our country closer together and helped to settle the west.

Tom and Cheryle Elliott do chuck wagon catering, wagon restoration, sell wagon parts, and all kinds of cowboy items through their website at www.cowboycooking.com.