I’m living in the land of the Conquistadores. Just a few miles to the west is one of their actual trails. I’m kind of reading a book Old Spanish Trail, North Branch by Ron Kessler. It includes journals from many of the men who found themselves on this trail, guys like Don Diego de Vargas, Roque Madrid and Juan Bautista de Anza. Los Conquistadores seem to have been more along the lines of Los Exploradores except for the people they killed along the way and so on and so forth. It was the times.
A couple of weeks ago, unable to find a place to hike where Dusty would not bother someone, I decided “Why not? It’s just right there!” There’s a beautiful marker and a plaque with drawings and a legend on it by the highway (my street) and from it a road and trails. Mostly used by mountain bikers, but supposedly for hiking.
It is in no way a beautiful landscape. Rabbit bush, sand, gopher holes and, if I were a rattlesnake, I would live there and bring out my whole family from wherever to join me. It’s desolate and filled with bones of large mammals — cattle or elk or deer, I don’t know. There was broken glass everywhere from kids having fun with shotguns. The trail was beautifully maintained by the forest service, though, and I could see biking on it.
The strange thing about it was the haunted feeling that I can’t explain. Except for the distant sound of cars and trucks on the highway, it was silent. No birds hunting, no water running, nothing. The sky was huge, the mountains felt distant and, for some reason, maybe sensing my discomfort, the dogs stayed right next to me. We went as far as we had to and turned around. I didn’t want to explore more trails or find out how to get to the arroyo to the east. I didn’t want to discover anything about it.
I have thought a lot since about the conquistadores and the press they have gotten in recent decades. When I moved to San Diego in 1984 and began teaching at San Diego State, there was a dorm/apartment named El Conquistador, shortened by everyone to “El Conq.” Over time a ballyhoo was raised that the name El Conquistador was racist and glorified the oppression of the native people by the Spaniards. It was renamed. Everything connected with the Spaniards became stigmatized — sometimes for good reason.
With these Spanish Conquistadores came Spanish people, many of whom never planned to return to Spain, among them Spanish Jews. It wasn’t easy being Jewish during the Inquisition and these people, though practicing Catholics, many of them, probably had it in their minds that they would just get OUT of there before the next purge.
Who these early settlers WERE was unknown until 2001 when Hispanic women from the San Luis Valley showed up in Denver with a particular kind of breast cancer that’s attached to a particular genome that is known to belong only to Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.
To learn more about them, here is an article in Smithsonian Magazine
The Old Spanish Trail goes beyond this haunted sand. It follows the edge of the San Juans where there is water (streams, springs and, of course, the river) through the place I hiked with friends a week or so after my wandering in the Haunted Hell-scape. Penitente Canyon SHOULD feel haunted, but it didn’t, to me. I’ve only seen a bit of it — going back tomorrow, I think. On the edge of the canyon are wagon tracks — cart tracks — of the Old Spanish Trail.
My experience in this landscape is that it’s unlikely anyone conquered anything. I imagine the Conquistadores as small, lost dots of humanity struggling to figure out where the hell they were and, naturally, foisting their world on this one in the certainty that comes from fear. I might call them “Los Hubrisitos” but I don’t think that’s a word.