"Crikey, this is good beerhh," I heard, in an unmistakeable Australian accent, as he spoke to his friend. I looked over at them and smiled as I heard the 'r' in the word beer get blended into a drawn out, strange 'h' and combined with other spoken sounds we don't have in our American English. He saw me. We were 'parked' at the bar in Three Barrel Brewing in Del Norte.
"Hey mate," he said to me, "you live around here?"
"Sort of," I answered, "I spend a lot of time in this valley. Where are you guys from in
"Sydney. We're on holiday (their word for vacation), learning about this place." "Seen a lot of good stuff so far?" I asked.
He paused. "You don't learn about 'Americehr' by looking at it, you learn about
'Americehr' by meeting the people, and becoming a part of it."
His answer to my question sounded like a perfect chamber of commerce quote to me! The stories began. Their stories and seemingly far-fetched tales were better from my perspective as they told me about Australia. (For one example of their humor, and 'hear it' in your own head in an Aussie accent - Mark said: "I quit drinking once, it was the worst six hours of me life!")
We got around to discussing the San Luis Valley. I told them about the Colorado Gator Farm and they told me about crocs (crocodiles - not the shoes) the size of canoes they had seen in the tropical areas of the Northern Territory in Australia. The only things I could top them on were the size of our mountains and the size of our sand dunes, which they were loving. Their names were Martin and Mark. They have been 'mates' (friends) since their university days.
"Can I shout you a beer?" Martin asked me. 'Shout' being the Aussie word for buying someone a beer. We took turns 'shouting' beers talking, learning and laughing about our countries. (Rumors of Australians' ability to knock back pints of beer were confirmed). As tourists, they viewed America in quite a different way than those of us who live here. My point? My conversation with them made me want to slow down, to learn, and see, more depth in my own country, the way these two crazy Aussies were doing! I use the word crazy, in a good way, which leads me to Old Spanish Trails...
While on assignment to write about agritourism in the SLV last year, I met Laura Haefeli at the Haefeli Honey store in downtown Del Norte to discuss bees and honey. I learned a lot about their honey and their bees but also found out, like me, she was a trail runner, a really good trail runner. She gave me a list of trails in the area. And she mentioned when I came back through Del Norte to come find her and she could put a small group of her running cronies together for a nice trail tour. Said I would, and not one to make idle threats, I have gone along on a few runs. Then in October of 2015 she suggested meeting her at the Old Spanish Trail marker that sits along US Highway 160 between Del Norte and Monte Vista.
In the dry humor of Steven Wright he uses this one liner: "Everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time." I researched the Old Spanish Trail and hit one jackpot site. oldspanishtrail.org provides maps, histories, and other information a traveler may want to know about what it was like to walk from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California from 1829 to 1848. Politically, things changed afterward but for that 18 year period these trails were trade routes for the Spanish between the cities they had founded and the territories in the Southwest US they had claimed. If you did not have a horse and all you had was a donkey and a pull cart, well, walking was your option. Around 1,200 to 1,500 miles...
Other Spanish explorers who had ventured the routes in earlier years made travelers well aware of the critical river and canyon crossings. There were no bridges over the river crossings then, and only a few now, as the Colorado River from Grand Junction to California has 3 places where it is not lost and inaccessible in deep canyons, the most famous of course being the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Meanwhile, back to the San Luis Valley. Imagine being a trader of goods, like wool blankets and serapes while in need of valuable animals, mostly horses and mules. How much time do you have? The first documented trade expedition started on November 6 of 1829 near Abiquiu New Mexico. They arrived in San Gabriel California on January 30, 1830. Traveling in the fall and winter forced them to face cold and sometimes deep snow but it was a critical time to travel to catch the river and stream crossings at seasonal lows. The picture I took under the bridge is the Rio Grande near Monte Vista and is only knee deep in places in the third week of October. Such as it is for most of the river and stream crossings in the west. Not so in the spring when the mountain snowmelt creates fast and dangerous flood waters.
How cool to have a piece of history from the Old Spanish Trail right here. Laura and I drove a short distance that morning up the canyon toward the south and discussed going higher into the San Juan Mountains as it had snowed and rained the night before. She described all the wonderful trails up in the forests but we opted out and decided to avoid the potential muddy conditions. We stayed lower, and though we had some wind and cool temperatures from the passing cold front, we had a great day for running. Trails lead all over the place and are hospitable for runners, hikers, pets, mountain bikers, and other forms of transportation. The photos paint a picture of the terrain and trails in the area south of the Old Spanish Trail marker. For me, Laura, and others, what is it about running these trails that creates such internal harmony? And what about being able to think back to what it must have been like to walk for three months from Santa Fe to California and passing through this valley for a few days? We spent an hour and a half enjoying the views, discussing trail running, life in general, before running back to our cars. But in my mind, and trying to use my new lessons from Australian tourists, I tried to see these trails in a different way, the way a traveler in a distant time and from another place and for different reasons would learn about, appreciate, and respect these historic trails. I bet everyone on those journeys could tell a few tales...