San Luis Valley: Gateway and Pathway


A person could explore the San Luis Valley for a lifetime and not see it all. Alamosa is a gateway city to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, a bunch of 14 thousand foot peaks and plenty of lower mountains, hot springs, and many other places for adventurous activities. But, wherever we live, it helps to get away once in a while to achieve a proper perspective about the places in which we do reside. To appreciate the explorers and traders, who used the San Luis Valley for a pathway to reach points beyond, it is important to have an understanding of who they were, the places from where they came, and their reasons for passing through a place.

As I run parts of the Old Spanish Trail here in the SLV, I find myself looking toward the west and wondering how the heck those people figured out how to get to California. Having recently run the Rio Frio and having been a spectator for the 1st annual Fremont Haunt the same weekend, I had done enough research to know that Fremont had hired Carson to be a guide on earlier expeditions than Fremont's ill-fated attempt at crossing the San Juans in the winter of 1848-49.(Carson didn't go on that one)

Imagine my surprise when my adventurous friend Ginny from California called me that same weekend in the end of January and asked if I would pick her up in Las Vegas later in February and go check out Death Valley National Park. I knew that the Old Spanish Trail went roughly through Las Vegas in the Nevada desert and into California but I had no idea exactly where. "Yep, I'll go," I told her. Not all those who wander are lost. I wanted to trace a bit more of the Old Spanish Trail and how it tied into the San Luis Valley and get a feel for the full journey and attempt to comprehend the mindset of adventurous people in the 1840s.

The parameters in those days for taking a journey from Santa Fe to Los Angeles via the San Luis Valley were as follows:

1 - There were no bridges so it was necessary to ford streams and rivers when they were at low flow or frozen - This meant traveling in fall through winter.

2 - Big mountains - find the lowest, safest, mountain passes available

3 - Canyons - Find a place to cross, or go around to where the rivers cutting those canyons are on level ground - not many places!

4 - Water holes - the southwest deserts are dry and springs and water holes are critical when not traveling along a water way - humans and *pack animals need water! *usually mules and horses

5 - Find grassy areas where horses and mules could eat

How do explorers find out answers to find these essential parameters? ASK A LOCAL - In this case, locals were either trappers, mountain men, Spanish traders who had already been on the trail following incomplete maps of Franciscan Friars Escalante and Dominguez looking for routes to their missions in California in 1776, or hire Indian guides whose tribes had been locals for thousands of years. They knew. Someone had to wander 'out there' first.

One morning at sunrise, Ginny and I had a goal to go into Death Valley National Park via a south entrance but, the road into the park from Shoshone California had washed out in a flash flood last October when we asked a local volunteer at the museum/visitor center. To get into the park we would have to go 60 miles north to another entrance. We had already driven 80 from Vegas. Ok, reroute! Ginny's research prior to the trip indicated hot springs and the China Ranch, a desert oasis where they grew date palm trees. We needed to drive south to the town of Tecopa. I knew nothing about the place. Sounded interesting. We drove the 12 miles or so, found the sign for the turnoff to China Ranch, then we began to descend into these dry, and I mean dry, desert hills on a gravel road. Were we on the moon? My car turned into a lunar rover. But lo, and behold, we came around a corner and, palm trees!! We parked and what sign did we see first? A sign that said, Kit Carson and John Fremont had been here in 1844 while en route to Colorado on the Old Spanish Trail! With Ginny's suggestion, we had accidentally stumbled upon where I wanted to be! (See photo of sign). - Now, as is my custom, let's change things up and then bring everything back together in the SLV. This is Edgar Allan

Poe's poem - ELDORADO - my fave and the only poem I believe I have ever memorized...

Gaily bedight, a gallant knight, In sunshine and in shadow, Had journeyed long, Singing a song, In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old - This knight so bold - And o'er his heart a shadow - Fell as he found, No spot of ground, that looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength, Failed him at length, He met a pilgrim shadow 'Shadow' said he, 'Where can it be? This land of Eldorado!'

'Over the mountains Of the moon, Down the Valley of Shadow,

Ride, boldly ride,' The shade replied, 'If you seek for Eldorado!'

Flows nicely and talks about one knight's attempt to find El Dorado. El Dorado is a town of legend in South America that is made of gold, and became many an explorer's quest. Worthy of looking for El Dorado if such a place existed. But what is the real meaning of the poem? What is the real meaning of el dorado beyond the Spanish meaning of 'the golden one'? What is our individual El Dorado? (Further reading - web search for Eldorado Poem meaning and analysis and go to the 'shadow of' version for as fine of an analysis of a poem I have read. Worth your time, as it actually applies to all of us and our life journeys.But, I wondered why Fremont and Carson were on the Spanish Trail in 1844. Who were John Fremont and Kit Carson? From research, Fremont was the 'egotistical I want all the glory for what my expedition accomplishes type of person' and Carson was the mellow, reliable honest guy and knew the west and was not worried, as Fremont was, about what historians would think of him. After all, the Eastern media people, none of whom had been west, called Fremont 'The Pathfinder' for opening up the west. Fueled his ego nicely. Fremont and Carson had been friends since meeting on a riverboat on the Missouri River in 1842. At one point in a battle, Fremont saved Carson's life and Carson remained loyal as if he 'owed Fremont one.'

Turns out the expedition of 1843-44, considered Fremont's 2nd, was attempting to return east via a southerly route after successfully mapping the Oregon Trail well to the North, all the way to the Pacific, which had been the expedition's goal. They came south along the drier eastern side of the Sierra's in California and Nevada but Fremont decided to take his men West over the Sierra Mountains in winter to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento California. The local Indian guides said 'don't do it in winter because of too much snow.' Fremont was persistent and several Indians did guide them to the only pass that was even a possibility to get over the Sierras in winter, with much hardship and suffering. With much luck, they made it. Later in 1844 was when they came through China Ranch and headed back to Colorado.

My next question, which I had formed during the Fremont Haunt in January, was now answered. I wondered why Fremont had been so persistent and put his 1848-49 expedition members in such peril, with starvation and freezing to death of both men and all their animals. Fremont, like the knight, believed in his quests so strongly that in his mind, there was no giving up. And, even when he was again told don't do it by men in the know, he had eventually made it across the Sierras in winter so why not the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with the same result? His personality lent itself well to being a big believer in manifest destiny at all costs. He did have an amazing life that served his ego well. Became the first Republican Party presidential candidate, served in the army, was a senator from California. Kit Carson had his many successes also and both have forests, rivers, and peaks named after them. So, as you prepare your expeditions up a fourteener, across the Sand Dunes, or something wild and crazy perhaps, think about these two men and many other people who have used the San Luis Valley as a gateway and a pathway. Think also about what is in your personality that drives you onward like an explorer. Like the knight. And fear not riding boldly down the valley of the shadow...

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