On The Page: Southwestern Colonial Histories

I’ve passed through Santa Fe several times but my trip down to the WCWS was the first time that I had time to stop and absorb some of the history in the Plaza. After leaving Santa Fe, I stopped somewhat impulsively at Pecos National Historic Park where I learned more about Pueblo culture of New Mexico and tried to relate it to Chimney Rock.

As I was leaving Pecos, I made a stop in the bookstore and bought Miera y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico since I was pretty sure I would finish Under the Banner of Heaven during the trip (I wasn’t wrong). I’d learned about Miera when I visited the Telluride Historical Museum’s map exhibit last winter and fell in love with his 1778 map of the southwest he complied after the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition.

While the text of Kessel’s text is a little on the dry side I definitely made a list of places that I want to visit next time I’m in Santa Fe. I didn’t realize that in addition to being a cartographer, Miera also made altar screens and other religious objects. (It seems that there’s still a couple in the area.) I also learned a lot more about how Santa Fe was established and how the relationship of New Spain to New Mexico worked.

Not surprisingly, Miera y Pacheco made me want to know more about all the things he was involved in, especially the Dominguez-Escalante expedition (for which Domniguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and their canyons are named). It’s easy to forget that colonial Spanish history really did affect this area and I’m excited to continue to learn more.

Also driven by visiting Pecos (and then a little bit by reading about Miera and his historical context) was needing to know more about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Pecos Pueblo had a very large mission church before the Revolt but after the “bloodless” return of the Spanish a much smaller mission church was built. Wanting to know more about how that revolt came to be and how it affected the colonization of New Mexico, I ordered a copy of David Robert’s The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion That Drove The Spanish Out of the Southwest.

The Pueblo Revolt didn’t contain as much information as I had hoped about the events leading up to the Revolt. It rehashed in a more condensed way the history of the Spanish in New Mexico (which was helpful!) and told the story of how the revolt occurred as well as how the Spanish reconquered New Mexico. Roberts very explicitly states that he isn’t necessarily trying to create a “balanced” tale of how the Spanish and the Puebloans both contributed to the bloodshed in the Revolt which I found refreshing; I find it pretty hard to buy that the blame should be evenly shared in this case.

I’ve purchased another couple of books as a result of my current colonial history obsession and I can’t wait to read them and share them with you!

(Clearly, I’ve released myself from book buying restriction because a) I’ve met some financial goals and b) because they only need to move across the yard next time…)

On The Page: Under The Banner of Heaven

In early May, High Country News published a piece on the polygamous Mormon community of Short Creek. This reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. I’d read this book a long time ago, back in college. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it and I’d learned much more about the history of the West, traveled through Mormon Country, and generally figured I was in a better place to absorb the book.

I wasn’t wrong. Getting deeper into Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was a lot easier for me now that I could picture the country on the Utah-Arizona border where Short Creek’s FLDS community is located. I’ve also read more about other exploration of the west. For example Krakauer suggests that perhaps Mormons who had been involved with the Mountain Meadows Massacre may have been involved with the killing of William Dunn and the Howland brothers who abandoned John Wesley Powell before they descended Separation Canyon (historians have long believed it was the Shivwits Band of Payutes who killed the explorers).

Also fascinating is the revisionist history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church, more commonly known as the Mormons. I honestly found this uneasy relationship between fundamentalist Saints and the mainstream branch of the religion more fascinating than the central narrative of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crimes.

Ron and Dan struck me as “typical” religious nuts of any stripe. Killing their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her daughter because God told them to was just the culmination of a descent into increasing extremism. Brenda had stood up to Ron and Dan as they attempted to rope her husband Allen into their delusions.

I devoured this book on my trip down to Oklahoma City. Despite being really tired (definitely recovering from the end of the school year!) I was pretty happy to find a quiet spot and do some reading. Like all good books, this one lengthened my reading list but I learned a lot about how pieces of western history fit together.

On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.

Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.

I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.

The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.

He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)

After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)

While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.

 

On The Page: No Shortcuts to the Top

I can’t remember where I picked up my copy of No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs but it was on my bookshelf of “you must read all of these things before you’re allowed to buy any new books” so I started it a few months ago. Like of its kin, this was a pretty quick, easy, and inspiring read about chasing a BIG dream.

It had been awhile since I’d read a major expedition memoir and this was a memoir about a whole series of expeditions. This book was a really enjoyable read. Viesturs is candid and his story is human and suprisingly relateable considering that most readers will probably never attempt the world’s highest peaks. (It probably also didn’t hurt that the book was written with legendary outdoor writer David Roberts. Check out this article about Roberts in Outside if you’ve never read any of his work.)

Reading about Viesturs evolution of his 8,000 meter summits goal was really inspiring. It makes my county highpoint goals seem really tiny but the way that Viesturs spoke about his expeditions and goals somehow also struck home. I think this is the strength of No Shortcuts to the Top: that Viesturs speaks about the rarified air of some truly difficult, dangerous, and remote peaks

I was a little put off by the descriptions of Viesturs film projects (he was on the IMAX Everest documentary expedition that was on the mountain during the 1996 disaster. I’m glad that Viesturs was able to find ways to make his passion pay for itself but it all just felt a bit heavy handed towards the end.

 

On The Page: The Hour of Land

Not long ago, I reviewed Terry Tempest Williams Refuge on this blog: in short it was amazing and it made me cry. Back in December I also read When Women Were Birds which was similarly amazing (and I completely neglected to write a review here, I’m sorry!). I’ve been wanting to read The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography since it was released last year in time for the National Park Service centennial.

My personal relationships with the national parks is complicated given my love for lonesome spaces and lack of regulation combined with my dedication to adventuring with Sprocket. Because of that, I didn’t get deeply into the centennial. I adored Ken Burns’s documentary of the National Parks and I highly value them as an American asset, I’m just more personally connected to our National Forest and BLM lands. After our election, however, the differentiation between land management agencies seemed to matter a whole lot less than preserving our public lands—all of them.

While standing in Seattle’s glorious Elliot Bay Book Company (that I might be starting to forgive for moving from their Pioneer Square location), I caved and bought two hardcover books. It wasn’t really in my budget after Christmas but 2016’s book buying freeze was hard guys! I mostly stuck to it but oh man, there is little I like spending money on more than books. The Hour of Land was one of the books I picked up.

I waited until I was back in Colorado to start the book. On Martin Luther King day, after rambling around on some BLM land near Uravan, we got home in time to make lunch. Days off at home are not something I have very often any more so I built a roaring fire, grabbed a blanket, a pillow, and a cup of tea and cracked a new book.

This was one of those books that you alternately want to savor and one where you just want to just keep turning the pages because it is so good.

Tempest Williams speaks about a wide variety of national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites from Grand Teton to Alcatraz to Effigy Mounds to Gettysburg. Each of the parks can almost stand alone and they still fit together in a way that matches the despair about how our parks are handled and also the hope and awe inspired by them.

I jokingly said that my one hope for the book was that it wouldn’t make me cry. Of course it did. The Hour of Land is a beautiful look at the diversity of our parks and also the diversity of people who love them. As I probably should have expected, I loved this book. Our public lands are incredibly important and this book captures their beauty.

On The Page: Otto Mears and the San Juans

After reading Ouray my interest in learning more about local history was piqued and I dove right into Otto Mears and the San Juans by E. F. Tucker. I knew that Otto Mears was involved in the Rio Grande Southern and in the building of a lot of toll roads including one up and over Red Mountain Pass. Outside of that I’d heard that he was a little bit eccentric and that was all.

Otto Mears was into everything. Mears was born in Latvia (then part of Russia) before he was sent to live with family members in England and then to another family member in New York. When they sent him to San Francisco to live with yet another family member at age 11, he arrived to find that the relative had departed for Australia. From then on, Mears was on his own.

Mears eventually became an American citizen and served in the Union army during the Civil War. He was discharged in Northern New Mexico and used his money to enter business as a merchant. Mears slowly migrated north towards the Saguache area where he continued to operate businesses and became more and more involved with local politics.

As I’d learned in Ouray, Mears also got involved in Native American policy by both by accepting government contracts for supplies but later in helping negotiate treaties with the Ute Nation. As with most actions of whites towards Native Americans Mears actions when seen through a modern lens are really problematic. E. F. Tucker makes a good argument that while Mears was involved in the final expulsion of the Uncompaghre and Weeminuche bands from Colorado that he pushed for them to move directly to the reservation in Utah rather than settling near what is now Grand Junction because he believed that they’d be asked to move yet again. 

Mears briefly served in the Colorado legislature but didn’t stay long, opting to operate behind the scenes and start building his famous toll roads first over Poncha Pass and most famously over Red Mountain Pass, now the route of the “Million Dollar Highway” US 550. Later, he progressed to railroads including the Rio Grande Southern and a handful of smaller railroads servicing mines in the Silverton area.

Mears worked most of his life and only slowed down a little bit towards the end of his life. In his later years, as his wife Mary suffered from ill health, he traveled back and forth from Silverton to California. Aside from a couple of short stints in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Mears spent most of his adult life in Colorado.

I loved reading about Otto Mears. I drive Red Mountain Pass regularly to access recreation and have come to love and appreciate the ridiculousness of its precarious position above the Uncompahgre Gorge. While Mears never stopped looking out for his own business ambitions, he was instrumental in the development of the San Juans.

 

 

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Any money I make via Amazon goes to buy more books about the West so I can read them and tell you all. All opinions are my own.

On The Page: Ouray: Chief of the Utes

I have always loved learning about the area where I live. Growing up, I looked forward to the fourth grade study of Washington history very intently and continued to build my knowledge of the area into high school. I was initially drawn to Idaho’s Silver Valley by its history (mostly through reading Tim Egan’s The Big Burn) and then purchasing the cabin drove my research into the specifics of mine development in the upper valley. I have been pretty slow to develop my understanding of the history of the San Juan Mountain region. Lately, I’ve been doing better at delving into books, some of which I’ve talked about here recently.

One of the more enlightening things that I’ve read lately is Ouray: Chief of the Utes by P. David Smith. Inspired partly by the ongoing renovation of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, I picked this up at the library. I wanted to have some background knowledge before visiting the museum when it reopens this spring. (Recent political events have also inspired me to read more about not white men… I violated this by reading about Otto Mears so I guess I’m going to have to put Isabella Bird next…or perhaps Chipeta?)

Photo: Matthew Brady. Source: Library of Congress

The San Juans were settled relatively late, with the initial gold placer gold finds happening in the Eureka area (near Silverton) in 1860. Ouray spends some time discussing Chief Ouray’s early life but Smith wisely spends most the book discussing Ouray’s time as one of the leaders of the various Ute bands during the multiple treaty negotiations for the San Juan Mountain region and the Uncompaghre Valley.

As might be expected, the discovery of riches on lands granted to the Ute tribe (a loose confederation of approximately seven bands) lead to the US government continually renegotiating treaties with the tribe and shrinking their holdings. I am curious to see how the Ute Indian Museum presents the story of the tribe (the redesign of the museum features input from the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Northern Ute Tribe) because Smith’s interpretation of Ouray is extremely favorable.

The portrait painted by Smith is of a man that fought hard for his people while grasping the futility of the situation. While the story clearly shows a man that was able to coordinate diverse interests within the larger Ute Nation the picture seems entirely too cut and dried to me. Ouray himself was promised a salary for the remainder of his life while the reservation became smaller and smaller and predicated some negotations with the government on their willingness to search for his son who had been abducted by the Sioux. His actions (and the actions of his wife Chipeta) during and after the Meeker Massacre were certainly admirable―they welcomed the surviving women from the Indian Agency into their home while the recovered from the ordeal. Certainly, Ouray was a man of his time that did the best that he could with what he knew.

This book served as a great introduction to Ouray’s life. I was fascinated to learn that the hot springs that are now Orvis Hot Springs were considered holy to the Utes which lead to them attempting to hold onto the land that is now Ridgway for a long time. I’m sure that forming a complete picture of the man is difficult given the circumstances but I’m looking forward to reading more about his life.

1873 Treaty Negotiations

 

P.S. Can someone buy me the complete catalogs of Wayfinder Press and Western Reflections? My local history knowledge requires it…

This post contains affiliate links with Amazon. All opinions offered here are my own.

On The Page: Uncompahgre

Last spring, I devoured Muriel Marshall’s Uncompahgre: A Guide to The Uncompahgre Plateau in just a few evenings. I had put off writing a review of it hoping to have some time this summer to drive the plateau from north to south along the divide road from Whitewater to Highway 62 as described in the book. And then I started working all the time…

Uncompahgre: A Guide to The Uncompahgre Plateau

Sadly, that drive never happened this summer (although I did make a rather hair-raising muddy drive across the Plateau from Montrose to Nucla this fall) but I did want to return to this book before it faded into the recesses of time.

 

Uncompahgre Plateau

Marshall does an excellent job in this book of blending history, geology, and a travel guide all into one. The guide starts by describing the drive up to the plateau from Highway 141 near Whitewater. Heading south down the Divide Road, the reader learns more about Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, about Fort Uncompahgre, and Antoine Robidoux.

Muddy Jeep

As major side routes are encountered, Marshall describes where they go and why they came to exist (and make me realize that I have tons of exploring to do along the Plateau).

Driving the length of the Uncompahgre is still on my list. And you can bet when I go, I’ll be taking my copy of Uncompahgre with me. Just reading it without even driving the route really helped me to make sense of how the far West End fits in with the rest of the Uncompahgre Valley. For anyone curious about the history of Western Colorado this would be a good read and for anyone who has spent some time between Grand Junction and Moab it’s a great one.

On The Page: The Western San Juan Mountains

Not having internet at home has been excellent for diving into some deeper reading material. I recently dived into The Western San Juan Mountains: Their Geology, Ecology, and Human History. Edited by a professor of geology at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, The Western San Juan Mountains has three sections exploring each of the topics mentioned in its subitites. Each section is divided into chapters written by experts in their fields (most authors hold doctorates).

The Western San Juans

While the book isn’t necessarily written for an academic audience, it is detailed and uses a significant amount of technical language (particularly noticeable in the geological section). The chapters all conclude with a reference section. These reference sections pose an immense threat to my book buying ban but that’s a personal issue of mine. I found it more than readable but for some readers it might be a sort of dense slog.

The geological section was probably the most condensed broad sweeping geological overview of the San Juans (or at least their western portion) that I’ve read so far. I definitely want to do more to make this all fit into an organized schema in my mind but knowing more about the deep history of my home mountains makes me really happy.

The biological section was detailed (and contains one chapter that will probably make an appearance as a reading in my biology class next fall) and as someone inimately aquainted—ahem, scratched to bits—with the “mid” elevation horrors of Gambel oak (more commonly known as “scrub oak”), I found it interesting if not particularly groundbreaking. The human history section was more adequately covered by Exploring The San Juan Triangle, recently reviewed on this blog.

The Western San Juan Mountains, published by University Press of Colorado, is probably only of interest to big old nerds like me. Since this is my blog, I’m assuming that at least some of you fall in my camp and, in that case, you might really enjoy this book before a visit to the region. Each of the sections could be read separately which means that it can be fit into a busy life before a trip. Theoretically, each chapter stands alone but I think they made a lot more sense when grouped with the other chapters in their section.

On The Page: Refuge

I picked up a copy of Terry Tempest Williams Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place at a garage sale quite while ago. (You’ll remember I’m on a book buying freeze until I finish the books I’ve acquired and not read…) When I picked it up the other day, I must have been in the perfect frame of mind to be open to it.

Refuge

In this memoir, Williams discusses her family’s experience with cancer through the lens of the Great Salt Lake’s historic high levels in the 1980s. Somehow, Refuge seems to be about Williams’s connection to the Lake, her relationship to her family, historic sources of cancer, and the saga of the rising lake all at once.

I’ve read Ms. Williams book Red and really enjoyed it and I raved about the short but profound The Open Space of Democracy but found Refuge to be incredibly powerful. The writing was raw but accessible. I felt carried along with Williams emotional journey as her mother and her grandmother faced cancer.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age but Williams honest look at relationships throughout the book made me cry multiple times. It was the sort of book that you’d have to put down after each chapter and ponder it awhile but at the same time, you were drawn right back in wanting to know what came next for her family.