A new chapter in the history of a very old trail

& Three Californians riding two mules and a mustang passed through Abiquiu this week, and made some history. Might not sound like much, but if you know even a little bit about the history of this place (Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t count), you know that’s saying something.

This small band of riders – what shall I call them, reverse historians? – accompanied by couple of lady documentarians and a truck-driving, trailer-hauling equivalent of an oldtime camp cookie in a chuckwagon  —  have been encamped for the past few nights around here – first up at Ghost Ranch for a couple of nights, and then down beside the big barn at the Rio Arriba Rural Events Center.

They’re just coming to the end of three months of re-blazing 800 miles of an old trail – such as it is these days – that was last traversed by a mule train a couple of years before the Civil War began. They called it then the Spanish Trail, and depending on one of three routes you chose, it was 1,200 miles, give or take, across the wildest of the American wild west — from Santa Fe and Abiquiu to Los Angeles and back again, packing goods out, leading livestock in. Now it’s the Old Spanish Trail, and, Congress says, a formal part of our history.

In those early years of the 19th Century, they’d pack up their mules in Abiquiu and set out – the first muletrain headed out in 1829 — for the frontier towns of California with loads of serapes, blankets, socks, buffalo robes, skins, hats, shawls and quilts that had come from the east along the 800-mile Santa Fe Trail or from Mexico City on 1,200 miles of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Those goods would be traded, most of them, for horses and mules to be brought back from California across the same wilderness of desert, high mountain passes and arroyos to Nuevo México.

The commercial caravanning from east to west went on for a quarter of a century, the historians tell us, slowed down about mid-century, when gold-seekers pounded smoother routes to northern California, and were left in history’s dust a decade later, when the railroad barons pounded the Golden Spike in Utah.  We probably don’t have a Guinness Book of Records entry on when the last string of muleskinners made it back across the Spanish Trail to Abiquiu – 1848’s a good guess — but now we know when the last mules walked the Old Spanish Trail back into New Mexico.

It was this week.

Richard Waller of Arroyo Grande, CA, who retired from elementary school teaching to become an “adventurer with a conscience” and became a determined member of the California chapter of Backcountry Horsemen of America, is the visionary and trail boss of this homage to the heritage of the American West. With the backing and support of the national BHA, he lured a couple of others – Otis Calef of Santa Barbara and Jim Clark of Ojai – to forget their ages (averaging in the late Sixties, they call themselves the “Pedo Viejos”), saddle up at Cajon Pass east of L.A. and turn their horse’s heads to the northeast. They headed up the Mojave River, across the southern tip of Nevada and into Utah where, in November, they stopped the trek at Parowan. Last month, they tacked up again and began their final weeks of following a very old trail to its northernmost point at Moab, then turned southeast, across the tip of Colorado and finally down into the valley of the Rio Chama.

Along the way they’ve been accompanied by Rod Thompson of Ojai, who has ferried the animals from day’s ending point to overnight shelter and back to the trail again, across and along nasty stretches of Interstate and other highways that long ago took the places the muleskinners once walked, and around the few unfriendly places that permission to pass wasn’t allowed – Colorado wasn’t the friendliest place they found, and the Jicarilla Apaches never responded to a request to cross their lands up north.

Even so, Waller will remember in the book he’s going to write (if he tells me when it’s going to be published, I’ll let you know) that most everybody– from oldtimers in their 80s to young ‘uns who have fed them and offered them stalls for their animals and soft places to rest their aching backs, “was more than welcoming, more than willing to lend us a hand, open a gate, or feed us a dinner.”

“It has been a ride through magnificent country and wonderful people.”

All tolled, Waller estimates, they’ve covered about 800 miles of the Old Spanish Trail – the other 400 miles they found fenced off or under asphalt. Some of the stories of western hospitality and trials on the trail already are posted on their website – www.osttrek.com – and their Facebook page (it’s Backcountry Horsemen Old Spanish Trail Trek, and has plenty of great pictures, like this one.) OST canyon shotAlso on tap: A documentary, being filmed and chronicled by Benedicte Clark and Marie Bergenholtz, a couple of ladies from, I’m not kidding, Sweden and Norway. What would those old muleteers think about that?

Today (Tuesday), they’ll ride the last equine-friendly leg of their journey, up through Vallecitos and down through the hills and arroyos south of Highway 84 to near Espanola, and pack it in for one more night, before the animals are hauled over the highspeed fourlane hill into Santa Fe for their final ride, on Wednesday, in a parade into the Plaza. That parade is also part of the kickoff of the Three Trails Conference – named, of course, those three trails that funneled the goods into Santa Fe 200 years ago, and came to an end where the Old Spanish Trail began.

The end of the trail for this posse of the Pedo Viejos will be next to the rodeo grounds in Santa Fe, at the friendly facilities of another supporting organization interested in the history, heritage and culture of American trail riders, the Northern New Mexico Horseman’s Association.

And so why, Mr. Waller, did you decide to do this?

“Well,” he says, “to promote the mission of the Backcountry Horsemen of America and, particularly, to interest the public in the protecting the right to ride on our public lands. I hope that the Old Spanish Trail trek will help increase the public’s knowledge of our cultural heritage.”

And, Mr. Waller, how do you think you’ve done so far?

“Well, sometimes we’ve gotten welcomed by lots of people, festivities, and even a mayor or two has shown up to welcome us to town. Sometimes, we’ve ended up camping in the woods. But I’ve come to think of it as you’d think of a motorboat cutting across a lake, leaving lots of little whirlpools in its ever-widening wake. I hope that by riding the Old Spanish Trail, we’re leaving some of those whirlpools and some public interest in our wake.”

& Hoping the mayor of Santa Fe shows up tomorrow, with a bunch of other people, to meet the mustang, two mules and three newest blazers of the Old Spanish Trail, I’m outta here.

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