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In Search of the Old Spanish Trail, by C.G. Crampton & S.K. Madsen

Review by Phil Carson

History – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

In Search of the Spanish Trail – Santa Fé to Los Angeles, 1829-1848
By C. Gregory Crampton & Steven K. Madsen
Published in 1994 by Peregrine Smith Books,
ISBN 0-87905-614-2

THE ROUTE KNOWN AS the “Spanish Trail” is the last great trace in the American West to be left unstudied and unprotected. In its day it was the longest, most dangerous trade route on the continent. Both elements have attracted modern-historians and trail buffs: there’s still adventure to be had out there.

During its heyday the Spanish Trail was traversed by mule trains, which inched across staggering landscapes inhabited by Stone Age cultures. The route stretched 1,200 miles from Santa Fé to Los Angeles, including portions of northern New Mexico, southern Colorado, Utah and Nevada, northern Arizona and the blistering Mohave Desert of California — a one-way journey of two-months’ duration. Survival depended on finding water and grass, and missing hostile tribes.

Traveling that route today by automobile and on foot remains a difficult and occasionally dangerous traverse. Small wonder that this book has caused a stir in certain circles. Danger? Difficulty? Uncharted terrain? These qualities are avidly sought by the West’s dedicated cadre of trail fiends.

By design, this paper-bound volume is accessible to both armchair traveler and desert rat alike. The book, with its 1,200 miles of trail, is divided into a dozen chapters, each with a trail map that guides the reader without giving away the store. The bottom half of each page contains text, while the upper half provides instructive black-and-white photos and reproductions of contemporary maps and illustrations.

The book’s lucid prose and concise focus on retracing the trail itself — as opposed to digressions on history, or trail life — makes it a page-turner. The reader is sorry when the book is over. Yet that is when the real adventure begins.

DESPITE THE AUTHORS’ meticulous description of the Spanish Trail’s route in modern terms, they are not too explicit or over precise. That is an enviable model for modern guidebooks that, in contrast, provide such blow-by-blow directions as to preclude all challenge and romance. To follow the trail using this book, buffs must do their own research and transcribe the results onto local topographic maps. This approach avoids the inherent exploitation of a topic that guidebooks risk.

The downside with Peregrine Smith’s product is that the book itself will not stand heavy field use. Undoubtedly dictated by the economics of the subject, the flimsy binding and cover won’t survive a trip over the trail.

While the book’s narrow focus is its strength, it’s a drawback too. The authors don’t discuss the centuries of Ute and Spanish travel between the Rio Grande and central Utah that gave birth to the trail, nor do they trace its aftermath. Those subjects must be tackled with the bibliography.

Yet the authors provide quotations from contemporary journals and maps from the trail’s heyday that lend a sense of the trail experience by those who endured it. Also, for the modern traveler, they weave in passing references to modern museums encountered along the way, which can enhance a retracing.

The authors’ depth of scholarship is reflected in the fact that they had rust-covered stones from at least one historic river crossing analyzed in the laboratory, which determined that the rust came from mid-19th century horseshoes.

The publication of this volume dovetails neatly with a surge of interest in America’s long-distance historic trails, and recent efforts to assign the route National Historic Trail status. Such a designation would bring federal resources to the study and interpretation of this venerable route — which serves as a window to an earlier time, blessed by the absence of telephones and fax machines — and most importantly, protect its remains from heritage-wrecking scum.

It’s puzzling why the authors give distances from Santa Fé to the third decimal point, as when they state that contemporary travelers reaching today’s Colorado-Utah statewide were 269.840 miles from Santa Fé. Certainly minor variants of travel due to seasonal changes make such a precise accounting superfluous.

Also, the authors make no attempt to retrace the North Branch of the trail up the western margin of Coldrado’s San Luis Valley, over Cochetopa Pass and down the Gunnison and Colorado rivers to meet the main branch near Green River, Utah.

Thus for Colorado Central readers, In Search of the Spanish Trail serves as a springboard and model for adventure in our own backyard. Your own search just might yield a reflection of modernity in the fetid pool of a long-forgotten tinaja.

— Phil Carson