Spanish Peaks: Land and Legends, by Conger Beasley Jr.

Review by Columbine Quillen

Regional lore – November 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Spanish Peaks: Land and Legends
By Conger Beasley Jr.
Photographs by Barbara Sparks
Published in 2001 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-604-7

SPANISH PEAKS: LAND AND LEGENDS is a coffee table book about the area of Colorado surrounding the Spanish Peaks which are in the south-central part of the state. Conger Beasley defines this region as starting at the northern reaches of Colorado Springs, east to La Junta, south to the southern border around Trinidad and San Luis and over as far east as Alamosa. Each chapter captures a short story about the land, the history, or its people. Accompanying the text are many half-page and full-page black-and-white photos by Barbara Sparks.

Beasley wrote this book because he saw these peaks once when he was driving from Kansas City, Missouri to Palm Desert, California. It was love at first sight, and although he didn’t return to the peaks for many years, he yearned to see them again.

At a recent book signing, a customer asked Beasley why he wrote the book, and Beasley replied that he wrote it because he fell in love with the area and he wanted to learn everything he could about it and become a part of it. When asked what that entailed, Beasley romantically answered that it included searching every nook and cranny of a region on your belly so as not to miss any piece of the panorama.

But Beasley fails in making himself a part of the landscape, primarily because he failed to do two things: First, he didn’t climb the peaks that he named the book after; and second, he neither lives in the region, nor seems to understand what it’s like to live in the region.

When Beasley went to climb Spanish Peaks, with the book’s photographer, Barbara Sparks, they didn’t make it to the top due to bad weather. That’s understandable; anyone who has been above timberline in a lightening storm knows the importance of getting down. However, the main reason you go down is so you will have the chance to go back up. But not Beasley and Sparks; they figured if the one time they planned to go up, they had to turn around, they would never have to try again. To the best of my knowledge, Spanish Peaks are still there so I see no reason that the man who learns by crawling on his belly hasn’t slithered his way to the top.

But the truth is, despite his romantic view of this region, Beasley is really no more a part of the area than any other tourist; he is merely better educated about what he is seeing. Beasley has never felt the frustration of living in one of Colorado’s poorest regions.

IN A GROWING and prosperous state, it’s shocking to look at statistics from Conejos, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Pueblo counties. They have double the amount of people under the state poverty level. The per capita incomes in Conejos, Huerfano and Las Animas Counties is far below the state average, and more than 30 percent of children live below the poverty level in most of this region.

Beasley offers the facts, but he doesn’t really seem able to capture the complexities of the region or its people. He is definitely not as insightful as John Nichols who notably captures both the beauty and the hardships of living in an area with perpetual economic problems.

Instead, Beasley is terribly romantic. The few times he mentions the hardships and poverty of the Spanish Peaks region, his hard facts are lost in a mystical beauty and spirituality.

Beasley writes about Will Prator who says, “My mother went up there to see her sister, and that’s where I come out. But I always thought of La Veta as my home. Here’s where I grew up. Soon as she had me, she come back down here.”

Prator was a fur trapper who came from a long line of hunters and fur trappers. His grandfather, Roy Clifford Spangler, killed the last prairie wolf in the Spanish Peaks region in 1923. During the 1980s, fur prices fell because fur was going out of style. It was an age of red paint on mink jackets, and that certainly didn’t benefit Prator, who quit trapping because he felt that too many people were against it.

Beasley asked Prator how La Veta had changed, and Prator answered by saying that now all of the jobs are service industry jobs, which are low-paying and often times short-term.

But Beasley dwells primarily on Prator’s spirituality, which is a combination of Protestantism and Lakota Indian beliefs. Although it was interesting to know how Prator felt about the land he used to trap on, Beasley doesn’t seem to appreciate the man’s plight. Instead, Beasley ends the segment with an anecdote about the circle of life — giving and taking.

ALTHOUGH THAT MIGHT BE a nice sentiment, in _this case, life seems to be taking a lot more from some and giving a lot more to others. And this book might sit a little easier if Beasley — who seems to love this place, but who brings his money, his education, and his Mid-western upbringing with him to this locale — didn’t seem quite so complacent about other people’s hardships.

Nonetheless, Beasley is a talented writer and his descriptions of the people and places he visits are vivid and engaging. The history chapters are very succinct and contain a lot of interesting information. The author obviously did a lot of research and it shows.

He offers an interesting account of Bent’s Fort, explaining the difficulties of finding a location for the fort that would make it available to mountain trappers, Plains Indians, and to travelers on the Santa Fé Trail. He tells the tale of how the fort started and why it stayed in business, and how the roles of race and gender were often forgotten or downplayed because everyone who lived at the fort had to help keep it up and running. Beasley thinks that racial boundaries were lessened even more because many white traders took Indian or Hispanic wives.

Unfortunately, however, the book does not have an index, so the historical items are often hard to find.

The text, however, is only a part of this book. Sparks’ photographs can be found on almost every page, and that’s probably the book’s biggest flaw. The photographs are black and white; none of them are very dynamic with a vast difference in grey scale; and not one has a definite white or a true black. In fact, none of the photographs is very sharp, and although they might have been great pictures for a guide book, they are not worth flipping the pages for in a coffee table book. These photographs are certainly not in a class with Ansel Adams’s great work, or the photos of Colorado’s most famous modern nature photographer, John Fielder.

If you have an interest in this part of the state and can get this book at the library it is worth checking out, but it is not worth the $50 price tag stamped on it. No doubt it will be a remainder book soon, though, and for $8.95 it might be worth owning.

–Columbine Quillen