Sangre De Cristo

The history of three cultures set against pristine, unforgettable landscapes in Colorado’s southernmost National Heritage Area

Sangre
A building sits in Colorado's southernmost National Heritage Area.

Credit: Morgan Heim

Flying south from Denver in a twin-prop, I get my first view of the vast expanse as we cross the Rockies. The Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve stretches out beneath me, the giant mounds that give it its name rolling like massive waves. Reaching as tall as 750 feet, they are constantly reshaped by swirling winds and are known for their booming “song” of sliding sand.

The park is a small part of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area—a place of timelessness and tradition where bison herds still roam; the starscape, landscape, and pristine silence persist in stunning purity; and people still build their homes of adobe bricks and speak a form of Castilian Spanish that echoes the language of the conquistadors. It also stands in the vanguard of a federal effort to preserve, protect, and promote America’s Latino heritage.

And it’s one heck of a nice place for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and culture buffs to visit.

Nearly three times the size of Rhode Island, the area sits within the San Luis Valley at the southernmost finger of the Rocky Mountains, ringed by sharp-edged ranges with 14,000-foot snowcapped peaks. It includes one of the nation’s highest alpine valleys, its tallest sand dunes, and an ocean of high-desert sage and rabbitbrush sprawling over most of its more than 3,000 square miles.

It’s Colorado’s birthplace, dotted with abandoned mining camps and ghost towns (like Uptop, which is open to visitors) and a living testament to the region’s rich Hispano roots. I have never been here before, but I feel the connection. These are my roots, too, and I have come for that reason. In the Sangre de Cristo are links to all three strands of my family’s DNA—native, Spanish, and Anglo—and to the oft-overlooked U.S. Hispanic history I want my children to be proud of.

The name of the place means “blood of Christ,” uttered by a dying missionary watching his last sunset splash the mountains red. Many area residents today proudly proclaim their lineage from the state’s first settlers and maintain the centuries-old customs of their forebears. They still bake traditional white corn “chicos” in outdoor adobe hornos shaped like giant beehives and practice the secretive, all-male religious rituals of Los Hermanos Penitentes (the Penitent Brothers). Their Spanish retains vestiges of the 400-year-old Castilian spoken by the first New World colonials. It’s akin to hearing a medieval language mixed with modernisms. Their word for driving a car, for instance, comes from the term for a muledriver.

“In the valley, because of the isolation, because of the tradition, there is more intact culture and deeper legacy than in other places where there’s been more interchange,” says Fred Bunch, resource management specialist of Great Sand Dunes National Park. “That legacy, that human chain is still intact.” It became a National Heritage Area (one of two Hispanic-themed ones, out of 49) three years ago.

“The American Southwest starts in the San Luis Valley,” says the heritage area’s executive director, Randle Swan.

After landing, I make my way to the dunes I have seen from the air. From above they seemed like the soft folds in a giant rumpled blanket. Up close they are massive, the tallest rising 70 stories, and the soft sand sucks at my boots as I climb. Knowledgeable visitors get a kick “sandboarding” down the dunes on plastic sleds rented from local outfitters. For those who can’t get enough in a day, there’s an 88-site campground in the park, and the Great Sand Dunes Lodge offers a heated indoor pool just outside the park’s entrance.

The area has been an important hunting ground and spiritual center for native tribes since prehistoric times. After a short drive south of the dunes, Bunch shows me an ancient bison-kill site where archaeologists have found 9,000-year-old arrowheads. Nearby Mount Blanca is one of the Navajos’ four sacred peaks.

The Spanish came much later, and archaeologists know a branch of the Old Spanish Trail wound close to the swath of pinyon pines that line the mountain range. It’s hard to say for sure where, because the traders who plied the route with their mule trains left little written record. But the recent discovery of a site rich with artifacts—horse tack, spent musket balls—could be the proof archaeologists need.

It’s another piece of the “contact period” puzzle, when Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures overlapped. The heritage area is a treasure trove for researchers. The strong winds cause “blowouts” that regularly reveal fresh finds perfectly preserved in the sand.

“I’ve got to pinch myself as an archaeologist,” Angie Krall, of the Forest Service, tells me.

A little later, I see why. Standing at what was once home to one of the first Hispano settlers, Krall snatches up a thick piece of glass and gasps. It has a sharp, finely scalloped edge. The technique is “knapping,” she says, and proof that Native Americans shared their tool-making knowledge with the Hispanos.

We’re at the Trujillo Homestead, which gained National Historic Landmark status this year. Teofilo Trujillo was a successful sheep rancher who in the 1860s built one of the most magnificent homes in the area, with stained-glass windows and lavish furnishings. Cattle-ranching Anglos burned it down and forced the family off the land. His son Pedro’s simple wood-frame home, freshly restored, remains standing nearby.

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Buffalo roam freely on 44,000 acres within the Zapata Ranch, located on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley.

Credit: Morgan Heim

It’s in a remote section of the Zapata Ranch, a 103,000-acre working bison ranch run by the Nature Conservancy, with rooms for 25 guests. Popular with birders, wildlife photographers, and amateur astronomers (not surprising: at night, the Milky Way runs in a bright stripe across a thick coating of stars), the ranch abuts the park and contains a creek where explorer Zebulon Pike, the first Euro-American known to enter the valley, camped in 1807.

The main buildings are historic—rustic, but far from rugged. In fact, rooms in an elegantly revamped former stagecoach depot are downright luxurious. The ranch offers gourmet meals (including bison, of course) prepared by the chef who catered JFK Jr.’s wedding.

It’s also the first place in my life that I’ve heard a silence so profound. It’s uncanny. I could feel the pressure in my ears. Fidel Sandoval, the ranch’s facilities manager, says some visitors found it so disconcerting, “they couldn’t sleep.” Now the rooms have electric fans for guests who need some sound.

Southeast of the ranch lies Fort Garland, a U.S. Army outpost built in 1858 to protect early settlers, and once commanded by Kit Carson. The restored adobe buildings contain a re-creation of Carson’s commandant’s quarters and a museum with artifacts from the soldiers’ daily life. It’s run by Rick Manzanares, of the state historical society, who tells me the soldiers kept the Indians away, but religion, which served as a cultural hub and sort of informal government, kept the communities together.

Several towns bear the names of saints. A chain of moradas, the austere adobe meeting halls built by the original penitentes and still used by members of the order today, run through them.

The order lent its name to Penitente Canyon, near Monte Vista. It’s a remarkable example of how cultures met in the area, and of how difficult it is to preserve the evidence. There’s an ancient Native American rock painting right at the entrance to the canyon, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a cliff face less than a football field away. No one knows how or when either of them got there. The Bureau of Land Management has now protected the rock painting, sort of, with a low brick wall meant to keep people a few feet back so that they don’t touch it. But the cliff face around the Guadalupe is dotted with rock climbers’ pitons.

The religious influence remains strong. Pilgrims come from across the state to visit the Stations of the Cross shrine atop a mesa overlooking San Luis, Colorado’s oldest city (1851). Striking three-quarter-life-size bronze statues depicting Christ’s crucifixion grace a trail around the shrine. The spot offers a view like no other of the surrounding farms, still largely cut in the even stripes originally granted to the families.

“We’re part of that thread that takes us way back to early Spanish history” in the region, says Manzanares.

San Luis boasts a string of oldests and firsts. The state’s oldest acequia, a communal “people’s ditch” operating under the same rules of shared water rights and responsibilities laid out by the original colonists, winds through the heart of the city. It borders la vega, which locals say is one of only two commons in the country (Boston Common is the other), and the only one still used as a community pasture. It’s also home to the state’s oldest continually operated business, the R & R Market. Established in 1857, the store is still run by a member of the founding family, Felix Romero. None of his children want to take over the supermarket, and although he wants to retire, he fears breaking the chain.

Those bonds of tradition are felt vividly in Antonito. Born as a railroad station, the town sits barely five miles from the New Mexico border, with ties to both the original Spanish settlers and the historic influence of the locomotives that brought the westward expansion of non-Spanish speakers. The city is best known as the home of the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec scenic railroad. You may know it, even if you’ve never been there: It had a cameo at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Its steam locomotives still offer spectacular winding rides through the mountains, but the original Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Depot stands empty in the heart of the city, a decaying reminder of its once-grand past. The city recently received grants to restore it to its 1880 luster, to patch its Gothic gables and refurbish its dilapidated pentagonal lobby.

My guides in Antonito, Lawrence Gallegos and Jay Warner, tell me they hope to be able to do the same with the Concilio Superior Building of the Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos, the only mutual aid society still operating in the region. The imposing 1925 structure overlooking Main Street is a significant piece of Hispanic history in the city, a place where Latino workers gathered without fear of recrimination or bigotry. It houses an expansive main hall the size of a basketball gym, with cathedral ceilings and a giant hand-painted mural reflecting the society’s agricultural and Hispano roots. Confronted with a dwindling membership and a difficult economy, though, the building bears visible signs of disrepair. The paint is peeling inside and out, the stairs leading to a second-floor office are uneven, and insulation pokes out between the acoustic ceiling tiles.

If you visit Antonito, you can stay at the Steam Train Hotel, a restored 1911 brick building on Main Street with individually decorated rooms; it was remodeled in 2010. I had some of the best coffee of my life just a few doors down, at the Pony Expresso, inside the Crosswinds antiques and collectibles store. That’s across Main Street from the Dutch Mill, where, despite the name, you’ll find some excellent traditional southern Colorado-New Mexican food in the valley. I recommend the combo platter with tacos and enchiladas in a nicely spiced green chili sauce. The traditional dessert is puffy, warm sopapillas dripping with honey.

Adobe structures are common throughout the heritage area. The method is still used for building (there’s actually a guy in Antonito who makes and sells adobe bricks), and it’s often hard to tell whether a building is 100 years old or brand new. Many, though, including the home of one of the first schoolteachers in the area and a former governor’s home, are crumbling. It may seem odd to preservationists, but local culture sees nothing wrong with letting a house decay, according to Lorrie Crawford, a USDA Forest Service education technician: “It’s OK to just let a building go back to the earth.”

The beautiful restorations in Alamosa (“Where the Rails Meet the Rio Grande”) stand out in sharp contrast to other places in the heritage area and should definitely be included in any visit. The biggest city in the valley, it grew with the railroad and exhibits little Latino influence. Its buildings are mostly brick, with Gothic, Mission, and Art Deco appointments. The historic core can be seen easily in an unhurried afternoon stroll, beginning at the 129-year-old steam locomotive and business car fixed behind glass on the bank of the Rio Grande. The chamber of commerce’s self-guided downtown walking tour is excellent. It includes the stately Alamosa Masonic Hall, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and the Rialto Theater, completed in 1926 as the American Legion Post and reincarnated as an elegant midcentury movie house before hard times and tragedy struck. Abandoned and in disrepair, the theater’s main auditorium was gutted by a massive fire in 2003. Kent and Sandra Holtcamp bought it after the blaze and painstakingly restored the surviving sections, down to the ornately embossed ceiling and the original frosted-glass windows on the offices upstairs. They reopened it in January 2010 as the Bistro Rialto, where you’ll find Kent’s fine, one-of-a-kind dishes, like the piquant Caribbean pasta, the Bistro calzone, and mouth-watering Italian prime rib au jus and parmesan fries.

After dinner (or before, or instead of), stop by the San Luis Valley Brewing Company inside the historic 1897 American National Bank Building for a glass of Alamosa Amber or Grande River IPA. Brewed on site in 217-gallon batches, the beers are flavorful and smooth, a favorite of locals.

The valley’s wonders lie not just in what humans have done there, but also in what they found. Much remains as it was when the first hunters followed the giant bison into the flatlands beneath the mountains. Of it all, the unperturbed silence and the virtually unpolluted view of the stars above may be the most difficult to preserve. So, on my last night there, I take time to relish both. I park at the side of the road up to the Great Sand Dunes and shut off my car. Standing there, I hear nothing but my own breath as my eyes adjust. With each passing moment I see more stars, tens of thousands, spread like a vast sea of glittering lights across the sky, and let myself feel a connection to a deeper heritage, to time and timelessness itself.

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