El Morro National Monument
[This is a photo-heavy post, so if you’re scraping by on a tiny cellular account, you may want to abandon ship now, before too many of them have downloaded. They’re small files, but there are a lot of them.]
Yup, I’ve been well out of range of any cellular signals for the last week, blowing that time at a campground that can be found while heading for the Visitor’s Center at El Morro. It’s all paved roads and vault toilets here, so considering those and the provided trash bins, staying here is not exactly roughing it. The GPS coordinates for the camp are 35.036999, -108.335999. Elevation is 7,200’, providing daytime highs in the 60s in Late October. Maximum posted rig length is 27’, and this is a very pleasant camp that seems to be used mainly for overnights only.
Some of the campsites here are quite short in parking length, and some are able to take longer rigs. Most have some degree of slope to them. This campground is designed mainly for tenters, providing a level gravel square bordered by wood planks at each. There are tenters here, a few car campers, a small pickup with a shell over the bed, an occasional small truck camper, and a fair number of small van-based motorhomes – including a formidable one that seems to have made its way over from Germany. Picnic tables and grilles are provided, and surrounding trees provide character and shade during parts of the day. The campground has two water fountains and two spigots, but they were either turned off for the season or have been disconnected for good. A signboard at the entrance warns of rattlesnakes here, and offers instructions on what to do if a bear or mountain lion shows up. Fair warning. As always, there are coyotes howling at night, which is of some concern since I’ve seen three dogs loose and scampering around the area on separate occasions. Yum.
The walk to the Visitor Center is a mile, making the reasonably level round trip on pavement just about all I can handle. It’s a pleasant walk, though it drags a bit toward the end. A few days in, I cranked up my courage and took the Evelo Aurora to the Visitor’s Center. Why was courage needed on my behalf? The published walk around distance for the trail around El Morro is a full two miles, which is do-able, but the majestic rise above ground level changes that story for me. That heart operation last year turned out to be too little too late, so uphill slopes and stairs are still a slow wheezer for the likes of me. One other camper here (the trumpet blower from Joe Skeen Campground) assured me that the round trip was just a half mile, but as it turned out, he knew not of what he speaketh. He was probably referring to a little sub-loop just to see carved marks in the sheer rock walls.
Desperate men do desperate things, so I carried my trusty aluminum water bottle with me as I walked in and checked things out. Two miles, yup. A least two hundred feet up. But there were remnants of a pueblo up there, and I wanted to see them. Everybody starts with the historic rock vandalism first, but the tougher rate of climb at that end made me think that I’d better do the loop backwards. The excavations were closer to the opposite end anyway. The full loop normally takes an hour and a half. Between the climb and not knowing what that top deck was like, I knew it would take me much longer.
It was a tough go, but it’s amazing how ego, curiosity, and the lack of any escape shortcut at a partway point can restrain fatigue. Once you’re up top, the amenities and aids end, and it’s up to you to make your way along quite an expanse of very uneven solid rock. My once-superb sense of balance now more closely resembling a drunken sailor, I used my full water bottle as a counterweight and dearly wished that I had somehow brought my walking stick along on the bike. Most of the time, a careless misstep would merely flop you into a low point a foot or two down. At some points, a clumsy lurch in the wrong direction could be a lot more thrilling than you really want. I was lucky in that no one else was in sight for the flop around the top, since I probably would have been confused for “the entertainment”. I wouldn’t do this loop if I was awaiting a heart attack or was on oxygen, obviously. For me, this still qualifies as “exercise”, however masochistic in nature it might be. Any kind of walking stick or staff is a real good idea, as is carrying water. Dehydrate up here, and nobody’s going to be toting a bottle of water up on a golf cart for you.
Turns out, I walked more than two miles, since the extra distance to see the vandalism took longer compared to the bee-line back to the Center. After exhausting myself on the main loop, I figured I might as well see everything there was to see, and let someone else worry about finding my body. Was the whole thing worth it? You bet! Absolutely fascinating. I would say to look at the photos, but they are nothing more than a crass representation of what it’s like to make your way across the top, trying to follow faint trail markings cut into the rock and looking around, or standing at the bottom and looking up. Seems like everywhere I’ve stopped to camp this summer has been the best, most scenic place ever, and El Morro National Monument is no exception to that pile o’ places. It’s a wowza.
Too many photos for you? Just be grateful these are it, because I took a hundred of them and these are just the survivors. The east or inscription end of the trail warns mightily of rattlesnakes, though I didn’t spot any.
A large informational plaque in the Oasis area states that Captain Gaspar Perez de Villagra wrote a diary note in 1598 about how vital this stop was to him (he almost didn’t make it). One of the ornate inscriptions on the rock wall is on behalf of General Don Diego Vargas “who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, in the year of 1692”. It seems that the Puebloans here had the audacity to revolt in 1680, slaughtering their Spanish overlords along with their families, and driving the survivors back to El Paso, Texas. Once appointed governor, he reasserted Spanish authority in the politically correct way of the times.
This triggered a recollection in the back of my mind, or what was left of it after that hike. I had previously read a 1957 Project Gutenberg ebook titled The Aboriginal Population of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties by S.F. Cook, which detailed by rare records the Spanish policies for controlling the native populations they encountered. The main one was to convince a portion to “become Christians”, at which point they became virtual slaves. Should they become apostate (in their view) and return to their villages, they were hunted down and reacquired, at best. At worst, they were killed along with any villagers offering resistance to their recapture. Kidnapping the village chief and threatening to kill him was a popular tactic as well. These relationships not being the best, villages were gradually abandoned as disease and flight to the hardship of the mountains decimated what were once large populations. They were long gone by the time the United States took over the whole area.
Truth be told, this was a step up from the general American policy which followed, that being the equivalent of genocide. Civilians, not the military, were the prime initiators in this. Settlers and miners simply moved into allotted Indian lands and demanded protection from the government, which was completely unable to keep them out. Heck fire, white settlers in Tucson, Arizona were the highest profile ones, attacking peaceful native villages in the area to encourage counter-raids and convince the government that the “Indian Problem” required action so that their lands could be appropriated by the locals. These good citizens were also the ones who noted the effects of European diseases on whole Indian villages, and so most plentifully dispensed disease-tainted blankets to help the Indians depopulate their relatively fertile premises. The peaceable Indians in the area were terrified of the violence, with no place left to go as their Spanish land grants were ignored or invalidated.
The historic American pathological hatred of Indians was largely due to the early manipulation of tribes by the English and French to halt the American’s westward expansion into their territories. The effectiveness of the resulting Indian attacks and grisly treatment of American settlers and combatants led to their being used as “shock troops”, and the mere threat of unleashing them on Americans literally terrified them into inaction, and turned the tide of many a one-sided battle. For their part, the Indians were banking on their French and English partners to help them defend their lands against the persistent American encroachment – and also to give them the strength and license to annihilate longstanding enemy tribes. In general, the view of Americans from the Indian cultural viewpoint was that they were terrifically indolent, cowardly thieves with no self-respect or sense of honor, and they deserved none. Based upon events of the time, this was a fair point. This manipulation worked for decades, but after the American Revolution and the War of 1812, both European nations had backed out and left the Indians to fend for themselves and, based on the recent memories of the historic ferocity of their warrior culture, neither our government nor our citizens backed down on the only solution that had proven halfway effective for dealing with them, since ceding land to them in perpetuity was not viewed as a workable option. Between the popularized concept of Manifest Destiny and the slogan of “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man”, the Americans tended to perceive the threat to their “right” to do as they liked as having just one ultimate solution: cause the deaths of as many Indian “savages” as possible by any means possible, and force the few survivors to abandon their cultures, languages, names and appearances, replacing them with our own idea of moral civility. So in retrospect, I can’t point fingers at the Spanish, though the Conquistadors themselves were certainly without conscience or mercy in spite of the license they perceived from their purported religious fervor.
Not a happy way to end a post, but like so many historical events that have been rewritten and simplified to resemble a poor shadow of the realities of the times, it’s worth mentioning. Although the victor gets to write the history, things are rarely as simple as they seem once the context has been painted over.