IGNACIO Yes, the dangers here were many in the 1830s and 40s river crossings, exposure to the elements, enemies. But 19th-century travelers didnt have to tack orange safety vests on their pack animals behinds.
If, in the last few days, youve encountered a man walking along local county roads or highways with two llamas in tow, thats Loch Wade. Hes on his way to Los Angeles on the Old Spanish Trail.
Of course, it would be easier and quicker, and perhaps safer, to drive. But youd miss a lot of scenery. Youd miss encountering the myriad cultures descendants of Spanish and European settlers, Jicarilla Apaches, Southern Utes and Navajos along the route. Youd pass up the thrill of adventure. And youd forsake a deeper glimpse into the significance of the trading route used from 1829 to 1848.
Wearing moccasins and a wide-brimmed felt hat, Wade is covering about 10 miles a day. Thats not a big day physically for the 47-year-old, but its about as far as the llamas, 7-year-old Jasper and 5-year-old Chalcedony, will go before they decide theyve had enough and take a seat.
On Wednesday afternoon the team could be found crossing Colorado Highway 172 in Ignacio and heading west on County Road 314 on the way toward Oxford in the footsteps of such legends as Kit Carson and John C. Fremont.
They came through Ignacio, and they probably just cut right across this rolling country, Wade said as a car zipped by, giving him and the llamas plenty of leeway. Hes attempting to trace the main route of the trail, visible now in just a few stretches along the way.
Obviously, Im sort of constrained by all the private land and fences. I do the best I can with what Ive got to work with.
In 2002, the route gained National Historic Trail status, thanks to the efforts of the 500-member Old Spanish Trail Association, whose treasurer is Durangoan Mark Franklin.
Pieces of the route had been developed over centuries by the ancestral Puebloans, then other tribes, then European trappers and traders, Franklin said in a phone call last week. In 1829, Antonio Armijo, a merchant from Santa Fe, led 60 men along with 100 mules and established a route to San Gabriel Mission, in present-day Los Angeles.
Parties made the trip nearly annually after that, according to the associations website. They left New Mexico in late fall with wool products and returned in spring with hundreds of mules and horses. Indian slaves also were a tradable commodity.
The main trail there are many braids passes just south of Durango, crossing the Animas River at Home Depot, Franklin said. From there, it heads up to Ridges Basin and under whats now the Animas-La Plata Projects Lake Nighthorse. Farther west, it bisects downtown Las Vegas and is buried under an L.A. interstate.
Franklin said that hes heard of car caravans following the trail, and a bicyclist or two, but nobody backpacking it with llamas.
Wade began the journey Jan. 31 in Abiquiu, N.M., which his research showed was the gathering spot for traveling teams. A couple of days into the trip, Wade camped in 20-below temperatures. Jasper shivered, but the thicker-coated Chalcy did fine.
Oatmeal and instant rice are his staples. The llamas feed on grains and browse on oak leaves and pine needles. He meets and talks to the curious along the way, but most days its just him and the llamas.
What kind of person would choose to travel this way?
Loch Wade lives with his wife, Kelly, in Boulder, Utah, a town of 200 on the edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Hes a ditch boss, which means he spends spring and summer making sure water users get their fair share. Hell stop his trek in a few weeks when he reaches Moab, Utah, and plans to resume in late fall, taking 3½ to four months in all.
Wade is no stranger to exotic adventure. In 1992, he kayaked from New York to Oregon. It meant some lengthy portaging, during which he carted his kayak on a dolly, but he ultimately succeeded.
He became interested in the Old Spanish Trail about four years ago, researched the history and the route, and figured he had one more grand adventure in him if he did it soon.
Although this trips theme is retro he has a tin-type, or wet-plate, camera popular in the Civil War era he also uses modern conveniences such as a cell phone and a digital camera.
And while the moccasins might seem like an old-fashioned touch, theyre really a necessity. A foot injury years ago left him barely able to walk, but a friend introduced him to moccasins. It was a godsend. Now Wade makes his own. On colder days, he dons Sorels.
Hes come nearly 160 miles as of Durango, about halfway to Moab. Hell go through Mancos and Dolores to Lewis, head along the general route of U.S. Highway 491 toward Dove Creek, and make his way northwest from there on backroads to Moab.
Each day is different, whether hes meeting Clint Swink, an Ignacio man who makes Anasazi pottery, or admiring the New Mexico high desert and Rocky Mountains, or watching a bald eagle overhead.
Whether its discovering a sign of the ancient trail or a liquor bottle, theres a cross-section of history on which to ponder and wonder.
I think thats where I get excited, is finding those layers of history, Wade said.
Fremont and Carson came first, but today its Loch Wade. History in the making.
johnp @durangoherald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.