Valle de la Danza
By Zach Blazek
“Growing up in a very rural and remote area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley – one of the poorest counties in the United States – essentially created the framework of values from which I operate. I fight discrimination at all levels. I fight for an inclusive America.”
– Former US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
It’s interesting, the drive to San Luis. From Denver, there’s really just two ways to go. Less fun is the drive south on I-25 through Colorado Springs. It’ll knock 45 minutes off the ride, but it sure isn’t pretty. These days, I’d rather choose to go southwest on 285 instead.
Colorado Highway 285 is not well traveled – the way all great roads should be. It seems to just keep winding up and up, left and right, and then up some more. The drive goes along the banks of Turkey Creek, past the box stores in Conifer and the mom-and-pop shops in Bailey, past my folks’ cabin in Pine, and finally lurches the car over the cone. There, the road opens up and carves its way through the valley below.
Looking left, you can see the Front Range and Pikes Peak. Touristy folks always want to see this gargantuan from the front, to be quickly overwhelmed by the purple mountain before loading up and heading back to town. They miss the true audacity of the peak, which is on full display from the north. There’s no road on this side of Pikes, and Pikes, despite being visible from a hundred miles in every direction, is at its most menacing when suddenly it pops in front of your car as you crest the hill.
To the right, the spine of the Sawatch Range stretches for miles ahead. My first real taste of life’s fragility came on top of the northernmost Sawatch fourteener – Holy Cross. A steep couloir in the shape of a cross cuts through the eastern face of the peak. At 14,009 feet, it isn’t the tallest or most dangerous peak in the range. However, on August 16, 2012, the last day I climbed onto its peak, I felt smaller on top of Holy Cross than I’ve ever been before; the damn thing just wouldn’t relent, and I’m lucky to still have my friends and my life. I’m unlikely to ever forget that respect for these monoliths is mandatory. I’m lucky to be able to drive this road.
If you drive alongside on a sunny day, look south from Holy Cross. With every passing minute, every passing mile, the landscape comes to life. The contour up nearby Mount Massive is gentle, yet imposing. From the other side of Massive slope there rises a sheer wall of rock; Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in the Rockies, casts a dark shadow over the entire valley below.
The desolate trough separating these giants is the San Luis Valley. It’s an 8,000 square mile trench, stretching 122 miles north to south and 74 miles east to west. When I come down from the crest, I enter an ocean, vast in size and unyielding in character. The dishonest flicker of sun on water stretches for miles before me, a tempting mirage that disappears with each moment as the road continues south. There the San Luis Valley lies, as defiant and relentless as ever.
Antonito used to be a small town, split down the middle by one dirt road. The road eventually became known as Main Street. The road entered town from the northeast, cut straight through for maybe a quarter mile, and then curved to the west after passing the newly constructed rail office and depot. On the hill west of town sat the cemetery, in front of which was the church. To the north, the white sand of the great dunes was visible on a clear day. The town rested in the winter sun’s shadow of Cerro de la Olla, a twelver on the border of New Mexico. Between Cerro de la Olla and Antonito lay the Mestas homestead. In the year 1900, following the denial of the Conejos and Guadalupe Land Grants by Governor Charles Bent, eighty parcels of land in the San Luis Valley were available for claim by way of the Homestead Act. Naomi and Solomon Mestas finalized the ownership of their land in Antonito in 1925, when they were both just twenty-one years old.
Naomi Garcia was born in 1907 in Manassa, a town north of Antonito on the way to Alamosa. Her early life in Manassa was as difficult. Her father Martín brought her up after pneumonia claimed her mother in 1911. By day, Martín worked as a railroad foreman. But rarely did he ever make it home before sunrise, given that he spent most of his evenings at the public house. Some time later, Martín lost his job on the railroad; soon enough, he had no money left to drink or obtain the company of a call girl. After going a month without alcohol, Martín began to realize his failure as a father to his daughter. With few other opportunities, he moved Naomi south and took a job outside Antonito making pennies a week as a living hand at Chavez West Lazy-C Ranch.
It was there, at age eight, that Naomi met Solomon Mestas at the schoolhouse in Antonito. Over the next four years, they became inseparable. At age twelve, both Naomi and Solomon started working full-time at Chavez West. Solomon worked with Sr. Chavez and Martín, corralling and caring for the livestock. Throughout the days of unending heat of each summer and in the deep snow of each winter, Solomon and Martín lived with the animals. Much of their time was spent on horseback, rounding up the livestock; their other time was spent milking the dairy cows, feeding the pigs and chickens, butchering the meat when the time came, and selling the meat in Antonito. Naomi worked in the kitchens with Sra. Chavez. Every day, Naomi made tortillas and beans while Sra. Chavez prepared the chili or menudo for the men on their return. In the afternoons, after the cooking was finished, Naomi and Sra. Chavez cared for the ranch itself: The quarters needed cleaning, the stables mucking, the pigsty tending to. Naomi thoroughly hated the housework, but kept quiet around her father.
The days were menial and repetitive, but Naomi wanted a roof over her head. To cope, Naomi and Solomon met and talked at length about life on Chavez West. During the growing season, Naomi spent as much time as possible tending to the one-plot garden beyond the henhouse. There she learned how to grow corn, turnips, potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, and other crops capable of contending with the hard red clay. This was her true respite; working the garden was one of the only ways Naomi felt truly at peace in this place.
Naomi and Solomon carried on this way of life until 1925, when everything changed. Naomi had seen the bolt of lightning that hit the top of Cerro de la Olla, but it was just another storm. She didn’t stop working until hours later Solomon returned with her unconscious father on the back of his horse. Martín’s horse had abruptly reared at the sudden lightning strike, and Martin had lost his grip and been kicked off his own horse. Two long, painful days later, Martin passed away in bed with a collapsed lung, Naomi at his side.
After Martín was buried in Antonito Cemetery, Naomi and Solomon decided it was time to set out together on their own. They knew of an available piece of land closer to the mountain, and combined their money to afford the down payment. The land, left to rot by previous owners, was valued at only $0.85 an acre. But even at such a cheap price, Naomi and Solomon had little money left to their name in 1925. They continued to live and work at Chavez West while they built a cabin on their property; they later named their cabin the Mestas homestead.
Naomi and Solomon were married in 1926, in a small ceremony at La Capilla de San Antonio. For the most part, their marriage was a happy one. They kept to themselves more in marriage, as most of their time was dedicated to working to stay alive. Anyone who knew them would say that despite spending more time apart, they never lost what brought them together in the first place. Solomon spent a lot of his time working at the depot; there he performed odd jobs like stacking and selling goods, patching the adobe walls, and coordinating trips to Alamosa. At the time, Alamosa was the closest town with a train to Denver. Solomon made decent money working at the depot, enough anyway for him and Naomi to get by during the first few years on the homestead.
The closeness of the homestead to Cerro de la Olla made for particularly unforgiving soil. Rocks and boulders dominated the landscape; Naomi and Solomon spent part of each day moving rocks with a wheelbarrow and their bare hands. Within a few years of finishing the cabin, Naomi was able to cultivate a relatively bountiful four-plot section of land. She kept what food she could preserve inside the cabin for the winter months, and sold what they couldn’t eat to people Solomon knew in Alamosa. On the days when Solomon wasn’t working at the depot, he and Naomi rode the pair of horses given to them by Sr. and Sra. Chavez. Their garden was successful, but they wanted to create their own cattle operation. In 1931, they had saved enough to buy their first 20 head, though they had the money to purchase 25. Naomi and Solomon spent the rest on a celebratory barrel of reposado.
When Solomon was at the depot, Naomi rode on her own. She enjoyed tending to the cattle in the mornings, and eventually became capable of corralling them without the assistance of a second rider. She was never shy when it came to the dirty work either. On one foggy morning, she was at the homestead alone and had her hands inside a cow, helping it birth their first calf. Early the next year, during a particularly harsh snowstorm, a year-old cow fell while trying to cross a small ravine and wasn’t able to climb out. Naomi was quick enough to save the meat, which Solomon sold in town the next day.
Life on the Mestas homestead was wonderful, and wonderfully difficult, until 1937, twelve years after the homestead was established. This year was one of the hottest years on record in the Valley. Day heat broke 110 degrees Fahrenheit that summer more often than not. That kind of desert heat can be crippling, for even the most able bodied. After a severe bout of dehydration, Solomon was confined to his bed. Overwhelmed, Naomi kept the homestead operational while also caring for her husband. She woke each day before sunrise to round up and tend to the cattle before they headed south to brave the afternoon heat. She also covered as much of Solomon’s work at the depot as she could during the afternoon, but finances remained extremely tight without crops. A point came that summer when Naomi sold a quarter of their cattle to Sr. Chavez in exchange for pickled vegetables from their cellar and a ride to Alamosa to see a doctor about Solomon. Even with all her efforts, Solomon died in August of 1937, three weeks after he was first struck by the heat.
I last visited the San Luis Valley during the summer of 2013. Michelle drove. Alex rode up front, because the mountain roads always made her carsick. Jacob and Ian rode in the way back – curled up with a fantasy book as usual – and Jacob kept leaning forward so he could talk to us. I sat in the back right passenger seat, gazing out the big van window at the parking lot and thinking about the six-hour drive. After the first hour in Denver traffic, we dug into our road trip stash of Swedish Fish and Reese’s. By the time we exited I-70 and turned south past Red Rocks, Alex was asleep.
I remember hiking up one of the first big dunes after we arrived. We all stood on the crest, then Michelle and I sat, watching the others sledding down the dune. We talked about school, the mistakes we made, and the things we accomplished. As we spoke, Jackson yard-saled halfway down the dune, spraying sand everywhere. He gave us a thumbs up and poured all the sand out of his shoes, his shirt, his socks. Ian slid down the dune standing. In front of us, over the far edge of the sand, the sun hit the roofs of trucks and cars and jeeps speeding down the highway just beyond the sand.
Michelle told me a story about the old drive-in in the town of Monte Vista, which we could see from where we were sitting. I pointed out the Sawatch Range on the other side of the road, and told her the story of my grand adventure on Holy Cross the year before. We followed the range all the way down through the twin peaks, down past Pagosa Springs, and then back toward us to Alamosa. Here she stopped me, and pointed out the farthest glimmer of a town to the south. That town was called Antonito, she said, and added that she would be going there later that summer for the centennial ceremony of a homestead there. The woman who owned the farm had died alone in 2001 at the age of 94.
Zach Blazek is a senior Environmental Science major with a minor in Chemistry. He was born outside Denver, Colorado and is an avid telemark skier. Deeply passionate about places, Zach is hoping to apply his environmental background to a post-graduate career in urban planning.