Retracing Escalante’s Journey One Blue Tortilla at a Time on My Mountain Bike–Rob Quinn

“When I ride in New Mexico I Switch My Garmin from Vertical Feet to Calories–At 2,000 You Stop.” Rob Quinn

Rob Quinn

History test. Pencils up. What happened in July 1776 that impacts the American West today?

Pencils down.

If you wrote that the Continental Congress had approved the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, eventually giving birth to The Philadelphia 76ers and the institution of the Cheesesteak where the debates rage today; Cheese Whiz or no Cheese Whiz. I’d say you were sorta correct.

If you wrote down that in 1776 two Franciscan Priests and 10 other men of various occupations described as “soldier” or “horse tender” left Santa Fe New Mexico and headed west to Monterey, CA establishing an overland route to the California Mission system–you win too! This was not a military mission. They were on a mission from God, long before Jake a Elwood used that punch line. But some thought they had embarked on mission impossible, long before Peter Graves.

Dominguez-Escalante (Dominguez being the other priest) decided they would depart north, head to what is present day Pueblo then follow the river to Durango. They then explored north towards Grand Junction, explored the Canyonlands and ended up in The Great Salt Lake Basin. Just like your family roadtrip last year!  To put this journey in perspective they knew less about what they were getting into than Lewis and Clark or for that matter the first astronauts in space. 

Fast forward, June 1, 2020. Santa Fe New Mexico. Somebody once asked me what the secret to 30 years of marriage was? My answer is, “Simple. Only be home for 15”. My wife is a homebody and I have a travlin-jones. When the CV-19 coast was seemingly clear to head to Arizona and a client opening a new office in Albuquerque, you did not need to ask me twice to lock and load. It was also a sentimental good-bye to one of my favorite bikes, an Intense Primer that I’d had in the quiver for the last three years. I did a project for Intense before they changed management and the Primer was my payment. My rule is with skis and bikes. Love-em and leave-em and rotate every three years. I was selling it to a college friend’s son who goes to school in Montana, so this was The Primer’s last desert dance and some exploring on my way south.

I had not mountain biked in Santa Fe! I’ve done the road Century a number of times. I Always stop to eat and stay if I can. But never ridden. I called my friend Seth Bush from Zia Rides and asked where I should ride? Unlike the Dominguez-Escalante group I had three hours, maybe four, then a dinner meeting at world famous Tomasita’s . I checked. It had just re-opened. Where should I ride Seth?

The response was immediate, “The Winsor trail. Park at Tesuque Village next to the funky and historical Tesuque Market. Parking anywhere near the trail is tight. You’ll figure it out from there.” 

After doing a little research, this 10 mile point to point is usually a downhill shuttle ride from the Santa Fe Ski area. The site said that sometimes “badass” cross country riders ride it in reverse and climb the 3,300 feet to the ski area. There are 12 creek crossings of various depth. I guess I’m a badass cross country rider. It’s Tuesday at 2 PM. Afternoon storm clouds are gathering. My hunch is I won’t see too many people on the trail (correct). Dinner is at 6 PM. No problem. Plenty of time to check into my hotel by the historical downtown and eat at Tomasita’s. In my opinion, the best Southwest cooking there is. Other’s will say they have sold out. Hater’s gonna hate. I’m gonna eat. When I ride in New Mexico I switch my Garmin from Vertical feet to Calories. At 2,000 you can stop. 

First a little more history and why I love and try to understand Santa Fe and New Mexico. Spanish Explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in the present-day American Southwest. It started with expeditions in the 1540’s as the Spanish searched in vain for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Eventually they colonized and in 1610 Santa Fe was established as a permanent capital. Spanish rule lasted about 200 years until the area briefly became part of The Republic of Mexico before it became part of the United States. Cowboys, Broncos and Cardinals are cheered equally on Sunday. The Spanish earned the reputation of brutal masters. Last week a statute of conquistador Don Juan de Onate was taken down by city crews. He had the right feet of 24 Pueblo natives cut off among other atrocities. Religion and Gold are strange bedfellows. The history of New Mexico viewed through a modern lens is complicated and painful. 

After a little rolling detective work, I found the trail head. The locals in that area have a zero tolerance for parking shuttlers with dozens of homemade “don’t even think of parking here signs” by their driveways. I settled in for a climb that would get steeper as I rode. This was clearly a very primitive and well-worn Native American and game trail that followed the creek up the hill. Was this the trail the Domingez-Escalante group took north out of Santa Fe? I asked myself while I feel my legs loosen up after 6 hours in the truck. Probably not, I reason. Who would want to climb a mountain when they could have taken what is now Saint Francis parkway that would lead you to what I’m assuming would be basically where I-25 travels. None-the-less I tried to imagine what Escalante was thinking. He was an interesting cat. Tough and able and also a committed man-of-God.

He was a by-the-book church employee who kept an impeccable journal and expense ledger. Little did he know his honest naivety would change his future and that of the entire west. This was not a trade mission. They did bring gifts but not barter.

This was not a military mission. They brought one old gun that was fired twice. Once to kill a Buffalo and another time to awe some Piutes. Like Lewis and Clark, nobody was killed in this trip. What about “the hostile tribes they had heard existed?” The priests reasoned since they meant no harm and were on a mission from God, they were protected. Whatever the reasons they encountered no ill fate.

My mind meandered climbing..

“Scrub gives way to Pinion. Miles Davis gives way to Buck Owens in the buds. Pinion gives way to Aspen. Mingus gives way to Widespread Panic. Aspen gives way to Pine. Snarky Puppy gives way to Tom Petty. The stream crossings are all ridable and sandy. Hours drift by. This has turned into a enchanting ride.” 

I saw a total of three hikers and 6 downhillers,  the DHers were suited up like they were ready for The Red Bull Rampage. 

The last mile is steep and techy. I feel good. Muey Conteno. Is it just me? or out of 9000 songs on my iPod I’m hearing a lot of Santana, Mana, Texas Tornados and Mavericks. Enchanting New Mexico has taken over the music selection.  Quick time check.

4 PM. Perfect. Plenty of time to descend and get cleaned up before dinner. I saw a companion trail that runs next to main Winsor trail. Perfect. The two blown discs in my back request a little medicine. No problem. Listen to your body! This is going to be one hell of a downhill. The old steed gobbles up the bumps like I’m riding on inflatable Audi Air Shocks. Marley sings “every little ting gonna be alight”. I’m not riding, I’m floating, my hands holding the bars lightly.

Right on schedule the detour. Nothing like making it a loop.

The primitive Winsor is way less traveled and way more gnarly.

An attention lapse almost ends in what would have been a pretty good endo.  The calorie counter hits 3,000. In the words of Steve Earle, “I took a left where I generally take a right”. It dead ends at the bottom of a different creek. No cell service. Decision time; backtrack or press on to an unmarked splinter trail. A slight rain starts to pitter patter. Franke Yankovichs 1962 grammy winning polka song “Who stole the Kishka” rages in mono in the phones.

What’s that song doing here? Proving that good legs are just as good as a bad brain I find a highway and follow the grey glow of what might be the sun. 

After 45 minutes on the road I pull into Tesuque market. 5:45 PM! No problem. I navigate the light Santa Fe traffic and do a full-monty kit change in the parking lot of Tomasitas. My apologies to the homeless guy I flashed. You didn’t need to laugh. A fresh T-shirt, shorts and baseball hat will have to do as I walk in at 5:59 PM to enjoy yet another fantastic New Mexican Meal and a few Santa Few Brewery IPA’s. 

Onward to Phoenix with some business, some wakeboarding with my daughter (a little hot to ride this time of year) then another epic ride in Gallup on the High Desert Trail system located minutes off the highway on the way home. Gallup is the hub for three Native American Nations and the CV-19 numbers there are the highest in the nation. The signs on the highway say “don’t stop if you don’t need to”. I grabbed a burrito and a XL Dew and pushed it back to Denver in 8 hours.

 Another one bites the dust. Once again, I cross Raton pass at sunset and see The Spanish peaks glisten while entering Colorado. Stephan Stills “Colorado” sings through the speakers of the Tacoma. Once again…9,000 songs…what are the odds?

By early November, The Dominguez-Escalante party was worn down and almost starving. They were told by friendly Utes that they were too late to pass the Wastach Range headed west. They had just discovered what would be the future home of Salt Lake City. They marveled at the land and potential. Perhaps one day they could even steal an NBA team from New Orleans. This could be the New Capital of New Spain! 

Starving and their robes now in rags, Escalante, ever the company man insisted on checking on two outposts that were run by the church on the way back to Santa Fe. What he saw appalled him. The priests basically treating the Pueblo like a fiefdom. Breaking every vow they signed. 

Upon returning, Escalante first wrote a report about the deplorable conditions at the Pueblos and the need to remove the bad priests. It just so happened the “bad priests” were well connected to the Governor. 

Instead of being hailed a hero and his notes and maps being coveted, the trip was called a failure and the priests were sent to the equivalency of Siberia-the former slave trading city of Janos, Chihuahua. Both priests would die in silent anonymity. Their journey of discovery not unearthed and appreciated until a century after their death. The true magnitude of their undertaking not until the last decade. Welcome to politics!

I am a member of the historical camp that believes under other proper circumstances the description of The Salt Lake Basin could have been so fetching that Spain might have colonized it before Brigham Young arrived and today that area would resemble New Mexico in complexion and culture. Think about that Cabron.

Before when I close my eyes

I picture a road out in New Mexico.

Red Earth and Mountains and Sky

I picture my soul out in New Mexico

With all that. 

-Out in New Mexico, by Heather Nova. 

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