Author Archives: Western Life Camp

La Llorona

Throughout our beautiful state, this story is told in many different versions.  The tale has been told for over 500 years, in Mexico, in *** and here in the Southwest.  It is kept alive for many reasons; to warn of the dangers of drowning, to remind starry-eyed young ladies of the danger of an unequal match to a wealthy man and as a symbol of the loss of indigenous culture following conquest.

 Here is the way we heard this tale growing up.

Once there lived a beautiful but sorrowful woman, near the banks of the Gallinas River.  Like the river itself, her dark hair flowed down across her shoulders and reached below her waist.  Her sadness was due to the death of her husband, early in the years of their happy life as a couple.  His only gift was the life growing within her. In due time, the widow gave birth to twin boys, handsome and strong like their father.  The babies brought great joy to their mother and long were the days full of laughter ringing in the air. Their mother cared deeply for them, seeing in them the memories of all that was good from her beloved husband.  Her sorrow lessened over time as she felt that her husband’s love lived on in their beautiful children. As the years passed, she began to notice a sort of cruelty growing in one of the boys. It began with harm to insects and then animals, and moved on the evil deeds done to the children nearby.  As the mother watched and tried to remove this cruel tendency, she discovered that harm was being inflicted on her other son and later, upon herself. The hatefulness of this twin seemed to grow and rejoice in every cruel deed accomplished and every sorrow inflicted. The mother tried all that she could think of.  She loved, she corrected, she prayed, she did all in her power to bring the love and kindness back to this child. Finally, by the time the twins turned 8, she felt that she had no choice but to remove the life of this evil twin from the earth and from herself and her good son.

One night, when the moon was full, she crept quietly to the boys’ room and carefully carried the sleeping son down to the river without waking him, having placed certain herbs in their supper, designed to keep one sleeping.  Her mother’s heart was as heavy as her sleeping boy but she knew that it was only a matter of time before he took the life of his own brother and others perhaps. With flowing tears, she lowered him into the deepest part of the river and kept him under until his life flowed out of his body.  She pulled his body to shore and wept until the morning but at last there was a moment of peace, knowing that she had put this evil away. She returned to the house to make breakfast for herself and her good son but soon discovered that her evil son had traded beds with his brother and was the one who had survived.  All sorrow fell upon her and she threw herself in the river until she drowned. Knowing the evil she left of the earth and the good she wrongfully destroyed, her spirit walks the banks of the river, crying and lamenting the loss of her beloved son.


The Legend of Bride’s Camp

Just up the road from our camp a few miles, on the way to Evergreen Valley, is a place known as Bride’s Camp.  Every year, on a certain night, we would go just before dusk and wait to see the ghost after dark.  Here is her story.

At last, the end of the war came.  John came home and married his intended as he had promised so many years ago.  Their wedding luncheon was a close family gathering, full of joy and sweetness of a longing fulfilled.  The couple decided to spend their wedding night in a nearby meadow, a place full of memories of their youth, of innocent play and later tenderness.  At twilight, as the stars twinkled from their daytime hiding places, John started a campfire to cook a simple meal.  His bride was brimming with fun.  Laughter bubbled up unbidden and her smile felt as if it wrapped twice around her head.  She put on her veil to go pick wildflowers before it was full dark.  Then she went to the river’s edge to fetch water and heard uneven bounding behind her.  She cried out as she turned but her cries were cut short.  John ran to the river in time to see her veil floating away and blood on the ground.    He heard the sound of the three-legged wolf, the strongest of survivors, willing to chew off his own leg rather than be caught in a trap.  The rhythm of the galloping three legs, one-two-three, one-two- three, went on and on until at last it faded and no sound was left but the clattering of the river over the rocks.

The years passed, the sorrow became a bittersweet memory, and John married again.  He raised a family and passed on his love of the great outdoors, but never again visited the meadow of his first honeymoon.  The ghost of his bride, however, returns each year on their anniversary, walking the banks of the river and the woods nearby, crying out the name of her husband, always searching to be united with her true love.

Montezuma Castle, New Mexico

montezuma castle, las vegas new mexico

Just outside Las Vegas, New Mexico lies one of the best kept secrets of the Southwest. Near the sleepy village of Montezuma, alongside the Gallinas River, is a 90,000 square foot Queen-Anne style castle.  The castle has a fascinating history, dating back to 1882.

The Montezuma Castle is a 400-room structure, bordered on one side by the river and on the other by forested foothills. The Rocky Mountains are just minutes away to the West, and to the East are the Great Plains.

Montezuma inside grand room
Throughout its existence the castle has attracted notable clientele. Ulysses S. Grant, President Theodore Roosevelt,  Japanese Emperor Hirohito, and Prince Charles of Wales are among its many famous guests.  It has had several diverse incarnations; as a luxury hotel, a spiritual center, and now an International Baccalaureate school.

Built in 1882 it was the first building in the region to have electric lights and an elevator. The castle became an international destination due to the hot mineral baths on the grounds.  The mineral baths were proclaimed to have medicinal properties. Many flocked to the springs to ease the pain of a number of ailments, including tuberculosis, gout, dyspepsia and chronic rheumatism.  Guests were pampered at the baths by a staff offering a variety of services, from mud baths to massage.

The hot springs have been in use since around 800 AD, when indigenous tribes are believed to have used them for purification rituals and religious ceremonies.  Around 1840, the Mexican government granted the hot springs and surround area to American entrepreneurs who built various structures and bathhouses in hopes of capitalizing on the legendary healing waters.


In 1882, businessman Fred Harvey (founder of the Harvey House hospitality chain) constructed a luxury hotel at a cost of $300,000.  This was called “The Montezuma”.  A railroad spur was constructed from the nearby ATSF railway all the way to Montezuma so guests could travel comfortably by rail, some in private Pullman Cars.  A large resort was erected with elaborate gardens and beautifully landscaped grounds.  Great care was taken to install electric lighting – the first in the region.

Tragically, just a year later an electrical fire broke out and burned the building to the ground.


Undaunted, Harvey rebuilt the hotel, hiring Chicago architectural firm Burnham and Root to build an even grander hotel, featuring bowling alleys and billiards rooms.  Opening it’s doors in 1884, this new structure was advertised as being fireproof, with great care taken on the electrical wiring and water hoses running along the halls.  In a stroke of bad luck, another fire broke out – this time in a turret at the top of the hotel.  Unfortunately the firehouses could not reach this area, and much of the building burned.  In 1886, the structure was rebuilt once again, and aptly named “The Phoenix”.  Harvey realized this name echoed the previous misfortunes, and soon changed the name back to The Montezuma.  Repeated misfortunes of the castle provided a such colorful background in the book “Child of a Rainless Year” by Jane Lindskold that the castle itself seemed a character in the story.

An economic depression in the 1890s in the US greatly decreased the number of visitors, and the hotel limited it’s operation to summers. The hotel closed its doors for the last time in 1903.

From that time forward the castle went through a series of name changes and repurposing.  In the early 1900s boxer Jim Flynn used the building as a training center for his landmark 1912 fight with Jack Johnson which took place in nearby Las Vegas, NM.   The YMCA bought the building in 1913, but never actually made use of it.  From 1922 – 1931 the Southern Baptist Convention owned and operated it as a seminary. Then in 1937 the Catholic Church bought the building and ran a Jesuit Seminary to train priests until 1972.

UWC flagsPresent Day

In 1981, a hundred years after the original castle was built, the property was purchased by philanthropist Armand Hammer. With encouragement from Prince Charles, who was then president of the United World Colleges, the building and surrounding campus opened as the United World College of the American West in 1982.  Today the United World College still occupies the campus, offering an International Baccalaureate curriculum to students from around the world.  Currently about 200 students from over 70 countries attend the boarding school at Montezuma.

You can walk through the Montezuma Castle on student-led tours on Saturdays throughout the year.  The nearby hot springs are open and free to the public.

Western Life Camp is 10 miles northwest of Montezuma.  We offer free tours of our beautiful riverside cabins and would be happy to take you by Montezuma Castle and the hot springs when you come see us.

(For more on the origin of Montezuma see our article, They Call Me Montezuma.)

Contributed by Mike Root

Penitentes and the Legend of Smith’s Grave

A Penitente Morada

A Penitente Morada

At the base of  Hermit’s Peak, near the trailheads branching off to Beaver Creek and to Hermit’s Peak, there is the grave of a humble man, well-loved and never forgotten;  gone now at least half a century, known to us only as “Mr. Smith.”  Growing up in the area with summer hikes in the mountains, passing Smith’s Grave near the beginning of the Skyline Trail, stopping respectfully was always part of the hike.  When people were with us that didn’t know the legend, we always told it once again and kept the memory of Mr. Smith alive.  Sometimes, a rebellious camper would want to step on the grave or even to spit on it.  We told them that the grave was guarded by his friends, the Penitentes, who would not allow any desecration and would teach a lesson to any who dared to show disrespect.
From time to time, a naughty camper would touch the grave.  Later that night, some of our camp counselors would ride into camp in a group on horseback and, as arranged in advance with the camper, pluck him from his bed, toss him on the horse and ride out of camp, in a blaze of hooves and dust.  The staff and camper would come up with a tale to tell after returning.  The camper would be returned about an hour later, long enough for everyone to have had a good scare, and seeming to be properly chastised, with a tall tale about what happened for not showing proper respect for Smith’s grave. By all accounts, Smith was a quiet man but he is remembered for being a good friend to his friends.  He was a keeper of confidences, valuing the men he counted as his true friends more that any reward or notoriety that might be his if he were willing to expose the secrets or identities of his friends.  If he was with us today, he could be that rare friend of someone famous or rich and he would never be bought with a million dollar book deal or his own 15 minutes of fame.  Today, such friends, such people, are rare indeed and honoring the loyalty of a true friend is not a tale heard often in our days.  Smith’s story is simply a story of friendship.
I never knew much about the man called Smith.  I knew of his friends, a group of men that were members of a secret religious path, the Penitentes.  The Penitentes expressed their faith through acts of extreme penitence.  When I was small, there were still crosses,larger than a man, handmade of wood, along the trail leading to Hermit’s Peak and the three large crosses that were always up at the top of the Peak.  It is said that that the brothers would carry these heavy wooden crosses the many steep miles up  the trail especially on Good Friday, walking barefoot, often in snow, to reenact the carrying of the cross of Christ before His crucifixion, stopping at the stations of the Cross along the way.    It is said that they walked up the trail to Hermit’s Peak, each man scourging the bare back of the man before him with ropes or whips made  of yucca fiber, to humble themselves and honor the suffering of Christ.  One man would be chosen to represent Christ by being lashed with ropes or whips made of yucca fiber or, in earlier times, nailed, to the largest cross on Good Friday and taken down the following morning. It is also said that the chosen one would find a pair of shoes on his porch the morning of the final services which began in the morada, or meeting place.
penitente-pic-cross-bearingThe Penitentes are known as Los Hermanos Penitentes or as Hermanadad de Nuestro Padre Jesus, and trace their origins as a lay brotherhood back to the third order of St. Francis de Assisi, established in Italy in 1221 and are also known as the Tertiaries.
Juan de Onate was himself a Tertiary and was one of those who brought the brotherhood from Spain to New Mexico.  After Bishop Lamy publicly condemned the brotherhood around 1850, the practice of the faith went underground and accounts for the secrecy surrounding the members and their meetings.  Finally in 1947, Archbishop Byrne recognized the Penitentes and a Hermano Supremo was approved by him and traveled to the groups to grant a charter to those willing to worship under the guidelines set forth by the Archbishop.
Old ways die hard and the tradition of secrecy and the fervor of the old meetings has not been forgotten.  Just remember, should you ever be entrusted to know the name of any member, the location of any active morada or somehow come upon a ceremony not meant for your eyes, choose the path of Mr. Smith and follow his example of silence and friendship.  Remember too, to tip your hat or stop for a moment of silence at Smith’s grave should be hiking up our way.  You never know who might be watching.


Acequias: A Centuries-Old Tradition of Water Sharing


Photo credit:

El agua es la vida.  Water is life.  It’s a universal concept, but in a dry mountain region like Northern New Mexico the words ring especially true. New Mexico has the longest continuously traceable history of human water use in the country. The tradition of acequias (UH-SAY-KEY-UHS), or shared irrigation canals, is directly linked to that history.   Western Life Camp sits next to the Gallinas River, a mountain stream tributary to the Pecos River. We and our downstream neighbors share water and honor the acequia tradition.


An ancient Anasazi irrigation system?

Acequias are a common thread that spans centuries of New Mexico history.  The indigenous tribes of the area were the first to use gravity-powered ditches for agriculture.  As early as 1400 AD the Pueblo Indians had created complex systems of irrigation lines fed from the area’s rivers and tributaries to grow corn, beans and squash.  With the Spanish colonization of the area in the 1600s the term “acequia” as  shared watercourse began to be used.  The Spaniards noted the similarities to the native watering systems to those brought to Spain during the Moorish occupation.  The word acequia is of Arabic origin.  In Classic Arabic “as-sāqiya”  was a double entendre of “water conduit” and “one who bears water” or “barmaid”.

Today, acequias continue as community-operated irrigation ditches vital to Northern New Mexico.
Acequias are recognized as governmental units under New Mexico law.  The hierarchy goes something like this: State, County, City, Town, Acequia.  Individual acequia associations band together under the state-wide New Mexico Acequia Association.


“Limpia”, or Spring Cleaning. Photo credit: New Mexico Acequia Association

A crucial function of each individual association is the annual spring cleaning.  In a cooperative effort orchestrated by a supervising mayordomo, the individual members, or parcientes, manually clean out the entire ditch of leaves, debris and anything else that accumulated inside the ditch over the Winter months.   When the spring rains and mountain runoff begin, the parcientes enjoy the benefit of their labor as water flows smoothly along the acequia, bringing life to their fields and crops.

Whereas acequias have a long tradition as cooperative community efforts to manage and share water, there are competing interests.  Today, municipalities compete with acequias for water usage and rights, often disproportionally due to golf courses, large lawns, hotel and motel use.  Mining and Fracking also compete for the limited amounts of water available.  As you can imagine, with the money and man power available to cities and the mining industries, it is often a David vs. Goliath struggle.   Support your local acequia by helping raise awareness of this issue and getting involved. You can share this article with others and consider donating to defense funds to help small communities in their struggle against larger municipalities.

References and more info:
History: The Politics of Water
Ancient Traditions Keep Desert Waters Flowing

Contributed by Mike Root

Hermit’s Peak and the Story of Juan Maria d’Agostini

Hermit's Peak Perhaps the mostly widely recognized landmark in the Las Vegas area, Hermit’s Peak looms over the surrounding plains at 10,263 feet.  You may remember it from a scene in the movie Red Dawn, which was filmed nearby (the 1984 version, not the remake).  It’s worth noting that Red Dawn stars the late Patrick Swayze who later returned and bought a ranch just a few miles from the mountain.
Over the years Hermit’s Peak and it’s sole resident, Juan Maria d’Agostini, have become an important part of the local culture. The mountain was known to the early Spanish settlers as El Cerro del Tecolote, or the Hill of the Owl.  That changed when an unusual figure came to the area in the 1860s.  He was described as a short and thin man with a brown eyes and a gaunt face.  He wore a long dark cape and leaned on a walking staff.  The local residents had never seen anyone so striking and mysterious.  They called him El Ermitano, the Hermit.


Juan Maria d’Agostini

Born in northern Italy in 1801, Giovanni Maria de Agostini came from a wealthy family.  He studied Latin, French, and theology before taking the vow of Saint Anthony the Abbot. He then dedicated himself to a Monastic life of poverty, austerity and virtue.  After traveling around in Europe he set out for South America, landing in Caracas, Venezuela in 1839. In South and Central America he traveled from Venezuela to Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico. In 1861 he journeyed to North America and arrived in New York City.  Except for voyages which required boats, his only mode of transportation was by foot.  From New York he walked up to Canada, and then down to Kansas.
Agostini found his way to Las Vegas, New Mexico accompanying a wagon train from Council Grove, Kansas along the Santa Fe Trail in 1863.  When offered a ride on one of the wagons he said that he preferred to walk, and asked only for some cornmeal mush to nourish himself.  By this time he went by the name Juan Maria d’Agostini.  But to the religious settlers of early Las Vegas he was simply the Hermit.  Due to his appearance and wise demeanor he was perceived of as a  holy man, a healer and a miracle worker.  He claimed to be none of these things.  Nonetheless, throngs of locals collected wherever he resided, seeking counsel, healing and miracles. Eventually d’Agostini set his sights on the 10,263 foot mountain, where he finally found the solitude he longed for in a cave near the summit.


Photo by Cade Mendenhall

When I was growing up my parents ran Western Life Camp as a kid’s summer camp. I made the trek to Hermit’s Peak several times.  I remember the first part of the hike as fairly mild: gentle hills covered in Ponderosa and Spruce trees, then you reached a giant field of boulders and got your first view of the rocky precipice. The last stretch is the steepest: a series of switchbacks.  Finally atop the summit I recall an expansive view; it seemed you could see all the way into Texas.  A small somewhat flat meadow provided a great space to relax, eat your lunch and take in the view.  We then walked a few hundred yards down one side of the summit to the shallow cave where d’Agostini had resided, and imagined the simple but profound existence he had.
Hermit’s Peak is a beautiful and rewarding hike with a unique history.  Guests of Western Life Camp can enjoy this wonderful trek, and many other nearby hikes, listed on our Activities page.

Hermit’s Peak hike info:
Hike Distance: 4.25 miles (8.5 round trip)
Vertical ascent: 2,720 feet
Approximate Hiking Time: 3.5 hours, one way
The trailhead to Hermit’s Peak is 7 miles Northeast of Western Life Camp, in the El Porvenir Campground.

Contributed by Mike Root

They Call Me Montezuma


On the way up to Western Life Camp are some historically significant hot springs that share the name of Montezuma with the neighboring village and, previously, with the hotel, or castle, that is now the United World College.  One sleepy summer, curiosity got the better of me and I researched the mystery of the name (see references below).  After a day or so in the coolness of Santa Fe’s Historical Library, viewing and taking notes from old handwritten bits and pieces of a local legend with many variations, I pieced together the legend with the parts common to most of the old stories.

montezuma-springs-1895It turns out that the Montezuma Hot Springs were sacred to the people of Pecos Pueblo, one of the largest northern pueblos in its heyday.  Not only was Pecos Pueblo prosperous and powerful, it controlled access to and from the Great Plains, making it a center of trade where the hunting tribes brought their hides and dried meat to trade for fruits and vegetables grown by the different pueblos.  Other trade items included shells obtained from the coastal tribes and rare feathers for ceremonial use.  The spiritual leaders of Pecos Pueblo kept the trading fair and had areas that were treated as sanctuary, where members of different tribes who might be in conflict could meet in peace.

One such place was at Montezuma, at the sacred hot springs.  Warriors guarded passage to and from the springs at all times.  The strong spiritual traditions were challenged one day because a spiritual leader, a cacique, was near death but had no apprentice to take his place.  This could mean the loss of sacred knowledge and traditions, threatening the stability of the people.   Death came all too quickly and the people drew lots to select the new cacique.  The lot fell to a young man of 13 summers to lead his people.  Now this young man had already begun having visions and had begun to feel the call of the medicine path.  In his visions, the Thunderbird flew, leading him and his people to a new land and signifying the end of the journey by alighting on a cactus and drawing up a serpent in its beak.  The people heard the vision of the new cacique and accepted his spiritual leadership.  Where he led, they began following him south as he, in turn, followed the path of the Thunderbird.  When the Thunderbird would alight, the people would stop to settle, gather food and hunt to replenish their supplies.  From time to time, they stopped at pueblos along the way, where the local people heard the vision and joined the throng to follow the cacique who followed the Thunderbird.  It has often been reported that many of the southern pueblos look as if they were instantly abandoned, as if the inhabitants rose from their midday meal and left as one.  This was indeed the case as, upon catching the vision of the young and charismatic cacique, they felt the call to follow.  Long months passed as the people would be certain that they were at last at their destination as, time after time, the Thunderbird would land on a cactus.  The cacique would solemnly remind them that the second half of the vision had yet to be fulfilled and they must continue their migration path until the vision was complete.

montezuma4Finally, one day when the people had all but given up that the vision would be fulfilled in their lifetimes, the second half of the vision was fulfilled.  They had been following the cacique who followed the Thunderbird through village after village, growing more and more numerous as each group of inhabitants rose as one and followed.  The cacique called a halt and gathered the people to hear the good news, that both halves of the vision had been fulfilled.  The Thunderbird had come to rest at last, alighting upon the cactus as he had so many times before but this time he had taken the serpent in his beak.  Rejoicing was great as the people knew they were where they were meant to be.  They remained to found a people, a dynasty and a country for the name of the city they built was Mexico City and the name of the young cacique was Montezuma.