Category Archives: History

The Bride of the Gallinas

Contributed by Judy Beil Vaughan

I lived on my parent’s horse and cattle ranch in the Gallinas Canyon near Las Vegas, New Mexico.  School was an hour’s drive down a mountain road that wound along the Gallinas River, its rapids sometimes hundreds of feet below.

Judy, Nynette and Cathy beside a cabin in the Gallinas Canyon, 1956.

Judy, Nynette and Cathy beside a cabin in the Gallinas Canyon, 1956.

For a few precious weeks in the summer, I had friends. I had horses to share with Cathy from Chicago and Nynette from San Angelo, Texas, whose families had vacation homes in the canyon. Even when we were only twelve and thirteen, the three of us rode for hours through the Ponderosa woods and grassy valleys near the ranch. We stopped to explore the adobe ruins of abandoned farms. We saw deer, wild turkey, and bear.

But Nynette’s Great Aunt and Uncle insisted that we spend some time at their cabin ten miles up the canyon from our ranch. At first, we balked. We would miss horseback riding! The specter of “nothing to do” was soon banished by lively Aunt Nyne and Uncle Bill Taylor and our play in the pristine Gallinas down the slope of the hillside.

One evening, we spread our sleeping bags on the porch. The cool night glowed with the Milky Way. We had to look almost directly overhead to see the stars. The stream where we had played flowed through the mountains with just enough room in its canyon for the creek’s rapids and the road beside it.

We were just getting drowsy when Uncle Bill sat in the wicker rocker beside us. The light from the living room was just enough for us see his face. Uncle Bill lit his pipe. “Do you know why the campground up the road is called ‘Bride’s Camp?’” We didn’t. The old man’s eyes met ours. He cleared his throat.

“A young man worked as a surveyor for the first road in the canyon in the 1890’s.  He found the place so beautiful he brought his new wife there for their honeymoon. Unfortunately, she got sick and died after only a few days of utter happiness. He buried her in her wedding dress near Bride’s Camp.”

“How sad!” Nynette said.

“She haunts this canyon, you know.” He furrowed his brow. People see her ghost. She still wears her bridal gown. Why, just last week on a gloomy morning, I was standing here…and a white shape, not a cloud I’m sure, rose up from the road and disappeared into the trees…just over there.”

He pointed across to the opposite canyon wall. His finger trembled. Our eyes widened as we struggled to see through the gathering mist. A scuffle ended our stunned silence as the three of us wrenched our frozen gaze from the site of the drifting ghost. We dragged our sleeping bags into the house for therest of the night. I’m not sure we slept even then.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Judy Beil Vaughan lived with her parents, Wallace and Elizabeth Beil, on a horse ranch located near the village of Gallinas . She is writing her memoirs Adolescent From Shangri-La about her coming of age. She lives in Elk Grove, California, which is not as beautiful as the Gallinas Canyon.

Perspective of a Lifetime Camper

by Annette (Root) Haggard


Chow Hall and grassy field

My parents bought Western Life Camp when I was eight years old. At the time I was shy and unsure of myself but from the moment we arrived I was filled up with the beauty that surrounded me. I remember hearing the water running in the river nearby and watching the breeze blowing through the pine trees. The majestic high mountain peaks, endless sky, solitude, and peace would affect deep changes within me.

There are so many ways that spending my summers as a child at the camp affected me. Each day campers were offered a variety of activities to attend. The choices of activities and the earning of ribbons that signified mastery at various levels of achievement improved my self-confidence. At first I chose activities like riflery and swimming which seemed to come more naturally. But gradually I selected activities like horseback riding and arts and crafts and surprised myself with the level of proficiency I developed. Hiking, backpacking, and overnight camping trips helped me to develop my own special relationship with the natural world around me. I gained a love for wildlife and all things natural that very strongly influenced my personality.  Summer after summer of hiking changed me. Using humor to help conquer fatigue and pain or undesirable circumstances became a strength of mine. I became expert at turning negative experiences into hilarious stories to be enjoyed later with friends and family. Thanks to these positive experiences at WLC  I came out of my teen years as a “Can Do” adult, knowing that I could face and accomplish whatever life put before me.


Annette & Eric’s wedding at WLC

Another significant thing about “going to camp” was the people. The quality of people that I was surrounded with as a young person gave me numerous examples to follow and pattern my developing self after.  As a young adult I became a counselor, instructor, and campfire leader. Later I directed camp activities and even married my husband at the very camp I had grown up attending.  By this time I considered the camp my “heart home” and although my husband and I lived in several other locations, we were able to purchase the property next to the camp and don’t plan to ever leave “home” again.


Hell’s Canyon

I am a real water lover so, just as I did as a child, I still walk and sit in the river and enjoy slipping and sliding in special spots and water holes. I relish experiencing each of the four seasons and what they bring to these mountains. The warm summer days and nights, lying in a field of grass staring at the expanse of stars just overhead. The oak and aspen as they turn into oranges, yellows and browns and their leaves float gently away in the wind. The forest covered in sparkling snow and the river iced over with gurgling fresh water just beneath the surface. The perfect temperature of spring as flowers, and trees begin to bud and bloom again.

Annette+JoanMost of my life-long friends are people I shared camp experiences with in my youth. What a rich gift to my life they are. A shared background of exploration, discovery, teamwork, and personal growth provided the training ground for developing important relationships and interpersonal skills.

Today, Western Life Camp offers lodging for groups of all ages and interests from family reunions to church retreats, academic groups to sports camps. Just as it affected me, I know your experience at the camp will affect you in positive and memorable ways.

I think the time spent at the camp really gets inside you. The memories you create over a few days, a week, or if you were lucky enough to be there for summers, as I was, become part of who you are and who you will become. I encourage you to come spend some time with us at Western Life Camp. You will be inspired invigorated and renewed!


Western Life Camp – Living History

by Mike Root


John Wayne

Western Life Camp was founded at a time when America was fascinated with Western movies and cowboy legends of the Old West.  Actors like Roy Rogers and John Wayne brought the cowboy ideals to the big screen, and American youth romanticized the Wild West and cowboy culture.  In the late 1930′s Western Life Camp started out as a kind of “dude ranch” where young men could learn to ride horses, shoot rifles, practice archery, and acquire skills their Wild West heroes possessed.  Soon after opening, the camp expanded it offerings to include girls.  The summer camp activities evolved according to the interests of youngsters at the time:  hiking, arts, crafts, swimming and gymnastics.


Northern New Mexico ranchers

Only 15 miles away, the city of Las Vegas was one of the wildest towns of the Wild West.  Cowboy legends Doc Holiday and Billy the Kid were frequenters of the bars in the town square.  Doc even operated one such establishment for a time.  Teddy Roosevelt held yearly reunions for the Rough Riders armed cavalry division in Las Vegas beginning in 1899.  But long before that, the town began as a ranching community.  In 1835 the Mexican Government granted the area to a Hispanic family as a land grant for their ranch.


Our cabins surround an acre grassy field

So the equestrian and outdoorsman skills taught at Western Life Camp had roots in the community going back 100 years.  The location of WLC is idyllic:  a large grassy field bordered on one side by a mountain stream and surrounded by thousands of acres of Santa Fe National Forest.  The authentic Western accommodations feature décor that harkens back to the Wild West era.

Today Western Life Camp is a summer retreat center which holds true to the pure pioneer spirit of the West.

field-daysdotcom-HERMIT nice

Hermit Peak

Throughout its various incarnations some things remains constant at Western Life Camp:  the allure and charm of our riverside location proves the ideal place for making lasting summer memories.  And folks come back year after year to take a step back in time and enjoy serenity and simplicity in our idyllic setting.

Western Life Camp has been passed down through three families of owners over the years.

Horse & covered wagon; Historic photo # 114,049; Around 1924

Covered wagon, similar to the one used at WLC

The early years, 1939-1955

In the late 1930s Frank R. Phillips of Canyon, Texas started Western Life Boys’ Camp.  Frank, his wife and two daughters spent their summers at Western Life Camp.  A graduate of Cornell University, Mr. Phillips was Dean of Agriculture at West Texas State College. He began the camp as a place young men could acquire and refine their outdoor skills. Soon after, it was expanded to include both boys and girls. Phillips used pack horses to haul the belongings of campers to the cabins, which were about a mile away from the narrow rocky road that existed at that time. He introduced a horse-drawn covered wagon as part of the camp’s Old West décor.  For the next couple of decades, kids rode to nearby overnight campouts in the wagon.  Phillips knew the history and legends of the area and passed those stories down by way of storytelling to his staff and summer campers at weekly campfire circles.  Campfire songs were passed down from generation to generation over the camp’s 70+ years of continuous operation of family owners.

General and Chief, 1955-1969

Willoughby family at Ponderosa cabin

Willoughby family at Ponderosa cabin

In 1955, two former campers bought Western Life Camp from Mr. Phillips: Al Smith and Booker Hays Willoughby, affectionately referred to as “General and Chief”.  Both men had grown up at the camp, first as campers, later as counselors and finally as camp directors at WLC.  They practically ran the operation for several years and then bought out Phillips in 1955.  Both men were intrigued by the local legends and the natural beauty of the area.

Smith family by Pine Cone cabin

Smith family by Pine Cone cabin

Smith and Willoughby, along with their wives and children, continued running the summer camp and carried on the telling of stories and legends while expanding the number of activities available.  Hikes to Hermit Peak, Johnson Mesa and other destinations were added.  Kids enjoyed their program so much that they would return 10 or more years in a row without missing a summer.  It was not unusual for kids to attend camp from childhood into their teens, then become counselors as adults, just as General and Chief had done.


Group photo in mid-1970′s

The Roots, 1969 to present:
After nearly a decade and a half of direction by Smith and Willoughby, Mel and Jan Root bought the camp in 1969, along with two other investors.  The next year Mel bought out his investors and the Root family took sole ownership of Western Life Camp.  Over the next decade and a half, the camp blossomed into an exciting summer program including horseback riding, gymnastics, archery, riflery, arts and crafts.  Weekly dances were held on Saturday evenings.  Skits and other performances took place in the camp’s Rec Hall building.  Also added were multi-day hikes to Elk Mountain, Hermit Peak and beyond.  Campers were treated to relaxing soaks in the nearby Montezuma Hot Springs (see our article on the historic hot springs), and tours of the Montezuma Castle (see article). Weekly overnight camp outs were held atop nearby Johnson Mesa. There’s a trail to Johnson Mesa which begins just across the road from the camp. A few years ago the Forest Service honored us by naming this trail to “Western Life Trail”.

Mel and Jan Root were mentors to hundreds of kids.  Like the previous owners, they possessed the ability to connect with youth and establish trust and mutual respect.  They no doubt inherited some of the loyal campers of the Smith and Willoughby era.  Loyalty seemed a common thread because campers would often return multiple summers, and some would go on to become counselors, cooks, and instructors in the camp’s many activities. A typical camper day during this era would include choices of arts and crafts, leather working, leather stamping, horseback riding, swimming, archery, riflery  with hikes of varying lengths, and an overnight on the nearby overlook of Johnson Mesa.


Swimming pool

A few campers really took to hiking and survival techniques and spent multiple nights out on the trails learning navigation, local edible plants and other natural sources.  This group was called Voyager and had their own cabin, “Hill Top” with a separate schedule from the rest of the camp: a series of mutli-day hikes where they pushed themselves physically and practiced their survival skills.  A typical meal might include dandelion soup (see recipe in our edible local plants article),  Mel acted as camp director for several decades, and was a mentor and father figure to many youth.

In the late 1980s Mel changed the camp into a group rental facility, for the first time changing the clientele of the camp from strictly youth to all ages.  Groups of 30 to 80 people host events at WLC throughout the summer.  It was not unusual for summer groups, like a local spiritual retreat, to come back over ten years in a row.   A few of our favorite family reunions  have returned multiple summers and appreciate our small family management, always on site and available to talk to or assist you.  Other return clientele has included sports teams, scouting and outdoorsman camps, a variety of youth and adult retreats from weekend workshops to weddings.



Mary Kay, Martin, Mike, Eric and Annette

Family-run Business Continues Today 

In 2013 the next generation of the Root family: Annette, Mary Kay and Mike took over running Western Life Camp, along with husbands Eric and Martin.  The three Root children attended WLC throughout their youth, developing a love for the outdoors; as young adults they took on more responsibility with the camp: Annette as a counselor and camp director, Mary Kay as cook and Mike with maintenance and groundskeeping.  Mike, Mary and Annette spent all summer, every summer at WLC, working with Mel and Jan cleaning and maintaining, opening up cabins in the spring and winterizing them each fall.  Annette’s husband Eric was a camp counselor and co-director.  He was Mel’s right-hand man for maintenance, plumbing and carpentry.  Mary’s husband Martin holds the record for longest journey to join Western Life Camp having moved across the globe from New Zealand to wed Mary Kay.  Martin brings a deep love of the outdoors and expertise in forestry and business planning.  The five co-owners Annette and Eric, Mary Kay and Martin, along with youngest brother Mike continue the traditions of family-run business and continue to run the camp as a group rental facility and unique summer destination.

Dining Hall & Kitchen

Dining Hall with all-wood furniture

Take a step back in time at our pristine riverside setting and find your own special connection with the great outdoors.  The camp is the idea summer rental place for groups from family reunions to spiritual retreats; sports groups to destination weddings.  Escape from social media, cell phones, video games, text messages and TV shows.   Come with us to a time when life was less complicated;  a place you did not need to keep track of emails, remember passwords, or respond to voicemails.  Our authentic western décor includes log and timber sided cabins, heirloom wooden floors, a piano and fireplace in our main lodge, with an heirloom Magic Chef gas oven and spacious kitchen and ample dry or refrigerated storage.

Come create your own incredible summer memories at Western Life Camp in the cool Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico.  Contact us for more information.









Edible Plants and Weeds of Northern New Mexico

contributed by Gail Haggard, owner of Plants of the Southwest

Western Life Camp is a perfect location to learn about, collect and eat wild foods.  The ability to harvest them is basic to survival and homesteading skills – skills that are popular and fun, and may one day be of great service, one never knows!




Pueblo people lived here five hundred years before the Spanish came, and knew all the edible native plants and edible bugs and larvae.  The indigenous people fished, hunted and picked mushrooms in the mountains where they traveled in the summer and the valleys where they lived in the winter. They ate the nutritious wild onions – the nodding onion has tiny purple flowers that are a charming addition to salads.


Nodding Onion

Nodding Onion

The indigenous people flavored foods with spruce buds and juniper berries, and they ground and cooked the seeds of saltbush and Indian ricegrass, which was a major sustainer.  They ate the cactus pods and the flowers of Yucca after boiling and roasting.  All summer they ate the leaves and flowers of fireweed and bee balm, also called oregano de la sierra – more delicious than commercial oregano. They ate wild plums and rosehips and berries of chokecherry and wax and golden currant and three-leaf sumac, also called lemonade berry.  The nuts of pinon, ponderosa and white pine are nutritious.  Naturally many, many wild seeds and nuts, roots and bulbs, dried fruits and meats and mushrooms were stored for the winter.  When you live largely in the glorious outdoors you have a big appetite!




Purslane is a common weed in New Mexico because the Spanish brought it with them when they came to the New World.  You can eat it all summer and for the winter hang it on a string or toss it in a bag, then when its in the stew pot it plumps up again and gives its flavor and nutrients.  The new greens/weeds of spring are very nutritious.  All our veggies started out as weeds – weeds from around the world – that we cultivated over long periods of time from plants with characteristics that appealed to humans.

In the spring the young leaves of the amaranth (pigweed), clover, rumex, lamb’s quarters and mallow are great.  In late summer you can cook the grain of amaranth or pop it for tiny “popcorn”.  Clover flowers are so pretty in salad, as are rose flowers and geranium flowers.  Also you can eat the geranium leaves or cook with them.  

All partsdandelion of the dandelion can sustain you.  Here’s a simple natural wine:  dissolve 1/2 cup of sugar in 1 cup of water and stuff a jar full of dandelion flowers – just the yellow flowers.  Cover the jar and then try it in the fall – delicious dandelion wine!

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