With the publication of my first novel, The Cross and the Badge. it’s sequel Against Flesh and Blood, and the upcoming The Judas Tree, I thought it would be fun to show you where the action happens. I also update this on occasion with new information about this area. So you might stumble across it often.
The majority of the stories takes place in Conejos County, Colorado, and follows the adventures of Will Diaz. Will is a man who was once in the Sheriff’s Office, and after years of being gone finds himself back as a detective.
Conejos (rabbit in Spanish) County was one of the original thirteen counties that made up Colorado when it first became a state. At that time it covered a fair chunk of the southern part of the state. It’s shrunk a lot since with other counties carved out of the original.
The courthouse we used to have burnt down in 1980. It was arson, and I even had a guy show me how it was done. The problem was, he wasn’t mentioning names. Years later he sent word he wanted to see me about it. He knew I was still looking into it and was willing to talk. He was on his deathbed when he sent word, and died that same day before I even had a chance to speak to him. That case will most likely go down as unsolved.
Why it was burnt is open for speculation. Some theorists suspect someone was trying to destroy records in either the assessor or appraiser’s office, or something that was moving through the courts. Others say it was just someone who liked fires. Since this wasn’t the first, or the last, big fire in the county, I’d tend to lean in that direction.
The Sheriff’s Office I knew, and I use in the stories, has been bulldozed to the ground and a new facility erected. Our old facility was built at the close of WW II, and served well for many years. But it was getting old and just not a good fit with the criminals we were starting to get.
A lot has changed.
But some stuff remains the same.
For example, right across the street from the County Courthouse is the oldest church in Colorado, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Catholics have been saying mass in it since 1863. In the ’20s it was severely damaged by fire but rebuilt.
Once upon a time, a life size Penitente Cross hung in the church. From what I learned about it, we got a new priest who found it in the attic of the church. Hand-carved and probably as old if not older than the church, it represented a major work of art for the area. As Penetite art goes, it was mind boggling. It was so gruesome it was actually beautiful and gives a great feel for the death Jesus died. it was displayed in the church, a representation of the heritage of the people who settled here. Someone broke into the church in the early ’90s and stole this incredible and priceless artifact. It’s one of the few cases I’d worked that remains unsolved. I spoke with a man who collected such things, and he put out feelers to see if it turned up. It never has, and the theory is that it’s long since been destroyed. If so, whoever took it committed a crime right up there with the Nazi’s stealing and destroying art. It’s my hope and prayer that it’s in someone’s garage or attic and someday it’ll be found and returned.
A replacement cross was made by local artist Bernal Martinez and hangs in the church today.
Down the road from Conejos is Antonito, Colorado. The town was once a going concern, with railroads running into New Mexico. One of the big items of freight was Perlite, a prime ingredient in insulation. It came up from the mines near Tres Pedras, New Mexico. There was an attempt to build something called “the Chili Line” to help bring it up, as well as bring in produce from farms in Northern New Mexico. As I understand it, this was an underhanded attempt by the Rio Grande Railroad to get into the territories belonging to other railroads. When the line was abandoned, it sentenced the town of Antonito to a slow decline.
The Chili Line formed a vital link to the communities. There are stories of the engineers doubling as paper boys, or stopping in the communities and emptying hot water from the train boilers for women to wash clothes in. Had it still been in existence, it might have played a vital role in the construction of the A-bomb.
Perlite is still a major cash source and the plant still employees a number of people. But it’s not the booming thing it once was.
Today, Antonito is a shadow of its former glory, but many of the old buildings still stand, most of which of which are still in use.
There are several items of note in the Antonito area.
One is the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. I highly recommend the ride. Well worth it.
The train runs from Antonito, up to Osier, and from there to Chama, New Mexico. It’s a 64 mile ride through some simply breathtaking country. One place I love where it runs through is Osier. Osier will figure in several times throughout the series. In real life, Osier always represented a stop for us when we were taking cattle or going to work up in the mountains. The water tower is still functional and was fed by an artisan spring. We always stopped and got water there. It was some of the best water I’ve ever drank.
The other is almost a curiosity. If you’ve watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” part of it was filmed using the railroad, and the other is the house a young Indy runs to. It’s located in Antonito.
The train has been used in a number of movies to include The Missouri Breaks and Butch and Sundance: the Early Days.
Another curiosity is Cano’s Castle. Cano is a local gentlemen who started building this back in the ’90s. Every piece of the castle is recycled material. I haven’t seen Cano in years, and I don’t know if he offers tours or not, but it’s worth a drive by at least. I recall asking him why he was building it and he said it was a place where Jesus could stay when he returned.
West of Antonito, and going up into Conejos Canyon, there’s a number of small towns. We call them “Placitas”, and many were once towns in their own rights. The majority of them centered around the small churches, most of which still exist and still have Mass said in them. They had a small core of citizens that filled the same job as a mayor and town counsel, but time has changed them. Many of them are little more than a few homes that are still occupied. A large number of the older homes are now ruins.
One of the small towns is San Rafael. This is home to Will Diaz’s Sheriff, and his friend RJ. That is true in the real world where Jr’s dad and his family lived.
A mutual friend of JR and mine by the name of Rick Vigil has begun building up a video history of these small communities. He’s doing a great job of recording stories of the people and communities. Here’s a link to his story of San Rafael.
San Rafael was also home to the Espinosa Brothers. They were two men who, depending on which history you read, were either cold blooded killers, America’s first serial killers, or freedom fighters. Either way, they left a lot of people dead in their wake. I wrote a piece on them as part of the Bad Guys of the San Luis Valley. Read it here.
West of Antonito is Conejos Canyon. Carved out over the ages by the river, it features sprawling meadows, a river full of trout, and hills graced with aspens and pines. In the fall, when all the aspens begin to turn, it’s like God invented new colors just for occasion.
And the fishing is the best.
The Canyon is the setting of several events in the series. One is a terrifying rape that happens at a college get together. The second event is where someone shoots out Will Diaz’s windshield. And it‘s also the setting for an event that Will calls the Last Supper.
At the top of the canyon is the town of Platoro. It’s pretty much a seasonal community with loads of people in the spring, summer, and early fall. During the winter, it pretty much closes up, but there are one or two hardy souls that live year round up there. This creates headaches for the county because they have to keep the road open during the winter.
Platoro is a great place to visit, hike, and just generally get away from it all. There’s a
number of small cabins, camping areas, and so on in and leading up to the town that makes a stay very comfortable. If you want to get away from it all, it’s a great place to go. Oh, a small hint. I don’t think the Verizon guy has ever made it up there so cellphone reception might be iffy at best.
North of Platoro are two features prominent in the story and the valley. One is Terrace Reservoir. In the story, this is where the pursuit of Max begins. The reservoir is a beautiful area, but there’s zero fish in it. Many blame the Summitville Mine which Galactic Mining abandoned in the ’90s. The company had extracted all the gold they could, and just walked away from it. Without the power to run pumps, etc., the tailing ponds overflowed, dumping all manner of heavy metals into the headwaters of the Alamosa River and creating an EPA Superfund site in the process.
Many say the event killed the river. But I remember as a child asking my dad how the fishing was, and he told me there were no fish in the river. He blamed not Galactic (which hadn’t even come into the area) but on the many old mines that had been dug, and abandoned, and it was the contents of those old mines that flowed into and killed the river.
But I’m getting away from the tour. The picture above is looking west from the spillway which you can see as a gray “V” structure roughly centered in the image. If you follow up on the right-hand side of the lake, and just before the canyon curves around and out of sight, in the story, that’s where Max abandons his pickup and horse trailer. It’s from that point that Will and Jonesy begin their pursuit on horseback.
You can also get an idea of how wild this area can be looking at the shape of the mountains, and the density of the forest.
If you follow the road up, you come to the small town of Jasper. There’s several campgrounds further up and the remains of old mines. Word of caution. Stay out of the mine shafts unless you wish to be buried under a mountain. Most have been bulldozed closed, but some may still be open.
Summitville is high up in the mountains. There’s a long history of mining in the area, and old buildings abound.
The trail that Will and Jonesy follow leads from Terrace Reservoir through the mountains and into the La Jara Reservoir area.
In the picture, we can see the earthen dam in the foreground. A road crosses the dam and then branches in several different directions there. It’s this area, located to the left of the dam is where Will and Jonesy encounter a Police Officer from Junction City, Kansas who was hunting in the area, and who had seen Max. They also meet up with RJ and Pam, both on horseback. RJ is leading a posse in an effort to flush Max towards Will and Jonesy.
This is an area that was and is popular with fisherman for years. But back in the ’60s began what can only be termed an ecological disaster for the reservoir. Fisherman used live bait, a type of sucker fish not native to the area. Of course, some got off the hook, and as the Bible puts it, “They were fruitful and multiplied.” Within a few years, more of these sucker fish were being taken from these waters than trout. The sucker fish also seemed to lead a vampire like existence, and it wasn’t at all unusual to pull a trout out and have one of these attached to it.
The reservoir has been drained and poisoned to rid it of this fish. Near as I know, they’re gone (don’t bet on that), but monsters always have a way of coming back.
One of the more laid back chapters has Will and his family taking a small vacation in the mountains. The church Will attends has a cabin up above Creede, and they go up there for some rest.
If you ever want to visit an exciting place, Creede is it. The scenery is spectacular, and the history of the area reads like a who’s-who of the old west. Characters like Soapy Smith (one of the classic conmen of the era), Bat Masterson (Lawman and gambler) and Bob Ford (the man who killed Jesse James) figure in the town’s history. Downside of the community, It’s becoming a little of a tourist destination, and some of the old west charm is gone.
Bob Ford was killed in Creede in 1892. He ran a small saloon in a tent, and one day a man named Edward Capehart O’Kelley walked in and gunned him down with a shotgun. Most thought Bob was murdered because O’Kelley was a James sympathizer. But there may have been a darker motive. Some speculate that he was killed by other forces who were vying for the control of the area, or so goes the idea. An eyewitness to the event may have been a woman history calls “Poker Alice.” She was a card dealer in the saloon when the shooting occurred, and claims to have seen it happen.
Ford was buried in Creede, and his grave is still there. Of course, it’s a tourist attraction. But look out . . . SPOILER ALERT. The tomb is empty. His body was exhumed and his remains taken to his hometown in Missouri.
Another place in Creede to visit is the underground mine. Mining is what Creede was all about, and the latest excavation left a cavern hundreds of feet deep. Rock hounds will go crazy over this. The mine shows how mining was done through the ages and is an eye-opening trip into the world of the people who founded this area.
The locals have turned the mine into a community center and underground fire department. Also, tours are offered of the tunnels and are well worth it. The shafts are haunted by TommyKnockers. If you’ve got the right guide, he or she will be happy to show you where one hides.
The area is dotted with tons of old mine shafts. Word of warning. STAY OUT OF THEM. Most were unstable to begin with and the years haven’t helped. Several have a sign that says if you intend to go in, please let someone know. That way they know where to put your headstone in the event of a cave in.
There’s great trails to hike and four wheel on. Do be respectful since a lot of it is private property. And you can’t beat fly fishing the Rio Grande, or rafting it.
Creede represents a rock hounds dream location, but the geology of the San Luis valley is enough to floor even the most causal student of science. The area is part of what is known as the Rio Grande Rift. This represents an area where the tectonic plate that the United States is on, is splitting apart. Part of the result is the Rio Grande Gorge. While the river had a hand in cutting it, it’s also part of an active fault.
The entire area is dotted with the remains of volcanoes. Two of them, Ute Mountain and San Antonio Mountain are remains of volcanoes. The Devils Biscuit mentioned later is another while the pumice mine at Mesitia is the remains of another.
North of Del Norte, and east of Creede is the town of La Garita. Near it is the remains of a massive caldera that blew tens of millions of years ago. Experts say this rivaled the Yellowstone volcano, and was very active. Today, very little remains of the vulcanism that shaped the area except some hot springs, and the continued splitting along the rift zone. Read about it here, The La Garita volcano is at the bottom, and is said to have been the most massive explosion on the planet. It may have plunged the world into an ice age, and certainly devastated the area that is now the south-west United States.
Another Personal Note: One of the men who shaped my interest in history was my old track Coach, Frank White. He’s written several books on the La Garita area. All of them are eye opening chapters into the settlement of the San Luis Valley. When I was in the eighth grade, we took a field trip into the area, and we saw where coach grew up, Native American pictographs and a region locals crossed with wagons. The rock was soft and the iron wheel dug deep tracks into the rock.
For being a backwater area, La Garita is fascinating. The scenery and history is incredible.
One such is the natural arch. The end result of wind and rain, the arch is a favorite place to hike up to.
Be careful hiking in the summer. The place is rattlesnake city.
Back to geology. This leads to an interesting phenomena. People in the Taos area have reported what’s known as the Taos Hum. Again, it’s one of those things that some have heard, and others haven’t and it’s been ascribed to everything from magic and spirits to little green men. Several people believe it might be associated with the active rift in the area, and has a geologic origin. While there’s little seismic activity that seems associated with it, it still makes sense.
One of the stunning pieces of engineering built courtesy of the rift in the area is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. It’s free to cross, and the view is amazing. If memory serves, there’s places to picnic nearby. You won’t believe the canyon it crosses, and the sheer beauty of the area.
Taos has been for several years, little more than a tourist trap, but there’s still some places worth visiting. Taos has always been an artists town, and there’s a high number of art dealers and museums. For the history buff, there’s several places worth looking at.
One is Kit Carson’s home. Carson was a frontiersman and commander of the nearby Ft. Garland. It opens a window on a legend of the old west and there’s numerous artifacts to be seen. Just a note, Carson’s grave is also in Taos.
The Taos Pueblo is definitely worth a visit. The history is well worth it, and if you’re lucky enough to see one of the celebrations open to the public, you won’t regret it.
A place Will mentions is the old mission church in Rancho de Taos. I recall attending services there once as a child with my cousins, and it was like stepping through a time warp back into the old days. The service was held in Latin. It was as if Vatican II had never happened. There is no altar up front that faces the congregation, and the garments worn by the priest and altar boys look like the same ones they used back in the 1800s.
There’s also a painting of Jesus in the front of the church. Under certain lighting conditions, a Cross appears over his shoulders.
Something not mentioned in any of the stories is the play “Night over Taos.” It takes place in Taos and centers on a revolt to prevent the city from becoming part of the United States. I mention it because we did the play in college (it had been preformed only once before), and I helped build props for the play. Several years back, actress Estelle Parsons did an off Broadway revival of it.
Honorable mention is a place called Michael’s Kitchen. Best Stuffed Sopaipillas I’ve ever had.
A yearly event is the Ski-Hi Stampede, a first class rodeo that has been held for years in Monte Vista, Colorado. It’s usually held towards the beginning or middle of August. More than a few famous cowboys have ridden there, and there’s always a few great concerts and dances.
Another event is the Pioneer Days celebration in Manassa, Colorado. It’s small town America at it’s best, with a small amusement park carnival, and a rodeo. I set a chapter in book two at the Pioneer Celebration where Pastor Morgan recalls ridding a horse that did it’s level best to kill him.
If you’re a boxing fan, do check out Jack Dempsey’s home. Jack Dempsey, known as that Manassa Mauler was raised in Manassa. The log cabin is supposed to be a reconstruction
of his home, but according to Jack is much nicer than the house he grew up in. It contains boxing memorabilia from the champ as well as artifacts from the early days of the community. Do check for when it’s open.
There’s scores of small town scattered throughout the area. Some have some incredible history, much of it all but forgotten. I’ll be covering some of them in days and weeks to come.
But one of the small towns I mention in my books has some serious action happen in it. There’s several incidents that occur in, or are associated with the town of Las or Los Sauces (depending on the spelling you choose). Nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande river, it was one place where people forded the river to get from the east side of the San Luis Valley to the west. Any further north and you end up adding to you trip. Further south is almost impossible since you’re now dealing with the beginnings of the Rio Grande Gorge.
Las Sauces is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and get’s some interesting stories associated with the occult and etc. out of it. One of my personal favorites has to do with a guest at a community dance. One thing I’ll say for the community is there’s some heart-breaking beautiful girls that have come out of there. And the same must have been true back in the early days. Since it was a crossing, it wasn’t unusual to have strangers in town. Well, this night at the dance, there was a man. Movie stars didn’t exist yet, but this man would have been considered “Movie star handsome” by today’s standards. The ladies were all taken with him, and according to the story he’d been dancing all night long. He seemed especially intrigued with one of the more beautiful girls in town. He’d been dancing with her, when someone noticed something odd about him. He had a barbed tail, and it was sticking out of his pant leg. Legend says it was the Devil. Realizing he’d been caught, the Devil proved he was also a gentlemen. He thanked the ladies for the dances, kissed his dance partners hand, said good night, and disappeared in a flash of light.
Just an aside, this story seems to be famous throughout the South-West, so either everyone and then some has stolen it and put the name of their town into it, or the Devil enjoys a good party, dancing with a pretty girl, and get’s around some. Makes you wonder how he finds time to create the mischief he’s blamed for.
There’s also an odd formation of rock almost due south of the community. I know it as the Devil’s Biscuit. The locals call it “Witches Hill.” On some nights, mysterious lights have been seen dancing around it. Brave souls have claimed to have gone out there and witnessed women dancing naked with demons. What get’s really interesting is when they start naming names. Personally, I think Freud would have a field day with these guys.
Of course I’ve never seen a thing. To me, it’s just an outcropping of lava rock, with a little interesting geology on the side.
Another incident that happened, again in the vicinity of Witches Hill, happened back in the ’60s. Several locals coming back from a dance, were going down the county road when they observed what they thought was a helicopter come up over the flat top mountain. The next thing they know, a bright light has flashed down on them, and they witnessed a saucer like object fly over them, and down towards the gorge. I used that incident as a basis in a chapter in Book Two.
Another place that figures big time into book two, Against Flesh and Blood is the town of San Luis Colorado.
If we follow the path Will and RJ take to get to San Luis in Against Flesh and Blood, they go first through Ft. Garland, Colorado. In the book, they stop there to pick up some Gas Station Hamburgers, a meal that’s right up there with Gas Station Sushi. (In short, it should come with a warning that eating it might be hazardous to your health).
Ft. Garland has a lot of history behind it. Founded in 1858 as an army fort to help defend settlers in the region against the Ute Indians, it soon had a small community grow up around it. When the Utes were finally placed on their reservation, the post was closed. For many years it languished until it was resurrected as a museum. A list of some of the people who wandered through would read like those who built the old west. Among them is the post commander Kit Carson, famed bounty hunter Tom Tobin, and Chief Quary of the Utes. Certainly Bat Masterson and Bob Ford passed through on their way to Creede.
One of my favorite stories concerning lost gold is set in Ft. Garland. It seems that the fort sentries saw the payroll wagon coming, and it was being chased by bandits. A detail was sent out to drive the bandits off and save the payroll. But they found the driver, the only member of the detail to make it that far, had been shot and was dying. He told them before he died that he’d tossed the payroll into his favorite fishing hole. The problem was no one could agree where that was and a search for the payroll ended in vain. So, someplace out there in the Sangre de Cristo Creek, there may be a small fortune in gold coin. Of course, it’s probably been buried under a hundred years of mud and silt, so have fun looking.
San Luis, Colorado features in the books several times. I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite little towns. It’s billed as the oldest continuously occupied town in Colorado. For such a small place, there’s a lot to see.
One of the biggest draws is the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. The shrine is located on a mesa near the town called “La Mesa la Piedad y de la Misericordia” which translates out as the “Hill of Piety and Mercy.” If you’re familiar with the Catholic faith, then you’re familiar with the Stations of the Cross. For those that aren’t, this is a life-size walk around of bronze statues that depict Christ’s last hours, his judgment, sufferings, death, and resurrection. Formed with near perfection by artist Hubert Maestas, it’s a place well worth walking through and reflecting in.
Of course one of my fondest reasons for why I like San Luis? Food. You want some first-rate Mexican food? Almost every restaurant there turns out something well worth going for.
A place Will doesn’t mention in the book, but he’d definitely gone to as a child, would be the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. It looks like something right out the Arabian Nights but is nestled at the base of the majestic Sangra de Cristo mountains. These are North America’s tallest sand dunes. Constantly shifting, and changing, the dunes are almost hypnotic. Take a picnic lunch, climb them (take plenty of water), and if you’re into snowboarding, try sandboarding,
Now one place Will probably wouldn’t have gone and visited is the UFO Watchtower in Hooper, Colorado. I mention it as a curiosity more than an actual research center. On that note, I want to say I spent a fair amount of my life under the night skies in the San Luis Valley and never once saw anything in the sky I couldn’t explain. And while I’m watching the skies, dozens of other people are seeing things up there they couldn’t explain. So either I’m blind, or something, because I’ve never once seen a UFO.
But people claim to have seen things there, so just out of curiosity, you might want to check it out.
Will occasionally mentions mountain climbing. There’s a lot of mountains worth climbing. One of the more popular is Mt. Blanca. As climbs go, it’s not that bad. That said, it is very steep in places, and you better be in good shape. In places, you will need to do some climbing of about 10 meters or so. All that said, it’s still an easy place to get injured or worse.
Will has been up Blanca once when he and a girl he knew in College climbed it to visit a plane wreck on it. These days, he leaves climbing to RJ and Pam (Will and heights don’t get along).
Blanca is a sacred mountain to the Navajo people and represented the eastern most point of the boundary of their lands.
Something I mention in the book centers on a picture that Jonesy sees hanging in the Sheriff’s Office. It’s a typical scene from the old west of a hanging. It seems the guest of honor in the picture murdered another man, and then showed up wearing that man’s clothes and carrying his watch. He, of course, claimed the man gave him the stuff.
The courts didn’t buy the story, and he was sentenced to be hanged, an event that occurred quickly. But another SPOILER ALERT: The hanging might have been nothing more than a “Legal Lynching.” It seems several months before, the state governor had signed into law that no executions could be done anywhere except at the prison in Canon City. The Judge and Sheriff in Conejos County pleaded ignorance of that law, and the event was allowed to die down quietly. I’ll cover his crime in a future Bad Guys of the San Luis Valley.
Incidentally, the building where the Gallows stands in the picture is still there. Today, it’s a title company.
Every hero should have a home base. In this case, Will’s home base is home itself. It’s a farming community known as Waverly District. I’ve taken some huge liberties with the area since the house that Will and his family live in doesn’t exist there, nor does the church he attends. The building that the church occupies is merely an old schoolhouse.
It’s rather fun setting a novel in places that exist. In the course of doing research, you find all kinds of things you knew nothing about, even if you were born and raised there.
Hope you enjoyed the tour.