One of the reasons this Winter Study will be one of the most rewarding experiences of the college careers for the six of us who followed the Anza Trail is because we completely immersed ourselves in an area of culture, geography, and history that none of us had ever experienced before. This is mostly due to the fact that the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail carries far less nation prominence than other National Historic Trails. Even the literature regarding such an important expedition is scarce. That is why the reading that I did prior to leaving on the trip was very limited in scope, mostly coming from the diary of Pedro Font, who accompanied Anza and the other soldiers and settlers over 200 years ago.

Yet after reading the diary, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp of what it must have been like for the initial expedition, and carried this thought with me through the first few days of our trip. I spent this portion of our journey making whatever connections I could to what I had previously read, focusing on the reactions of people native to the area we passed through, and comparing that to how the Native Americans reacted to Anza and his followers.

I soon realized that the connections I had been making up, trying to fit my experiences to what I thought I knew from Font’s diary, were all trivial. Specific instances from our journey have no way of matching any singular experience that Anza had 230 years go. Yet there were certainly parallels that I couldn’t deny, that were deeper and more truthful to how people supported our journey and how the Native Americans aided Anza. I also realized I never would have fully understood the meaning of the journals without going on the trip and understanding that I needed to move beyond trivial matchups.

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This picture was taken looking out of the back of a pickup truck transporting the six pioneers, our five bikes, and all of our gear down to Nogales, Arizona. We had arrived in Tubac the day before, but had yet to start our journey on foot and mountain bike. I sat facing the trailer (pictured in background) with Corey and Stephen for the 30 mile ride down to the border of Mexico. It was the first time that we no longer fit in as normal travelers. Not a single car that passed failed to stare at the three of us in the truck, and the bike trailer behind. The looks on the faces were quizzical, for I doubt anyone would ever have seen such a sight driving down an interstate before.

I was quick to make a parallel to how the Native Americans must have regarded the soldiers on horseback traversing the desert. They would have never seen a horse before, and must have been just as confused as those who passed by us on the highway. Later on in the trip, we visited an historic Native American site with rock paintings. Several were in the forms of riders, and definitively date to the Anza expedition. The people who saw us in the pickup certainly didn’t go home and draw a picture of what they saw, but the image was just as alien to them as a horse was to a Native American in 1775.

We arrived in Tucson on the 31st of December. Our first host was extremely helpful not only for his hospitality, but also his guidance. We all agree that we wouldn’t have made it through first day without him.

In the picture below, Lee Blackwell, our host, is standing in the trailer helping us load our bikes. He drove us down to the border, and rode with us through many miles of sandy trail that we would never have found on our own. We had a few mechanical issues with the bikes, and being a mountain biker from the area, was an invaluable source with solutions to whatever difficulty we came across.

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Clearly, there is no parallel to be found with Native Americans helping Anza fix a horse-shoe. Yet without the help of one tribe, the Yumas, the initial expedition would never have reached California. The November 30th entry of Font’s journal details the crossing of the Colorado River. It describes how the Native Americans revealed a relatively shallow spot of the fast-flowing river, and also their assistance in carrying everything from gear to people across the river.

Nine days into our journey, we were lucky enough to have Juan Bautista de Anza join us for a banquet (detailed below). At least, we couldn’t tell the difference between Anza and Don Garate, an interpretive specialist who has done much research on Anza and his exploits.

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Through Garate’s presentation, I had a much fuller appreciation for the assistance the Yumas gave to the expedition. “Anza” beheld these people as giants: they were well over six feet tall, and very strong. He said, “We would never have gotten across the Colorado River without the Yuma. There are Indians all the way. Out of Arizona, you no longer have to worry about the Apaches. They stole our horses, and though we would go and try to get them back, they would have eaten the biggest ones. All the Indians in California though are very nice. The chief of the Yuma wants to meet in Mexico City with the Viceroy.” When we asked how he got across the river, Anza replied: “Well, I can’t swim, so they carried me across.”

This personalization of the story helped me to visualize how necessary the Yumas were to the success of the trip. After we left the Blackwells and headed north towards Tucson, the group discussed how the lessons we learned the first day would carry us through the entire trip. They did, but not how we imagined. The lesson that became apparent after we completed the journey was that the support we received throughout every leg of the journey was what made it possible. And there was no shortage of that support.

There was a section of trail between Borrego Springs and Anza, California, called Coyote Canyon that was impassable to our bikes. We had several routes that would bring us to Anza: bike an extra 100 miles around on roads, try to ride as far as we could through the canyon with our bikes, or hike through. The first would add a day onto our trip, when we were already pressed for extra days, and more importantly, we would not get to experience one of the few sections of trail that is exactly as Anza would have seen it. The second would be extremely difficult, both physically and mentally, especially after Day 11. The third was the best choice, but we would need to find a way to get our bikes to Anza as well.

Reena Deutsch, our host in Borrego Springs, offered to drive our bikes and gear all the way around the Anza Borrego Desert State Park to our destination. Not only that, but she followed us that morning for 13 miles as we made it past the point her SUV couldn't go. She also contacted the park ranger who managed the trail, who in turn made sure that it was cleared enough for us to pass. In several sections we noticed freshly cut underbrush that would have been impossible to navigate through. Not only would we have had to sacrifice much without this assistance, but everyone who contributed was happy to give it.

En route to Tucson, several people guided us through the city streets, all amazed at our undertaking. One even offered to have us for dinner. While traveling out of the city limits of El Centro on January 11th, a woman was taking her dog for a morning walk when we passed her. She was extremely friendly, and said it was too bad she didn’t know we were coming through earlier, or else she would have made us breakfast. Many of these generous offers we had to decline, but the generosity shown by the people we met along the way was truly unbelievable. Even the man who sold peanuts, honey, and jerky on the corner who offered us more than enough free food was more helpful than we could ever have asked for. Of course we didn’t turn down his offer!

Not all the reactions that Anza got were welcoming, and the same certainly held for our trip. On the 3rd, on our way to Picacho Peak State Park, we passed through the small town of Red Rock, Arizona. It was even small by the sparsely populated Arizona desert, as there were no more than five houses in the entire “town”.


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We sat down on the porch near a corral, pictured above, weary from more than a half-day’s travel in the hot desert sun. Not long after we arrived “an old man showed up and says to us "You boys're awfully brave. Some'un might shoot you sitting there."” He clearly was not as receptive to a group of six college students on a trek through his territory.

In the following passage from the December 24th entry, Font describes the actions of a group of Native Americans who were not like the Yumas in their readiness to help:
“Near the spring by the road we saw a village of Indians perched in the crags, from which they watched us pass. The commander called them and showed them glass beads but only one woman had the courage to come near. The commander gave her a string of beads. Shortly before halting near the little spring of water we saw another village whose houses were some half subterranean grottoes formed among the rocks and partly covered with branches and earth, like rabbit warrens. The Indians came out of their grottoes as if they were angry, motioning to us with the hand that we must not go forward, talking in jargon with great rapidity, slapping their thighs, jumping like wild goats and with similar movements, for which reason since the other expedition they have been called the Dancers. One especially, who must have been some little chief, as soon as he saw us, began to talk with great rapidity, shouting and agitated as if angry, and as if he did not wish us to pass through his lands, and jerking himself to pieces with blows on his thighs, and with jumps, leaps, and gestures.”

Our stay in Anza, California, was on a ranch that encompasses an area that the initial expedition passed through. It was at this site that we saw the rock paintings. This was also our most direct contact to a personal history of the Anza Trail in this area. Dick Cary, whose father owned and operated the “Cary Ranch”, had many stories to tell of the area and what he knew of the Native Americans and Juan Bautista de Anza. He too described the above scene as how the Native Americans reacted to the train of settlers coming through this area, and said that they were subsequently referred to as “the monkey dancers”.

More telling of the history of the relationship between the Native Americans and Anza, however, was the tone of his storytelling. There was no lack of respect for the Native Americans of his area, but there was a slight disregard for the difference in culture in Dick's voice and demeanor. He told us many times how “the Indians don’t have a history” because they don’t write anything down, and he wonders why they don’t keep a history like “we” do. While a written history would certainly reveal many cultural aspects of the Native Americans that we would otherwise never know, the need to understand cultural relativism is integral to understanding why the Native Americans do not have a written history.

Another incredibly significant differentiating factor between the Anza expedition and our journey was the mentality of belonging. Don Garate, speaking in Anza’s voice, revealed to us: “Why does Spain have a right to the land? Spain has a right to the land because the Pope gave it to us.” Anza led a group ordained by God to colonize San Francisco, and therefore would not question his actions as trespassing on another’s territory. I only comprehended the gravity of the effect of this attitude on crossing the land inhabited by Native Americans after hearing the following metaphor, told to us by Reena, who joined us at the Cary Ranch after shuttling our gear:
“The Native Americans lived off the land, survived off the land. Mother nature is how they got their food and shelter. When Anza traveled over their land, it would be like someone walking across your dinner table.”

The difference between our trip and Anza’s was that he was going through like he belonged there. We were going through with a different mentality, because we knew we were going through other people’s homeland, and not claiming it for our own. When Anza went through a place knowing the natives might be hostile, he went through because it was his business to be there. At certain points when going through someones property was the only option for travel, we had to sneak around, because obviously the people who would take offense wouldn’t know who we are, or wouldn’t care what we were doing.

For example, trying to find frontage road on I-8, we were forced cut through a junkyard of a backyard in between what looked like an uninhabited, decrepit house and the highway. After I went by, I realized that someone was in the house. I was scared, knowing that we were indeed trespassing, waiting for the others to follow behind me. As the rest of the group caught up and passed the house, the man yelled for us to get off his property, threatening to call the cops. We knew we would never see him again, nor would our offense be known to anyone else, but nonetheless it was an eerie feeling.

These cases, along with a few instances of people angrily honking from their cars and swearing at us to get off the road, are all of the examples of negative reactions. There was a severe imbalance between these cases and those of positive reactions. On our way through Atascadero on the 24th, we were looking for a section of the historic trail. I stopped in bike store to ask for directions, for local assistance was the only way to find what we were looking for. After I told him what we were doing, he was glad to help out, and would have loved to talk to me for the rest of the afternoon had we not needed to move on. Before we left, he gave us a free water bottle. The gift wasn’t anything remarkable, but the conversation with him and the thought of the gift really reinforced how most people viewed our trip: as a traveling experience that our group would never forget, and a learning experience that would be possible no other way.

When we got close to San Francisco, we saw more and more bikers. I imagined it like Anza would have felt nearing an established presidio, an outpost of civilization, reconnecting with similar people. For us, however, it was a thin connection, like there was something irreparably different between the other cyclists and us. We were pioneers, had traveled over 1300 miles, intrinsically different from the short day ride they were on. It wasn’t a sense of superiority, or even accomplishment. It was more of a realization that what our group had gone through had never been done by anyone else, save Anza and his expedition.

Just like Anza, we too found success in coming to the Golden Gate. Prior to 1775, the expedition Anza wanted to lead had been known as his “impossible dream”. Ours was too. As he would have been sure to realize, much like we ourselves did, it would have been an impossible journey without the help of the people along the way.

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