The following article is reprinted with permission from The Pinnacle


Rolling green hills just south of San Juan Bautista surround two cyclists from Massachusetts as they and four others retrace the steps taken by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775. As an independent study project, the six Williams College students spent the month of January traveling on the de Anza Trail from Tucson, Ariz. to San Francisco.

Pedaling the de Anza
Cycling the 230-year-old trail into San Juan, Massachusetts’s students see history close up

Story by SUSAN D. RENO
Pinnacle Staff Writer

ABOVE: Williams College students traveling the de Anza Trail take a break outside San Juan Bautista Jan. 27. Pictured from left is Colin Carroll, Corey Levin, David Rogawski, Bill Ference, Grant Burgess and Stephen Wills. BELOW: Hungry for lunch, the Williams College students head down the San Juan-Salinas Grade Road toward JJ’s Homemade Burgers in San Juan Bautista, one of the stops they made while traveling the de Anza Trail last month.
Photos by SUSAN D. RENO

n late October 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition of more than 240 people from what is now southern Arizona through deserts, forests and costal bluffs northward to San Francisco. The goal, to establish an overland route to the strategic harbor of San Francisco, and further strengthen the Spanish presence at the northwestern edge of their frontier, New Spain.
Last month, a group of six students from Williams College, in Massachusetts, traced the same path that was forged by the Spanish commander some 230 years ago, minus the soldiers, children, cattle and mules that had accompanied de Anza. The young men strapped camping equipment and food to bicycles and spent the month of January soaking up the scenery, learning about the trail's history and meeting interesting characters along the way. The trail brought them through San Juan Bautista, allowing them to stop and enjoy the historic Mission City before riding north through Santa Clara County on their way to San Francisco. The circumstances surrounding their trip and that of de Anza's might have differed dramatically, but likely the two groups shared the driving forces of curiosity and adventure that have spanned the centuries and continue to fuel exploration.
However, there was one additional force that helped propel the modern-day explorers toward their destination of The City by the Bay: college credit.
Every January, students at Williams College, a school tucked into the Berkshire Mountains that prides itself on its strong liberal arts curriculum, participate in a Winter Study Period. Credit is earned during the month-long session either through on-campus coursework or the completion of an independent study project.
The six students, Grant Burgess, Colin Carroll, Bill Ference, Corey Levin, David Rogawski and Stephen Wills, not only collected photos and memories from their trip, they also compiled information on various sub-topics for 10-page papers they will each have to turn in for their proposed project. Their combined efforts will provide an in-depth study of the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, including a history of the route, the culture of the communities along it, a study of the missions and a look at the dynamics of long-term group travel. One of the students, Stephen Wills, will be compiling the group's personal diaries, mimicking the invaluable work done by Friar Pedro Font during the original expedition.
The unique study opportunity created by the group brought with it rigors not normally experienced on the road toward graduation.
“The first day was just brutal,” said Wills, recalling the numerous punctures sustained by their bicycle tires as Tucson, Arizona faded into the desert dust behind them.
After flying into the southern Arizona city on New Year's Eve, the group began their 1,000-mile-plus journey on foot and by bicycle. Having five bikes between the six of them, they each took turns running a section of the trail. As collegiate runners, this schedule provided them with the perfect winter workout in between the cross county and track seasons at Williams.
The de Anza trail technically originated in Culiacan, in northwest Mexico, where de Anza began to enlist volunteers for the journey after the Viceroy of New Spain authorized the expedition in 1775. But the final staging area, and what is today commonly thought of as the trail's starting point, was Tubac, Arizona, about 50 miles from Tucson.
When the group entered San Benito County on Friday, January 27, after an overnight stay in the Castroville area, the morning's rain had given way to overcast, but brightening skies. The long uphill ride past undulating green hills along the San Juan-Salinas Grade Road was rewarded with a breezy downhill coast past cattle ranches and oak trees, after which they landed at JJ's Homemade Burgers in San Juan Bautista, for an oversized, but well-deserved lunch.
Following lunch and a visit to the historic sites in The Mission City, the group headed to Off The Chain Bikes in Hollister for pizza, and the chance to share their once-in-a-lifetime adventure with local weekend warriors. The warm welcome, San Benito-style, continued with a night's stay at the St. Francis Retreat and an early morning breakfast prepared by Denise Cauthen-Wright, Director of the San Juan Bautista Chamber of Commerce. With their sites set on Santa Clara County, the group left Saturday morning, one day closer to the finish line.
By now, they have returned to the snowy hills of Williamstown, Mass. , an area rich with history of its own. But in choosing the de Anza Trail for their studies, they have reminded us of something that often becomes occluded by the blinders of hectic lives: our rural backyards hold treasures that are rich with history, natural beauty and also happen to be perfect for a wintertime bike ride.
Pinnacle photographer Martin Jimenez contributed to this story.