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`IN SEARCH OF THE SPANISH TRAIL’ IS PART GUIDEBOOK, PART INQUIRY INTO HISTORY OF 18TH-CENTURY ROUTE

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IN SEARCH OF THE SPANISH TRAIL: Santa Fe to Los Angeles, 1829-1848, by C. Gregory Crampton and Steven K. Madsen; Peregrine Smith Books-Gibbs Smith Publisher; 144 pages; $25.95, paperback.

First off, the Spanish Trail here was not the legendary Sante Fe Trail, nor was it truly Spanish - it was used by post-colonial Mexicans, trappers and explorers. Nor was it much of a trail; the old equivalent "trace" seems more appropriate . . . semantically especially, considering what is left of it, which isn't much.For writers C. Gregory Crampton and Steven K. Madsen had to peer pretty hard in some places to find surviving evidence of this old commercial pack route - not a wagon road - that linked the sheep and wool county of Santa Fe with the horse and mule country of California. Between the two villages the trail arched into Colorado and through a substantial swath of Utah down to Las Vegas (then a spring-fed meadow, not an incipient gambling mecca) and on to Los Angeles. Time, weather, dry farms, reservoirs, highways and the occasional city have done their best to erase the Spanish Trail from the landscape.

"In Search of the Spanish Trail" is part historical inquiry, complete with scholarly footnotes, part popular guidebook (though the authors say that wasn't necessarily their intent). The book is filled with photos and maps, new and a century-plus old. In fact, the authors broke the trail into a dozen segments, each with chapter and a map of its own.

Crampton and Madsen write with a straightforward sense of purpose about the route, its history and and its topography. Their illustrations, as a rule, are equally matter-of-fact; this isn't a photographic portfolio. The nature of the "trail" - its multiple paths, the plethora of shortcuts and detours - pops up only sporadically.

Insight into the lives of those who used the trail, especially the Mexicans, is spotty, partly, it should be said, because of the lack of quotable sources from that era. Still, "In Search of the Spanish Trail" is salted with observations by a variety of 18th- and 19th-century travelers, from Father Escalante to John C. Fremont and beyond, most of whom traversed part of the route after its heyday.

One of those observers, George Brewerton, traveling with Kit Carson in 1848, set down the best description we have of what a Spanish Trail caravan was like. He said:

"Imagine upward of two hundred Mexicans dressed in every variety of costume, from the embroidered jacket of the wealthy Californian, with its silver bell-shaped buttons, to the scanty habiliments of the skin-clad Indian, and you may form some faint idea of their dress. Their caballada contained not only horses and mules, but here and there a stray burro . . . destined to pack wood across the rugged hills of New Mexico. The line of march of this strange cavalcade occupied an extent of more than a mile. . . ."

"In Search of the Spanish Trail" could use a more encompassing and explanatory introductory essay (readers so inclined might want to track down a copy of William Smart's "Old Utah Trails"), but the comprehensiveness and historical value of this volume are indeed impressive.

The vanishing Spanish Trail deserved such attention, and Crampton and Madsen have gone about their task with precision, thoroughness and an admirable sense of mission.