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Santa Fe Trail and Fort Bent

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On the heels of the last post, I thought I might say something about another great Western road, one that well pre-dates Route 66 - the Santa Fe Trail.

For as challenging as it can be to find vestiges of Route 66, ferreting out the path of the old Santa Fe trail or the Oregon Trail is considerably more daunting.  For a more than a hundred years, the Santa Fe trail was the primary overland connection between the eastern United States and the Spanish-owned-, and largely-populated, West. The fur trade was one of the major econmies of the Santa Fe trail and Bent's Old Fort in southeast Colorado was one of its significant centers.  The fort thrived for about 16 years and was a major stop along the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe trail.

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After possibly burning down his original fort, William Bent moved about 40 miles farther down the Arkansas River and established Bent's New Fort. The photo above is a re-creation of that original Old Fort, built in 1976 by the National Park Service (maybe it should be called "Bent's Newer Fort).

For the most part, I loathe these kind of historical rebuilds with their buckskin-clad reenactors smithing horseshoes and worse yet trying to speak in someone's idea of nineteenth century frontier patois. These simulacra are undoubtedly educational, but lack the filth, prejudice, squalor and murderous appeal that such a place should rightly command. Nevertheless, I happily made my way around Bent's Newer Fort and was pleasantly surprised to see how enthralled I was to look into the various rooms and spaces.

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The National Park Service went to a lot of trouble to recreate the fort using real adobe bricks, albeit stacked on a concrete foundation. The form of the fort itself was determined from a considerable amount of research including some old drawings and watercolors of the fort from 1845-6 by Lt. James Abert.

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As interesting as the history of the place makes evident and all the artifacts manifest, as an architect I was most struck by how really beautiful the light bounces off the rough adobe surfaces and how that material has such a strong presence and connection with the surrounding landscape. The thickness of the walls makes every door and window a deeply set space within itself, a kind of threshold for the sunlight to traverse before entering, reflected and filtered, into the building.

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Adobe buildings, made from local earth, reflect the architectural equivalent of the terroir of the place - that specific color, weathered by local climate, that is unique to a place. There is little distinction between the walls and the ground as the walls are simply man's re-ordering of the earth to make it vertical.  Amongst the nearly-flat plains of southeast Colorado, Bent's Old Fort must have been a striking visage, standing tall, being both milepost and safe harbor.

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Umberto Eco may have had it right in Travels in Hyperreality expressing American's strange desire to exactly reproduce aspects of their relatively shallow history. These exercises in time-travel mimicry can be ridiculous and sometimes embarrasingly reductive. However,  in Bent's Fort's attempt to use something close to original materials, they highlighted the connection between landscape, place and materials that is so lacking in modern construction -

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- and the beauty in something simple, simply made.

(thanks to a number of National Park Service publications for much of the info above)