Ben hosts a writers’ meetup group in Wroclaw, and is the one responsible for creating our entertaining and informative newsletters (have you signed up?). We have asked for a 500 word limit, but having read this historical and personal story, I can’t delete a word of it in an effort to conform to our rules. (It’s good to be king!)
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Here is Ben’s story. What’s yours?
To walk a Mile in a Hermit’s Shoes
by Ben M. Angel
In 1863, as fighting between the Blue and the Gray tore apart the country back east, a mysterious old man joined up with a New Mexico-bound trading party on the Great Plains. He kept to himself as the wagons lurched southwestward toward the little town of Las Vegas in New Mexico Territory, asking nothing more than the safety of their company as he walked behind their wagons. He prepared his own meals, seemingly from the little that he carried, and when he wasn’t sleeping at the end of a long day outside of camp, he was praying. He seemed a holy man.
When the party arrived at its destination at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains, the members had taken kindly to his gentle nature, calling him affectionately “El Solitario” or “The Hermit.” They invited him to stay with them in Las Vegas, the first large New Mexican town along the old Santa Fe Trail, and for a few days he did, but then as spring turned to summer he disappeared.
Not long after, a mysterious firelight appeared on a nearby mountain called “El Cerro del Tecolote,” or “The Hill of the Owl,” a 3,700-foot tall mountain (elevation 10,240 feet) some 25 miles south of Las Vegas’ town plaza. A small group who went to investigate its source found El Solitario camped in a shallow cave, praying quietly from his precarious perch, surviving only on the little meal that he carried with him and water drippings from the cave wall. The townsfolk implored him to return to Las Vegas and live in safety with them, but he refused. So they built a wall of rocks waist-high to serve as at least a little protection for him against the winds that sometimes swept in off the plains he faced while communing with his God.
The Hermit remained on Tecolote for three years, and people would come to him in order to consult on matters requiring wisdom, or ask his blessing before some important undertaking. Occasionally, he went down from the mountain barefoot to obtain meal or other meager necessities, and then immediately returned barefoot to his wilderness home. The bald mountain itself soon became known far and wide not by its original name, but as Hermit’s Peak.
Nearly a century and a half later, in 2007, I first heard his story while living in Albuquerque. My father was born in Las Vegas, and although he left the town with his mother as an infant, he had visited enough as an adult to know Hermit’s Peak by sight. However he had little information about Giovanni Maria de Agostini, the Hermit of Hermit’s Peak. I was intrigued by the holy man’s story, and so one weekend in April, I decided that I would climb the mountain myself. And I would walk not one, but four miles “in his shoes”; I would go to the top of the mountain barefoot.
The climb, which started at a trailhead nestled in the woods just beyond a small cluster of farms called El Porvenir (the name being an optimistic sentiment that translates in Spanish as “The Future”), began on a forest floor covered in relatively soft pine needles. When the terrain made it no longer possible to avoid the cold, wet dirt of the trail, I walked gingerly over tree branches, mindful of the need to avoid stubbing, or worse, breaking my toe on this remote pathway. Giovanni Agostini could walk confidently without shoes up this mountain after years of living modestly as a hermit. I would need to learn to walk without shoes as I went.
Eventually, as the trail started up the steep mountainside, the tree roots turned to rocks. After awhile, between some of the rocks was the leftover snow that hadn’t yet melted from last winter. Still, although my feet were cold, I wouldn’t allow myself to get cold feet. For some unknowing reason, perhaps born of a desire to find personal redemption for the sins of my own life to that point, I had to know what it was like to walk as the Hermit did up Hermit’s Peak.
After 4-1/2 hours of navigating switchbacks, jagged stones, and the occasional triad of hikers coming down from above with a puzzled look on their face as they passed me, the climb finally leveled off. I reached the top! A wooden sign in front of a covered well marked the start of the summit as “Hermit’s Spring,” a modern freshwater source that according to legend, its namesake likely never used. Still, even if I hadn’t yet found Giovanni Agostini’s cave, I decided that I had done what I set out to do and I put my shoes back on.
The top of Hermit’s Peak is beautiful. The horizon stretches out across the plains toward New Mexico’s eastern boundary, and northward beyond Wagon Mound toward Raton. On a clear day, it is said you can see all the way to Colorado, Kansas, the panhandles of Oklahoma, and Texas, making with New Mexico a total of five states. The drop-off at the edge of the summit marks the start of the bald cliffs that give the mountain its owl-like appearance. Just below them are the trees of the Santa Fe National Forest.
On the way from the springs to the summit viewpoint, I noticed a trail of crosses. After enough rest and contemplation, I decided to see where they led. As the pathway descended along what appeared to be a disused path, I ran across the sight I had been hoping to see… the Hermit’s little wall of rocks, which with his prayers stood as his shelter against the storms. It was his cave! In accordance with the custom of pilgrims to this sacred place since the days he lived here, I prayed for both fortitude and forgiveness, communed with my God, and tasted the drippings of water from the cave walls. I then left in order to return to my vehicle parked some 4 miles back and 2,755 feet below.
In May 1866, El Solitario likewise told his friends during one of their visits that it was time for him to leave that very place. Before he left, he was said to have confessed the real reason for his travels and his troubled soul. He told them as he made ready to say goodbye that he had in his youth argued with a friend over a woman, and killed him in a duel. He escaped, but suffering under the mark of Cain, he was cursed to wander the world and seek redemption. He went from one pilgrimage point to the next, but he never found the forgiveness he so craved of himself. As America fought its Civil War, he made his way through the Northern states to Kansas, where he joined the New Mexicans heading home with their trade goods. But even after his third summer there, on that peak towering over Las Vegas, he couldn’t identify his own redemption within his heart.
By the time Giovanni had left, the snow had melted completely, and his bare feet found relatively dry footholds on which to carry him to his next destination, reportedly Organ Mountain near Las Cruces. There he remained for some time, living among the bandits and hostile Apache, making a campfire every night to let friends he had made down in the town below know that he was still alive. Then, one night, the firelight didn’t appear. It’s said that a search party found his lifeless body the next morning, stabbed to death by some unknown culprit. One can only hope that in his dying breath, he finally found his forgiveness.