Traveling to Historic Sites

Traveling can be done for a multitude of reasons. To idle away time with a book on a beach or to check out the new powder on the slopes. Some travel for the nightlife, others for the solitude of a hike. There are as many styles of traveling as there are travelers. 

Personally, I travel to visit historical sites. I am probably the only person who visited thew Hawaiian islands to see archaeological sites. When asked about history, most people will answer with something like: Isn’t it just some boring old facts? Who cares what happened in 1764 or 1325? It’s just dull. It boils down to why care about history.

Before I explain why I care, let’s talk about my favorite sport, football. A time-honored tradition at all levels of football, from high school to the NFL, is the study of tape or film. Teams employ multiple cameras during a game to record every play. Coaches and players will study the video of themselves and the other team.

What do they study? They look at their players to see if they made mistakes or did well. For opponents, they look for tendencies. When player A lines up in position x, what happens next?

In other words, they use the past to predict future events. They look to correct mistakes that happened in, wait for it, the PAST. They study HISTORY. Maybe not the age of exploration, but they study the past.

Football teams are not alone. All sports look at previous games, stock traders analyze price patterns, and weather forecasters look at weather patterns in their predictions. OK, that last one is not a good example. You get the idea.

So would studying Florence in the late 1400s help the Packers win another title? Of course not. By studying Florence, we can learn how Savonarola changed the culture of a city and understand the rise of charismatic politicians in our day. Can we understand January 6, 2021, by learning about the original “Bonfires of the Vanities?” Possibly. 

We can learn how the cultures of the American Southwest dealt with climate change a millennium ago. While you can’t solve the climate change problem personally, you may better understand any proposed solutions. The question should not be, why care about history, but how can anyone not care about history?

But you may say, “My high school history class was so boring. We had to learn names of dead white guys and dates of when they did stupid things.” Sadly I agree with you on both counts. Your high school history class was boring and mostly about dead white guys. Neither is the fault of history, but the teaching of history. We can’t blame history teachers; they weren’t taught how to teach history any other way.

By visiting historical locations, we can get a sense of history. We can become immersed in the place and what happened there. Walking the city walls of Lucca, we can sense what it was like in 16th-century Tuscany. We might understand the Mississippians better by climbing to the top of Monk’s Mound and scanning the plaza before us. 

Significant history and places where history has happened are all around us, locations like Independence Hall in Philadelphia or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. But don’t overlook the many smaller but interesting sites. Some you may pass by every day. These sites can teach us something if we are willing and open. Our state, New Mexico, is filled with historical locations, small and large, that are well worth a visit. Here are a few examples

The plaza in San Miguel del Vado, New Mexico, can talk to us of William Becknell, a poor farmer deep in debt who risked a Spanish prison by traveling to trade with the inhabitants of Santa Fe in 1821. He opened the Santa Fe Trail and the commerce that flowed along it for sixty years.

A small town in eastern New Mexico played an outsized role in understanding when the original inhabitants arrived in North America. In a location called Blackwater Draw, near Clovis, in the late 1920s, a team of scientists was digging some bones of extinct animals. They found a spearpoint embedded in the bone of a Mastodon. This discovery put the occupation of the area back at least 11,000 years. At the time, the earliest known evidence of humans in North America. There is a museum on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University with artifacts from the site.

New Mexico played an important role during the American Civil War. The Confederates in Texas invaded from El Paso and advanced up the Rio Grande River. After capturing Albuquerque, they continued intending to seize the Federal Army Depot at Fort Union near Las Vegas, New Mexico.

The depot was filled with everything the Confederates needed to continue north and capture the gold fields of Colorado and stop the flow of California gold into the Union’s war chest. All that was in their way was a force of New Mexico and Colorado Volunteer troops and a few Union regulars.

The two sides met in the mountains near Santa Fe at Glorieta Pass. While most of the battlefield is now private, the nearby Pecos National Historical Park maintains remnants. To learn how the Union snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, visit the park.

Designated by the UN as a World Heritage Site, Chaco Canyon contains the remains of a civilization that dominated the four corners region of the US Southwest for a few centuries, then disappeared into the mist of time. The thirty miles of gravel roads are no reason not to visit. The main unit of the park, known as ‘Downtown Chaco,’ can show us much of their world. Explore the remains of the Great Houses near dusk, and you can almost hear the ancients go about daily tasks. While the main park is seldom busy, visit one of the two detached units for more immersive interaction. I have never been there with more than one or two other visitors. Most of the time, I’m alone with the walls, pottery shards, and whispers of a long-faded civilization. To further dive into the Chacoian culture,  four sites managed by other agencies are within a short drive of the park.

These examples are just a few from New Mexico. There are many more. I have yet to mention places like Cimarron, New Mexico, and Lucien Maxwell, once the largest landowner in the US and a close friend of Kit Carson. The Southern part of the state can’t be forgotten. Did you know that Smokey Bear is from New Mexico? Have you ever heard of a young cowboy named William Bonnet? He spent some time in (and escaped from) jail in Lincoln, New Mexico. He was better known as Billy the Kidd. Lincoln is just another interesting historical site you can visit.  

New Mexico is just one state; there are 49 more, plus more than one hundred countries worldwide. History has happened everywhere. Until someone invents time travel, our best option to learn about history and how it can help us deal with the present and future is traveling to historic sites.