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My 2017 Western America Tour: Cheerful Colorado History (Not)

When initially planning my trip, I had envisioned going from the Great Sand Dunes to Laramie, Wyoming, taking the mountain route: The Rockies are a dramatic backdrop and there are lots of trails to hike and things to do.

The problem was, I couldn’t identify anything specific that I wanted to do – and instead realized that I could visit southeastern Colorado instead, a part of the world I’d never been to. There I quickly sketched out a trip that involved, as I came to think of it, Cheerful Colorado History.

Ludlow Memorial

Yes, I visited the Ludlow Labor Massacre memorial, the Hastings Mine Explosion memorial, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, and the Amache Japanese Internment Camp. Given that I was there, I also visited the Koshare Indian Museum and Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.

Ludlow Memorial

My first stop was the Ludlow Labor Massacre memorial, where, on April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard, along with company guards, shot up and killed a number of people. Including a 3-month-old baby, Elvira Valdez, and several other of the younger set, a total of 39 people were killed.

Ludlow Memorial

As I understand it, the memorial is located directly above a pit where 11 children and two women suffocated to death while the tent above them burned.

This is sobering stuff: man’s inhumanity toward man seems to know no bounds.

After absorbing the memorial, I headed a few miles west to the Hastings Mine Explosion memorial, which marks the death of 121 coal miners on April 21, 1917 – just 100 years ago this year.

Hastings mine explosion memorial

The memorial, a simple stone marker, is off to the side of the road, up a pretty canyon.

Hastings mine explosion memorial

Again, I paused to reflect on the advances we’ve made – and those we have not.

From there, I was off to La Junta – it’s a long, boring, drive, with not much to break up the monotony of southeastern Colorado. There’s a reason most of you have never visited or given it a second thought.

La Junta, where I paused for two nights, is an otherwise unremarkable city – functional in the ways it ought to be. The Koshare Indian Museum is an interesting collection, but, given that it forms the basis of a boy scout dance troop, I suspect Native Americans are not all that happy with its existence and cooptation of cultural traditions. Bent’s Old Fort was an interesting wander, killing an hour or so.

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site

The next day was – for southeastern Colorado – action packed.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

After breakfasting at Copper Kitchen (has a great reputation; seemed fine to me) I headed out to the (nearby) Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site: 93 miles, 100 minutes, including about 8.5 miles of dirt roads.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

It’s the kind of place where people know you’re coming from miles – and so when I parked, the Park Ranger was waiting for me. A very nice woman, she introduced me to the site, told me I could drive up to the overlook, or I could walk – but that if I chose to walk, I needed to be aware of the rattlesnakes.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

I chose to walk.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

On November 29, 1864, and despite waving a white flag of truce, plains Indians were slaughtered and their bodies desecrated – and that’s a very limited, sanitized, outline of what happened.

Yet again, this is a case of white privilege and ego-centrism coming to the fore.

It’s sobering to realize that the US is not done creating sites that will one day be national memorials marking (yet) another occasion where somebody with excessive white privilege took it upon themselves to tell others that they are superior.

I left the site for Granada, Colorado, home of Amache. It’s an hour long drive where you can think about what you’ve just seen – 19th century white fear of Indians – and what you’re on your way to see – 20th century white fear of Japanese descendants. Unless, like me, you manage to kill a bird along the way, in which case you’ll spend 5 or 10 minutes wondering if the bird damaged your rental car (it hadn’t).

Amache: Granada Relocation Center

In Granada, I got lucky: the Amache museum was open; the teacher was showing the coming school year’s students around the museum. He left to drive them back to school and left me to wander the museum. It starts with a copy of the order excluding US citizens of Japanese descent from the west coast and ends with a copy of a speech by FDR in which he talks about everybody being Americans with equal rights, regardless of their ethnicity. Nice.

Amache: Granada Relocation Center

From there I drove over to the actual internment camp – listening to the audio tour that I had downloaded. I rolled down my windows, turned off the AC, and drove down streets, pausing to look. I was supposed to get out and explore the site, but wearing shorts and sandals, I decided that I didn’t want to fight the weeds to examine foundation remnants too closely.

Amache: Granada Relocation Center

America – despite its promises – can be an asshole.

Amache: Granada Relocation Center

There are so many low-lights in American history that we do not talk about often enough – it’s a stark contrast, in some respects, to Germany: Germany did wrong during World War II – and it acknowledges it. America did a lot of little things wrong, but fixates only on when it got things right instead.

Heading back west toward La Junta – and the Arkansas Valley Fair in Rocky Ford – it’s easy to want to forget. But with Donald Trump in office, it’s important that we never forget.

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