The wind howls as though fall is dancing into winter. It is just over 50 degrees as I cover the last stretch of the trail. A covered wagon would sure come in handy right about now. My fellow travelers and I battle the winds and the cold to reach shelter just up ahead. It has been a long journey, one filled with unknowns and danger, but at long last, we have reached neutral ground.
I am out in Eastern Colorado, a part of the state few come to see, but back in the 1830s and 1840s, this was the “Castle in the Plains”. Bent’s Old Fort sits just 8 miles east of La Junta, Colorado, off of a single lane road and truly in the middle of nowhere. Nothing seems to surround it and there is perhaps no reason to come down here. It resembles a castle, rising up from nothing which no doubt was a welcome site to travelers back in the day. Bent’s Old Fort positioned on the boundary with Mexico. For much of its history, it was the only permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and Mexican territory. The closest town was a long 600 miles away by wagon.
Just as I have come seeking a bit of shelter from the unseasonably cold late spring day, traders, trappers, travelers and Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes would come together at Bent’s Old Fort on peaceful terms for the sole purchase of buying and selling. Like most interstate hotels and nothing towns these days, Bent’s Old Fort refueled wagons and spirits. It was a place explorers, adventurers and the U.S. army would load up on supplies, wagon repairs, livestock, food, water and a little bit of rest.
William and Charles Bent along with Ceran St. Vrain built the fort in 1833 to facilitate trade with trappers and tribes. As the man before me in full costume wholeheartedly explains, the adobe fort is merely a reconstruction of what once was a castle on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
Like most castles of a different variety, he speculates that William Bent just blew the fort up one day. I guess because he could. The costumed historian goes on to say the entire structure could have been a mistake for Bent’s New Fort was built just a short distance away a few years later. By 1849, after a short life as a safe zone and refuge, Bent’s Old Fort was completely abandoned.
To recreate the Castle of the Pains, careful archeological excavations were completed along with the study of original sketches from those who saw the real Bent’s Old Fort. Today, historians dress in costume as fur traders and chiefs to further the modern imagination.
I stand on top of the reconstructed Bent’s Old Fort, pondering what it must have felt like to reach this castle after a grueling journey. The Great American Desert wasn’t kind but Bent’s Old Fort provided a respite and calm from the dangers lurking outside. And like most places that intrigue the traveler of today, its demise is mysterious and perhaps best blamed on its very creator’s torch. Its recreation might be a touch hokey, but the imagination in Eastern Colorado has the chance to see something seldom seen, an 1840s rest stop.
Have you been to Bent’s Old Fort?