Book Review: Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston
"Merry Christmas!" my lovely wife cried as I opened up one of my presents. In case I haven't mentioned it lately, she is my best friend and the woman who holds my heart in her hands. I love her dearly and she evidently found something in me she likes because she hangs around (over ten years now).
My gift was one I had asked Santa for: a hardback copy of Douglas Preston's Cities of Gold. Published in 1992 it is Preston's second published work coming after Dinosaurs in the Attic. It is one of the few books I did not own by he and writing partner Lincoln Childs and I had requested it as a Christmas gift this year. Santa must have thought I was a good boy this year for I got it!
"The great myth of the American West is that there was a winning of it." So says the author Douglas Preston near the end of the book. Rather, things were lost to something else that came along, something which overshadowed that which was and destroyed it. As many cities in Europe are built upon the stones of cities which have disappeared in time, so too is our American Southwest; cities and cultures built upon that which was and will never be again. His reasoning is sound, and forced me to review all that I had grown up with regarding the view of how the West was won. It also begs the question: If we are standing upon that which was, who will stand upon us in the future?
The cover advises this book to be the details of a journey across the American Southwest in pursuit of Coronado and that is exactly what it is. Preston and next door neighbor and friend Walter Nelson decide they want to follow in Coronado's footsteps in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. They set out to plan their trip and begin by deciding which of the various routes history has laid out as the one and only route they will take. I myself was unaware there has been ongoing discussion on this front. I thought the records had a route documented and that it was without question THE route. I was to find different versions exist dependent upon who recorded the information.
Finally they make their choice and begin their journey. They arrange to travel to extreme Southeast Arizona at the Arizona - Mexico border south of Tombstone. Coronado traveled from Mexico so to make their recreation have this same flavor they "jump" across the U.S. - Mexican border and back quickly, then set off for an adventure which will alternately cause them to rejoice and to literally fear for their lives.
First and foremost I must give kudos to the author for having the fortitude to undertake a journey such as this. To willingly place oneself in harm's way by determining to cross vast distances where water is virtually non-existent, exposed to weather ranging from below freezing to somewhere above one hundred degrees (oftentimes within a few short hours) is something I cannot imagine setting here in my cozy home, reading beneath the lamplight while watching a fire blaze in my hand-made fireplace. Mr. Preston, you have more cojones than I do!
Now, on to the story. Accompanied by a next door neighbor who is a good friend and enlisting the assistance of a supposed horse wrangler (not so much as it turns out) the little group sets out on a daunting endeavor: to follow in the tracks of one of history's most daring voyage of discovery, the trek of Coronado across close to 1,000 miles of mostly trackless country. While I thought this was to be a story of the present, focusing primarily on the task at hand, Preston effortlessly incorporates the past with a fluidity rarely experienced by most authors. Along the way he rides through history then brings that history to life by giving insights from a variety of sources.
The trip is originally estimated to be seven hundred miles, and "guesstimating" twenty-five miles per day would be covered, the trip was to consume roughly four weeks. Walter has a bit more experience in the field than the author and feels strongly the distance is closer to a thousand miles and the estimate of twenty-five miles a day just a bit high. As it turns out, Walter was right.
Their first day they made three miles. It took about a week to cover that first twenty-five mile distance.
Ranging from documents set down at the time of the exploration to remembrances of various descendants of those who witnessed Coronado's crossing, the author pulls the reader along, daring them to forget what they "know" about the explorer and learn anew what really happened.
One item which Preston relates in detail is that the Spanish were perhaps the originators of the lies told to Native Americans. Time and again, it appears as though the explorers made demands couched as requests to those they met only to turn around and ignore what they themselves had pledged. Throughout American History I had thought that the Government had if not a monopoly on this then at least been the primary culprit in telling the Indians one thing then denying it had ever occurred. The phrase "As long as the grass grows and the rivers flow" which was utilized in many treaties between the American Government and the various tribes during the 1800's may have been coined then, but the intent surely appeared some 200 to 300 years prior.
On numerous occasions Preston reveals underhanded dealings with the Natives met along the way, and in some cases begins the destruction of the natives. It is incredibly sad to think that this mighty nation was built upon the lies told to the continent's original inhabitants. And lest you think that they were savages, roaming the prairies and not utilizing it to its fullest, take a look into the lives of the Zuni Indian Tribe.
When Coronado came upon the Zuni tribe in 1540, he found a civilization which was flourishing. This was the presumed location of the Seven Cities of Cibola, although there were in fact only six cities. The tribes had mastered the art of farming the arid area and were completely self sufficient. In the years to come, the Government of the United States sent "experts" to "teach" the Native Americans how to farm. As a result, the land became useless, rutted with cuts and ditches as a result of the rains flowing rapidly across the landscape and carrying with it the topsoil. Just another example of Government knowing what is best for others.
Preston carries the reader into the very culture, allowing us to come face to face with real persons, both historical and living. You will meet some who continue to despise "Whiteys" as well as some who embrace the present future of their race. But there is a sadness to those who are forced to live as something they are not, nor will ever be: a part of a country which they owned and utilized far better than we ever could.
Near the end of the book, Preston sits down with the then governor in Zuni, New Mexico to speak on what it means to be a Zuni and to ask other questions on their life and times. He asked one question in particular which has as profound an answer as I have ever heard. The question was: Are the Zuni better off today than before Coronado? The governor was quiet for a long time before answering. In part, here is his answer.
"Europeans came over here essentially because they wanted freedoms they never had over there. We also cherished our freedoms and our ways of life. But we respected the rights of others. Here, our people enjoyed the things that the Creator made. We lived with the land and we respected each other's boundaries. When the newcomers came, they invented ways to be as mean as the landlords they were trying to get away from."
Invented ways to be as mean as those they had escaped from. In other words, they became what they hated and feared. How often does that happen? How many times does someone who was themselves abused become an abuser? In the case of Europeans, they desired to have religious freedom, to own land, to be their own person. Yet once America began to be settled, they forced their viewpoint of religion on Native American tribes across the county and they stole the land which was given freely to be shared by all from their benefactors. Then they pushed them to the side, forcing them onto smaller and smaller tracts of land until they became little more than wards of the state, relying on handouts and subsidies for their very livelihood.
Was this an improvement? Or was it simply one of the most selfish, self-centered acts one human can act upon another?
Throughout the book the author brings to life that which has passed out of history. The reader sees what was, sees the people which were here prior to the European's arrival on the shores of North America for what they were, and sees Coronado and his ilk for what they were. Coronado's travels through the desert Southwest from Old Mexico through Arizona to New Mexico was one of a people who felt they had right to explore and claim as their own lands which were inhabited by an intelligent civilization, one who had settled the land, one who had culture, who farmed, who ranched. One who had a relationship with the land. But because they were not "owning" the land in the terms of European culture, because they were not "civilized" as Europeans, they were not to be treated equally and therefore were to be enslaved, and to be eliminated if need be.
Along the way we read of the author's exploits ranging from levity, such as the numerous occasions they have problems with their horses, to soul searching as felt once they reached the Plain of Hawikuh.
One learns facts which one never knew, such as Coronado's group traveled as far inland as central Kansas, that they followed a guide supposedly leading them to Quivara only to learn he was in fact leading them towards their demise, hopeful that they would all perish in Texas.
This is a fascinating study in a subject I thought I knew fairly well. As it turns out, I did not. I thank the author for several days of truly enjoyable reading, for teaching me that which I did not know, and opening doors to more areas of study that I am going to go through.
In the end, the author and his companion cover roughly a thousand miles in just over six weeks. Along the way they touch base with Cochise, Geronimo, Coronado, Esteben, and various other figures from history who you may or may not have ever heard of. Mr. Preston educates the reader in a manner which I must say suggests the best of the twentieth century writers. You come away not only feeling enjoyment for having read his story, but educated in areas you may not have realized you were lacking in. The book is rich in details about a civilization long gone, of a history not fully known, and of a people who have vanished from the earth never to walk again.
In my life I have read two other books that have moved me as this one has; A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, and River by Colin Fletcher. I laughed, I cried, I felt a poignancy at a life far removed from that which I enjoy. It created in me a desire to see, to experience something akin to that which Mr. Preston enjoyed along those many miles. And while I know that will most likely never be, should I ever be able to visit some portion of that wonderful land, I will carry this book along to read while I view that landscape.
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