Purgatory is that halfway place where you are sent to atone for your past sins. I’m not sure that my definition is a dictionary definition, but when I picture purgatory, I see myself in a rocky, barren place. The sun sizzles. My skin blisters, and I have no water. The Purgatoire River south of La Junta, Colorado is wet, but it is bile green: I wouldn’t want to drink it.
The legend of the Purgatoire is that Spanish treasure-seeking soldiers died on the site without the blessing of a priest. In the 16th century, the river was named El Rio de Las Animas Pedidas en Purgatorio. Next, French trappers seeking beaver pelts shortened the Spanish to Purgatoire. More recently, Anglo travelers on the Santa Fe Trail could not pronounce the French, so they changed the name to Picket Wire.
Although the map above shows the Santa Fe Trail in red, I checked the Western History and Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library. Between Bent’s Old Fort and Raton, some 48 short-cuts are listed and several ran along the Purgatoire River. Not everyone took the road-most-travelled.
Today, The Picket Wire Canyonlands Dinosaur Tracksite is known for having the longest stretch of dinosaur footprints in the United States. 1300 footprints made 150 million years ago follow 100 separate tracks east of the river. During the Jurassic period, southeastern Colorado was a vast, shallow, inland lake. Walking along the muddy shore, the dinosaurs left their footprints.
Broad Brontosaurus prints indicate that the 70-foot long, 33-ton ‘Gentle Giants’ travelled in herds. Larger and smaller prints running parallel to one another are unexpected evidence of social behavior between adults and the younger dinosaurs.
The carnivorous Allosaurus tracks are smaller and three-toed. Only 25-feet tall and weighing in at only four tons, the solitary hunters made up for their small size with speed and massive jaws.
My most recent trip to the dinosaur tracks was with Steve Bauer and the senior hikers. With good reason Steve suggested that we go early in the season. The canyon is unbearably hot in the summer. Two quarts of water per person are recommended.
The hike along the river is flat – it is 3.7 miles from the trailhead to the old Spanish settlement at The Dolores Mission and Cemetery and 1.6 miles farther to the dinosaur tracks. The mission and cemetery are well worth a stop. Not that very much is left of the community, but looking at the isolation and the unforgiving landscape, it is easy to time travel. Sitting with my back against the stone and adobe walls of the mission, I can feel the fatigue of the men and women who claimed the land and built this mission with their own hands. I can hear the hungry baby crying as its mother carries stones to the construction site and later plasters the walls with mud and straw. In 1889 Damacio Lopez sold his land to the Denver Diocese for $1.oo, and the mission church was built soon after.
If you plan to visit, on your return home to Custer County, I recommend your taking Rt. 10 west from La Junta to Walsenburg at twilight. Doing so you will see Pike’s Peak to the north, Greenhorn to the west, and the Twin Peaks to the southwest – all three in silhouette rising up from the dark plains. The otherworldly wind power turbines are just as seductive as the mountains.