Burro packing demonstration will highlight Aztec Ruins festival this weekend

Ron, Pat Rundstrom learned system through careful research

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Pat and Ron Rundstrom load cargo on a burro using the aparejo saddle pack system they will be demonstrating this weekend during the Old Spanish Trail Festival at Aztec Ruins National Monument.
  • The Old Spanish Trail Festival takes place at Aztec Ruins National Monument on Sept. 13-14, and admission is free.
  • A Community Campfire event will take place at the ruins at 6:15 p.m. Sept. 14.
  • A full moon tour of an Ancestral puebloan greathouse will follow at 8 p.m.

FARMINGTON — When Ron and Pat Rundstrom decided more than a decade ago to begin researching how traders loaded the burros they led on the long, unforgiving route known as the Old Spanish Trail from Los Angeles to Santa Fe in the early 1800s, you might say they went all in.

The Rundstroms — residents of Chamita, a small community just north of Española — will be sharing what they have learned this weekend during the inaugural Old Spanish Trail Festival at Aztec Ruins National Monument. They'll be bringing their two burros, Freighter and Amiga, and demonstrating the aparejo saddle pack system they taught themselves through years of painstaking research, illustrating that their craft is anything but a simple matter of piling cargo on the back of an animal and leading it down the trail.

The Rundstroms refer to the aparejo saddle pack system as a craft, but it may be more accurate to call it an art, so intricate is the process. The system was imported to the New World by one of Christopher Columbus' crews after being introduced to Spain by the invading Arabs and Berbers in the eighth century, according to Ron Rundstrom.

"So it has a very old origin," he said.

Ron Rundstrom places a hide on the back of a burro before packing cargo on the animal's back.

The time-honored system was employed countless times between 1829 and 1848 by those who made the long journey from the West Coast to northern New Mexico to trade their California horses and mules for woolen goods, furs, hides and even captives, according to the Old Spanish Trail Association website.

It later was adopted by the U.S. military and was used continuously during the Indian Wars of the 1870s all the way through World War II, Ron said. American servicemen later used it on a more limited scale in Korea and even in Afghanistan, he said.

Learning the system was not some dry academic exercise, Ron said, though he is naturally inclined toward such pursuits, given his training as an ethnographer. Instead, it was a function of him and his wife needing to scratch out a living when they moved to northern New Mexico many years ago. They quickly developed a supplemental income by offering an animal-packing service for students headed to remote archaeological sites in the nearby Jemez Mountains.

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Given the fact that the aparejo saddle pack system had become a lost art, at least among civilians in the American Southwest, the Rundstroms' studies involved mostly poring through 19th century journals, field manuals and photographs that offered hints about how the system worked. They slowly pieced together the basics, then traveled to Spain for two months, traveling the ancient trading routes and learning the finer details from people who still used the system.

Freighter, a burro owned by Ron and Pat Rundstrom, is loaded with cargo.

"The whole thing is an ongoing challenge," Pat Rundstrom said.

Up through the days of the Old Spanish Trail, the craft of packing an animal properly was a profession in itself, Ron said, though he noted it resided on one of the lower rungs on the Spanish caste system. But that didn't stop Ron and his wife from embracing it. Keeping the craft alive was an important part of the process for them.

"It's not only the product of intellectually understanding the craft, but to actually learn how to do the craft is a whole different thing," he said.

The Rundstroms consider it such a valuable and important skill, they have demonstrated its use at several events a year over the last decade. Pat said they even curated an exhibition on the system, "Following the Bell," a few years ago at an Española history museum.

Before the creation of paved roads and large trucks, this was how freight was moved across rough terrain, Ron said, explaining that the couple's presentation includes an exploration of how many burros would be required to move a semi-trailer truckload of goods.

"It makes what we're doing understandable," Ron said.

Nathan Hatfield, the chief of interpretation at Aztec Ruins, said the park staff submitted a grant proposal to fund the festival a couple of years ago, and he was very pleased when it was accepted.

The aparejo saddle pack system was used extensively by traders on the Old Spanish Trail as well as members of the U.S. military.

"There were many versions of the trail, but one account has the trail crossing the Animas River near Aztec," he said, explaining that park officials have begun to recognize the ruins' connection to the trail in recent years after decades of concentrating solely on its Ancestral Puebloan past.

"We're trying to highlight that particular part of our story, too," he said. "It shows us there were other things of historical significance in this part of the state, as well."

The Old Spanish Trail Festival begins Sept. 13 with a day of activities for school children. It continues from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 14 with demonstrations by the Rundstroms, along with various hands-on activities and displays.

Andy Bleckinger, the assistant district manager for the San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District, will lead a Community Campfire event this weekend at Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Two other events will follow the festival on Sept. 14 at Aztec Ruins. A Community Campfire event will be held at 6:15 p.m. The event includes a presentation on "Water in the Watershed: Past, Present and Future" by Andy Bleckinger, the assistant district manager for the San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District, who will explore the ways Ancestral Puebloans used the region's water, as well as how it is used today.

Bleckinger will be bringing his organization's Rolling Rivers trailer, a large, portable, interactive model of a watershed that offers lessons on rivers and erosion. The event also includes a portable, National Park Service-approved fire pit, marshmallow roasting and campfire songs. He described the Community Campfire as a fun, family-friendly event.

Andy Bleckinger, the assistant district manager for the San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District, will lead a full moon tour this weekend at Aztec Ruins National Monument.

An hour-long, full moon tour of an Ancestral Puebloan greathouse led by Bleckinger will follow the Community Campfire at 8 p.m. He said the Ancestral Puebloans who built the Aztec Ruins settlement were particularly attuned to the sky, aligning structures with the summer and winter solstices, and observing other celestial events. Bleckinger said his monthly tours continue the tradition of people at the ruins watching the night sky.

"How often do you get to walk through an Ancestral Puebloan greathouse making the same connections they made a thousand years ago?" he asked.

Admission to the all the Sept. 14 events is free. Call 505-334-6174 for more information.

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.