Conquistadors in The Little Ice Age


For all the glorious wildflowers that peek through the thawing ground, there are just as many snowflakes that are apt to fall … as happened at my house one mid-April Sunday evening. By Monday afternoon, the snow had all but vanished and warmer weather prevailed, but look out, Wednesday arrived with another three-inch pile up. I expected it, not because I looked into my crystal snowball, but it was predicted.

By checking with weather sites, meteorologists, radio and television news channels, I am able to gauge what to wear, how long it will take to get somewhere, even which foods to make for dinner.

Humans have tried to forecast weather since the beginning of time. It’s not that difficult to do in the short term. Look at the sky. Is it cloudy? Smell the air. Is it sweet? It’s probably going to rain (Scientific American has a great article about various scents associated with stormy weather). To the observant, animal behavior can be a predictor of weather, and achy joints are sometimes the result of a change in barometric pressure.

But what if the human has never been north of the equator? Such was the case when 15th century Tarascan Indians joined the Vásquez de Coronado expedition to a place we call New Mexico. Although some Tarascans may have traveled that far to trade their copper bells, since these allies were numerous, it is easy to assume many had never before experienced snow.


When solar flare activity decreases, so goes the temperature. And the growing season. Some hypothesize the weather is one reason why  prehistoric peoples living in places like Chaco Canyon were forced to move (the Little Ice Age occurred between 1350 -1900 AD).

During the expedition (1540-42), a chronicler named Pedro de Castañeda said, “it did not fail to snow during the evenings and nearly every night, so that they had to clear away a large amount of snow … It fell all night long, covering the baggage and the soldiers, and their beds, piling up in the air, so that if anyone had suddenly come upon the army nothing would have been seen but mountains of snow.” Lucky for those soldiers, the snow had in insulating effect–snow retains heat.

I saw this phenomenon earlier when at least fifteen deer settled themselves beneath the scrub oaks in my yard. They were bundled up, so to speak, in a blanket of snow. Likewise, the conquistadors must have been at least a little cozy. But many of the Mexican Indians were ill-equipped and suffered greatly from the cold, some even froze to death. The explorers turned to the American Indians, Zuni and Pueblo, and traded trinkets for rabbit and turkey feather blankets. But when the weather became more severe, the trading ceased; blankets were flat out stolen.

After that first winter (devastating for the American Indians–you may be interested in reading how much so by reading The Winter of the Metal People by Dennis Herrick), the expedition moved on to what they hoped would be the greener pastures of Quivera (Wichita village in Kansas). After that disappointment, the expedition returned to the Tiguex Pueblos where they had wintered the year before.

And The Little Ice Age prevailed.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire,

I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

~ Robert Frost



Seven Cities of Gold … Pottery

The Aztecs called gold teocuitlatl (teh-oh-KWEE-tlah-tl), or excrement of the gods. My guess is, that name fits, and probably for the same reasons you might surmise. I’ll wait for your comment to find out.

The most beautiful artisan application I have personally seen are the gold shoes discovered in King Tut’s tomb.

Gold has many uses including medicine, electronics, spacecraft film, Denver’s Capitol dome covering, jewelry, and who can forget the idolatrous Old Testament story of Aaron and the golden calf (Exodus 32). Because it’s rare, it’s expensive. And while the value of gold does fluctuate, since the supply is limited, it remains a good investment.

El Dorado

Ready for a short history lesson? Fifteen century Spanish explorers had great faith in an ancient folklore about a land called Antilia. As the story goes, during eighth century Iberian upheaval, seven Portuguese bishops escaped with untold treasures. They sailed away and landed somewhere across the sea, perhaps on an island. But it was never found. Intent on finding this Lost City of Gold, the New World continent of North America captivated the Spaniards imaginations. They decided its native peoples, those whom we know today as Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo Indians, had obtained the Bishops’ wealth. Thus, when guides declared the tierra nueva (new land) was rich, specifically an area called Cibola that housed many cities, the hunt was on.

A French priest, fray Marcos de Niza, was sent on a reconnaissance mission to verify the veracity of the wealth. He took with him a slave named Esteban who went ahead and was regretfully killed. This event caused fray Marcos to proceed with caution. Supposedly, albeit from a distance, he viewed the first of the Seven Cities of Cibola. When the Franciscan came back to New Spain, he told Viceroy Mendoza that the city had stone buildings and observable wealth. As the story goes, the settlers, hidalgos, and conquistadores got very excited and elaborated their take on the tale.

For all we know, fray Marcos may have truly seen vessels of gold, but not the kind you think.

Yellow Ware

The Natives of that land used to trade many items. Parrot feathers, seashells, turquoise, cotton, bison hides … the list goes on. These items were more valuable to them than gold since the metal is too soft and mailable to be of much use. Flint for making arrows was a more useful material.

At the time of Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition (1540-42) Hopi yellow ware pottery was in vogue. It is quite possible that the Zuni Indians fray Marcos saw were holding some of these pots they had obtained through trade. On the other hand, Pueblo Indians from Taos crafted pottery using golden colored clay infused with mica. The resulting glittery, golden pots may have been mistaken for solid gold.

From a distance.




Friends that did Something Good

Oren "Von" Limbaugh of the Limbaugh Law Firm

Oren “Von” Limbaugh
Limbaugh Law Firm, Colorado

Von and Michelle Limbaugh are the kind of friends everybody wishes they had. He’s smart, friendly, conscientious, and a man of integrity. His wife Michelle has the same qualities, but I’m biased. She is a lot of fun.

Recently, we had the pleasure of having them over for dinner. Naturally, I served all kinds of delectable Southwest food.

Smothered in red chile adobe sauce (thank you Rick Bayless), tender chunks of sirloin paired nicely with crisp zucchini squash, and tiny lentil cakes, aromatic with cilantro and cumin, peppered our palates with a touch of spice. Tortillas, fresh from one of the many Mom and Pop tortilla factories in Denver (no websites, just great food), soaked up any leftover sauce, but I think I saw Michelle lick the plate.

She volunteered to help dish out the food (we had ten people at our table), and by the time we served pumpkin custard over crumbled pecan cookies, our guests were living proof that, as the Spanish proverbs goes, barriga llena, corazón contento (a full stomach makes a happy heart).



Today I received something that made my heart happy in a different way. The Limbaugh’s sent me two books to aid my historical novel research (both books autographed by the author!).

The Spanish Frontier in North America, by David J. Weber, 1992, and

The Cross in the Sand, by Michael V. Gannon, 1965.

In the latter book, which I opened randomly, I found something underlined in red that reminded me of Michelle. Next to a photo of a beautiful sculpture were the words, “Señora de la Leche y buen parto,” translated, Our Nursing Mother of Happy Delivery.



Although this post is unusual in content, it is fitting that I write it, and here’s why:

In this busy world, when someone takes time to think of others and then translate that thought into something tangible, a generosity of spirit grows. The Limbaugh’s kindness has infused my heart with joy, and it will remain an example that no act of kindness is ever too small to go unnoticed.



… from another frame of reference.

When I read the history of the Old Spanish Missions, I am overwhelmed. The foundation of European beliefs collided with a labyrinth of methodologies so unfamiliar, we continue to this day to unravel a controversy; are the best intentions really the best? What can I learn from the struggles, the aspirations, the conviction of ideas?

On the home page of this website I ask, “Have you ever wanted to do something nice for someone and have it turn out all wrong?” For me, it comes down to motivation. After that, I’ve learned to ask myself if my actions promote understanding or division? Acceptance or dissent? Tough questions, but these are the heart of why I write; I am an explorer in search of answers to some of history’s most difficult questions.

The books Von and Michelle gave me will certainly advance my education, but more importantly, they gave me an answer to at least one of my questions. They wanted to do something nice and it turned out all good.

Thanks guys! Let’s do it again sometime soon.

Spring Cleaning

When was the last time you woke up excited to clean out a basement?

“You never know what you are going to discover,” said Dr. Timothy J. Standring, exhibition curator at DAM, otherwise known as the Denver Art Museum. (More organized than mine, even so … ) It was he who found, underneath layers of grime and discolored varnish, a Giovanni Antonio Canal, or better known, a Canaletto masterpiece. It was there all along. (Canaletto was born in Venice, October 28, 1697.)

With that bit of encouragement, I opened the door to my basement. Doubtful I could even find the box with my daughter’s artwork, I closed the door and came upstairs. Dr. Standring piqued my curiosity about potential treasure … elsewhere. What could I discover in the basements of others, especially anything that might aid research for my books.

Instead of my basement, I scoured the Internet.

The first thing I found, I am not the only one to toss things into the basement without regard for their value. Someone in the Almuñécar (southern Spain, and my newest vacation dreamland) Health Center discovered objects of inestimable worth collected in crates stored next to garbage.

The treasure hunt continued.

The Koshare Indian Museum takes basement storage to a new level (pun not intended!). They’ve opened two large viewing windows into a section of their underground storage unit so guest can peek at over one hundred pieces of Southwest Indian pottery. Plus, they got really creative with ancient pottery purchased long ago for about one dollar per pot; these have holes drilled into them and are being used as lampshades. Even with the holes, they’re worth more than anything I could find in my basement.

What else?

Archeologists in Moscow find a 16th century basement (important because it’s from the second Assumption Cathedral), human skeletons littered Benjamin Franklin’s basement (don’t jump to conclusions–they were probably autopsy remains–autopsies were illegal until the eighteenth century, and these skeletons were most likely already in residence by the time Mr. Franklin moved in), a stolen 16th century tapestry resurfaced in Houston (well, it could have been stored in a basement), but then I found a website that has among its medieval Spanish decor pages, an inspirational idea to dress up any basement on the cheap. It’s definitely cool and worth the time to click here.

X marks the spot.

Spring cleaning? Not today. I’ve got my marker and I’m headed for the basement.


Candle Wax and Light

Quiz: What is the primary ingredient used to make a candle? (The answer is at the end of this post and not in your ear, which is basically shed skin and fat, although the answer is also a mixture that includes organic material and vegetable fat.)

Okay, I won’t make you wait. The answer is wax, but now I have another question. What’s so great about it? Lots.

How Wax is Used

1) Gently heated, applied, left to cool, and pulled, certain wax compounds can remove excess hair from eyebrows, chins, armpits, legs, and … let’s just say some ladies have the procedure done before swimsuit season.

2) Paraffin wax is heated and poured over freshly made jams and jellies that have been placed in sterile canning jars. The wax seals out air and preserves the preserves. I once made blueberry and cinnamon jam using this preservation method. Also, paraffin wax is used as therapy for arthritis and other ailments

3) Lip ointment, cosmetics, chewing gum (from ancient Greeks, to Mayans, to Gene Simmons of the Rock Band Kiss whose chewed gum was auctioned on EBAY for the crushing sum of $585.00,  chewing gum remains popular), car wax, protective coating on supermarket fruit, furniture wax, candles, wax paper, cheese coating, wine bottles, … the list is elastic and would make a really good topic for a Science Fair.

Where Does Wax Come From?

Even bees know the answer: plants. Candelilla plants, sugarcane, Brazilian Palms, and many others. That’s the basic answer. Other ingredients are added to create wax compounds, but that’s a topic for the Mad Scientist blog, if there is one (of course there is … I just found it).

The plant I am most interested in is the candelilla plant because it is indigenous to the area where one of my novels takes place. As I often do when researching a tangible item, I find something I can hold, and in this case, grow. My little candelilla plant sits on a table in my living room, soaking up sun and reminding me of why I love to write. I learn so much! Plus, it’s gratifying to share these things with you through my blog and books.

A couple of theories arise as to why the name of this plant sounds like the word candle.

1) Its long, slender stems resemble a candle

2) The entire plant, because of its waxy stems, was easily set on fire

I don’t know if either theory is correct, but the etymology, or origin of the word candle is Latin. Candela has a derivative word candid, which used to mean shining or white and today means honest.

Can Light be Hidden?

Yes, and no. A lamp can be hidden under a box, but what’s the point? Internal light is not readily seen, except on a glowing face; light that illuminates the soul cannot be manually produced from striking a match, but it’s a truth that becomes real. It lights up our lives.

Candles, writing books, serving others … these are things that light up my life. What lights up yours?

“Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy” Isaiah 60:5.




Fat Tuesday to Friday of Sorrows

This year, Christians of Western and Greek Orthodoxy will celebrate Easter on April 20, 2014, and that won’t happen again until April 16, 2017. The reason they don’t always fall on the same date is that one uses the Gregorian calendar, while the latter follows the Julian calendar. Regarding preparation for Easter, western Christians partake in Lent, while Greek Orthodox Christians refer to this season of hope as the Great Lent.

Another tradition that dates back to the Spanish Colonial Period is the Viernes de Delores or Friday of Sorrows (Our Lady of Compassion). This is a time to remember Mary, the Mother of Christ, who upon witnessing the death of her Son suffered profound sadness. As far back as the 12th Century, the service took place the Friday before Palm Sunday. To make it official, in 1727, Pope Benedict XIII added it to the Roman calendar. But in 1913, the date moved to September, 15, and was newly christened the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows.

However, many cultures still commemorate the older feast day during Holy Week. For example…


Panama: In the historic town of Nata de los Caballeros, a procession follows a mournful picture of the Mary. This image depicting the Mother of Jesus, tearful and broken-hearted, dates back to the 16th Century.

ColumbiaHere, Mary is joined by Saint John (“Woman, behold your son” John 19:25), and Saint Augustine (the Doctor of Grace who wrote City of God in the mid-fourth century).

Albacete, Spain: The city shines at dusk by the many lamps that illuminate the Via Crucis (Latin for Way of the Cross) of Lights.

Avila: The home town of St. Teresa draws people to a solemn walk where men wear the Carmelite brown coat.

The village of Serradilla: The faithful of this Spanish city have for centuries followed a procession of paper lanterns that light the Via Dolorosa (way of suffering).

Mexico: Many villages and towns glimmer with shrines dedicated to the remembrance of the great suffering.

And these are only a few places that hold such solemn assemblies.

After the parades and carnival of gluttony often associated with Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, many people still prepare for the coming of Easter by denying themselves the pleasures of the flesh. If you also commemorate this season of Lent, you join a throng of millions who have gone before you, and many who will come after, while the promise of Easter awaits.

“Now fled the days, and dead the ways,

When dawn was welcomed so;

When soul of Spain with birds refrain

First watched the morning glow.” ~ Fray Angélico Chávez


It Really is Carved in Stone

rp_file53322c7863325.jpgHave you ever carved your name into a tree, a rock, a sandy shore at the beach? Seems the need to be remembered, or at least make our mark, is universal. And why not? You are one person among over seven-billion currently on planet earth. You are unique. To coin a well-intentioned phrase, you are special. No one can do the things you do, or think the way you think exactly the same as you.


With all these people, there are bound to be duplicates, right? Impossible. Nothing new under the sun? Yes, and no. Will someone steal your idea? Let them. Their work will be incomparable to yours. Sure, on the surface it may resemble something of your idea, but it can never be the same.

How else can I describe it? Lots of ways, but you may come up with something different. Something someone else may understand more clearly based on their temperament, location, upbringing, etc.


In my research of the American Southwest, I have wandered through Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, Three Rivers Petroglyphs site, La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site, and Chaco Canyon to name only a few. The aboriginal markings may include religious symbols, trail markers, and other carvings whose meanings are impossible to know. Recent (between 300-700 years ago) American Indian carvings were created by pecking directly across the face of a boulder with a hammerstone. The lasting imagery remains visible, beautiful, and I must add mysterious.

These sites are not merely outdoor museums, but they link something of the past to the present day. How? The Southwest Indian Foundation serves multiple tribes by selling modern day artwork. This is just one place among many where such artwork is sold, and each piece is as individual as its maker.

Obviously, I haven’t’ even scratched the surface of this topic (bad pun… sorry!), and I will revisit it again with more focused detail, but until then I encourage you to visit websites and plan your vacation around some of these historical parks. They’re not just in the American Southwest, but also in Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington, indeed, petroglyphs are found world-wide.

One more thing: when I said, “Do not be afraid to make your mark,” I did not mean it literally. The parks where the petroglyphs exist are like books to read, not tablets to draw on. Now take your water bottle and go explore. It will enrich your life.

Memories Affect Time Travel

Nowak with Sister P“And one especially do we affect of two gold ingots like in each respect…” 16th Century, Christopher Marlow

An earlier post, Song of the Conquistador, mentioned my interest in time travel, so it’s not surprising that I delight in the power of scrapbooks; each time I see a photograph, I am transported to the past–a slice of time others may recall, but each scene with customized perception–no one sees things exactly the same. The memory board of my mind is littered with a warehouse of people, like a long-ago picture show.

It’s fun to find a tangible record of those memories, and when I stumbled across a yellowed newspaper article, it carried me to another day. There I am in the upper right-hand corner of the collage making crafts with my pal from the Franciscan Order, Sister Pancracia. The open book is a crumbling 1896 volume of Catholic Ceremonies, and the rosary is a relic from my mother-in-law.

Buoyed by Affection

Sister Mary Pancracia, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, OH, began life as Eleanore Okonski. After taking her vows in 1923, she taught in schools, served in hospitals, and spent ten years as a sacristan. She was also a seamstress who loved cleanliness and order, or so she said. Time travel by her memory, true or erroneous, took me on a journey to her youth. But by the time I met her, those days were long gone.

Fingers that once held needle and thread quivered through skin as transparent as spring roll rice paper, and when she held my hands I felt the tremble of the years. And yet, her heart was spry. Past cloudy eyes she would watch me… then, when no one was looking, they’d sparkle with mischief and she’d fill her pockets with bananas. Afterwards, she would curl her hand and beckon me to a private corner where we would eat them with delight.

Time Travel By Way of a Friend

To act upon something, to just do it, is to affect it, get it done. Sister Pancracia affected, or influenced my ability to live in the light of her past. Through her stories, I could see her playing with her little brother in the old Polish neighborhood near St. Hedwig’s Parish, feel the cold, cold snow, smell the buttery pierogi, hear the robins sing. All this to say, time travel is certainly possible–through a story, a picture, a friend.

So when your way is wrought with obstacles of daily routine or burdened with the weight of responsibility, book a trip to the past in the comfort of your favorite chair. Vaya con Dios! I hope your  journey is pleasant.

Propane: Can’t Heat With It, Can’t Heat Without It

Did Debbie Dogskin of Fort Yates, ND freeze to death? My deepest sympathies go out to her family, especially her mom. A mother never forgets the death of one of her children. Especially if death could have been prevented. It’s easy to think there’s nothing anyone can do to help the approximately 5,000 residents who live in Fort Yates and use propane to heat their homes.

But that’s dead wrong.

I’m not a chemist, but as an historical novelist I read a lot. So when I saw how certain Dakota Standing Rock  Indians are suffering this arctic winter because the price of propane has skyrocketed, I piled on another blanket and did some investigation.

Getting Personal

Propane is not a topic I would normally undertake, but there’s another reason for my interest; my parent’s old oil furnace must be replaced. Because they live in rural area where natural gas is not an option, the family is considering propane despite its shortage.

Like all commodities, the price of propane fluctuates with supply and demand; this week the price of one gallon of propane is about $3.90, while last year the cost was only $2.29, yet for those Native Americans who live in Dakota, earlier this winter the cost of went as high as $4.65. Multiply that by a 1,000 gallon tank and the cost can be prohibitive. An alternative heat source in the form of pellets (manufactured from natural materials like cherry pits, wood, and grass) is well-worth the consideration, but the added equipment expense must also be deliberated.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton have stepped up to assist three tribes to purchase propane. The SMSC sovereign Indian tribe’s commitment to helping those in need, their generosity and their concern warms my heart. Thankfully, it will also warm the bodies of those who need it most. When you live where wind chills can register up to 50 degrees below zero, heat is essential for survival. The Shakopee Mdewakanton know it, and they’re doing something about it.

You can too.

If you’re interesting in making a contribution for Standing Rock, a fundraiser is underway. Here’s one way–visit and in the search button, type in Heating the Rez.

Song of the Conquistador

Time travel has always intrigued me; not so much to go back in history (when few women were literate) or forward to find out if my books are still on library shelves (yes, I believe libraries will survive!), but because of how delightful it would be to see composer Juan de Anchieta’s reaction to hearing his Ave Sanctissima Maria on YouTube, or Francisco de Peñalosa listen to an international chamber choir sing his heartbreaking requiem taken from Job 30:31, Sancta Mater, istud agas.

Better yet, I’d love to see any conquistador watch the Monkees sing Ríu Ríu Chíu in 1967, a version that’s available today across the world wide web.

Sixteenth century Spanish explorers must have enjoyed music, songs to bolster their courage, tales of conquest, ballads of love…

“My lady craves a New Year’s gift, and I will keep my word;

Thy head, methinks, will serve the shift – good yeoman, draw thy sword!”

Too melodramatic? Perhaps, but all music should heat the soul.

Franciscan frays of the old Spanish missions would probably agree. Methinks even they might even enjoy listening to Micky, Davy (R.I.P), Peter, and Mike. Ríu Ríu Chíu…