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The Cow-Headed Man

In my parents basement there was a series of colorful plywood doors. Behind the doors were piles of yellowed books crammed into a dark recess in the foundation. They were all of the books in the house. I never understood why my parents, who were avid readers, kept books hidden in the basement.

“Can you read one of them to me?” I asked my Dad. I don’t remember how old I was.

“Which one?”

I liked books about walking. Theroux, Capt. Burton, Wordsworth, Lewis and Clark. He liked cowboy books.
Men on

Jedediah Smith

horses.  Still, my Dad’s favorite book was about Jedediah Smith. He walked all over America and was lanced to death on the Staked Plain by Comanches in 1831.

“Read the one about the guy with the cow head who walks in the desert.”

My favorite book was Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación. Dad translated the Spanish name but didn’t explain that Cabeza de Vaca was only a name and not a description.


In April, 1528 Pánfilo de Narváez brought three hundred armored men to the west shore of Florida. Their goal, to claim all the land between Florida and the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas for the Spanish King. Today we call the Rio de las Palmas the Rio Grande and its mouth is a fetid cesspool spilling toxins into the Gulf of Mexico below Brownsville, Texas. Cabeza de Vaca was one of Narváez’s men.

Before he could land, a wild southern wind blew Narváez from his course and when he and his crew finally made shore they stumbled into a swamp where the remains of a shipwreck had rotted into the muck and the bodies of Spaniards wrapped in deerskin were laid out on the beach. They couldn’t find any Indians but they heard them dancing at night and one of the men said they probably wore turquoise and gold and ate the raw hearts of living men.

They buried the dead.

Then Narváez landed his army, including Cabeza de Vaca, and sailed his fleet for the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas. The two forces were meant to meet several months later to create a colony at the mouth of the great river. He never found the river and sailed back for his men. But they were gone. He searched for a year, then sailed, a failure, to Veracruz. Three hundred men had disappeared between the forest and the sea.

Cabeza de Vaca, the aristocratic son of a well healed family in Jerez de la Frontera, was to be the royally appointed treasurer of the new colony. Of the three hundred missing men, only he and four others survived. The three survivors walked for seven years to reach the safety of the Spanish colony in Mexico. They walked from Florida to Oklahoma and through Texas to New Mexico. From there they walked south through Sonora, Durango and Sinaloa to Mexico City. Along the way they crossed the upper portion of the Rio de las Palmas in what is now New Mexico, but they didn’t know it.

Cabeza de Vaca

I pictured a naked man like a minotaur, except the head was dull and sullen and dumb like the cows that grazed in the National Forest near our home and yet somehow he stuck in my mind as very intelligent.

The naked cow-headed man led the other naked men through deserts and grasslands and forests and the Indians looked at them with pity and as if they were stupid and crazy. The Indians fed them and gave them clothes and told them of great cities to the north. When they reached Mexico City they didn’t feel as free as they had in the Wilderness and they slept on the floor because their bodies were not used to beds and fine cloth irritated their skin. After several months, when they finally became accustomed to beds again, the four survivors encouraged the Spanish Governor of Mexico to send an army back North to conquer the people who had helped them on their seven year march.

The message I took to heart was that one could walk to freedom. If you stopped walking you were doomed to the destruction of others.

My dad extolled the virtues of walking, refusing to take the car for short trips and leading us on hiking tours in the mountains. Every night, before bed, he led my younger brother and I on “a brisk walk” through the neighborhood, pushing us as fast as our little legs would go before dragging us home where we collapsed into bed, sleeping soundly and silently.

It was a wise parenting method.

When I was seventeen and desperately seeking a way to escape my town, I remembered Cabeza de Vaca and went to the basement to find the book. But most of the books had been eaten by a small worm that left only piles of mealy dust. The rest were destroyed sometime later when the basement flooded in an August downpour.

I never understood why those books were hidden in the basement.

Copyright Jim O'Donnell 2011





Travel Writing

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