Padre on Horseback

The Padre on Horseback: A sketch of Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., Apostle to the Pimas, by Herbert Eugene Bolton (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1963, 1986; originally published 1932)

Bolton-PadreThe person I nominate to be the inspirational example for multi-day bicyclists in the desert southwest is Eusebio Francisco Kino, “the padre on horseback,” historian Herbert Eugene Bolton calls him, who devoted most of his adult years to constant travel across the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico and southern Arizona.

In 1932 Bolton published a slender book which he described as a “sketch” of the “apostle to the Pimas” whose “well authenticated feats in the saddle” leave southwestern cowboys “aghast and almost skeptical.”

A chapter entitled “Hard Riding” summarizes this endurance on horseback. In 1695, already past fifty years of age, Kino made a 1,500-mile journey in thirty days, averaging thirty miles a day. In 1697, he made another seven or eight hundred mile journey in thirty days and the next year a trip of similar length in twenty-five days, thus averaging twenty-five or more miles per day. In later years, his averages sometimes reached thirty to nearly forty miles per day.

Since Bolton began his scholarly career in 1902, at a time when travel on horseback was still part of the ordinary experience of most people, we can trust his evaluation of the impressive character of Kino’s horsemanship.

It must be remembered that this Jesuit missionary was riding through rough country, without roads, and that he had to find food and water for himself and his horse. Many of the nights, he and his travel companions would stretch out someplace on the desert floor to find sleep and rest.

Furthermore, these were business trips for Kino, to adopt a modern term. He stopped along the way to preach to the people he met, counsel village leaders, baptize, and sometimes marry.

Kino died in 1711 when he was nearly seventy years old, “having spent twenty-four years in glorious labor in this Pimería, which he entirely covered in forty expeditions, made as best they could be made by two or three zealous workers” (Bolton, p. 78).

During my forthcoming week bicycling with PAC Tour, a dozen companions and I will ride from sixty to eighty miles a day for six days. Because bicycles are far more efficient than horses, we’ll go twice the distance in a day as compared with what Kino could cover, but perhaps expend less energy than he did. Like Kino, we will be exposed to the weather and experience the world around us with an immediacy that never comes when traveling in motorized vehicles.

On days when my energy wanes, I will think about the padre on horseback in the hope that his example of physical prowess, spiritual zeal, and humane values will help me continue my ride with renewed energy.

Kino’s life and work will be most evident on the first and last days of the tour as we travel through the middle basin of the Santa Cruz River valley between Tucson and Nogales. We’ll see churches at the two northernmost sites where Kino established missions: San Xavier del Bac, which still functions as an active church for the Tohono O’odham people, and Tumacacori, which for more than a century has been a National Historical Park. We will also travel close to two other locations where the Jesuit mission system operated.

As I bicycle along on well paved Arizona roads, enjoying the luxuries of modern life and PAC Tour’s provisions, including hot showers and real beds at night, I will think of Eusebio Kino, S.J., who died as he had lived, so Bolton tells us, “with extreme humility and poverty. . .His deathbed, as his bed had always been, consisted of two calfskins for a mattress, two blankets such as the Indians use for covers, and a pack-saddle for a pillow” (p. 78).

One Response to Padre on Horseback

  1. Inspiring story, Keith. It always helps on my bike tours tto think of those exemplary riders/travelers who have gone before me. I often reflect on the pioneers heading west, Native Americans in their migrations, itinerant preachers & missionaries, & other explorers & pilgrims. The “cloud of witnesses” gives me spiritual strength for the journey, especially when the riding is particularly rugged or challenging. Thanks for sharing about this saint of the road!

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