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NO SWEAT

A warrior's awakening

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca University of Nebraska Press, 2003; $15.95 paper

September 16, 2003|Joe Robinson

Lewis and Clark were lightweights. Zebulon Pike was a piker. Next to the exploits of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the adventures of even the most intrepid North American explorers are Carnival cruises. Cabeza de Vaca was a reluctant conquistador who got stranded in Florida while trying to find the fabled realm of Appalachen, reputed to be a city of gold. Instead, he found himself on a nine-year survival ultra-marathon in the wilds of 1530s America, a trip as epic as any in the annals of exploration.

He wound up stumbling 6,000 miles, mostly barefoot, using up about 47 lives along the way. His account of those wanderings, superbly reissued and annotated here, offers the first glimpse of uncontacted Native American life, the first descriptions of buffalo, and the brutal beauty of the American Southwest.

The wayward Spaniard's inner journey is just as remarkable. He's transformed from an armor-plated warrior to a naked slave-turned mystic healer who comes to see the barbarity of Spanish treatment of Native Americans, and pleads that they be allowed to live free -- making him America's first civil-rights campaigner. He'd found the real gold, but no one was listening.

-- Joe Robinson

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