The Organ Mountains are north of Las Cruces. They are stunning volcanic creations; peaking with fluted spires rising sharply from the surrounding plains. The spires look like something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Sauron’s Eye could appear at any moment. If you are unfamiliar with Lord of the Ring references, worry not. That was the last pop culture reference. Promise.
There are numerous natural springs at the base of the mountains, creating a lush environment, in stark contrast to the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. Archaeologists found evidence of humans dating back 5000-7000 years. Hikers have found mastodon fossils in the area dating back 50,000 years.
Dripping Springs is tucked at the back of a canyon, east of the spires. The trailhead parking lot provides two options, Dripping Springs Trail and La Cueva. Both options have spur trails. The spur trail from La Cueva leads to a short, narrow, dead-end canyon, with another natural spring at the end. The main La Cueva trail winds around a noteworthy rock outcropping, with a short spur to a small, 10-foot cave. The natural rock shelter is known as La Cueva (“the cave”), the trail’s namesake. Apaches used the cave as refuge in the 18th and 19th centuries. Later, Giovanni Maria Agostini moved in. He lived out the last few years of his life in the cave. Though there are numerous variations of his story, it never ends well for the humble monk.
Note: If you happen to be visiting in September, during the tarantula migration, there is a high probability you will see one or more when hiking at dawn or dusk.
El Ermitano (“The Hermit”)
Locals around Las Vegas and Las Cruces, New Mexico remember the mysterious hermit who sought solace in caves outside of their communities. Many locals can readily recount his tale, though there are several versions of his travels and his life.
Giovanni Maria Agostini was born into a wealthy Italian family in Piedmont, Italy between 1799-1801. He received a formal education, studying Latin, French and Theology and joined an order of monks in 1819. Though he may have spent years studying for the priesthood (unknown), he refused his vows when it was time to become a full-fledged priest. According to Las Cruces writer Dan Aranda, Agostini’s disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church prompted him to embark on a spiritual quest spanning thousands of miles across two continents. However, another version of the story attributes his worldwide journey to atonement for a crime committed in his youth. I leave it to others to wrangle the details, because his life was extraordinary and tragic regardless of what prompted his departure from Italy. There is consensus on other details of his life.
Giovanni Maria Agostini
Giovanni’s odyssey began in his early 20s. He left his village, traveling to religious sites in Italy, France, and Spain. He pledged his life to the tenets of Saint Anthony the Abbot when he was in his late 30s, embracing a monastic life of poverty and study. Shortly thereafter, he left Europe forever, arriving in Caracas, Venezuela by boat. He was 38 at the time.
Other than when he needed a boat for safe passage, Giovanni walked across South America for 21 years, traversing Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Panama, Paraguay, Guatemala, and Mexico. He survived a canoe trip down the Amazon River, crossed the Alps on foot several times, and endured living alone in parched, searing desert and subzero mountain climates. Over the course of his journey he received death threats, was arrested, jailed, deported and briefly confined to a mental asylum (not all at the same time). He eventually left Mexico for Cuba in 1861. I have no idea if his decision to depart was related to issues with the authorities.
Agostini received an enthusiastic welcome in Cuba, though he didn’t stay there long. Cuba recognized him as an extraordinary adventurer, publishing his photo and proclaiming him “The Wonder of Our Century.” Despite the accolades, he decided to continue to New York City several months later, arriving in 1862. The United States was in the throes of the Civil War.
From New York Giovanni walked to Canada, spending about a year in Montreal before heading west. He walked to St. Louis, Missouri before accompanying a wagon train to the New Mexico Territory. Traveling solo wasn’t a safe option
Las Vegas, New Mexico
Giovanni was 62 when he arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He found a cave on a prominent hill northwest of Las Vegas called Cerro Tecolote. Today, locals call the hill “Hermit’s Peak.”
The cave entrance was on a narrow ledge, on the southeast side of the mountain, approximately 100 feet below the summit. It was only accessible from above, which involved scaling a sheer cliff. The roof was too low for Giovanni to stand upright. To protect himself from the elements, and the precipitous fall outside the mouth of the cave, he constructed a rock wall around the entrance. He lived in the cave, in solitude, from August, 1863 to May, 1866
As Giovanni traveled, he had absorbed an enormous amount of knowledge about botany and the healing properties of various flora and fauna. He became a very skilled healer over the years. His reputation as a healer and a holy man spread. His cave became a pilgrimage site for devout locals, a tradition that continues a century after his death.
Note: Hermit’s Peak is in the Santa Fe National Forest. The Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District maintain the trail to the peak. The trail to the top is approximately four miles from El Porvenir Campground.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Giovanni decided to abandon his cave on Hermit’s Peak in 1867. He joined a southbound wagon train, traveling on foot to San Antonio, Texas and Juarez, Mexico prior to circling back to Mesilla, New Mexico. He became friends with the Barela family, visiting them regularly. Again, his healing prowess attracted inordinate attention from the locals.
When he decided to trek across the desert to settle in a remote cave at the base of the Organ Mountains, his friends in Mesilla tried to dissuade him. He ignored them, settling into the cave where he would spend the last few years of his life. He gathered herbs and flowers from the verdant spring-fed landscape outside of the cave, crafting potions and poultices for the acolytes and admirers that trekked to the cave to seek treatment for a variety of ailments.
Though he seemed happy to his friends in Mesilla, Giovanni created a way to communicate with them weekly. He cryptically told them “I shall make a fire in front of my cave every Friday evening while I shall be alive. If the fire fails to appear, it will be because I have been killed.”
One Friday night in the spring of 1869 the light didn’t appear. His friends became worried, gathering a posse to check on him. He was dead on the floor of the cave, with a knife protruding from his back, when they arrived. No one could think of a motive to attach the aging monk and no one knew of any enemies. Robbery definitely wasn’t the motive, because Giovanni’s silver cross, silver rosary, and other silver items were found on his body. The murderer was never caught. Though a priest in Mesilla was indicted for the murder, he was never tried. Giovanni’s death remains one of New Mexico’s most infamous unsolved murders.
His friend’s from Mesilla buried his remains at the Mesilla Cemetery with an inscription in Spanish: “John Mary Justiniani, Hermit of the Old and New World. He died the 17th of April, 1869, at 69 years and 49 years a hermit.”
In South America he was known as Monge João Maria. In North America he was known as Ermitaño Don Juan Agostini. The details of his life have faded into a mix of fact and fiction over the last century, but based on what is known, Giovanni Agostini was a fascinating man who lived a remarkable life. He inspired people throughout his travels, leaving a lasting impression in his wake. There are numerous examples of his legacy 145 years after his death.
Over 10,000 people celebrate annual events founded by Agostini at Cerro Campestre and Santo Cerro do Botucaraí in Brazil, a national park protects the pilgrimage route to Gruta do Monge, “Monk’s Grotto,” and the Trilha da Pedra Santa, “Trail of the Holy Rock,” near Sorocaba, Brazil, is climbed annually by thousands of people paying respect to the memory of the “Monk of Ipanema.” As many as 15,000 people participate in a yearly festival started by Giovanni at Cerro Monje, “Monk’s Hill” in Argentina. In northern New Mexico, there are locals around Las Vegas who make twice-yearly pilgrimages to the top of Hermit’s Peak.
Book about the Hermit
“David G. Thomas has finally pulled back the veil of obscurity that long shrouded one of the most enduring mysteries in New Mexico’s long history to reveal the true story of the Hermit, Giovanni Maria de Agostini. Tracking Agostini from Italy throughout South and North America to his final resting place in Mesilla, Thomas has once again proven himself a master history detective. Of particular interest is the information about the Hermit’s life in Brazil, which closely parallels his remarkable experience in New Mexico, and required extensive research in Portuguese sources. Thomas’s efforts make it possible to understand this deeply religious man.” — Rick Hendricks, New Mexico State Historian