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Easter Pilgrimage to Chimayó

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The last stretch of sky is much too wide, full of turkey vultures and hot air balloons. Under it, we’re on our way to the Lourdes of the Southwest: El Santuario de Chimayó, a pilgrimage center tucked in a nearly blank spot of the New Mexican map, north of Santa Fe, southwest of Taos.

The most devout walk the last miles through the high desert, dragging huge crosses with them, each gasping breath bringing in the scent of sage and creosote.

As many as 40,000 people over Easter weekend, and nearly 300,000 people over the course of a year come this far into the middle of nowhere because dirt taken from a pit inside the church cures anything. Anything at all. People put sprinkles of it on their tongues to cure hearts and bowels; women stand by the edge of the pit, rub dirt on their arms, their knees, the heads of small children. Whatever needs fixed.

It’s taken us two days to get here, driving up from the Arizona desert through a high pass that would have shown seven ranges of mountains had only snow not been falling like a scrim. We’ve spent much of our time in the car trying to decide when a pilgrimage begins. Less than a minute after I picked up my friend James and we left his house, we started arguing about it. Is it when you leave home? Is it when you join a known trail? Is it when some scent in the air lets you know you’re doing something different than normal life?

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Outside the main chapel, offerings of prayers, candles, flowers, and rosary beads in front of a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (© Luc Novovitch / Alamy Stock Photo)

James is fresh out of law school, having learned from my mistakes. We’d met years ago, right about the time I finished my master’s degree in religious studies. James, then headed for divinity school, opted out. “I can take being disillusioned with the law,” he told me, “but not with God.”

James is on this trip with me because he probably believes. I’m on the trip with him because I wish I believed. But at least pilgrimage is where I understand a certain sense movement allowing for the awesome, in the grand, old meaning of the world.

Were we already on pilgrimage when we stopped at Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel, on a ghost stretch of Route 66? Here at the edge of the Navajo Reservation, we snapped pictures of the concrete teepees — not wigwams at all, but either way, nothing like the traditional Navajo hogan, a kind of igloo made of mud and logs — and I told James about the puppy my ex-wife and I had rescued from right across the street, years ago. Rufus had been abandoned a couple days after Christmas, and until we found him a home with a good boy, all he wanted to do was sit under my chair and play tug of war. That’s the lesson of a dog that we all need to learn: wag your tail at life, and life will wag back. A dog’s pilgrimage is as simple as getting up and celebrating what the world smells like today.

People, though, are a little tougher and need better guidelines, so for many of the devout, the Easter pilgrimage to Chimayó officially begins near the Santa Fe Opera House, where the police barricades start. For the next 30 miles, a quarter of the road is blocked off behind an orange plastic fence, making room for the walking faithful.

We want to stop and talk to them but think it’s wrong to interrupt. Their minds are elsewhere. Some groups look cheerful, like it’s a church picnic; others are somber, concentrating on each step. They’re dressed somewhere between good Sunday clothes and the kind of stuff you buy at REI to go hiking.

Nearly 300,000 over the course of a year come this far into the middle of nowhere because dirt taken from a pit inside the church cures anything.

We drive right past them, and as the desert gives way to a river-bottom oasis, quite suddenly we’re there.

Pilgrimage is as old as the world. The Bible is full of pilgrimages, in both the Old and New Testaments. In Islam, of course, there’s the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all able faithful are required to perform once in their lives.

I’ve stood, surrounded by monkeys, in a spot where the Buddha preached. I’ve walked hundreds of miles in the back country of Japan, following the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, ninth-century saint and all-around good guy. At Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain, where James the Apostle is said to be buried, there’s a marble pillar all the faithful touch in thanks for a safe journey. So many people have put their hands there over the centuries that when I did the same, my hand sank half an inch deep in the worn-away stone.

And El Santuario de Chimayó breathes the same kind of power. The church sits in a small, adobe-walled courtyard, up a slight hill from an outdoor worship area underneath cottonwoods with hundreds of crosses made of twigs and grass stuck into the bark. Hundreds more are twined and woven into the chain-link fence that keeps a braying donkey away from a few graves half climbed by thick weeds.

The church itself looks like only one thin room, with reredos — small but marvelously decorated and colored altars — to the left and right where the apse would be in something larger. Mud-colored sun filters in through smudged windows, falls on images of San Gabriel holding his sword, San Rafael with a fish.

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During Holy Week, the faithful, the penitent, and the curious march to El Santuario de Chimayó — the largest religious pilgrimage in the U.S. (© Chuck Place / Alamy Stock Photo)

But after our eyes get used to the light, we notice a low doorway to the left of the altar; it opens to another, even thinner room, hung with prayer beads and retablo and crutches. A man leads his child around, stopping at paintings of cures, shrines the size of Barbie suitcases. “Hands together,” he tells his son, clasping his own tattoo-covered hands — anywhere else, I’d think they were gang tattoos, but here they seem quite different.

Pilgrimage as an art form, that great impulse to let your mind follow your feet, never really took hold in the United States — we are too much a product of Protestantism, which did away with pilgrimage — but here it is, and all its beauty requires nothing but attention. I can’t help but stand here and think we are missing something large and wonderful simply because we forget to look.

Pilgrimage is an expression of gratitude, and for myself, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this happy, this grateful, to be somewhere.

So many people come here, giving thanks over Easter, that signs everywhere ask you not to light candles. Even the flagstones would go up in the flames of devotion.

The church has only one more room, hardly bigger than a shower stall. We have to bend over double to get through that doorway. Inside, the room is almost empty, except for a shallow pit a foot or so across.

And that’s why we’re all here. It’s where the dirt is. The object of the pilgrimage.

El Santuario de Chimayó isn’t particularly old. It was built by communal labor in 1816, villagers getting together to make this chapel, patting down three-foot-thick adobe walls. The church was founded when a man named Bernardo Abeyta, who was walking penance in the hills, saw a bright light coming from a hole. He ran down to the spot, started digging, and discovered a crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas.

But the site had long been a popular place of healing for the Isleta Pueblo natives, who’d spent a few thousand years in the area. They knew that this tiny river valley was a place where the earth itself was curative. The very planet belched out smoke, fire, hot water here, from a pit called Tsimajopokwi. But when the twin gods of war killed the guardian of the pit, the springs dried up.

The locals made the best of a bad situation; the pit still cured. People came from hundreds of miles to rub its sand on their bodies, and so when, in the early 1700s, the Catholics moved in, it didn’t seem that strange for them to do the same thing.

Today, the priest, wearing blue pants to match the sky and a clean white shirt, smiles at us, makes sure we don’t need anything translated — a little puzzling, since even if we are the only Anglo faces, everybody is still speaking English — and then gets back to his business. More of us than can fit into the church are scooping up bits of dirt, so he’s setting up for Mass under the cottonwoods.

At the fount, people are filling gallon jugs with holy water.

The dirt is sandy and cool. I imagine the altar boys, noticing the pit getting low, carrying a shovel and whistling while they walk past the donkey to get more dirt from the stream banks. On Good Friday, there must be a bucket brigade passing more in. Each time the dirt gets refilled, the priest offers special blessings, as if the pit were some kind of giant battery charger of the sacred, spreading itself out into grains of sand.

Ladies scoop the dirt into envelopes, Tupperware, special containers sold under a dizzying selection of rosaries (and those forbidden candles) at the nearby gift shop. Once they have their dirt, they smile shyly at each other, adjust their shawls, and say a final prayer, their mission complete. They’re set until next year, when it will be time to make the journey all over again.

Pilgrimage is an expression of gratitude, and for myself, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this happy, this grateful, to be somewhere.

I envy them, deeply. They have what they need, whereas I find myself, yet again, not able to make that leap, to find myself where they are.

We get our dirt, packing it in tiny bottles. Months later, it will still be on my desk, and if I pop the container open, I’ll catch the aroma of a perfect day in a perfect place.

I may never bring myself to use it. As much as I try, I’m simply not that open to the world yet.

We step out of the church into the wide-open, impossibly huge blue sky, and despite all the roadblocks I put up in front of myself, I feel like Rufus the dog must have: how glorious, glorious the world smells right at this moment.

James and I never were able to figure out when a pilgrimage officially starts, and as we walk back toward the car, crossing a stream so small my shoes alone are almost enough to bridge it, he asks me, “When’s a pilgrimage over?” as if the 15 years I’ve spent researching the subject means I have any kind of answer. He should know me better than that.

The priest flips the wrong switch on the PA system, blasting enough noise to shake leaves off the cottonwoods, rustle the grass crosses. He looks up apologetically, turns the electronics over to his assistant.

After a minute, the donkey starts his own sermon again, and I figure that’s a good enough answer to James’ question.

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