Journey of Faith

At New Mexico's El Santuario de Chimayo, pilgrims seek inner peace and healing dirt.

Cover Story

April 11, 2004|By Ed Readicker-Henderson | Ed Readicker-Henderson,Special to the Sun

The last stretch of sky is much too wide and full of turkey vultures and hot-air balloons. Under it, we're on our way to the shrine of the dirt eaters, the Lourdes of the Southwest: El Santuario de Chimayo, a pilgrimage center tucked in a nearly blank spot of the New Mexican map, north of Santa Fe and 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 scents of sage and creosote.

Thirty thousand people over Easter weekend, a quarter million people during a year come this far into the middle of nowhere because dirt taken from a pit inside the church is said to cure anything. Anything at all.

People sprinkle the dirt 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 fixing.

It's taken us two days to get here, driving up from the Arizona desert through a high pass that would have shown seven mountain ranges had snow not been falling like a scrim. We've spent much time in the car trying to decide when a pilgrimage begins. Is it when you leave home?

Less than a minute after I picked up my friend James Speed and we left his house in Tempe, a woman flashed us as we drove past. Maybe Chaucer, the guy who defined pilgrimage for the Western world in his Canterbury Tales, could have done something with that, but it didn't seem very pilgrim-like to us. Not that we were complaining -- just puzzled.

James is fresh out of law school, having learned from my mistakes. We'd met years ago, about the time I finished a 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 because he probably believes. I'm on the trip because I wish I believed. But at least the act of pilgrimage is something I can understand -- a certain sense of movement allowing for the awesome.

Were we already on our pilgrimage four hours later 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 tepees -- not wigwams at all, but either way, nothing like the traditional Navajo hogan, a dwelling made of mud and logs -- and I told James about the puppy that my wife and I had rescued from across the street years ago.

Rufus had been abandoned a couple of 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: Wag your tail happily at life, and life will happily wag back.

A dog's pilgrimage is as simple as getting up each day and celebrating what the world smells like. People are a little tougher and need better guidelines. So for many of the devout, the Easter pilgrimage to Chimayo 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 the walkers, but think it's wrong to interrupt. Their minds are elsewhere. Some groups look cheerful, as if they're on 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.

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

Power of the journey

Pilgrimage is as old as the world. The Bible is full of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in both the Old and New Testaments. In Islam, there's the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all able faithful are required to perform at least once in their lives. Buddhism's take on pilgrimage began when Asoka, emperor of India, took relics of the Buddha and scattered them about his domain. giving people places to focus their faith.

The urge to get up, leave home, shake off the dust of settlement and get back in touch with something bigger than your life remains powerful. India's Khumb Mela pilgrimage can bring millions of people to the banks of the Ganges on a single day.

At Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain, where James the Apostle is said to be buried, there's a marble pillar that faithful pilgrims touch in thanks for a safe journey. So many people have put their hands there over the centuries that when I did the same five years ago, my hand sank half an inch deep in the worn-away stone.

There are places that are simply powerful.

In Katmandu, 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, a ninth-century Buddhist saint.

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