I’m a Novice Pilgrim

But I don’t regret walking to Chimayo on the High Road to Taos.

I was 14 when I first heard about a famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, from my Spanish teacher. He described the long walk to Santiago de Compostela, where they say St. James is buried. And I still remember how I felt. I ached to go.

I haven’t made it there. But I did go on another pilgrimage this summer. My friend Joy pointed me towards Chimayo, on the High Road to Taos, where a supposed miracle happened nearly 200 years ago.

Joy died earlier this year. She and I shared a small office space together for three years, and she changed my life. More than anyone I’d ever met, she looked beyond the facts to the possibilities.

The facts of her life looked dismal. She lived in a poor house in a poor neighborhood in an economically depressed town. She drove 100 miles to work every Monday morning, lived with an older woman during the week, and drove 100 miles home every Friday. She wrestled with nightmares and demons from her past. But she was brilliant. Smart, but also like-the-sun brilliant. She searched the internet for things real, interesting and beautiful, which is how she stumbled on Chimayo.

We talked a lot about pilgrimages. Traditional wisdom says that the road of pilgrimage is the path—or maybe more of a spiral—from exhilaration to pain to surrender. With that gloomy pitch, I’m surprised even the Camino de Santiago gets much attention. Joy was taken to the hospital last Thanksgiving where she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She died in that spiral on January 8, leaving me with plans to go to Chimayo.

Just prior to receiving Joy’s shocking news, I had a dream where I saw a large map of the United States with a thick line marking a road—the pilgrimage road from southern Colorado into New Mexico, through Chimayo. I woke up feeling as much joy as I could remember. Until, that is, I remembered Joy. I knew I would be walking some part of that road the next summer, and had Joy been well, we would have walked it together.

I love visions and ideas and sweeping notions of what makes life fulfilling, but I can be slow to actually move. It was ironic to me that this vision I felt so strongly about boiled down to walking. In an effort to move, I took the most obvious first step: I researched. I looked up as much information as I could about Chimayo, the town, the church, the history, the area, pilgrimages in general, the Native American tribes that live there—really anything I could think of that might be pertinent.

I called a woman at Chimayo who helped me navigate the waters of making a pilgrimage there. I didn’t know a soul in New Mexico, but she had no experience with pilgrims who needed places to stay overnight. I wondered, “What other kinds of pilgrims are there, except those that need a place to stay?”

After countless visits to MapQuest for distances and to other sites that could shed some light on “accommodations,” I called the post office in the small town of Vadito, just north of Chimayo. Maybe someone there could tell me something about places to stay and places to eat, my two biggest areas of concern. I spoke with a lovely woman who had lived in the area all of her life. When I asked specifically about the area north of Vadito, toward Taos, she hesitated. “Well, um, no, there isn’t anywhere to stay overnight. It’s all forest.”

Yes, that was how it had looked to me when I’d zoomed in on it.

But surely people have to eat. And don’t they have any visitors? I inquired about camping, but it became clear that the woman had never camped a day in her life: “There might be campsites but I’d be afraid of the wild animals.” Forgetting to ask, “What wild animals?” I hung up.

So I brought along a tent and a sleeping bag. But, as I said to my husband who came with me, “We’re not camping. We’re pilgrimaging.” He understood. Though I love nature, I really don’t like camping or backpacking. The comment was more for me than for him.

As I prepared, I was conflicted. I’d had this in my heart since I was 14. I felt exhilarated. But there was that promised pain and surrender. I was grateful for the heads-up that came from reading and hearing others’ accounts: I shouldn’t expect it to be easy or I’d be disappointed and/or bitter. And I’d need to stay with it until surrender had its way.

Bill and I began to prepare ourselves physically for the journey. Taking day hikes in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, we logged a good 70 miles prior to our Santa Fe departure. I felt ready and comfortable right up until I put on my backpack in the Cathedral parking lot in Santa Fe. I was shocked by the load I was carrying and pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to make it half a mile.

Earlier that day, we had weighed our packs at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport when Bill and I picked up Leslye, a friend who had flown in to join us for the pilgrimage. We’d left the airport well-pleased with our 30­−35 pound packs.

But now I was sorry about almost everything I brought. We weighed the backpacks for “documentation purposes”—out of curiosity, really—without any real intention of trying to lessen the load. Now I get why all of the Santiago de Compostela guidebooks dedicate so many pages to everything you should leave behind.

And Leslye, quite apart from her heavy load, had done virtually nothing to prepare physically. She had never camped, hiked or backpacked. Her friend had loaned her a pair of hiking boots the day before that were too small. A quarter mile into the walk, she switched them out for a pair of sandals, the kind you wear in a public shower. We were struggling from the start.

Slowly my body adjusted to the weight of the pack and my steps became less labored. I knew I would make it, but I wasn’t sure about Leslye. We had come into this pilgrimage in different ways. Along with Joy’s encouragement from heaven, I had a 40-year yearning for this. But Leslye had listened to me tell her about this pilgrimage only weeks before, and, just like that, opted in. As I walked, I marveled that she had done so little to prepare.

The guidebooks say that pilgrimages are about intentions rather than strict rules. Apparently on the Camino de Santiago, some people carry a knapsack while others carry a massive backpack. Some ride a bicycle. Some hop on buses. Some stay in luxury hotels. Some stay in cheap hostels. The books say that what matters is a willingness to look at one’s heart, at what level of conversation one hopes to have with oneself—or to the possibility of a conversation beyond oneself. All that walking time would be great for those conversations.

I had my first conversation with myself at that half-mile mark. Somewhere in my soul, I was feeling good about myself for, for instance, owning my own pair of hiking boots. And then it hit me: success for me was not about arriving to Chimayo, it was about the pain of acknowledging how I made myself feel better at Leslye’s expense. A half mile in and I flunked the test for humility! Maybe God’s greater purpose was to pick up stumbling pilgrims of all kinds.

One thing I thought a lot about along the way was expectations. Hard as I tried not to have any, they kept getting in the way. Like when we hit Bishop’s Lodge Resort and Spa. We’d only been walking three hours, at a rate of about one mile per hour, when we found ourselves at the turnout to the spa.

 It was hot and Leslye’s feet were hurting. I was concerned about her feet but I knew we had to keep moving in order to make it to the Tesuque Mission Church, where the caretaker would be waiting for us. We had made the arrangement to stay there earlier that day, a relief to me since I had been trying to reach someone from the mission for weeks.

 Leslye, who arrived almost a good hour after Bill, saw the sign to Bishop’s Lodge and immediately suggested we check in. At first I thought she was joking. I had no words to respond. I was counting on getting to Tesuque that day. My plan did not include a stay in a luxury hotel on our first night, three miles in.

After a few awkward seconds, Bill brought up, of all things, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In it, Christian sets out on a journey to the Celestial City. Along the way, he encounters common temptations intended to sidetrack him from reaching his destination. They get names like “Pliable” and “Obstinate” and “Mr. Worldly Wiseman.” We laughed at the name in front of us. “Bishop’s Lodge, for God’s sake!” Bill said. Complete with the alluring temptation called “Lady Massage”!

Here’s what I learned about expectations as we stood in front of Bishop’s Lodge. My expectation that we arrive at Tesuque was neither good nor bad. It just was. I’d created it and I could change it. Leslye obviously didn’t have the same expectation. What I couldn’t change was that forming expectations was inescapable.

After a short discussion, we agreed that a stopover at Bishop’s Lodge and Resort was likely a sidetrack in an already long day and we continued on.

And we’re so glad we did. It gave us the chance to meet the caretakers of St. Ignacio Mission Church, a lovely couple who were longtime residents of the town. They invited us, dusty and dirty as we were, into the simple yet profoundly beautiful adobe church. We talked late into the evening. Bill, Leslye, and I agreed that the warm welcome, the sanctuary floor, and a bathroom just outside was far better than anything the Bishop’s Lodge Resort and Spa could offer.

The distance between stranger and friend was somehow diminished in this space and time. The next morning, as we set out from the village, we were surprised to see the caretaker again, this time in his pickup. He pulled over to give us a gift his wife had made for us the night before. I wondered what time she had gone to bed! I carried that gift in my pocket the whole rest of the way, a reminder of the welcome we felt over and over.

Bill and Leslye and I walked for six days, sometimes together, or in different combinations of two, but mostly we walked alone. There were times when I couldn’t see either of them. I was aware of the rhythm of my feet on the ground and the road ahead of me. Occasionally I was aware of my heart.

I remember the conversations I had with myself in those moments in an unusually detailed way. It’s as if the pace of the walk, which allowed me to see things I would have never otherwise noted, entered my heart and soul.

One thing I noted repeatedly was Joy’s presence on the road alongside me. It turns out we did walk the road together.

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