Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Just a quick note because I haven't finished my walking for the day but spotted a roadside convenience store/internet cafe and didn't want to pass the opportunity.

My short easy days into Mexico City still have turned into more kilometers than expected, a lack-of-map issue, but no big deal. I've passed the 3,000 kilometer mark (1,872 miles) and still have more than 300 kilometers to go. Since San Juan de los Lagos, I've been in pilgrim territory, though I haven't seen any. Pilgrims here seem to flock together in great hoards - thousands - and only on certain days of the year from certain starting points. And, oddly, only walk on the major highways, and from what I've been told, mostly a night. For this reason, the daily destination towns are known, but there's no marked trail. The unpaved country roads are really quite lovely and fully suitable for tranquil walking, it's ashame pilgrims stick to the noisy, polluted, dangerous, and stressful highways. Alas, I ask frequently for a suggested route, but am only told to go to the major highway... to ask the number of kilometers until the next village is as meaningless as handing an untrained person a sheet of music and asking how many incidentals are in the final coda. Huh? So I begin my days not knowing if I'll be walking for 6 or 8 or 12 hours before dinner and have little way of knowing the answer until I arrive.

I'm on track for January 12th. Twelve more days until I get to the Basilica and the end of the walk. The soles of my boots wore out weeks and weeks ago, but my pilgrim spirit is still strong =)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fast Moving Days

I've crossed through four Mexican States in the last week alone! Zacatecas, a gold- and silver-mining district, Aguascalientes, a thermal region though I found no hot springs, Jalisco big into dairy farming, and now Guanajuato. Fast going, but still difficult to find paths other than the major highways. It´s amazing how little people know about their surrounding lands... if they go anywhere, it's in their shiny pickup or fully equipped SUV and to the highway as quickly as possible. I'm still bushwhacking to avoid the traffic, but well rewarded for the effort. No sooner did I mention the lack of clouds, clouds appeared. A palpable sense of humidity in the air. Nice. Greener, too, more trees, fewer cacti, many more bodies of water. I like the change. Despite the greater number of villages, I still seem to have to walk long days... with an average of closer to 40 km per day than the 30 I was striving for. Ah well, it keeps me busy =)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad

I'm spending this very merry Christmas at a convent in the capital city of Aguascalientes where 8 aging nuns supervise 39 orphan girls. We've been having a grand and festive time this evening. It's always interesting spending a holiday in a different culture. The girls are all outside at the moment whacking a sparkling pinata with a long stick while blindfolded and singing.

I've made a lot of southward progress through a lot of territories. Once in the mining district way back in Parral, I was technically out of the Chihuahua Desert, but one wouldn't really notice. The vegetation is a bit thicker, though far from 'lush', and a few of the rivers actually have water in them, but it's the dry season everywhere and the varieties of cactus are more numerous, so it all still looks very deserty. And feels it - every type of plant has prickers or spines or some other barbed weapon to use against me with vengence.

Desert it may be, but it provides! Out bushwhacking, I inadvertently bypassed a village (single-story mud-colored cubicles blend into the surroundings remarkably well). Without the village to refill my water bottles - actually Platypus bags, which I highly recommend for their collapsability - I had a dry and thirsty hot afternoon. The Nopal cactus is in full bloom this time of year, and beautifully adorned with bright red fruits called tunas. Having seen these fruits for sale at the market stalls, I was compelled to give them a try. With a leaping swing of a walking stick, and using my sombrero as a catcher's mitt, the harvest of a hatfull of fruits was easily made. De-spining them a bit more challenging. A few whirls around the inside of the hat gets most of the invisible barbs off of the tough skin. Peeled with a small pocket knife, an egg-sized brilliant red juicy fruit is left. Tasty, refreshing, and a bit seedy, akin to pomegranate and entirely thirst-quenching. A hatfull left me satisfied and with pricked fingers stained pink.

I crossed the Tropic of Cancer a few days ago... winterpilgrim in the tropics; it's an oxymoron! I haven't seen a cloud in the sky for well over a month. Every day is in the mid 20sC/70sF and every night at the freezing point. A bit warm for my comfort, but not bad at all. I wouldn't mind a few clouds, though. Even in the desert, every day was like walking through an aviary and the further south, the greater variety of songbirds. Many people keep caged birds for their singing abilities, but the birds hidden in the trees produce a remarkable volume.

I took advice opposite of what a priest told me and headed on a dirt road into the mountains rather than the path alongside the highway. I was rewarded by a day's walk in a beautiful deep canyon lined with steep villages and terraces with stone walls. This is what it is to be a pilgrim on foot... I'm sure the priest isn't aware of this canyon, unseen from the highway on the plateau above. I wonder how many other Mexicans are aware of it. I wouldn't have missed it. The principle town in the canyon is San José de la Isla, founded back in the 1500s on the conquistadors' march to find mineral wealth. The tricky part is, even though I was able to find a map of the state of Zacatecas, most villages are not indicated, many of those that are present, are placed in the wrong place, and a good number of them are given the wrong name. So having a map isn't such a benefit after all. San José de la Isla is listed on the map as Genaro Codina, a name change in the 1950s to promote revolutionary figures. Ask anyone and they'll tell you the town is San José. Agh, how to cope sometimes. Nonetheless, an excursion off the beaten path is well worth the effort.

The further south, the greater the population density. Finding villages is getting easier, and finding a day's destination 30 to 35 km southward is now quite reasonable. I'll take a day of rest in Aguascalientes for Christmas day and make some repairs before continuing southward. I'm targeting January 12th for the arrival at the Basilica in Mexico City, which means averaging less than 33 km per day from here on. Easy-peasy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Walking with the Saints

On my first great pilgrimage, from Canterbury to Rome, I was startled one afternoon when in Switzerland and a woman described pilgrims as 'walking with the Saints through time.' Since that moment, I've often thought of that description. It's certainly easy to become familiar with many Saints on the pilgrim trails through Europe. Carvings, paintings, statues, grottos... all sorts of art and architectural elements relate the stories of these many real-live people who lived long ago in Europe, and thanks to their subsequent sainthood, have become part of the cultural fabric of the land. What better way to pass those ten-minute breaks in village churches in France playing 'Name-that-Saint'?

I've gotten to know many of their stories and carry them with me on my long, often isolated, treks. Being a hardcore engineer, I'm not one who falls toward the inexplicable; on the other hand, I've realized that not everything has an explanation, nor needs one.

While I walk, I think of my favorite Saints as part of the team heading off to the Basilica in Mexico City. Saint Rocco, the pilgrim... he comes to mind when my feet are tired and I've still got many kilometers to go to get to the next village. Saint Martin of Tours, my horseman, always depicted in his Roman soldier's uniform on a gallant steed cutting his cloak in two to share with a cold beggar (or maybe pilgrim). Outside of Poitiers, I spent a night in the monastery he founded, so we're pals, obviously. Saint Joan of Arc - I spent a pilgrim night in her hometown - also mounted and in ridiculously shiny armor completely unsuited for the desert heat and dust. San Juan de Ortega, the Dominican abbot whose abbey church in the north of Spain has an astronomical phenomon wherein on the spring equinox the rising and setting sun illuminates a particular series of columns that depict a passage from Genesis. Saints Catherine of Siena and Rose of Viterbo, I took refuge in each of their convents during my way to Rome, were both of rather weak constitution, so I don't call upon them often during the rigors of my journey. There are others, too, but these are some of my go-to Saints.

I've been doing a lot of bush-whacking lately - cutting through the rugged terrain without benefit of a trail (or map). I think of Joan on horseback to my left and Martin to my right and sometimes appeal to them to go on ahead and reconnoiter on the next ridge to plan the advance. One recent day, I could see from the ridge, going down to the left would be difficult through thick undergrowth, but to the right, a more unfavorable steep, narrow canyon, unpassable. Joan's way won, but without her armor, the prickery vegetation would lead to a lot of bloodshed. Ah ha, a cornfield, unseen from above, provided me with the inspiration to wrap my lower legs with the rustic armor of corn husks. I made it through the thicket largely unscathed, and for the first time, without ripping my hiking pants and without having to spend hours de-thorning them. Joan saved the day!

Some days later, a similar call-to-arms. This time, Joan's side was unpassable, but Martin's, not so easy on foot. I could see from the vantage of height the need to cross a wide arroyo, then a dry island of tall cactuses and mesquite crossed by a myriad of cowpaths, and then only one correct path out the far side up the hillside and onto a truck track. I actually thought: It will take a miracle to find that one path out. Plunging downward into the obscurity of a labrynth, I didn't know how I would manage but resolved myself to spending hours applying some unknown logic to make it through. As I jumped down into the arroyo (=dry river) who appeared - and this was miles and miles from the nearest ranch - but a cowboy on a tall horse. I explained my plight and with one strong arm, he pulled me up onto the horse behind his saddle (I wish I could convey the idea of grace on my part, but it was all very awkward, being so small and all, and it was a very tall horse...). I was almost afraid to ask his name for fear of the answer, but it had to be done. Luis. Very suitable; 'Martino' would really have freaked me out. He rode me through the maze of paths in the cactus and mesquite and out to the truck trail. I made it to the next village before sunset. Oh happy day Martin! Luis was far more Huck Finn-ish than a Roman-era knight, but whatever...

Some distance back - around Parral, if I recall rightly - I checked my compass one day just out of habit and noticed it was behaving pretty wonky. Mining districts tend to make compasses unreliable. It's not that it matters very much. I haven't seen a cloud in the sky in over a month. The sun's position is unerring. Lacking a map for as long as I was, I had only a general sense of my day's direction - somewhere between east and south everyday taking not of boundary conditions - the principal highway to my far far left and the tallest sierras to my far far right. I call Juan de Ortega up front. Check my math, Juan. A reliable geographic compass can be made with a stick and an analog watch. True north, not magnetic north is the better instrument anyway. Holding one of my walking sticks upright, I align the short hand of the watchface with the direction of the shadow made by the stick onto the ground. With the other stick, I etch a line into the sand perpendicular to the shadow. Twelve on the watch points to true north; six to south. I scratch these lines into the sand as well. I find some point on the horizon in the direction I know I need to walk that day - southeast, for example - and note the angle between the shadow and this direction: acute or obtuse. For another hour or two, I can gage my progress from both the point on the horizon and the magnitude of the angle made by the shadow and my direction of travel. It's not so complicated to do, but I like to think Juan watches over my shoulder to make sure I don't mess up.

Meet a Saint and he's your friend and team mate. I'll be soon coming into the lands of San Juan Diego. Maybe he'll become more active. Maybe he already did by nudging the Native American who judged how long it would take me to get to Indè? Who's to argue?

Laughable Language Gaffs

I can't be expected to get through the Spanish language without flubs in just 6 weeks, but a few mistakes I have to laugh at myself for...

'¿Tiene hambre?' ('Are you hungry?')
'No, soltera' ('No, I'm single.')

Written, the words hambre and hombre are easy to distinguish, but spoken, it's sometimes very difficult to tell them apart. I usually have hunger, but no man.

'¿Està casata?' ('Are you married?')
'Poco; solo mis pies, verdad.' ('A little, only my feet really.')

Again, listen to the words consada (=tired) and casata and try to tell them apart when you're truly tired. After a few stares and sudden changes in conversation (I thought we were talking about my tired feet, and we've moved on to whether I have a husband...??) and I explored the vocabulary a bit further. Now I've got it.

I'm sure I've made other goofs, but those two I know about. And can laugh out loud!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

No Time or Distance

I'd whittled down the 'needs' of a pilgrim to the bear minimum... a safe place to sleep (heat and comfort set aside as 'wants'), some water to wash, maybe something to eat, and a map. The map has now fallen off the list. I looked all around the city of the Parral for a map of the state of Durango to no avail.

Other than the general guidance of 'walk south', I'm at the mercy of the locals every day. 'How many kilometers to the next village?' or 'Is there a village 35 or 40 kilometers along the old route to Mexico City?' are the questions I ask with little hope of getting a valuable answer. I'm convinced that no Mexican has walked further than their own village cemetary. Few people know what a kilometer is or how long it possibly would take to walk one. Arghh. Head south...Mexico City is the largest city in the world, how could I possibly miss it?

I was heading south across some corn fields toward the pre-columbian town of Indè, in the mountains a few days ago. I'm out of the desert now, heading up up up into the foothills of the Sierra Madres. I asked every one I passed, how far to Indè? The answers varied from 4 km to 45 km. How can I plan based on these kinds of answers?? Head south.

I saw some of the Native Americans, who come down during the harvest time to help in the fields. The women and girls dress in long colorful skirts, so they're easy to identify. Harvesting corn is a family affair. Taking a break under a shade tree, I asked a family how far to Indè. How many kilometers? How many hours by foot? The older man silently pointed to the sun then pointed to two mountain peaks drawing their M shape with his finger. Then, without the flourish of a magician making a coin disappear, he covered one hand with the other.

Sure enough, four hours later, just as I crossed over the progressively higher ridges on a winding dirt road and looked down at the sleepy hamlet, I looked up at the two peaks of the M and watched the sun sink behind them. Who needs a map when there's a sensible native around who walks from place to place instead of taking a ride in a pickup truck.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Race Relations

A funny event a few evenings ago in a hacienda of a small town...

I arrived just as the extended family was finishing their evening supper. The grandmother of the house was clearing the table and everyone was lingering in the twilight. I went to the kitchen sink to wash my hands before eating my plate of beans and tortillas when the grandmother noticed how dirty my tee shirt was - carrying half the desert off on my clothing. I admit, my shirt was nearly too dirty to even wear, but what else does one do?

It was too much for her to fathom, and by the looks of the kitchen, she's the perpetual cleaner type. There at the kitchen sink, in front of the tableful of family, she started screeching at the condition of my shirt and pulled it right off over my head, proceeding to scrub it on a washboard with what looked like a wire brush and plenty of boiling water from the kettle on the woodburning stove. In the meantime, before I had a chance to react to the imposed modesty of standing in my sports bra in front of a mixed group of strangers, the smallest of the group climbed over each other with words like 'she is a white person', 'like the white of an egg' and 'with chili flakes' (pointing at some freckles). The adolescent boys giggled uncomposed and the older men laughed heartily at the grandmother's unstoppable audacity. By the time one of the men stepped out and snapped a flannel shirt off the line under the veranda, everyone was laughing, even the grandmother at her own behavior. It was a good learning experience for the little kids, and frankly I doubt any of the adults had seen the white flanks of a gringa before, and I came away with a very clean, slightly lardy smelling, tee shirt. Pointellistically freckled arms and face, white as egg whites everywhere else.

Day of Rest

Happy Thanksgiving fellow Americans! I arrived in the colonial mining town of Hidalgo del Parral yesterday afternoon with one strong thought on my mind: I'd like a day of rest. No walking. Ah. a break from the blinding sun is inviting, sure, but I've got to find new soles for my hiking boots. They're completely worn through and I feel every pebble tenderly.

Somewhere between Chihuahua City and here, I've passed the half-way point. Forty-seven days to here and something between 40 and 45 days to go until Mexico City, I think. I'm nearly out of the state of Chihuahua, too, Mexico's largest. I've climbed in elevation and the area more mountainous and vegetation bigger, even shade-producing. I like it. Last night, the temperature was -4C. Nice. I need to find a map of the next state, Durango, and figure out a path to get to Durango City, maybe two weeks away by foot. I hope to find towns a bit closer together to reduce my daily distances. I'm still walking an average of 38 kilometers per day (= 24 miles per day) but there's a wide standard deviation with too many days over 50 kilometers (= 31 miles) for the comfort of my little feet.

I've noticed that I've taken on a ridiculous but necessary habit walking in the desert, that of absentmindedly sitting with my knees tucked to my chin so I can pluck the cactus thorns out of my pantlegs. I caught a reflection of myself doing this and immediately thought of chimps ridding their mates of lice. Agh! My sister would not approve! It must be done though. After walking a few steps in the brush of the local vegetation, I come out looking like a porcupine. The big spines are easy, though painful, to remove but the tiny ones are nearly invisible and can only be found more painfully. Whenever I sit for a rest, even a short rest, I de-thorn my clothing. Pants off, if necessary. How do the prickers work their way into my undies???

National Geographic Moment

We've been trained by advertising to have 'Kodak Moments' and it takes little imagination to stretch it to 'National Geographic Moments' (or maybe 'Nature Channel Moments'). I have a lot of them, walking in the wilderness as I do. Recently, in the seemingly endless desert, looking for another of Mother Nature's powder rooms, I tapped my walking sticks on the ground in a circle around my selected location to ward off snakes and other creatures. In an instant, from out of the sky, talons first, appeared the largest raptor I've ever seen to snatch a fat black rat off the ground a meter in front of me. I never even saw the rat before his demise, just heard his little scream in the clutches of the giant bird. No exageration, the torso of the bird was the size of a school child and the wingspan beyond my area of focus. Talons outstretched, we were eye to eye. He was gone with a few enormous wind-generating flaps leaving me covered in the white sand of the desert floor. I was far too startled to pee for a good long while after that experience. Wow. A nature photographer couldn't have gotten that shot in a decade of baiting the scene with fat black rats.

I related the experience to a couple running a small roadside shop later in the day. Àguila Real, a Royal Eagle, the old man was certain from the description, though he thought the one I saw sounded on the small side. He told me this while preparing a small meal for me - the ubiquitous beans and tortillas - and sprinkled some cakey yellow powder on top. They keep the rattlesnakes under control, and the desert rats and other creatures, so they're a beneficial part of the ecosystem. He was rather proud of the fact that the eagles of Chihuahua are bigger than those in the US, but conceded that the mountain lions are smaller. He talked a lot about the rattlesnakes and was very interested in how many I've seen and where I've been spotting them. They're the desert's secret, he told me, and pointed to the yellow powder. Ground, dried rattlesnake. (ewwww) A cure-all for cancer, bronchitis, acne, etc. And the sac of fat on the intestines, the best medicine. Doctors, he insisted, won't accept that the simple desert people know better than they do so won't ever prescribe rattlesnake, but it works, he's certain. This time of year is good for collecting rattlesnakes because they're slower moving and not so aggressive. Catch them, kill them, skin them, dry them, grind up the meat and put it on everything you eat and rub it on your skin. His wife added that it will get stains out of clothing, too.

Mas frijoles, por favor, sin vibores.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

El Toro!

Walking ever southward, gaining in elevation, the terrain more mountainous, climbing over numerous barbed wire fences and crossing countless cattle grates... late one afternoon I passed through a penned field of cattle. Nothing unusual. They usually scurry. I had my sombrero down low over my eyes because of the angle of the setting sun. Some meters ahead of me, a cow stubbornly wasn't scurrying from the path like the rest. What a long skinny ugly udder, I thought. He half turned blocking the entire path lined with saltcedar. El Toro! Blanco! Gran! Oops on that misidentification. He half-turned again facing me. Conveniently with his head held high, he blocked the sun casting his shadow over me.

Yikes! Danger, Will Robinson. Quick: Hazards Analysis. Risk Assessment. Standard Operating Procedure (Draft). This type of thinking comes automatically after a long career in dealing with uncontrolled nuclear materials.

He snorted dust and stomped the ground stirring up a cloud of white sand. I can't outrun him, there's no where to hide. He stomped again. I've intruded on his world. My bad. At the third stomp, I leaned toward him and slapped my walking sticks together shouting 'Andele! Andele!' He stared for the briefest instance then ran off through the saltcedar. The cows and steers and calves stampeded after him all leaving me alone in a huge cloud of white dust. Huh, scared off a bull, and all without a sequined bolero jacket. Success.

Ah Chihuahua

I've finished the third segment of the journey. It will get easier from here, people assure me. Certainly as I've progressed southward, the desert is more frequently irrigated, there are more frequent ranches and hamlets and signs of life. I might only walk two or three hours without seeing signs of humanity. The desert stretches further southward, but it also increases in elevation, making the environment less harsh. We'll see.

I've arrived in Chihuahua for it's Revolution Day celebration, so everything is well decorated and the shops in the pedestrian district of the historic city center all have big sales advertised. Chirstmas decorations abound, too. Interesting that the red-white-and-green color theme of the Mexican flag are the same as for the Christmas season. It's certainly nice here, but it's a big city. The absence of noise is something I've gotten used to out in the desert; here its presence is overwhelming.

As I entered the city limits, I sat for a rest in a small shack seafood restaurant, as it was the first place I saw where I could take a break. The folks were friendly, as usual, and a fresh seafood salad made a nice change from the ubiquitous beans and tortillas. Once I explained that I'm a pilgrim, the fee for the small meal was waived for a mention to Our Lady at the Basilica in Mexico. Por supuesto! Marisco de la Playa, if anyone happens by Chihuahua, is a terrific place for restoration.

Onward toward Parral. I was told emphatically that taking the highway to Jimenez and then Torreon is the fastest way to Mexico City but I'll continue on the historical path of the Camino Real to Hidalgo del Parral and then Durango. It's not like I can walk any faster along the highway than on the sandy path through the desert. I choose the desert way once again, as the missionaries of centuries ago did. Parral in maybe a week and then Durango a few weeks following. Internet connections can be expected to be sparse again, so have faith that I'm still walking happily on the pilgrim trail. Buen Camino!

Desert Life

The amount of activity in the desert is remarkable. People insist I should be firstly scared and secondly bored by walking alone through the desert. They just don't understand it. While it's a little off-putting to walk for six, seven, eight hours or more without ever seeing a sign of humanity except for the distant high tension lines that link Juarez with Chihuahua, a lot is happening in the desert that neither bores me nor frightens me.

There's a surprising variety of vegetation. At times, there are naked sand dunes with only a few sticks of vegetation poking out here and there. Other times, the dunes are covered with scrappy, prickly ground cover. Large pads of cactus grow tall or broad but never both. Within a short distance, there will suddenly be a veritible forest of scruffy, prickly saltcedar bushes that hold the dunes in place. Everywhere except in the denuded sand dune areas, big balls of rabbit sage hold onto the sand by one small stem, like the knot in a balloon.

The desert is strongly animated, too. Most entertaining are the sudden dust devils that spout up instantaneously with a puff of wind. The sand is whipped into a mini funnel cloud that races for some irratic distance setting aloft a handful of tumbleweeds that bounce in the air above the dust like beach balls above the fans at a rock concert. The windburst ends and the tumbleweeds fall to the ground in a few bounces. Within minutes, it seems, another dust devil whips itself into life somewhere else in the forward perifery.

Animals abound even in the heat of the day. Hares and jack rabbits are most common, but it's fun to see the fat ears of a desert fox bouncing above the dried grasses blowing in the breeze. Coyotes, as well, but they always stop and stare at me in a rather suspicious way until I pass. As much as people keep insistig that the snakes are all gone for the season, every day I see rattlesnakes, though they're not threatening in any way.

While the snakes are silent, there are a half a dozen different bird calls audible often. The sandhill cranes still follow me, invisibly flying above with their noisy squalk draw my attention upward.

As I head southward, the knee-high grasses more frequently erupt around watering holes fed by wind-operated groundwater wells. Consequently, cattle and horses often punctuate that horizon. The cattle vocalize their opinion of my intrusion but the horses are always curious and gallop in broad circles around me, whinnying playfully. That's a beautiful sight.

I'm not so suited for the desert climate, but it's enjoyable to walk through and really get to experience it up close and personally.

To the Halls of Moctezuma

Life in a small desert town, way off the beaten track:

Leaving Villa Ahumada with the sullen news that the next inhabited place was over 50 kilometers away, I knew I was in for a hard day of walking. The pueblo of Moctezuma is not on my map and the good nuns at the convento were only vague as to it's location except to say that it's not on the highway, but several kilometers to the east. I can add that spotting the low earth-tone adobe buildings from any distance is a challenge in itself. Maybe it would be easier after dark, if they have any lights on.

Late in the afternoon, sunburnt and parched, I saw an approaching cloud of sand that signifies a pickup truck crossing the desert floor. The driver, Arturo, stopped close to me and let the dust settle before introducing himself. He heard from the sisters in Villa Ahumada that I was heading to Moctezuma and thought that I might use some help finding it. Stepping up on the sideboard outside the driver's door, I accepted his assistance for those last few kilometers. If he was following a road, I couldn't discern it. Tumbleweed and scrappy saltcedar were all I could see among the cactus. Nonetheless, appearing from the sand was a village of sorts - thirty or so adobe huts, some connected, some isolated; some newly stuccoed, some melting back into the sand. One of these huts had a shack in front with a notice that it's the community tienda. This is where I was to ask for the key to the church, according to the instructions of the nuns.

Arturo let me off once he was sure I could see the village and then took off in a cloud of dust. In the village, which has no 'center', some ladies came out to greet me. Gringa! Peregrina! then, Pere-gringa! laughing at their joke. There only thing more surprising than seeing an American woman in their desert village is seeing a pilgrim. There was no way they would let me sleep in the cold church. One of the ladies - Dora - arranged with a neighbor - well, they're all neighbors, really - and cousin - they're all somehow related, too - and widow for me to sleep in an extra bed. Dora's a good cook and fed me well and plentifully... all of the households I've been in make their own tortillas, both flour and corn types, and beans and some type of beef and vegetable soup. I was taken to meet all of the women in the village, stopping for coffee and cookies often, and even to an outlying ranch where the kids were learning roping skills. The village boasts a kindergarden and both primary and secondary schools. Dora was from the village but had moved to Chihuahua city for ten years. She moved back a few years ago so that her children could run around outside safely instead of being confined to the city streets.

In the evening, many of the village men came traipsing by Dora's home to meet me. One elderly man spoke a few words of English and insisted that I correct any slang he might say, as he wants to be able to speak 'perfect English'. For what and to whom I didn't get. Another old man bound to a wheelchair with a trucker's cap embroidered with the words 'Rock Out with your Cock Out' went into soft tears telling me of his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and scribbled a note for me to bring to her in Mexico City. I have to believe he doesn't know the meaning his cap bears.

I've been invited to return on March 19th when they celebrate their village patron, Saint Joseph. A big fiesta, I'm assured, even the Bishop will come from Juarez. If I'm back this way around then, I'll be sure to return. Three kilometers from the highway and with no shops or other offerings, not many people make their way to the warm and gentle people of Moctezuma. Lacking a stamp, the ladies each signed my credenziale to make sure my stop there would never be forgotten.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Walking across the Interior

A quick message from cyberspace...

I had no troubles crossing the border on foot, in fact because of the escalating violence in the Juarez underworld, I was alone at the control point... not many are entering Juarez these days. I was quite quickly whisked away to a convent of elderly nuns for my night´s stay. Reminiscent of my days with old women of Ukraine, my name was immediately diminutized - in Spanish ´Anita´ instead of the Russian ´Anushka´- and I was fed a huge meal, constantly having my ribs poked and comments made that I´m too small to walk such a great distance.

It took a while to walk out of the bustling city, but once into the desert, I was rather alone. My options are to walk along the divided highway with it´s noisy tractor trailers and frequent military control points or to walk across the open desert. This I learned rapidly: the desert is made of sand. Sand makes for a herculean task for the calves. I don´t mind walking on the sand, and can add teranchula to the list of wildlife I´ve witnessed, and when my legs scream out, I walk along the road to the frequent and uncomfortable toots of the truckers. I feel like I´m altering the ecosystem with the amount of sand I carry off stuck to the coating of perspiration and sunscreen, but I suppose since I wash it off daily I´m only transfering it a bit southward. It´s a big desert - nearly the size of Germany - so how much damage can one little pilgrim do by shifting the sands a bit?

Pueblos are few and far between. I´m trying to cap a day at 50 kms but have to work with what´s available. I don´t wish to sleep out in the desert - spiders and other creatures of the night - so when I approached an isolated ranch (one where I could see women´s and baby´s clothes hanging on the line to dry) I simply asked if I could be accommodated. No problema. Cool.

Back in Las Cruces, photos were taken with a few of the folks who received me with open hearts. I´m really quite pink from the sunglass line to the neck of my tee shirt and on my arms and hands, except for the straps from my walking sticks. Goofy. The winter pilgrim look of the season.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arrived safe in Juarez

This is the pilgrim in training (pit) reporting Winter Pilgrim has safely crossed the border into Mexico with no problems or conflicts. She doesn't think she will get close to a computer for a awhile and wanted people to know every thing is going well and she has lots of stories to tell. She was spending the night at a convent of retired nuns near Juarez, Mexico.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pushing the Limits

Finally, I've found a computer to update this blog, sorry for the silence... I'm writing this from a public library in Las Cruces, just a few days' walk from the Mexican border...

Many adventures have happily befallen me since leaving Albuquerque yet I've come to the conclusion that while the smallest sliver of a segment of the body of pilgrims would be interested in walking this camino, it's really well-suited to bicycling pilgrims. The desert is big; the rest stops distant. Two days back to back, 37 miles of desert walking. THIRTY-seven. Thirty-SEVEN. That's 60 kilometers each of those two days... no interim rest stops... high desert... and just my luck (ugh!) unseasonably high temperatures! No clouds, no trees, no shade whatsoever. Deep gullies, canyons, gulches, dusty dry creekbeds. Hard going. The missionaries avoided this western side of the Rio Grande for the more desirable 'Jornado del Muerto', 96 flat, waterless miles a distance from the eastern bank. In modern times, though, much of the Jornado del Muerto is privately owned and fenced off, so I walked along a deserted old paved ribbon across the desert south of Socorro.

Exactly midway between Socorro and Truth or Consequences (that's really the name of a town), is the Santa Fe Diner and Truckstop. How fortunate for a pilgrim on foot. The gracious sheriff of Socorro County had helped me find accommodation in Socorro and worked with me on the possibilities of walking south. (Lacking a stamp for my credenziale, he glued in an embroidered sheriff's badge!) He called ahead to make sure I could stay the night at this sole oasis and everything was blissfully arranged. How could I possibly walk 37 miles in one day???? Necessity breeds action. I left a good hour before the break of dawn - Orion right there where he should be in the moonless sky above and slightly to my right. I pressed onward in the rugged terrain unable to avoid crushing the innumerable scattered shed exoskeletons of giant grasshoppers, many in the process of being shed. Their unpredictable leaping - like fist-sized popcorn - is a bizarre form of entertainment. Darting desert hares, small rabbits, migrating sandhill cranes, rattlesnakes, lizards, enormous beetles, roadrunners, and coyotes also animated the desert scene. With few places to sit and rest, and no shade anyway, there was no option but to keep walking. Eventually, first Venus and then Cassiopeia took their rightful places in the sky ahead and slightly to the left and soon enough, the bold Milky Way dropped to the horizon directly in front of me marking my destination. Once fully dark, the light from the merest crescent of a moon was overpowered by the number of stars. I was distracted from the sky by the night howls of coyotes and the sound of two javelinas (peccaries) battling (or mating?) frighteningly close by. I swung the beam of my flashlight in the direction of their grunting and tusk gnashing, then quickly doused it and refocused my attention on the sky. Over my right shoulder, the enormous Big Dipper sat directly on the silhouette of a distant western mesa, like a pot on a stovetop. Thankfully, not long afterward, in the distance I saw the lights of the diner and truckstop and nearly ran the last two miles. (The old paved road is equipped with milemarkers for error-free calculating.)

This oasis is full of character. Several vintage 1930 railcars are lashed together in the desert to make a fine cafe with a menu much more diverse than a standard truckstop - who ever heard of fresh made hummus on a truckstop menu? - pool hall and giftshop/general store. There are a few adobe huts at one end kitted out as fully equipped guest rooms. They were expecting me. My feet ached constantly, but once I took off my boots, the pain was excruciating for a good half hour, but the warmth of the conversation with Salem the owner and Julie the waitress and a few other diners was a terrific balm. The interstate highway parallels the old desert road and intersects at this diner, so on foot I was isolated, but at this oasis, I was hardly alone.

Another day of the same - with an old hermit named Rex homesteading midway to Truth or Consequences who happily refilled my waterbottles from his deep well, and I was out of the difficult part of the New Mexican segment of the Chihuahuan Desert. Here's the great reward: Truth or Consequences took it's name in the mid 1950s as part of a radio program contest; previously, it was known as Hot Springs. Three dollars gets you a half-hour soak in a great wooden tub of 103-degree natural hot spring soothing water. Oh how my feet loved that! As much as my feet liked it, my sunburnt arms, neck, and face needed frequent showers of cool water. On bicycle, the 74 miles between Socorro and Truth or Consequences could be done in one day fairly easily; on foot, I don't think I'd enjoy it a second time.

oh, and after the general moratorium on watercolor painting on the Native lands (they prohibit it without special permits) and the long long walks taking all of my time and water, I haven't gotten too many more paintings to show. It'll be a bit hectic crossing the border, but afterwards, I hope things will become a bit more routine again. Still loving the pilgrim life!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On America's Long Camino

El Camino Real, from Taos to Mexico City... 400 years as a thoroughfare leading to Spain's New World headquarters. I've been walking on or near the actual path used by missionaries, traders and soldiers well before the English made it to the eastern shores of this continent. Ah, to be walking right through history. The stretch out of Santa Fe was particularly rewarding... across a broad mesa separating Rio Arribo (upriver) and Rio Abajo (downriver) of the Rio Grande valley.

I walked the easy switchback up, lee of the wind, and nearly immediately learned the sport of tumbleweed polo as I got to the flat treeless surface. Tumbleweeds, as ubiquitous as mistletoe in Europe except dried and escaped from the tree holds, skirt near the ground surface alternatively getting launched or thrown to the ground. Somehow, my head seems to have a magnet for attracting them... walking sticks double as polo mallets to whack them past without injury. It's a game I could do without but must play defensively to survive the desert landscape.

Along the top of the mesa, the deeply rutted sand and dirt path - a beige ribbon through the scrubby carpet of rabbit sage - was marked occasionally with signposts indicating that prior to 1937, this was the famous cross-country Route 66. I can't imagine it's changed much and can fully imagine a cross-country drive required a full-time tire-repair station in the rumble seat. Rattlesnakes aplenty, too, sunning themselves half out of their borrows. Long before it was integrated into Route 66, it was the Camino Real, first bringing the missionaries and their supplies to the provincial capitol of Santa Fe and later, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, connecting the Santa Fe Trail with the trade in Chihuahua. Same ruts, no doubt. After about 10 miles, it abruptly ended in a 600-foot drop. Watch that first step! Switchbacks through the black airy basalt that were difficult enough on foot... carts wouldn't have fared well.

As I experienced in Ukraine and Romania and Turkey groups of very nice people warned me to stay away from other groups of very nice people. Many different people warned me to avoid the tribal lands of various Pueblo Indians groups - they're secretive, I was told, they don't like strangers, avoid eye-contact, stay only on the main road if you must enter the reservations... blah blah blah, what do you think? such kindness I received! Waves and smiles as anyone passed me, invitations in for a cup of coffee (it's still rather cool and very windy), to sit and rest. War Chiefs and Governors have stamped my credenziale, always happy to do so; someone always offering a bite to eat and something to drink. People are people and are really kind everywhere.

As always, accommodation remains the most challenging part of the day. In Santa Fe, an archdiocese even, the old monsignor stamped my credenziale but couldn't offer hospitality, he said; same at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. I approached many hotels to exchange a mention on my blogsite for a simple room for the night, but everyone's booked for a conference - although one manager, after telling me how much she would love to accommodate my request and would under different circumstances, but would be happy to offer me a reduced rate of $89.95. Funny thing, though, when I had entered the city, a fellow had driven up along side of me having recognized the scallop shell on my pack. He had recently walked the Camino to Santiago! Pilgrims Unite! He had given me his card... so stuck for a place to sleep hours later as the sun was setting, I called to ask for advice.... sure, come stay at my place, I've got a pull-out couch! That's all it takes, somewhere simple and safe to lay my weary bones for some hours of restorative sleep. Ultreia!

Yesterday, a few days out of Santa Fe, I arrived in a village, particularly weary from another day of strong headwind, the church locked up, no one around... yet, a Bed-and-Breakfast... Hacienda Vargas in Algodones - oh, joy, how perfect! Right on the Camino Real (paved as a two-laned country road here) and an authentic (and now fully modernized) stagecoach stop perfectly suited to the old west. Quaintly, there's a private chapel integrated in the square-built single-story adobe cluster around a broad courtyard shaded by a huge cottonwood. Super charming...oozing with romance and comfortable as can be. And the greatest surprise was the fabulous breakfast! I broke my trend of eating lightly before setting out to tuck into the mounds of fresh hot breakfast food - when do pilgrims eat an herb souffle? If every visiting Santa Fe or Albuquerque, seek this place out for a grand reward, between the Santa Ana and San Filipe reservations.

Oh, and one more turn of good fortune - while in Santa Fe, I saw a flier at the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe announcing that Monsignor Chavez, leading expert on Our Lady of Guadalupe and San Juan Diego, will be giving a talk in Albuquerque this week! I missed him when he came to Denver in June, but this is just when I'll be walking through Albuqueque. Great luck! I want him to know that a pilgrim's on the trail and will be in Mexico City in middle January.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

America's Great Pilgrim Destination

I've arrived in Chimayo, America's most-visited pilgrim destination. New Mexico has proven to be pretty roller-coaster-y through Carson National Forest, and in the rain and low clouds, I wasn't able to see the snow on the upper peaks very often. Beautiful land... yet odd to link cactus and rain. This marks the successful completion of the first leg of my pilgrimage.

I know I've pushed a bit hard through the mountains - even with the extra weight of the snowshoes, I managed over 26 miles per day... daily mountain marathons, literally, no wonder my feet are so achy - nonetheless, I hope other pilgrims follow, at their own pace. I've found that churches are as helpful here as anywhere in Europe for assisting pilgrims with accommodation and doling out the all-important stamp for the credenziale. There are pilgrim-friendly people everywhere. This afternoon, I passed through a pretty little village of Truchas. Although a cafe, bar, restaurant, etc is lacking, when I posed the question to the first person I saw, she invited me into the cooperative gallery full of gorgeous local artwork - weavings, santos, retablos, pottery..., and poured me a cup of coffee while I unburdened myself of my pack and muddy boots at the door. We talked, others gathered, a lively pilgrim discussion, and lovely foot-rubs ensued... ahhhh.
A quick opportunity this evening to upload some of the watercolors - just snapped with the webcam, so pardon the cropping issues...
Sangre de Cristo church, San Luis, Colorado:

Church of All the Saints, atop the Stations of the Cross Shrine, San Luis:

San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico c.1772:

San Jose de Gracias, Las Trampas, New Mexico c.1760:

These interesting churches reflect a part of Ameican history unrelated to the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620... the Spaniards had already colonized this area of New Mexico a generation before the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Walking through history again

One of the finest parts of the pilgrim path is the connection with history. After going down down down to Canon City (and by the way, there's a tilda missing from above the first n in that town's name), I climbed up up up along the Oak Creek Grade - aptly named because of the number of scrub oaks along the gulches and brooks in every color of flame. Although I was vying for a 30-mile day, the steepness of the graded dirt road did me in... over 2,000 feet of elevation gain in just a few miles followed by rolling ups and downs that seemed positively endless. Angels, where are you??? Right there, at the Oak Creek Grade General Store. I made it as far as that and was offered some refreshment and the use of their computer for the last blog. Audrey, the proprietress matter-of-factly told me that I'd stay the night there in the cottage. It shocked me in a way because my mind was set for another 4 hours of walking, though it was already 4 in the afternoon; however, my feet and my lungs begged to accept the offer. Done. Husband Jack, an old cowboy - really and truly - was full of interesting history that makes a pilgrimage all the more worthwhile.

Oak Creek Grade was not only the path used by the early American explorer Zebulon Pike, but also a Ute footpath between their summer and winter grounds. History, right there under my feet. No towns exist along the 30-mile stretch yet people live there happily, off the grid. These off-gridders are a wholesome bunch. I've learned about 'barn churches' in rural America - working barns that are repurposed on Sundays for a makeshift multi-denominational church services. Although towns are few and yearnfully far between, the people I've met have been warm and inviting, always fulfilling my request to fill my water bottle. Without people, a pilgrimage simply couldn't work.

With some help from several off-gridders, I've made it down into the San Luis Valley. The town of San Luis itself is noteworthy for its grassroots shrine of the Stations of the Cross - bronze statues made by a local artist on a path built by the community on a hillside above the town. Atop the hill is a beautiful domed chapel in a European style. I've got some watercolors and will upload them when I get the opportunity. The important thing is that this is a beautiful pilgrim destination in its own right... hear this Denver pilgrims, 10 days of walking makes a nice pilgrimage in a spectacular and varied landscape.

New Mexico tales to follow... tomorrow, Taos!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mountain Marathons!

I'm a pilgrim again! and loving every minute of it =)

Admittedly, my feet are killing me, but I don't care. I'm glad I packed on a few extra pounds before leaving... the high mountains require far far more calories than I can possibly eat in a day, even if I were interested in carrying food along with me. Up and down the mountains, dancing around 10,000 feet... a day of rain, a day of heat, another day of rain, two more of heat... I sleep well. The thing about Colorado, aside from the variable weather and terrain, is the villages are few and very far between. Once I get to the San Luis Valley, the routine of the daily walks should be easier.

Right from the get go, I can earnestly cry out to all American pilgrims - do your next pilgrimage here!! The send off was spectacular - hundreds at the morning Mass last Sunday stayed after the overwhelming pilgrim blessing in the forecourt of the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Denver to hug me and wish me well. It was wonderful, and very personal in a way I never experienced as a visitor in Europe. And then, after walking along the South Platte River bike path to Littleton, some fellas outside a pub shouted their greetings and insisted I let them buy me a beer and hear about my journey. That sort of thing happened nearly every time I passed such a refreshment establishment. People are kind, they really are.

As for accommodation - always the most difficult part of a pilgrimage off the beaten pilgrim paths - I've managed something every night, of course, but in such a uniquely American way: in three of the six nights on the road so far, a hotel has comped me a room in exchange for a mention on this blogsite.

In Monument, the Sundance Mountain Lodge is truly a gem - I'm not just saying that! Lodge-y comfort, big fire, nice atmosphere, terrific grounds... I slept with the door slightly open to listen to the sound of the babbling brook right outside. Also extraordinary was the dinner - a huge portion of lamb and barley stew, delectable pilgrim fare. I entered Monument on the new Santa Fe Trail footpath that they're in the process of extending between Denver and Santa Fe, and when they do, no pilgrim from Denver will have any excuse not to walk to Chimayo via this route. It's a greater distance than going through the mountains, but better accommodation opportunities and shorter daily distances are the benefits. Maybe I'll return in this route. Regardless, by foot, bike, or car, any layover in Monument should include the Sundance Mountain Lodge

Up in Cripple Creek - a boy is that an UP! - I entered the village at the point of exhaustion and stopped in the first place I saw - no other opportunity to even sit in a chair since leaving Woodland Park 28 miles back and several thousand feet of elevation between - a Ruby Tuesdays, where Don and the rest of the staff took very gentle care of my refreshment and revitalization. Alas they tried many avenues to help me find a place to sleep. After a short tour of the steep mining-now-gambling town, I arrived at the exquisite Hotel St Nicholas and was treated so kindly in the lap of Victorian luxury - every room is different, authentic, comfortable; elegance prevails, yet in the small-town-American way, there's not a hint of snootiness. I felt it a rare pilgrim treat to stay in such luxury - it's hard for a pilgrim to choose between the spacious, strong hot shower or the deep clawfoot tub.

Now I'm in the thick of the difficult part of Colorado - today, 30 miles to a small town where there's no resident priest, then 32 miles to no where, then another 30 miles over the last mountain range I'll need to cross in Colorado. I'd dream of the ease of the San Luis Valley, but I'm way too tired these days.

I like the walking even through the difficulties not present in European walks - I fill my water bottle from the streams and plunk a chloride tablet in and wait before drinking... I struggle to find a place to sit on the ground not already occupied by some type of cactus or otherwise prickly growth... but the beauty of the Colorado Rockies this time of year is not to be missed.

Ciao until the next time I find an internet point!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The day is right nigh!

My suped-up brand-new 24-liter backpack sits fully packed on the living room floor awaiting the hour before dawn. My shiny new boots, buffed hiking poles and waxed credenziale full of empty pages...

I'm not too distressed that somehow going down in volume by 6 liters compared to last year (that's 20%!), my fully packed pack has gone up in weight by 5 pounds - yikes! - to 20 pounds but that includes the snowshoes. I hope only to need the snowshoes over the mountains of Colorado and then off-load them as soon as someone in some New Mexican town gives me reassurance that it would be highly unlikely I would need them there in April. Though flurries may fly even in the Chihuahuan desert in the dry season of winter, I don't expect that snowshoes will be necessary. Fully three pounds, they are, but warranted in the Colorado Rockies in October. Three high passes must be crossed before the sun-filled valley of the Rio Grande and wouldn't I feel like a complete putz if such unpreparedness holds me back right out of the starting gate. The snow is already pushing down from the 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) level.

The after-market modifications to my pack have been gleaned at the pilgrim's school of hard knocks. Firstly, conventional pack covers don't seem to be designed for the downpours and snowstorms I find myself in so often... it's the part between my pack and my back where the wetness seeps into the pack. No good. My designed solution is a packcove/raincape that covers the pack like a pack cover but extends at the top over my shoulders like a cape. I worked out the design and pal Eileen helped me to fabricate one to a level of smashing success on the last two trips until it got worn by age and harsh but unavoidable use and now have a second prototype made (how handy it is that my good friend took home-ec in high school and knows her way around a sewing machine... huge gratitude!)

Beyond that, I browsed through the 'swim and dancewear' aisle of the local fabric store and got a small length of two-directional spandex (in high-vis yellow) to put on the top of my pack, attached with bungee cord to the four D-rings, under which I can securely stow quick-access items, like a small water bottle and baggie full of raisins and nuts. I can reach it without taking off my pack to both get at whatever's stored there and to put it back. I long-ago discovered that a lot of unnecessary energy is expended in doffing and donning a backpack for want of easy access to needed items.

The upgraded clear plastic retractable mapcase mounted behind my head is an improvement over last year's prototype made with plastic proved too flimsy. I got simple badge-retractors from the hardware store the size of a 2-euro piece/half dollar for something like two bucks apiece. The retractable gadget survived the snow and ice and wind and rain while the zip-top clear plastic had to be repaired with packaging tape nearly every time I passed a post-office (where they unfailingly made the gratis repairs with great compassion for my plight : )) Though weightier this year by 5 ounces, the plastic sleeve is much sturdier and completely weatherproof. I have to refer to the map du jour frequently and in bad weather, the folded and unfolded paper disintegrated at an alarming rate. I liked the retraction feature so much that I've attached another one to my compass affixed to my left shoulder strap... no more dropping it in the snow.

I've added a small pair of 8x21 binoculars to my hipbelt, something I yearned for countless times of each of my walks - how many times I looked across a difficult barrier wondering what that sign said on the opposite side... an easy six-ounce and $10 solution.

One last small modification is that of silly little loops of elastic to hold down each of the strap ends that always annoyed me luffing unfettered in the breeze. Ten of these! Minutes to make and seconds to attach, and now, blissful tidiness. I think this agitated me so much on trips one and two because it was always in the worse weather that I needed to listen sharply for any number of reasons - the barking of village dogs telling me the direction of my destination; the cracking of the ice beneath my feet; the whistle of an approaching train when I found greater ease walking along the tracks - and was forced to filter out the slapping of all of the adjustable strap ends. I learned by trip three and was greatly soothed by the simple addition of little elastic loops.

For the interior, the only significant change from last year is the addition to a tailored down blanket bag shaped to the footprint of the bottom of the pack's interior. I prefer a down blanket - in truth, sold as a 'lap blanket' but perfectly sized for me as a full-size blanket - to the confinement of a sleeping bag. I used it many dozen times last winter in conjunction with my silk sleepsack for added warmth, but not every night. Expecting the same amount of usage this winter, keeping it snugly on the floor of my pack is ideal for volume reduction. It's made of the same silicon-impregnated ripstop nylon as the packcover/raincape except that the top surface is made of a durable breathable material - in actuality, surplus landscape geotextile intended to keep the weeds down in the flower garden. With the dual fabrics, the bottom and sides stay waterproof but it's not likely to get as stinky as it would in a completely unbreathable sack.

Here I rest with the excitement of a kid on Christmas Eve, staring at my possessions of the next six months. In keeping with the convention I experienced in Spain, I'll receive the ceremonial 'Pilgrim Blessing' at the end of the 8 am Mass at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Denver to begin my journey in the traditional manner. Of course, I'll get the first stamp in my credenziale. Afterward, I walk the few city blocks to the South Platte River bike path and take the entire day to walk 20 miles out of a city of 2 million.

[My thoughts digress to the last time I got a pilgrim blessing in Spanish. I had become concerned by the end of it that I was married... there was a peregrino, about my age, kneeling to my right at the alter as the Bishop, holding his hands above our heads intoned a solemn-sounding blessing in a language unknown to me... I comprehended our names being said, the peregrino smiling brightly and everyone applauding as we turned to face those present with the monks chanting beautifully in the astounding Templar church in Eunate, opened but one day a year - Candlemas, February 2nd... a little startling, honestly, but I signed no paper, so trusted nothing was binding. No chance of such confusion tomorrow - not only is my Spanish vocabulary quite a bit broader by now, but I'll be the only one in front of the priest.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Profile of a Walk

Accepting that there is no well-worn path between Denver and Mexico City, I've been poring over maps and books trying to create one. I'm turned on by the historical significance, of course, and I want to visit interesting places, not to mention beautiful ones. I don't mind mountainous strolls, but I don't want to go too far out of my way to make the walk more challenging than it has to be.

I've broken the journey into seemingly logical stages based on history and geography:

1. Denver, Colorado to Chimayo, New Mexico
~369 miles (637 km)
~15 days

There no marked route from the historic transportation hub of Colorado's capital city to the San Luis Valley, former northernmost dominion of the Spanish colonists. During Colorado's mining boom of the mid 19th century, numerous routes developed, some now paved over, others a network of old pack trails. Where I can, I'll certainly opt for the trails. I'll walk south along the plains to cross over the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains behind Pike's 14,000-foot Peak into the heart of the mining district of Cripple Creek, the highest town I think I'll see at 9,500 feet (2,900 meters). Let's hope the early snows hold off for another three weeks. After a rather easy hop over the Wet Mountains, I'll make a hard day's push over the towering, snowy Sangre de Cristos into the high valley of the Rio Grande River. Cresting the pass between a number of 14ers will fittingly mark the half-way point of the way to Chimayo. I'll hug the base of the western slope of the Sangre de Cristos, through the remnant Spanish land grant villages and across the Taos and the Picuris Indian Reservations (permission granted!) to get to Chimayo, famed pilgrim destination.

2. Chimayo, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas
~295 miles (475 km)
~15 days

The difficult thing about the first etape is that, surprisingly, towns are widely spaced; the miles per day will be many, and the daily elevation changes great. The serious workout in store during the first two weeks will set me up well for an easy second two weeks when I'll slow it down and enjoy the cultural variations afforded not only by the Native American territories but also the imprint of the historic New Spain. Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO site of cultural significance and has been inhabited for 1,000 years. I'm honored that I was able to negotiate a passage through the tribal lands to get to the pueblo itself, where I'm invited to the War Chief's office for a greeting - I'm hoping for a unique stamp in my credenziale!

Then it's off to Santa Fe, former capital of the New Spain northern provinces followed by a string of historic Franciscan missions that predate the missions of California by at least a century. This will lead me to the ominous Jornada del Muerto, the Dead Man' Walk... 96 miles of ruggedness, with no water. Those Spanish explorers had it tough... can I make it across in 3 days??? Superimposing more recent events, Trinity Site, the first nuclear bomb testing range, is just a skosh to the east. Experience gives me the assurance that there's no need to pack a Geiger counter, but what a cool waltz through a different kind of history.

3. El Paso, Texas to Ciudad de Chihuahua, Mexico
~254 miles (409 km)
~13 days

Even before arriving in El Paso, formerly known as El Paso del Norte, the gateway to New Mexico within New Spain, I'll be fully ensconced in the Chihuahua Desert, the largest in the Americas, and I'll walk through the entire length of it. (Yikes, does this give me a tad of apprehension! More so even than the Jornada del Muerto.) Being a humble pilgrim, I'm not unnecessarily worried about the border crossing - it's so tragically a difficult and dangerous place these days for law-enforcement officials, journalists, and merchants because of the intensive dealings with the drug lords and runners, but I haven't heard of any pilgrims coming into trouble and trust that even the most nefarious will respect the medallion of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I want to visit both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez for their historical importance, but don't plan on lingering on the border crossing. When the Spaniards explored, colonized and supported their missions, the Camino Real sprang up with watering holes where ever a spring was found linking Santa Fe with the rest of New Spain. Chihuahua was an early mining center and a crossroads between trade with Texas and the early Pacific coast cities.

4. Chihuahua to Zacatecas, Mexico
~640 miles (1,030 km)
~32 days

Boff! this will be a long stretch. As much as I can, I'll walk parallel to the historic Camino Real, now paved as a national highway, and walk as long each day as it takes to find a village or a hacienda where to sleep. I don't expect it will be so easy, and the high desert in the dry season won't make such a hospitable environment for sleeping in the rough. I've never faced a long steady climb lasting more than four weeks... yet I don't know what to expect culturally in these hinterlands. Even people I've asked who are familiar with Chihuahua tell me simply that there's nothing there. Nothing must manifest as something, and I'll have to see what it is. In Zacatecas, however, I can expect a beautiful, vivacious city with a long history of silver mining - one of the largest sources of income for the Spanish monarchy. Silver means wealth and wealth means interesting period architecture - a fine reward after a grueling trial of miles.

5. Zacatecas to Mexico City and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico
~430 miles (692 km)
~22 days

The last stage - It will be the most populated and hilly, as opposed to mountainous. I'll pass through several historical provincial capitals - Aguascalientes and Leon, in particular, and in between these, the famed pilgrim destination of Our Lady of St John of the Lake, San Juan de los Lagos, second-most visited cathedral city in Mexico. There's bound to be lots of history there, and I understand that they're famed for their gastronomy as well - amen to that! If I walk briskly and encounter no big troubles, I'll arrive at the santuario in the middle of January, plus or minus a few weeks. It might turn out that I'll spend Christmas in Zacatecas. It'll make an interesting experience where ever I'll be.

All tolled, I'll walk about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) there in around 100 days, more or less. The round-trip maybe 4,000 miles (6,400 km) in about 6 months. What a trip this will be! Relying on the graciousness of local inhabitants, I presage switching borscht for beans on this trip, and blizzards and rain for sand storms and drought across the lands. Villages, and therefore people, will be few and far between, and before even reaching New Mexico, Spanish will be the dominant language. In the hands of merciful weather, my return journey will be slightly different, but generally through the same territories and I'll be back by Easter. I'm excited to get on with it... the unknown beckons loudly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Studying Up

For me, preparing for a pilgrimage involves all sorts of interesting study. It’s like writing a term paper in a non-major subject - just learning for the sake of understanding. In the weeks before I set out on the Via Francigena, I immersed myself in historical periods the road coursed through: Julius Caesar commanding the road to be built to facilitate his invasion of the British Isles; the road’s various uses by soldiers, scholars, merchants and clergy throughout the Dark Ages, the lamentable tale of Sigeric, the 10th-century monk-bishop who recorded his four-year journey to Canterbury from Rome along the road, only to die shortly after arriving… Countless little tidbits of history grabbed my attention in preparing for my long walk and countless more sprang up during it, stories of saints and sinners, relics of Etruscan artwork, all sorts of fascinating topics.

History came alive again for me during my pilgrimage from Aachen, Charlemagne’s former home and perpetual tomb, to Santiago de Compostela, site of Apostle St James’ tomb. In reflection, I was quite a tomb-hopper on that walk. Tombs, after all, are monuments to history, and usually also to art, from various time periods and are definitive legacies of real-live people who had struggles and emotions like all of us, and who generally persevered in a manner worthy of remembrance. I strode beside St Fiacre in St Fiacre, St Eutrope in Saintes, St Martin in Tours, St Hillaire in Poitiers; all the kings and queens of France at St Denis, the multitude of fallen soldiers in the scattered necropoli of the two World Wars in Belgium and eastern France, even Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley… dozens of others too numerous to list.

If I hadn’t set out on the path of the Apostle St Andrew from Kyiv to his tomb in Patras, I likely would never have immersed myself in the history of those regions, or have become familiar with their geography, languages or gastronomy, or certainly have become familiar with the rituals of the Orthodox and Muslim religions and the settings of the famous tales of Greek Mythology. These facets captivate me and I greatly prefer engaging in conversations on these subjects rather than on how I managed to – ho-hum – walk these long distances, alone, and in bad weather. It’s not terribly important that I walked in the misty shadows of Samothraki, Greece, on a bitter cold wet day but more interesting that from that island, Poseidon watched the sea battles of the Trojan War, as legend has it. Wow.

So now I’m studying up on the history of the various Native American tribes, the days of the Spanish conquistadors, the attempts at their colonization, the missionary work of the Franciscans and Jesuits, the Mexican Independence and revolution, and the geography of the mountains and deserts between Denver and Mexico City. Much fun – doh! – muchas diverisións.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Legend of OLoG

“Christendom at large adores and venerates the miraculous likeness of Our Lady of Guadalupe of Mexico, painted by the hand of God. By the powerful magnetism of its glory and beauty may her exemplary pilgrims, far scattered, engage the love and reverence of all peoples! I offer you, as the explanation of this power of attraction, prized above all else, its marvelous origin, which even now is unknown to many foreigners: you shall read about unheard-of but true and at the same time glorious things established by the unbroken tradition of two centuries and verified by the testimony of all North America; in the words of Psalm 147, verse 20: ‘Non fecit taliter omni nationi.’” [He hath not done so with any nation.]

This expressive introduction to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe was written by Señor Don Pedro Alonso O’Crouley in his Description of the Kingdom of New Spain published in 1774. With details unchanged to this day, he continued to relate the history of the miracle:

In the year 1531, when the Mexican empire had been subject to Christian teaching for ten years, on Saturday, December 9, a devout Indian of the common people, a convert by the name of Juan Diego, wishing to hear the Christian doctrine explained, was coming from the town near which he lived to Mexico City to attend devotional exercises at the convent of the Franciscans. Suddenly, from the hill of Tepeyacac, a league from Mexico City and where the road runs at its base, a heavenly music drew all his attention to the top of the hill. There he saw encircled by a rainbow the Queen of Heaven, by whom he was summoned and most graciously received. She bade him go to the Bishop, the venerable Juan Zumárraga, a Franciscan, and tell him in her name that she would have him build on this very place a church that would be the sanctuary of the entire New World.

The Bishop, mistrustful of some deceit, listened to the messenger, put a number of questions to him, and, as one does who wishes to think over a matter with some deliberation, quickly dismissed him. Juan returned to the Virgin, who was waiting for him at the same high place on the hill. He told her of the Bishop’s response, attributing it to his own lowly condition, and he asked the Virgin to choose a person more worthy of credence. The Virgin comforted him and told him to go back the next day and repeat to the Bishop the urgent request.

He was in low spirits at having to repeat the petition; but this time the Bishop spoke to him with more kindness than on the day before and promised that he would obey with the utmost pleasure if the messenger would bring him more precise indications of Our Lady’s wishes. So Juan departed, charged to ask for them, and the Bishop sent two of his attendants who from a distance were to keep a sharp eye on Juan’s movements and find out who it was that he spoke with on the hill; but he had hardly come to the slope of the hill when he disappeared from their sight. After a diligent but fruitless search they returned to the Bishop accusing the Indian convert of sorcery.

The Most Holy Virgin heard from Juan’s own mouth of the response and request of the Bishop and promised him a sign for the following day, Monday. On that day Juan was unable to go back to the Virgin, for he had found in his house Juan Bernardino, his uncle, at the point of death. He would not have returned on Tuesday either if he had not been compelled to go call a priest to give his uncle the Holy Sacraments. In order to escape being detained by Our Lady, instead of going to the city the usual way he took another road; but in vain, for he met the Virgin, most clement, on the journey. She consoled him and assured him that his uncle was well again, for at the very moment of her appearance health had been granted him. She then bade Juan go up to the hill and cut the flowers he should find there to take to the Bishop as a sign. Once they were gathered, she herself put them with her virgin hands in his cloak of maguey fibre, of the kind worn by the poor Indians, and bade him carry them to the Bishop without showing them to anyone on the road. The Bishop’s pages tried by force to examine the cloak, but were not able to lay hold of any of the flowers which they then decided were woven into the material.

Later, in the presence of the Bishop, Juan Diego threw open the cloak and real, very beautiful, fresh flowers were seen to fall out, leaving bare the surface of the woven fabric. There appeared in it, not just upon it, and against all the rules of painting, the likeness, which we venerate, of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Most Holy, upheld by a small winged cherub. She was crowned with a queenly diadem, and her robe, which fell to below the instep, was patterned at intervals with white and bright red. Besides this, she was depicted with a little cross at her throat and her hands joined above her breast. There was portrayed in her beautiful face that of an Indian girl with the eyes pleasingly lowered and so far resembling the Apocalyptic vision that the sun, with a hundred and twelve rays, was all round the edge of the portrait, and the moon appeared beneath her feet but in place of the twelve stars with which that vision was crowned, forty-six were scattered on the blue mantle in this one.

The Bishop had a shrine built per the instructions of the Virgin, who revealed herself legendarily as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the subsequent enlarged edifices built at the same place still house the otherworldly image. History has continued since this passage was published over 200 years ago and not only has there been now an unbroken tradition for nearly five centuries of the veneration, but the humble Juan Diego has been elevated to a Saint in recognition of miracles attributed to prayers for his intervention.

El Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is the most visited Christian pilgrimage site in the world today. From what I understand, many pilgrims travel there by foot from various dioceses in southern Mexico, especially on the December 12th anniversary, though there don’t seem to be any well-worn trails, caminos, per se as there are across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Maybe I’ll be surprised. I’ve been asking around and so far it doesn’t seem like anyone’s heard of a foot-pilgrim from as far as Chihuahua City, much less the interior of US… I’d like to think that early on, most of the pilgrims would have been Native Americans, who wouldn’t likely have kept diaries or sent letters home or in other ways provided written documentation, so I hold out that I am not the first pilgrim to venture out on a 2,000-plus-mile journey to this famous pilgrim destination.