Sunday, May 9, 2010


Here in Denver, where I studied and lived for many years before my life of travel began, I have a good number of friends, outdoor enthusiasts (hard to ignore the beautiful mountains and conducive climate of the Colorado Rockies), though no pilgrims among them. They've all become very interested in the pilgrim life now that I've shown them the light. I've given many presentations in Denver and Boulder about my European cultural pilgrimages, which have been well received. [Upcoming dates forthcoming.]

One of my particularly supportive pals, Eileen, has become almost unstoppably interested in the brainstorming of the long walk to Mexico City. I estimate at first glance that we're talking something on the order of 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) on rather a direct route. Why be direct? The history of the region is what turns me on and there's plenty of it: the various Native American cultures populated the area for countless millennia and the Spaniards began their colonization in the early 16th century. The history didn't stop there. To see all of this first hand, I'm drawn to the historic missions that still dot the land as far north as Taos, near the New Mexico-Colorado border all the way to Mexico City. While the research is underway, I can feel comfortable that a distance perhaps half again greater will not be unlikely. This would be a few steps too far for Eileen; indeed, she's never walked more than 5 kilometers in a single day in her life, and never with a backpack, and never in the desert wilderness, and never alone... Nonetheless, she's up for the idea of the trek for fitness as well as for the beauty of the mountains.

The first stage made itself evident from the earliest thought of a southward journey. Denver to Chimayo, New Mexico.

Chimayo, about 600 kilometers/380 miles south of Denver, has a fascinating history. This fertile valley in the high desert was a site held sacred by the aboriginal people throughout history, particularly for a mineral-rich spring and a nearby holy mountain. When the Spanish missionaries arrived, several miracles were attributed to the area. Churches were constructed to honor the mystical events and today it is the destination of up to 300,000 pilgrims a year, many by foot, the majority on Good Friday. The current shrines, El Santuario de Chimayo and El Santo Niño de Antocha, have become general tourist attractions in recognition of their status as a National Historic Landmark but are particularly visited by faithful Catholics seeking a handful of holy dirt from the spot where the prior holy spring has dried up.

On the way from Denver to Chimayo, there are six other historic Spanish missions dating back to 1598: Taos, Ranchos de Taos, Picuris, Las Trampas, San Juan, and Santa Cruz. In addition, in the village of San Luis, Colorado, by chance the oldest town in Colorado, there is an extended shrine of bronze statues depicting life-size Stations of the Cross completed in 1990 and a grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Cool historic and beautiful things to see.

Challenges are several but not insurmountable. Firstly, the situation that Eileen's never gone for such a long walk. She's begun a training program - a veritable virtual pilgrimage. Nearly every day, she walks around the neighborhood clocking at least 25 kilometers/15 miles a week. We figure that on our trailblazing pilgrim path, it's reasonable to calculate that as her daily maximum. Since I returned to Denver and we began to formulate this idea, she's walked a total of 74 kilometers/46 miles. That would be just over 3 days' worth of pilgriming. She has the idea of taking a longer mountain day hike at least once a month as well to get some daily distance in as well as some significant elevation change. When she's walked the cumulative distance of the pilgrimage to Chimayo, sometime in September at her current rate, she'll deem herself fit to go.

Secondly, the great distance - 400km/250mi - between Denver and the first interim destination, San Luis, simply doesn't have enough towns to enable the type of pilgrimage that I've grown accustomed to... I like to sleep in a bed every night, and enjoy some heat source, and some small amount of food provided... It goes without saying that I've particularly enjoyed nightly protection from the elements and wild animals. These luxuries won't likely be available, sometimes for days on end. By their design, the mission sites in New Mexico are spaced within a day's walk, so these issues should become less of a concern the closer we get to Chimayo. But even if there's no roof over my head, I at least want a cot to sleep on. And real food to eat. And proper cookery for the preparation. And a solar-bag shower for some hot water. And I don't want to carry it all on my back. Thus, the llama. These domesticated beasts of burden, prevalent in the high country of Colorado, eat whatever they encounter along the trail and can carry about 50 kilos/100 pounds.

Third, we're considerably further down the food chain compared to anywhere I've walked in Europe. While I have extensive experience in the Rockies, I've never been on such an extended journey. We're thinking of going in October, to arrive in Chimayo on November 2nd, the celebrated Day of the Dead in Hispanic Catholicism. October is known for variable weather - this is one of the reasons why I prefer to be a winter pilgrim rather than an autumn pilgrim... but the snow will already be flying in the high country and while I don't mind snowshoeing, as I did frequently on my winter walk on the Via Francigena, camping in the snow for three weeks presents other challenges. Higher up the October food chain reside bears, wolves, many types of venomous snakes and spiders, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, and - gulp - lions. It's the mountain lions that give me the greatest concern... sneaky, big, and silent.

Fourth, the vast expanses of uninhabited land we'll walk through aren't under the same jurisdictions. Between Denver and Chimayo, there's land owned by Colorado counties, by the State of Colorado, National Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas, various Spanish Land Grants (ceded after the Mexican-American War of 1844 honoring agreements made after the Mexican War of Independence from Spain in 1821), and the Taos Indian Reservation, not to mention enormous tracks of privately owned land. I foresee lots of rules to be investigated and conformed with...

How clear it is that this pilgrimage will be completely different! I'm up for pushing the boundaries again.

Eileen's training in earnest and I'm researching a sensible route. October will be here soon enough. I'll post the planning process as the idea ferments and matures.


Anonymous said...

Dear Ann,
so when you are on your way to Mexico, and you want to keep walking trough the latin world: you know you have a home here in Bogota, Colombia :-)

Best wishes

Stefan Koch

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Just to drag you back a little to 'sort of' where you were... When I came across this slideshow of wonderful photos from an Orthodox monastery in the Republic of Georgia, I straight away thought of you!

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