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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Pilgrim Planning Continues...

My computer has been on the blink. Comatose, really. Even my minimalist life was thwarted by the temporary electronic lapse.

The planning continues - 5 weeks until my feet are on the path of long return. Much is still to be done.

Firstly, my friend the Pilgrim-in-Training continues her training but has gracefully bowed out. The undertaking even from Denver to Chimayo is no small undertaking and requires 100% commitment. She quavered and didn't want to interfere with my parallel efforts. So she'll continue to fulfill her steadfast role as being my much-appreciated planning assistant and continue her training toward her weight-loss goal and may someday make the pilgrimage from Denver to Chimayo, but just not with me in October.

The fallout for me is that my pilgrimage is more uniform: there will be no camping; no llama. I'll simply (!) commit myself to walking further and longer each day until I get to some sort of refuge for the night. I'll put myself at the mercy of strangers' kindness and benefit from the risk as I have always done. A pilgrimage. Not always easy, but always adventurous =)

Spanish is coming more frequently and easily off my tongue, but still intermingled with Italian and French. Alors. Alora. It's still much further along than Russian or Ukrainian were a year ago and I did well enough when I needed to with those languages.

Though I tooled with the idea of sponsorship in getting outfitted, nothing has really materialized comfortably. So I forged ahead and bought everything new I determined was necessary after repairing what I could from last winter. A new, smaller pack and sturdy new boots are the most important additions to the kit. I've got an active to-do list going that will keep me busy for the next five weeks, but honestly, I'm eager to get going - if the heat of summer would only pass!

The greatest challenge niggling at me at the moment is obtaining the necessary permissions from the 10 sovereign lands standing between me and the Chihuahua desert in New Mexico. I've researched it to the point that I know I must coordinate with the various tribal War Chiefs, as opposed to the Tribal Governors, in order to gain access to the dirt tracks across the lands. Accessible, paved highways exist, but experience warns me against these - hot, dangerous, and stressful. So far, the direction I've received is to go around these delineated sovereign lands of the Native Americans rather than cross them. I can see their perspective... I'm setting off on a journey of 4,000 to 5,000 miles, what difference would it make if bypassing their lands adds another couple of hundred miles? What would motivate them to grant me permission to cross their territories? But I'm setting off on a cultural excursion and would like to see - without tarnishing thoughts of exploitation or profit - the various corners of this vast and diverse nation. I hope to appeal to a few War Councils in the coming weeks to convince them that I, one tiny, solo woman, pose no threat in walking respectfully and peacefully across their lands in a given autumn afternoon. Fingers crossed.

Although there is a long tradition of pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from what I've gleaned, the distances covered by foot in generational memory seem relatively short. I'm feeling like a sort of pioneer pilgrim in this area. I wonder if the early pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela had to individually figure out the politics of gaining access to the autonomous territories they'd cross when leaving from their front doors...