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.]