Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I've Arrived!!!

A fabulous arrival, but hard-earned.

Yesterday, the last night before arriving, was designed to be an easy walk so I can find accommodation and clean myself and my well-worn clothing as well as possible for a presentable arrival. Yeah, the best laid plans... GoogleMaps guided me to a town called Buenavista 20 kilometers to the north of the Basilica. Reality has two places called Buenavista and I spent hours in frustration being directed toward one and then the other before stepping out and asking if there are many places with this name... for a while, the sun burned through the thick smog over my right shoulder, but then it was over my left - which should rarely happen on a southeasterly route - so I became suspicious. The din and sprawl of industry was overwhelming compared with the tranquility of the whole rest of my pilgrimage. My happy mood on the threshold of the terminus was soured by the chaotic noise of blaring horns, air brakes, and cargo trains.

I finally felt confident that I was headed toward the right Buenavista, and since all good views require elevation, the last 8 kilometers were nearly vertical through stacked cubicles of concrete block houses, a bizillion minibusses, and occasional cows. But when I got to the parish office of the church, the unempowered young people there told me the only hospitality they could offer was a homeless shelter back down the mountain those 8 kilometers. I lost it. I felt like I was the bunny in the carnival game where kids whack the bunnies as they pop out of their holes. These folks who only knew of pilgrims as highway walkers hadn't been faced with the situation before. I'm a pilgrim, not homeless!! I don't ever want to walk backwards! And all that elevation lost! to be repeated! I sobbed. Tired, dirty, on the eve of completion of such a goal, the idea of retreating to a homeless shelter didn't go down well. In the end, many many hours later, the priest arrived. A lovely man, a Benedictine monk-priest, very well educated, perfect English (the third time since November 9th that I had any lengthy conversation in English... he urged me to go to the homeless shelter for my own safety and comfort and to continue on the autopiste in the morning like other pilgrims. Ensued were details of my adventures in the wilderness, the desert, the mountains... sleeping in the storage room in the basement of the church was my preference and by the end of the long day, that's where I slept, peacefully, sadly still dirty with no opportunity to even rinse out my filthy tee shirt, on a nest of old red velvet curtains with white lace. Argh! but all's well that ends well! The priest signed my credenziale and gave me his St. Benedict medallion to protect me on my dangerous journey.

It was the right thing to do, staying in Buenavista. I set out early and walked up and over a pass in the Sierra de Guadalupe nature reserve. Aside from the municipal landfill that I had to walk by, the mountains are beautiful. An old forester who knew the area well provided valuable guidance for shortening the route by chosing rightly from the myriad of footpaths. I was at the Basilica by noon without much exersion. All this distance asking for help every day... I arrived with 10 pesos in my pocket, never having gone to a bank since leaving Denver. I was ready to spend half of it on some churros, but when I explained to the street vendor that I was about to arrive at the end of such a long pilgrimage, he gifted me the crunchy donut sticks as his contribution.

At the Basilica, I whisked by the suspended Tilma with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the moving sidewalk beneath the altar pretty quickly, getting crushed by the crowd. At the information desk, I asked for Monsignor Chavez, whom I met in Albuquerque in October. He came out and greeted me personally. He took my photo in front of the Tilma . which I'l post as soon as he forwards it - and stamped my credenziale... the very last page. The next hourly Mass was starting, so he took me right up to the reserved front row center to allow me a close view of the Tilma throughout the whole Mass. There was a group of 2,000 highway pilgrims there who walked for three days with all sorts of banners and santos. They hired a mariachi band for the Mass and the priest gave a homily about the perseverence needed for the long pilgrimages by foot. More fitting for me than for the horde, I thought, but to each his own pilgrimage.

Numbers will follow soon, but the biggies: 3,431 km in 95 days... excluding the 2 days of rest, I walked at a rate of 37 kilometers per day (=23 miles per day)...

I've arrived. =)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Decision Made

I'm getting closer... less than a week left until I get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My long-awaited destination. Since Leòn, I've been out of the wilderness entirely, walking through extended residential communities, factories, small irrigated fields of produce destined for export, and rows of enormous greenhouses for controlled agriculture. Unable to really enjoy the surroundings as I had been in the desert and rugged terrain of the mountains, it¡s just a matter of getting there now.

My plan has always been to rest a few days in Mexico City and begin the return journey on a slightly different route. But looking at myself and assessing objectively, I'm not up for it... my boots are shot and my feet remind me of it daily.. I had the soles replaced way back in Parral, just past the half way point, and have had trouble with them ever since. Now they're completely worn through, as is the leather at the bend points. Since Zacatecas, I've been looking for replacement boots but have found nothing but rubbery, soft walking shoes that wouldn't last 100 miles, much less the 2,000 back to Denver... maybe there are some to be found in Mexico City, but as the largest city in the world, how long will it take me to search for them? How long will they last? How many times will I have to break in new soles?

And my backpack... a key rivet in the suspension snapped a month or so ago, and despite every attempt at a repair, the weight can be only be borne unevenly on two hips points and one shoulder, or two shoulder points and one hip, but not balanced. I've successfully ignored it, but three more months of constant fidgeting and shifting won't serve me well.

I'm woeful. I've been thinking all along that I'll pass through the cool places again and discover other ones for the rest of the winter... can't see it happening though. So, contemplating this for the last several hundred kilometers but only really deciding yesterday, when I arrive at Mexico City, I'll find a bus to take me back (trains are only for cargo here, no passengers). Alas, it will be over prematurely. The bus will take me back over the same general route, so I'll be able to review from a high-speed distance the land that I've been walking.

Different kinds of pilgrims

I'm in a pilgrim land of sorts, a bidirectional corridor for pilgrims going to the Basilica in Mexico City and to the second-most visited cathedral in the country, San Juan de los Lagos. So when I arrive at a church and say that I'm a pilgrim, the stares aren't as gaping. Nonetheless, I don't fit the image of the regular pilgrim.

The typical pilgrimages here occur in enormous groups, departing on a particular day of the year from a particular village; often, the sexes are separated with men-only pilgrimages from a village during one month and women-only during another month. These pilgrims walk on the shoulder of the highway - major four-lane tollways - eat there, and sleep there, too. They walk in tennis shoes carrying a bag with food and a blanket. When they tire, they lie down and cover themselves for a few hours' rest, then continue on. They walk through the night, day in and day out until they reach their destination.

Not judging here, but if this were the style of pilgrimage in Europe, I never would have begun. I couldn't think of anything less pleasant than this type of journey. The constant noise of the trucks and busses, the stress, the pollution, the trash at the side of the road, the rotting corpses of dead dogs and cows... not for me! And the groups of more than 1,000 pilgrims at a go, all walking, unable to speak to each other except in screams above the noise of the traffic, sleeping meters from the traffic, eating there, and, uh, there are no bathrooms alongside the highway... who came up with this?? Why does it persist?? With the beauty and tranquility of the countryside just a kilometer or two away from the highway, why choose the pavement?? Ever year, many pilgrims are killed during these types of pilgrimages, hit by trucks or busses. Doh.

A sacristan told me of a priest in Irapuato who has a route from village to village that's not along the highway, but searched in vain for him to get the list of villages. No other priest has been able to advise me of anything but to walk along the highway. I search and I find routes, mostly parallel with the railroad tracks, and certainly far more tranquil than the highway. Maybe I add a few kilometers every day, but it's worth it to me. And every day, someone calls me 'loca' for walking such a great distance as Denver. Long, peaceful, harmonious kilometers, as a pilgrimage should be (in my opinion).