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They come in the thousands.
Some walk more than 100 miles over the course of several days. Some walk with family or friends, others walk alone. All will converge at the Santuario de Chimayo, where they will wait in long lines to enter the chapel to pray and retrieve some of the fabled Holy Dirt.
The faithful take pilgrimages to Chimayó year round to pray for healing, for help for a loved one or in thanksgiving for an answered prayer. The flow of pilgrims is stepped up during Lent, when any day of the week you may see people walking singly or in small groups. On weekends during Lent churches organize groups of walkers.
It all culminates on Good Friday, when thousands of pilgrims converge on Chimayo from every direction. Many start in Nambe, where they will have a 10- to 11-mile walk to the chapel. A surprising number walk 30 miles from Santa Fe. The pilgrims come from all directions.
New Mexico highway workers begin preparations for the walk several days in advance, placing signage to warn drivers and to direct walkers along the safest possible route.
The flow of pilgrims starts in the evening of Holy Thursday. The State Police gather on N.M. 502 in Nambe as road crews set up floodlights at a checkpoint near U.S. 84/285. The police will warn drivers to drive carefully and keep an eye out for impaired drivers. Driving N.M.502 to Chimayo that night is a harrowing experience, with walkers spilling out onto the narrow road, many of them groups of teens with little sense of caution.
Those walking on Holy Thursday and Good Friday are an eclectic group, ranging from those with a deep faith to those who just want the chance to experience the world-famous pilgrimage.
Some, like Albuquerque resident Tony Morales have a long history with the pilgrimage.
This was Morales’ 22nd year.
“I do it to give thanks for everything to God, that’s my goal,” Morales said.
For others, like solitary walkers Louis Munoz or Mika Tari or mother and daughter Jalissa and Maria Leon, this was their first time.
“I made a promise two years ago, but couldn’t do it last year,” said Munoz, who started in Santa Fe. “I just want to do better with my life.”
“I’ve always wanted to do this and finally had the time,” said Tari, who started in Nambe. Like the Leons, who have just moved to Santa Fe, Tari was walking to express her gratitude.
Many, such as Julia De Sedillo and her daughter Yvette Marquez , make the pilgrimage for specific reasons. Both were walking for the first time. Sedillo was praying for her grandson, who has medical problems. Marquez was supporting her daughter, who was also walking with them in hopes of renewing her faith.
Many walkers carry nothing with them, not even water. Groups or individuals support the pilgrims by setting up stands along the way to provide water and a place to rest.
Others, like Santa Fe resident Rob Hughes, come prepared. Hughes — who started at the Santa Fe Plaza — shouldered a water bottle backpack. This was Hughes’ fourth year, and when asked if he was more prepared now than on his first trip, he replied, “I was probably over-prepared the first year.”
“I was raised an Irish Catholic, and I identify with the idea of pilgrimage. It’s a way to get away and think,” Hughes said. “And it’s a lot of fun. It’s very solitary for the first part. Then you get here, and there are all the people.”
Maria Sena and Mariana Sena, Emma Bustase, Michela Avalos and Yvette Valencia had a challenging start this year. They parked in Pojoaque and began walking, then realized that Maria Sena had locked her keys in the car with her money and debit card sitting on the console. Sena was relieved to find her car safe when they returned to it, and they continued their journey after the locksmith arrived.
This was Sena’s seventh year.
“I do this just to be out connected with the earth and nature and God. I’m also walking for my mom’s health, our health, for peace, for many things,” Sena said.
Sena also has a deeper reason for walking.
“I also walk for my cousin who was shot on this walk with his girlfriend a few years ago,” Sena said. Sena’s cousin Ricky Martinez and Karen Castanon were shot and killed by Carlos Herrera while on pilgrimage in 2000.
Argelina, Ariana and Ramon Barraza and Argelina’s husband Sean Cabrera were also on pilgrimage for the seventh time.
“We’re just praying for everybody to be healthy, and for the whole world. We just want peace in the world,” Argelina said. The group hoped to walk back to Nambe where they began, but also said if they were too tired they would find a truck willing to give them a lift.
Salvador Salas came by walking his bicycle. He estimated he had ridden about three quarters of the way from Santa Fe and walked the rest.
“I walked once from Santa Fe, my wife and myself, 10 or 12 years ago,” Salas said. “There are a lot more people cycling now.” Salas said he makes the pilgrimage for the blessing, and for his family and a few friends who are struggling.
Norma Bustillos walked both to and from Nambe with her 15-year-old daughter Anna, as she does every year. Anna began joining her five years ago.
“I’m a little bit tired, but happy,” Bustillos said. “I’ve been coming for 17 years, since before my daughter was born. Before, I used to walk 12 hours from Santa Fe. Now I’m getting old.”