Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Big Finish

The Old Spanish Trail from Purgatory to el Santuario de Chimayó is a wonderful 240-mile (385-km) pilgrimage.  I recommend it for most levels of walking abilities.  Bicycles would work well, too, for this camino.  The route travels along both graded dirt roads and paved roads, and water is available every day.  The challenge for some might be the daily distances, between 20 and 25 miles (31 and 39 kms), which is the historic standard for a day's journey by foot or horse-cart.  Because this is an historic route, well, such it is and can't easily be changed.  The areas in between are generally unpopulated with no shelters available for pilgrims.

Here's the route:
Purgatory, Colorado
Ignacio (Southern Ute Reservation)
Pagosa Junction
Dulce, New Mexico (Jicarilla Apache Reservation)
Christ of the Desert Benedictine Monastery*
San Juan/Okay Owingeh Pueblo
       *unmet destination, see saga below
As soon as I can, I'll get the detailed route posted here and on the Santuario's website, and additional information is always available at the Santuario office (505) 351 9961.

This little pilgrimage of mine was an exploratory one to revive an old path that is no longer used by foot or beast.  The old train line that connected Durango with Chama is long gone and although the railroad bed is visible in many places, it crosses private property in some places, so isn't always available as a pilgrim route.  There are modern paved (and quiet) roads along the route from Purgatory to Arboles, and then a well-maintained dirt road to Dulce, where again there is pavement all the way to Abiquiu.  From Abiquiu, there is the option of staying on the main highway, which is more heavily trafficked, or with slightly greater distance, quiet single-lane backroads to San Juan church on the Pueblo lands of Okay Owingeh.  More backroads lead to Chimayó, although the main route is narrow and fairly busy with traffic.  The last few miles are again on pastoral dirt roads.

Being exploratory, though, I ran into one unfortunate snag, which, by the experience, is already rectified.  Nonetheless, I'll elaborate without exaggeration for the sake of adventure:

After passing through Chama, NM,  I asked at the forestry department for guidance on finding a footpath to the Benedictine Monastery from the north.  They were encouraging and gave general information but told me I should check with the local old timer who grew up as a cowboy in the area and knew every path like the back of his hand.  By grand fortune and coincidence, I was slated to stay at the old man's home that very night, an arrangement of the previous night's gracious host.
True that he knew the area, but the map I got from the forest rangers was too unfamiliar a communication tool and he insisted, brushing the map aside with disinterest, that I could take a compass bearing to get myself to the cliffs above the monastery and then make my way down the canyon wall without rope - 'a horse couldn't make it, but you can,' he assured me.  Hours later, under a pleasant midday sun, I advanced on my belly to peer over the cliff face in safety from the unceasing strong upgusts and looked down at the monastic serenity from the precipitous height.  I scanned and scrambled for three hours trying to find a way down, but all for naught.  I clambered back to the top of Mesa de las Viejas hoping for a cell signal to call the old rancher to come and get me in his pickup, but no luck.  No signal, nearly dead battery.. fifteen miles from the nearest residence; a thousand feet above the unreachable cloister of warmth, shelter, and vesper-singing monks.
Before darkness set in, I spotted a gnarled old cedar in a clearing of pale green sagebrush poking through a field of lumpy granular snow and gathered firewood for the long cold night ahead.  I had plenty of elk jerky, some granola bars, a chocolate bar and one tea bag left in the larder of my backpack acquired over the days of pilgrimage.  My pack cover and rain gear served as the mattress beneath the sweep of the low branches, and with my little down blanket on top, I lit an elongated fire beside me, melted some snow first to drink, then to wash my socks and undies, and settled in to read a bit in the luminous three-quarter moonlight to break up the long 14 nighttime hours.  Psalms, mostly.
My refugio evidently infringed on a nearby coyote mom, who retaliated a good part of the night by teaching her kits how to howl when ever my fire died down.  Aside from the hoots from some unseen owls, the only other sound was the fierce wind rattling the cedars and pinons and casting dancing moonshadows on my erstwhile bedding.  The stars were bright and once the moon fell below the distant mountains at around 3 am, the Milky Way seemed as if it were about to spill through the branches right over me.  I was abruptly roused at dawn by a deafening rattle of an approaching herd of full-galloping elk, spooked, I suppose, by the unwelcome scent of my fire.  It was a startling and beautiful demonstration of the majestic power of nature.  After a makeshift porridge of crushed granola bar dissolved in hot water, I repeatedly melted enough snow in my little tin cup over the revived fire to half-fill my water bottle, yet it froze within an hour of my day-lit exodus toward Abiquiu.
So passed night eight of my pilgrimage, and despite the unintended discomfort, I found it to be intensely enjoyable.  I have the very clear sense that any number among my friends the Saints whom I've gotten to know over my pilgrim years incited the events just for a lighthearted mischievous chuckle.  I made it on to Abiquiu, found posada with a lovely elderly couple, life-long residents who assured me, through their fussing over and feeding me, that the way to access the bottom of the canyon where the monastery lay was miles upstream of where I was erroneously directed.  I've got the route down now and can declare the Old Spanish Trail from Purgatory a viable and beautiful 10-day pilgrim camino to Chimayo.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Day 7 Across the Divide

...Chama - Nutrias

This is proving to be an interesting and beautiful pilgrim route.  I've made a point of asking the octogenarians I've met along the way if they had known of pilgrims using the route long ago.  No, only hobos passing through along the railroad line.  The trains stopped nearly 50 years ago, as did the hobos.  No pilgrims.  Nonetheless, modern residents have been wonderfully pilgrim-friendly and very encouraging.

It's funny how weather works - the warmest day so far is the one with snow, a few inches in Chama when I set out.  Even with the temperature just above freezing most of the afternoon, the water in the flexible plastic bottle tucked between my back and my backpack still froze; as did the bananas I was given for my lunch today.  Elk jerky can't really freeze and I've been given enough of it to last until the Santuario.

I've climbed up and out of the valleys I've been following and crossed the continental divide at 7,275 feet.  The topography is broader and expansive and the climate much dryer.  Spruce and lodgepole pine have given way to juniper and russian sage.  The views today were pretty impressive, especially the far away San Juan mountains where I started the pilgrimage, but the phone-camera struggles to function in the cold, so if I don't take photos right when I start out in the morning, I can't seem to make it work.  The elk and mule deer I've seen in abundance are too sly for my photographic skills anyway.

Here are a few shots of scenes along the Old Spanish Trail I managed to take in the past days:
Old Spanish Trail in the San Juan River Valley, Colorado
Iglesia San Juan Bautista, Pagosa Junction, Colorado
Further Upstream along the Navajo River across the New Mexico line

Did the old wagon make it to its destination?  near Lumberton, NM

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Day 5 Into New Mexico

Purgatory - Durango - Ignacio - Arboles - Pagosa Junction - Lumberton - ...

The kindness of the country people, the cultural diversity, and the beautiful scenery bring great warmth to the frosty weather.  The route so far has been pretty true to the original path, and comfortably along an old railroad bed.  Ironically, it seems, the rail line superseded the wagon trail and the highway to the north superseded the rail line, which was ripped out by the end of the 1960s.  The towns have shrunk or disappeared.  Seeing on the map that the distance between Arboles and Dulce (3 miles before Lumberton) is just over 40 miles, I suspected that there might have been another stopover in the middle, to maintain the pattern of a day's walk between villages.  Sure enough, Pagosa Junction is pretty much a ghost town now, but when the rail line passed through, it was quite a thriving little spot.  A few secluded houses remain and posada arose right where it was needed.

All the folks have been supportive and wonderful to me and for better or worse, the failure has been the lack of network coverage for my phone service preventing me from uploading photos.  When I return, I'll post them in proper sequence.  For certain, a photographer would enjoy the scenery, both the natural landscape and the tranquil remnants of former times - a nice old church has been preserved and an old cemetery is particularly photogenic, but my phone-camera doesn't seem to function below the freezing point, so much has been missed.

Onward now toward Chama, though it's a bit east of the original path.  The land around here is very much unpopulated and after seeking counsel at the tribal offices in Dulce, I decided to take the more reliable deviation to ensure there will be shelter for the next several nights.   Sometime soon, I should get into T-Mobile service area and post some photos and messages; if not, I'll find someone with an internet connection.

buen camino

Monday, January 6, 2014

Day 3 Ignacio, CO

A pilgrim asking for posada during Christmas season has a great advantage.  It's wonderful being a pilgrim walking from Purgatory.

To begin the journey, I explained at the ski resort of Purgatory Village - their busy season, notwithstanding - I was offered perfect pilgrim accommodation in a yurt.  A frigid night followed, but nothing more than mild suffering; it is Purgatory, after all, and one should suffer a least a little.

Descending more than 2,000 feet in 28 miles, the wind swirled the flurries as well as the clouds and there was a mountain mix of intense snow and intense sun throughout the day.  A photographer from the local paper got wind of me and caught up for roadside chats and snaps.

Journey to Chimayo
To view the contents on, go to:
Arriving in Durango just before evening Mass at St Colomba church, I grabbed the ear of the ushers and the priest who cordially offered to put me up in a hotel down the street, having no accommodation at the parish; yet following the service, many people approached to inquire about the oddity of a pilgrim in their midst and a kindly retired couple offered to take me home with them for a hearty meal and warm guestroom.  Nice pilgrim day.

Waking to a brisk 4*F, I left the historic mining town along an old railroad bed toward Ignacio, another of the towns on the traditional Old Spanish Trail.  Kindness abounded, especially for the temperature - coffee proffered and received frequently enough, though I declined the offers of a ride.

I don't understand why the photos I texted into the website didn't appear, but I'll try to get to the bottom of it and get the photos up on this page, though now out of sequence.

buen camino!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year, New Pilgrimage

Long ago, pilgrims came to El Santuario from near and far.  Before New Mexico was a state, before it was a territory, when it was part of New Spain, explorers wanting to link this group of Spanish Missions with those in California turned their attention northward, then westward to find ways around the imposing rugged waterless desert and the more imposing Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.  Various routes were identified, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Purgatory, a mining stop during the early days when New Mexico became a territory, was not a stopover on the Old Spanish Trail, but lies a day's walk north of Durango, Colorado.  Nonetheless, Purgatory seems to me to be a suitable starting point to explore a modern Pilgrim Camino to El Santuario.

The Old Spanish Trail is one of the identified National Historic Trails maintained by the US Forest Service.  This trail is interesting as a Pilgrim Camino because it was in use at the time when El Santuario was built and being filled with unique religious art in the turbulent times of Mexico's independence, border conflicts with the US, and westward expansion.

Pilgrims then and now are challenged along this route by rugged landscapes, broad unpopulated ranges, and a lack of potable water... follow this blog beginning January 4th and participate in the exploration of this historical path as a viable Pilgrim Camino to El Santuario. I anticipate this pilgrimage taking about 9 or 10 days, barring inclement winter weather.  The original route of the Old Spanish Trail isn't marked, but I think the many dirt roads in the area will be evident enough to follow the path with a sense of accuracy.  Several of the early settlements, notably Ignacio, Colorado and Abiquiu, New Mexico, still exist, and topography will surely dictate the comfortable way between them.

I'm not sure what opportunities will arise that will permit me to post frequent blogs, but I expect to be able to send in photos remotely -- as long as I can get a T-Mobile signal.