There’s something to be said for the “religious” nature of travel. The uplifting of the spirit in the presence of breathtaking natural or man-made wonders. The affirmation that comes from putting yourself in a place where you feel whole, renewed. The releasing of everyday cares and letting the experience itself strip away layers of stress.
For the purpose of today’s piece, I am not necessarily talking about this, although all of those things certainly come into play. The road trip we made last year came at a time in my life where I was broken. Recent life had left me struggling with feelings of vulnerability, inferiority, and loss. In the face of the series of events and realizations that had brought me to that place, there was nothing more productive for me than to throw every semblance of control (which I had never really possessed, anyway) out the window and hit the road: no plans, no maps besides the one on my phone, no agenda, no destination.
I have very few expectations when I travel in general; I prefer not to even have a plan. Besides photography and the joy of new discoveries, one of the best things about a trip for me is going into it wide open. However, the last thing I expected, when we decided to load up the truck and head west the next day, was to encounter God. I feel like that is a ridiculous statement for me to make since I usually encounter Him in some way on an almost daily basis, but I had no idea what lay ahead. The Turquoise Trail, for us, became a trail of faith.
Most of the places we visited had been there for a long time, and they differed from the countless roadside churches we passed in the south on our last trip to North Carolina. They were worn with many decades of prayer. Exposed in the desert sun, baking in the landscape like beacons, compelling us to pull over. A message from a friend told me we were “too close to El Chimayo not to stop,” so we did.
What we found there took us both by surprise. I’ve been Catholic my whole life, and have visited other pilgrimage sites in the past (again, more by chance than by my own design), but I had never seen anything like El Chimayo. A quick search on the phone when we managed to have a signal told us it was the “Lourdes of America.” We looked at everything. I watched Walt touched the Holy Dirt; I was speechless when I walked out of that tiny room and saw the crutches that had been left behind.
The Niños Chapel was too much for me; I took a quick look and was so overwhelmed that I had to go outside, where I stood in tears for a few minutes. It was a profound and emotional afternoon for both of us, and an important part of a trip that ended up having a lasting long-term effect on our lives. (If you’d like to know more, please visit the shrine’s website)
Along the way, I experienced a new grace - or maybe not new, maybe one I had just forgotten, one that needed to be dusted off and brought back into the light. It occurs to me now that the state I was in at the time is precisely where I needed to be in order to receive. Pride, and the illusion of self-sufficiency, closes a person off. With every new day, every new place we visited, every opportunity to pass on kindness to a fellow traveler, I felt it. Each step of the journey was another candle lit along the way.
Peace followed me back home from the road. I knew that no matter what, no matter if life took everything away from us, that things would be ok. I brought the light back with me, and have worked to keep it burning. “Give me oil in my lamp.. . . . “
All images are part of my ongoing series Into the West; all are film.