Let’s Just Call it a Pilgrimage

Chimayo, New Mexico (eventually)
April 14, 2018

We’d been paying for campgrounds for several weeks and had been staying mostly in towns, so it felt like time to get a little dose of seclusion and save some money by boondocking. We read great online reviews of a site just north of Santa Fe called Overlook Campground, a BLM site for $7/nt above a mountain lake that still had cell reception – sounded perfect!

We got a late start and began the 3 hour trek at noon.

The drive was ordinary and fine, mostly just a long straight stretch of interstate south to Sante Fe. At Santa Fe we left the interstate and drove out of town on a state highway toward Taos. With only about 10 minutes left on our google navigation, we turned off the highway onto County Road 503 which headed up into the foothills of the mountains. In the distance we could see snowy ridges and white ski slopes cutting through green forests. But the terrain right around us was rocky canyons and interesting rock formations. There were a few scattered houses and farms, but mostly just miles and miles of beauty in all directions. “This is going to be beautiful,” we commented to each other.

I was watching us on Brad’s phone map…a small blue dot moving along the highlighted route, closer and closer to the left turn toward the BLM campground. The road wasn’t bad, but it was steep and curvy enough that we had accumulated a line of about 5 cars behind us. We passed a sign that said, “High Road to Taos.”

As we approached an intersection, another road sign suggested that we turn left to continue to Taos, but our nav instructed that we go straight. So we continued straight, but the entire trail of cars behind us took the left and we were suddenly alone. Then we passed a sign (and I’m not sure why it was AFTER the left turn instead of before) that read :

Mountain road. Curvy and steep. Trucks advised to find alternate route.

Our campground was less than a mile away, so surely this sign woudn’t pertain to us.

I looked at the phone map again, and I watched our blue dot approach the campground road, and then pass it and continue on, no longer on the highlighted path. The only thing we had passed was a small road with a shut gate.

“Um…I think that was it…”

We drove until we found a place to pull over on the side of the road, a spot wide enough for us to turn around, so that we could discuss whether to continue or turn around. We no longer had cell service, but thankfully Brad had the map downloaded. We were able to see that if we continued 5 more miles, there was another BLM campground down on the lake itself. We decided to continue on, to see if this campground was open, or perhaps the entrance to the Overlook Campground was from this lower campground. That’s when things started to get really interesting. The road became more steep – some up, then some down, and more curvy, as we meandered our way along the cliff and canyons and foothills of the mountains. As we approached a town we saw a small sign that warned, “No center line 1.2 miles. Use caution.” That didn’t sound like a big deal to me. But what I didn’t realize was the reason there would be no center line was that the road was only big enough for one car. And the mile with no stripe was the mile that made it’s way through the tiny town of Cundiyo.

“Whoa, are we in Europe?!” Brad exclaimed as we rounded a corner and cautiously drove between a house on one side and the roof of a barn built into the ground on the other side. A goat looked up at us from his pasture below, with a surprised look as if he had never seen such a large vehicle drive by before. We crept through the small village, slowly turning a very sharp curve that would have been tricky enough on a bike, let alone with a giant truck pulling a house. Luckily we only met 2 cars during this time; one pulled over to let us pass, and the other crept past us while we sat & waited. At one point we crossed a small bridge with the sign for “caution, narrow bridge”, but we laughed because it was actually wider than the road.

Thankfully there was only 1.2 miles of that insanity, and we continued toward the lake. We continued on County Road 503, from which we did a hair pin left turn toward the BLM recreation area. This began our decent on what was at that moment the most intense road we’d ever pulled our home across. The grade was extreme. I was thankful for brakes in good working order (and an F250 engine brake) and Brad eased us down the sharp left, sharp right, sharp left turns, doing his best to avoid the enormous potholes, but without much wiggle room between the guard rail on one side and the cliffs on the other. It occurred to me on the way down that I hoped our engine was strong enough to get us back up. We met no one, which was a great mercy.

At the bottom of this road was a lovely lake that we were no longer in the mood to see. There was also a campground, but it was closed. I found a Fish & Wildlife officer checking fishing licenses. He informed us that BLM campgrounds in the area didn’t open until late May. There were 2 spots in the park where we could park our rig for $9/nt. There was no reception here, the road back & forth was treacherous, and spending 2 nights thinking about driving back up that road did not sound appealing. So we thanked him for the info & left.

Brad got us back up the campground road without difficulty, this time knowing what to expect – where the steepest parts were, where the biggest potholes were, and with only 1 near miss of the guardrail with Stumbo’s back bumper.

“I think we have to turn right and go back through that town again to go back,” Brad said when we reached Road 503 again.

“But on our nav it looks like if we just go a bit farther to the left it will get us on the larger County Road 76 really quickly,” I countered.

“But look how curvy it gets in that one spot!”

“We can handle some curves…the road through that town felt too dangerous to me.”

So Brad turned left, opting for the possibly treacherous unknown over the definitely treacherous known, and we continued down this mountain road not recommended for trucks. The “curvy part” that we saw on our map was a short section of completely death-defying steep, narrow curves into another little village with no center stripe, Rio Chiquito.

“Is this the craziest road we’ve ever towed?” Brad asked as we tiptoed down the steep part with everything we own rolling along behind us.

“For sure.”

We made it to County Road 76 and were very near to the village of Chimayo, one of these tiny towns on the “High Road to Taos”, where a church built on a holy site attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. I had hoped to visit this site while we boondocked at the Overlook, but as our plans were crumbling by the moment, we were ready to make compromises.

“Can we stop here for a minute so I can see this place and not have to come back up here?” The church itself was on a road that warned “no turn around – narrow road”, so we bypassed that toward the “sanctuary parking” signs. After one more U-Turn in a small fire dept driveway, we were facing the right direction to turn down the steep road to a large gravel parking area.

El Santuario del Chimayo. Many people believe the holy dirt under this church has healing powers, and come from all over the whole to visit a small room just to the left of the sanctuary, where the boards in the floor are open and you can scoop a small bit of it to take home to cure what ails you. The room where the floor is open is lined all the way around with worn-out crutches and canes, where people who were apparently healed on the spot left their assistance items behind.
The grounds around the church are covered with small shrines where thousands of people have left items behind after carrying them on their pilgrimage to this holy site.
I tend to be pretty cynical about things like holy dirt, but I feel like just the amount of prayers and spiritual intent that have washed over this place have made it holy.

We decided to head back to the Santa Fe campground we were already familiar with because we were exhausted and frazzled. It was a bit spendy for our taste at $38/night, but it’s right in town near the museums, downtown, and other areas we’d hoped to visit one more time.

We pulled into the familiar place just after 6:00pm, with no wilderness or free parking in our weekend’s future, but feeling like we’d just completed a monumental pilgrimage of our own.

1 Comment

  1. marie says: Reply

    i got anxious just reading that!! that church is beautiful.

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