Thursday, April 23, 2015

City of Holy Faith to Chimayo Mountain Pilgrimage - Cold Beans & Dead Trees

Old and new - Chima 2015
Story and photos submitted by Joe Lewis: 

Rio en Medio to Frijoles Creek > Chimayo VillageDistance: ~21mi
Duration: ~8hrs

I don’t know why I decided I wanted to run from Santa Fe to Chimayo through the mountains this year. It was a combination of things but the main purpose was to challenge myself, test my faith, practice my moving meditation, improve my conscious contact with my higher power, have an adventure, do something no one had done, and see if it could be done. Obviously there is a precedent as Chimayo is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in the USA drawing upwards of 30,000 visitors every year on good Friday. Yet no one I spoke with on our local running team had heard about someone taking the mountain path, everyone goes on the main roads. I am sure the idea came to me while I was running. I have competed in Tough Mudders, Marathons, Backpack trips, and Ultra Marathons in the past so the idea immediately appealed to me. I could get a good training run it, scout some new territory, take my dog Tally Ho, avoid the roads and crowds, participate in a cultural event, and if successful do something no one had done before. But what route would I take? How long would it be?  What would I need to take? Would anyone go with me and did I want them to? Could and would I make it?

The morning of our run was clear and bright. A full moon was setting in the west when I awoke. My good friend Silas Peterson had decided to accompany me and arrived at 530am. I figured a partner would be good to have this first time around plus Silas and I had been through quite an ordeal when he survived a near death 150ft fall in the Grand Tetons this past July done an ice couloir which I witnessed. Our relationship since had been good but there was some kind of underlying dude tension between us (not wanting to admit weakness, fear of mortality, stubbornness...etc) that we never really talked about. We needed this challenge and the potential for healing.

After a quick stop to say a prayer and connect with a buddy who was going the 28 miles on the road we hopped back in the truck for a drive up to the trail head at Rio En Medio. It was chilly and dark when we arrived. I had a larger 2 day pack and Silas was only carrying a small water vest. We set off almost due east up the Rio En Medio on trail 163. It was slow going warming up the bodies and with the spring run off we had a few stream crossings but we managed to stay dry and made our way to trail 179. After about 1 mile this trial cuts northeast into the mountain over a ridge into the Rio Nambe canyon. This trail was obvious but had some rock slide areas that were almost impassable as well as some dead fall. Generally though it was pretty smooth going.

Tree and creekbed damage
Silas with the Sangres to the east
By the time we made it down into the canyon it was warming up and the sun was peaking through the trees. We had been going about 4.5 miles by this point. The canyon itself was a disaster zone. Literally it had been the site of a large forest fire two years ago and the trees still standing were charred and the stream itself roared through denuded banks clearly eroding and cutting new paths that would have been impossible with vegetation. A huge ponderosa pine lay across the stream with roots exposed gripping large river boulders like a fisted hand. It made a good bridge but the scene was surreal. As we made it a bit further up we got into some clearings which had some more life with new grass shoots and aspens budding. We had planned to cut north and then meet up with trail 234 going northwest onto the Nambe mesa but we somehow missed it. Instead we ended up on Borrego trail 150 headed due north. I figured that was the case looking at the topo map and the fact that there was no western trail taking us out of the mountains the way I had planned. I was a bit nervous at this point. This was the dark area that I had not scouted in advance and we had clearly missed the trail I was hoping to find. I joked and tried to downplay it but I was unsure and fear was creeping in.
While the unknown trail was difficult with endless deadfall and some icy snow patches we kept at it. After all this was some kind of pilgrimage and while Silas is a professed atheist and I am more of a spiritual leaning agnostic we had to trust the universe had our backs on this one. One foot in front of the other and we would make it out. Around mile 9 we crested a ridge and headed down. I guessed at this point we were in the frijoles and Santa Cruz lake water shed. A mile further on we arrived at a swollen stream which I guessed was the Rio Frijoles (frijoles is beans in spanish thus cold beans). I figured if we followed it down stream we would end up coming out on the roads where I had done my first scouting mission. That however was easier said than done. The canyon was steep and the trail crisscrossed the stream over 20 times. Just when our toes regained feeling it was another back and forth and a re-numbing with needles in our soles to follow. At 11:30 we stopped for a quick lunch and shed layers as we were dropping elevation at this point and the sun was getting high and warm overhead. At about 12.5 in we were making good time and steady progress.

I figured we were a little over half way there but that didn't make the navigating the canyon any easier. The fire hadn’t come down this far but there was still plenty of dead trees. Some we went over and others had enough clearance below to squeeze underneath. This was becoming a real obstacle course. We had a feeling of anticipation but with frozen feet a sprained ankle was a real possibility, we weren't out of the woods yet. At mile 13.5 some ATV and jeep tracks started showing up. This was a relief and then I saw the area I had run on my reverse scouting mission. Our legs were in good shape as most of the past few miles had been downhill with plenty of distractions but now it was up a ridge across country to intercept cnty rd 123 and south around Santa Cruz lake to the Santuario. I figured we had another 6 miles to go after having covered about 14.5 by this point (my Garmin died so these are approximations). We started getting into our food and electrolytes but we were out of the mountains, they had released us. That low grade anxiety of being so remote, blind and isolated vanished. We looked back up at the mountains and out over the washes and foothills we had yet to cover with a sense of purpose and levity.

Cundiyo overlook and a parade of Good Friday pilgrims
We made good time across the foothills. Following some cow tracks and jeep trails I saw my old prints in the dirt from my scouting run weeks before. We intercepted county rd 123 then crossed Hwy 503 to Cundiyo climbing up onto the mesa south of Santa Cruz Lake. One more drop into a wash then we were up on the western mesa above the Lake and the town of Portero and Chimayo. We started seeing the cars and walkers headed to the shrine as we were. We hugged a ridge and dropped down right above the church where hwy 98 and county rd 92 converged. Loud motorcycles rumbled by, trash littered the shoulders of the road, and portapotties stood sentinel. After 8 hours and about 21 miles on trail we had arrived. We joined the masses and headed down towards the river. As my dog Tally Ho drank and frolicked in the stream with the kids I thought about the water and how it was the same runoff, with a brief reservoir stay, from the high peaks which had been freezing our feet a couple hours previously. We walked around the gardens and then past the line to get into the church itself. The structure has become such a well known site as many miracles have been attributed to the place, injuries cured, and the dirt is believed to be holy. It was crowded and tourists mixed with serious devotees of Spanish ancestry with rosaries and screen printed Jesus shirts. It was quite a shock to be surrounded by all that humanity, cultural history, juxtapositions, and faith after being so quiet and alone in the woods.

Good Friday at the Santuario
Santuario de Chimayo
We met Silas’s girlfriend Abby on the road and got in the car for the drive back to Santa Fe and my truck at Rio En Medio. It was a very cool experience and I would certainly do it again. Maybe I was expecting too much though as I sat in the back seat of the car exhausted and slamming chia seed Kombucha. There was no white light experience, no deep immediate faith gained. Yet I think the real lesson is that this was a challenge. Something no one else had done and I scouted it over 2 months, mapped it, trusted I could do it, believed the universe would see me through and completed it. My faith is not some guilty conscience and penance of sin and repentance. My faith is a steady and persistent discipline much like the run itself with one foot in front of the other and when the trail is lost a belief in the universe that we will find our way. It is at times nerve wracking and painful but also allows me to run through cold mountain streams with my best friends jumping over logs and freezing my toes. I like to think Caballo Blanco would have approved.

A week after the run Silas told me that my friendship was very valuable to him, I had been of incredible service, and I had affected his life deeply. If that isn't cool and a good reason for a pilgrimage I don’t know what is...

Related Posts:
 - Easter Pilgrimage: As Interpreted by Endurance Athletes
 - Nambe Creek - TR 160
 - Scouting Forest Service Trails by Plane

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