The Holiness of Dirt

Santa Fe to Taos via the High Road
May 17-26, 2014

by Winter Ross

“Pilgrimage: a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone’s own beliefs.” — Wikipedia

I trudge breathlessly, head down, toward our next camp: the parking lot of El Santuario de Chimayo. A Roman Catholic Church and National Historic Monument in New Mexico, it is famous for miracles of healing. I look forward to baptizing my feet in the pure cold stream that gurgles behind the church. (The water is shared with the cattle in the pasture beyond. Shared water and the systems of acequias of New Mexico are sacred, too.) Although I’ve trained to hike the distances expected on this march, I’ve not trained to the pace of walkers who have been on the road for two months already. I hurt all over; my joints are stiff; the soles of my feet are burning.

The High Road sees pilgrims and seekers of many kinds. I have been studying the descansos, the roadside shrines of white crosses, plastic flowers and sometimes stuffed toys which mark a soul’s passing after a traffic accident. And I’ve been avoiding discarded syringes, broken bottles and crushed beer cans all day. My eyes on the red pumice gravel, I nearly run into a marcher holding up a sun-faded rosary he’s found on the side of the road. He offers it, and I, who have recently misplaced my Buddhist mala (but not my Hindu mantra, the chanting of which keeps me going on the uphill) know it’s meant for me. Every tenth bead is a plastic picture of our Lady of Guadalupe, the Christianized Aztec earth goddess, Tonantzin and Mother Goddess of this land. I remove the broken wooden cross attached and wrap the beads around my wrist, grateful for this symbol of protection.

The High Road sees pilgrims
and seekers of many kinds.

It won’t rain tonight. I lay out my sleeping bag in the new grass at the edge of the parking lot so as to see the stars. Or even a UFO! I have cheerfully explained to curious east and west coast marchers why the cattle warning road signs we see have flying saucers added. They do not seem to share my delight with paranormal trivia and grim humor when I describe the spate of mysterious cattle mutilations and strange lights that occurred in the 70’s and sometimes even now. What lover of myth could not love New Mexico?

After exchanging a foot massage with a fellow marcher also old enough to remember the Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament in 1986, I explore the shrine. While others cut carrots for dinner, attend a council meeting or play in the stream, I find myself alone in the dim chapel. Its shabby filigree and folk art style portraits of bloody martyrs and saints weave a spell of sadness around me. A small room to the left of the altar holds the crutches of those healed at this place — the “Lourdes of New Mexico.” Ironically, this overnight spot is where I will lose the new trekking pole on which I leaned so heavily today as I tried to keep up. Philosophically, I later think that perhaps the displaced patella of my right knee might be miraculously healed now that the expensive pole has been sacrificed. Maybe my walking stick will end up hanging here among the crutches! Magical thinking (and alien encounters) will eventually get to you if you live in the “Land of Enchantment” long enough.

Pilgrimage may be thought of as the experience of finding a holy place. But it is not a journey to Eden. Transcendence does not come without the understanding of suffering.

In the shrine room, a foot and a half diameter hole in the rock floor invites pilgrims to trowel a bit of the “holy dirt” to carry with them for luck and health. I like that it is called holy DIRT, not “soil” or “clay,” “caliche” or “sand,” just good old honest “dirt.” I take a pinch for my pocket.

I asked a marcher one day, how she felt about walking through the back country Pueblo lands without seeing the public, when a goal of the March is to raise awareness. She answered that it was important to experience what we were actually marching for; to experience the bones of the land without its overlay of cities, farms, roads; to get a small taste of what it must be like to have some harmony with natural forces; to feel a little of what we have lost.

Pilgrimage may be thought of as the experience of finding a holy place. But it is not a journey to Eden. Transcendence does not come without the understanding of suffering. On this march there is cold, exhaustion, pain, arguments, tears, frustration, anger and grief along with the laughter, love, wonder and beauty. Three days hence, children these marchers have met, will have fallen to their deaths from the sky over a New Mexico forest fire. On that same day, a peacock will have spread iridescent feathers in challenge to a rainbow and the ubiquitous LYFs (little yellow flowers) of the desert roadside will remind us that life goes on somehow. That it will go on without or despite us. Pilgrimage is an embracing of the holiness of it All: the holiness, you could say, of Dirt.

Winter Ross is a street medic, artist and appreciator of paradigm diversity. She joined the Great Climate March between Santa Fe and the Taos Mesa where she currently tends an Earthship home.

Originally published on the blog of “The Great Climate March,” May 2014


Journal, Volume 2 Issue 8