For many of Catholics who walk from near and far along the back roads of Northern New Mexico, the annual pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó is the most important event of the year. At the chapel, pilgrims stand in a long line that snakes its way out the door and up along the road as they await the chance to say penance and prayers, and bathe their hands in earth that is said to be healing and holy. Vendors sell cotton candy, roasted corn and Frito pies made with famed Chimayó chile.

Two pilgrims. Photo by Dillon Sachs
Two pilgrims. Photo by Dillon Sachs

It is Good Friday, the biggest day of the Holy Week pilgrimage that ends at with Easter Sunday, and many among the throng around the small adobe chapel have spent days on the road. From Albuquerque, the trek takes about two days, says Salazar Ramirez, who took a couple days from work to walk with his brother, Jose, who made the walk, he says to fortify himself against relapse into heroin addiction.

"Today is a day to be grateful for what we have, and to meditate on the suffering of Jesus. Hopefully he will see my suffering and forgive me so that I can get clean," says Jose.

For the Cruz family, sitting outside a building adjacent to the chapel, the pilgrimage is a family tradition. Photo by Dillon Sachs
For the Cruz family, sitting outside a building adjacent to the chapel, the pilgrimage is a family tradition. Photo by Dillon Sachs

Other pilgrims have walked from Nambé, Española, Taos and Santa Fe, and one man says he has come as far as El Paso on a walk that took two weeks.

As much as the pilgrimage is a testament of faith, it is also a celebration of community and culture. The drive into Chimayó along the high road from Española was a long slow cruise behind a large group of motorcyclists, past lowriders emblazoned with "Los Guys" and pickups with kids in the back, passing out water to walkers. The bikers revved their engines as they passed a band playing in a backyard, where a group of men carrying heavy wooden crosses stopped to catch their breath beneath the blooming fruit trees that line the acequia. Both sides of the road were packed with families, mothers pushing strollers, fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders, a little boy tottering along behind a pit bull twice his size.

Dillon Sachs
Dillon Sachs

Zach Garcia and Rey Cisneros rode from Taos on motorcycles with 18 other riders, stopping in Española to pick up friends along the way.

They have all come in support of Ben Montoya, who is here in the memory of his son, Justin. The young man died in a motorcycle accident eight months ago. He had been on his way to meet his father at his uncle's funeral at the time, and Montoya lost both brother and son within days of one another.

Dubie Smith, born and raised in Santa Fe, rode in with her husband and 18 others in support of a friend.
Dubie Smith, born and raised in Santa Fe, rode in with her husband and 18 others in support of a friend. | Leah Cantor

"Today we came for them. To honor their memories, to pray, and to be together in support of our friend. This is such an important day to pay our respects," says Garcia, who was born and raised in Taos and has made the trek to Chimayó most of the years of his life. When he was a kid, he tells SFR, he walked with his family. Today, he rides with his friends.

JJ walked from Camel Rock Casino carrying a cross that bears the names of family members who have passed away, including his niece, his father, his grandmother and his wife. Photo by Dillon Sachs.
JJ walked from Camel Rock Casino carrying a cross that bears the names of family members who have passed away, including his niece, his father, his grandmother and his wife. Photo by Dillon Sachs.

Montoya is not the only one here who has taken the journey, by foot or by wheel, to honor a loved one. In the chapel, the narrow hallway leading down to the well of holy dirt is lined with photographs left by family members of people who are ill, who have passed away or who are fighting overseas. For many walkers, each step along the path sanctifies the space to remember, the acknowledgement of grief and hope, suffering and gratitude.

Around the chapel, pilgrims waiting to enter the church speak of the importance of family tradition, of the walk as validation of both heritage and faith.

Angela Valdez, second from left, walks with family members in the memory of her stepson, Leland Valdez, who died at 3 years old as a victim of child abuse. Photo by Dillon Sachs
Angela Valdez, second from left, walks with family members in the memory of her stepson, Leland Valdez, who died at 3 years old as a victim of child abuse. Photo by Dillon Sachs

For Angela Valdez and her family, the walk from Nambé is also about justice. Her 3-year-old stepson, Leland Valdez, was beaten to death by his biological mother and her boyfriend in Pojoaque in 2011. Valdez tells SFR that her husband, Leland's father, had reported signs of abuse to the police after the boy returned from the custody of his mother in 2010, but the police failed to substantiate the claim.

"I used to walk every year for Leland and to raise awareness about child abuse and addiction," Valdez says. "I didn't walk last year, but we are walking this year for him again. No family should go through what we went through. New Mexico needs to deal with its problem of child abuse that happens too often in our state, so we are walking for Leland and for all the other kids who have suffered and might still be suffering."

Nancy Herrera, Angel Sanchez, Mario Perez and Cande Enriquez arrive at night. Herrera and Sanchez come from Denver every year to partake in the pilgrimage. Photo by Dillon Sachs.
Nancy Herrera, Angel Sanchez, Mario Perez and Cande Enriquez arrive at night. Herrera and Sanchez come from Denver every year to partake in the pilgrimage. Photo by Dillon Sachs.

As the hot afternoon unfolds into a breezy evening, walkers continue to trickle in while others catch rides with family or turn back for the long walk home. In the deepening darkness, outdoor shrines to La Virgen de Guadalupe glow golden in the soft light of hundreds of flickering candles. Pilgrims to arrive wearing glow sticks, speaking in hushed tones, or sit along the acequia that runs past the chapel garden, looking up at the bright full moon and listening the frogs and crickets as they sing softly in the night.

Dillon Sachs
Dillon Sachs

SFR worked in collaboration with Santa Fe photographer Dillon Sachs for this story.