Albuquerque-area residents trek long road to Chimayó

April 14, 2017 GMT

The steady shuffle of Noah Martinez’s steps and the accompanying slosh of water in his half-filled canteen keep a constant beat as cars roar by on Interstate 25.

For some miles, Martinez plucks the strings of the hulking guitarrón slung over his left side, adding a traditional New Mexican bass-thrum to the mix. Other miles, he tunes out the rumble of tires and mufflers with ear buds, blasting Willie Nelson as he reminisces on the walks of years past. Mostly, he settles into the sounds of the highway, which have become rather meditative, he says, after 10 years traversing the roadside path to Chimayó.

Each year, up to 30,000 pilgrims make their way from across New Mexico to celebrate Good Friday at El Santuario de Chimayó. Most people park within a few miles of the quaint adobe shrine. Some brave the nearly 30-mile trek from Santa Fe.

A few, Martinez included, walk the roughly 90 miles from Albuquerque, a show of extreme perseverance for the sake of religion, tradition or personal accomplishment.

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From afar, Martinez looks like a cross between a cowboy and a rambling musician, what with his bushy beard, braided hair, cowboy hat and big instrument. That’s not too far from the truth. The 27-year-old raises chicks and dreams of owning 10 acres where he can garden and have animals. He makes a living playing guitarrón and upright bass in a “Chicano stringband” called Lone Piñon.

But for three and a half days a year, Martinez just walks. Like his father did. And his grandfather. And his great-grandfather.

“My family has been doing this walk for generations,” he said. “We’ll never be like our grandfathers. We’re just from different worlds. But we can do a few things here and there that put us in touch with our ancestors. I kind of feel them when I’m walking.”

Jose Munguia made his first pilgrimage to Chimayó from Albuquerque seven years ago. At the time, he was struggling financially and was praying to God for more work. The journey paid off, he says, both spiritually and economically. He continues to make the trek to the church, laden with food, a sleeping bag and camping materials for the multiday journey. Munguia sees it as an opportunity to give thanks for what he has and to pray for the troubles of the world.

“I feel like you have to sacrifice a little bit in order to receive,” Munguia said. “It’s hard for people who don’t believe in this to understand, but faith can do a lot of things for you. If you have faith, you can achieve everything you want.”

Munguia’s wife, Stephanie Avalos, decided to walk with him this year. Their small party left Albuquerque at 5 a.m. Wednesday and walked about 30 miles that first day, planning to camp overnight near the exit to Santo Domingo. By the end of the day, Avalos had “blisters all over” and had grappled with the challenges of moving forward more than once. With her husband by her side, she walked on.

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“It’s definitely a spiritual thing. It’s also a very mental thing,” she said. “If I can accomplish this, if I’m strong, maybe I can accomplish everything in life. This is a big challenge.”

The temperature along the side of I-25 fluctuates mile by mile. The landscape offers no trees and scant cover to shelter travelers from blistering sun or winds that tear across the desert landscape. Cars race by at speeds upward of 75 miles per hour, and the sharp crack of fabric from a fast-moving semitrailer is enough to make even a veteran walker momentarily fear for his frail mortality.

Martinez walks along the edge of the road, between the rumble strip and where the paved shoulder starts to fall off. The flat surface, he says, is good for his ankles. To stave off blisters, he stops every few hours to put on two pairs of mostly clean, dry socks. He pins the sweaty ones to his backpack.

“Remember that part in Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan tells Forrest, ‘You’ve got to keep your feet clean’?” Martinez said. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the walk.”

Men in his family have walked to Chimayó nearly every year, and Martinez sees it as his duty to keep up the tradition. He started walking at age 15 with his younger brother, the year after their father stopped his annual treks.

For the older generations, the pilgrimage was more religious, Martinez said. He does pray, but it’s having time to reflect on the past year that gives him an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility, Martinez says.

He’s only skipped the walk twice in the past 12 years. In 2012, he started the walk, then got hit by a car near Camel Rock Casino on a snowy day. As Martinez remembers it, the driver ran off the road after hitting a patch of ice, swerved to avoid hitting Martinez head-on but still caught him with part of the car and tore a ligament in his knee.

He doesn’t count his walk that year, since he didn’t reach Chimayó. But he did learn a few lessons: Stop walking when the weather is bad and be careful what you ask for.

The year before he was hit, Martinez had been feeling lost. He was working a restaurant job that didn’t make him happy and searching for a way into a music career. Before he was hit by the car, he had been praying he would “find his way.”

The accident forced him to quit the restaurant job. When he was unemployed, he started landing music gigs and eventually started doing it full time.

“That was one of the best days of my whole life,” he said of the day of the accident. “You’ve got to watch out what you ask for.”

Last year, Martinez was touring with his band and didn’t get a chance to do the walk. Skipping it, he says, threw him in a funk.

“It’s strange, the things you will believe after you start to believe them,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Ah, man, I’ve got to do the walk this year or my dog is going to get a tumor.’ ”

Most drivers speed by Martinez without a second thought. Every now and again, a driver will tap the horn twice in encouragement, to which Martinez raises his fist proudly. And a handful of people offer food or rides. On Wednesday, a woman driving an SUV with Texas plates and a man with slick-backed hair in a turquoise pickup offered rides, which Martinez politely declined. An older woman in a Prius insisted he take a juice. And a man driving a tow truck brought protein bars and Gatorade and struck up a conversation in Spanish.

“Compassion knows no prejudices,” Martinez said. “I used to always say no when people stopped, but then I realized it was their way of contributing to the walk, even if they don’t do it or don’t believe in it.”

Those interactions on the path to Chimayó are fleeting but meaningful, especially in the years Martinez walks alone. At every landmark, he recounts a memory. Over here, a woman gave Martinez a burger she’d driven an hour home to make. Over there, he met a gentleman who asked him to pray for his daughters at the santuario.

Martinez is young, but he says the walk is a challenge every year. He likened himself to a newer car that “has a lot of miles and a new door, and it’s a different color.”

Over the past year, he developed gout and couldn’t walk, possibly a punishment for not undertaking the walk in 2016, he jokes. To make sure he didn’t miss it again, he gave up beer and became a vegetarian.

He said he does feel a little bit guilty this year. On Tuesday, instead of camping under a bridge or by the side of the road, he had family drive him home at night, then drop him off to resume walking in the morning.

“I feel like I’m cheating when I go home at night sometimes,” he says. “Unless you pack a bag and don’t come home until you’re done, you’re bending the rules a little bit.”

When Martinez first started the pilgrimage, he thought he might do it for 10 years. Now, his goal is 20. Eventually, he hopes his sons, who are 8 years and 2 months old, will be interested in taking up the mantle. He carries their things with him: a tiny baby cap and a pair of gloves that belong to his oldest son.

“That’s the last thing you want is to see things die,” he said. “If something happened to me and I was unable to walk, I don’t know who would do it. That’s huge. It [would seem] like a community failure that I couldn’t do my part to inspire somebody else to take it.”

Until then, he’ll put one foot in front of the other and strum his instrument to pass the time.

“This is a good walk. I suggest it to everybody — even if you’re not religious or anything. Just go push your body to the point where you really have to dig in your heart,” he said.

Contact Sami Edge at sedge@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3055.