In January 2008 I went on a Catholic pilgrimage in Mexico called El Camino de San Juan. I went with Huicho, a friend from the hills outside the Spanish colonial city of Guanajuato in the central Mexico Plateau. Huicho and I worked together at a bed & breakfast there—he as the cook and housekeeper and I as the laid-back concierge. I sat at breakfast with guests from the United States and Canada and introduced them to the city’s entertainments, its museums and theaters and dance clubs. I led a life of utter ease that came at no cost and I was 27. Huicho, younger but wiser than me in his life experience and overall conduct, had made the pilgrimage six times previously. Otherwise he was not an observant Christian. He sometimes wore a small silver cross around his neck, probably mined from the same lodes that had once made Guanajuato so lucrative for the conquering Spaniards.
I doubt very much the stories of the miraculous Virgin who inspires this annual march through the desert in the Mexican winter.
The Virgin of San Juan is a doll-size icon of the Virgin Mary made from wood, corn paste, orchid juice and gesso by indigenous artisans from the state of Michoacán and given to San Juan de los Lagos, in the state of Jalisco, in the 1540s. The date of the image’s first recorded miracle is 1623, when it revived a young girl who had been impaled through the chest. Some years later, the icon was dressed in a flowing blue robe and white gown, and she was put behind glass inside a cathedral of soft pink stone. The pilgrimage to San Juan grew more popular as the legend of the Virgin’s healing powers spread through Mexico. Millions now travel to honor the Virgin each year and repay her for a miracle received in an act known as la manda. Crowds peak around the holiday of Candlemas on February 2, a traditional halfway point through winter.
We begin in the heat of dusk as the deep red sun drops slowly toward the horizon. Huicho and I have just joined the river of pilgrims, peregrínos, after leaving a taxi that brought us from León’s bus station to its outskirts, sixty miles from our destination. We’re going to walk the whole distance, east to west, in about twenty-four hours.
Huicho is a common nickname for the name Luis. He calls me Pato, Duck. He’s sweet-tempered and patient, handsome, short-legged, smooth-skinned, and smiles fiendishly to reveal crooked front teeth. He earns enough money to afford a cell phone and an iPod but he identifies strongly with his rural campo and makes a big deal out of going to ranch dances and listening to bouncy, keening North Mexican country music called norteño. He listens to it while he works, making beds and folding laundry. He will sometimes straighten up and pretend to threaten me with a cockeyed glance or menace playfully with a chopping knife (which he wields expertly). That’s all the machismo there is in him.
I stay close to Huicho as he leans forward on his short legs, wearing a black backpack over his chest like a papoose. It’s filled with warm clothes and water bottles. People pour onto the path at all points and I have the sense of being part of an urban evacuation in its early stages. A mild feeling of hazard clings to the dry air of the high desert thorn forest. It smells like burnt oil and brushfires. I’m stunned quiet by the fumes from the nearby thruway, a foreign smelling diesel bouquet. We pass a field that’s crispy black and smoking from an agricultural fire set by some “dudes” as Huicho reports (I translate the slang word guey this way. He says it a lot.). There are occasional vendors. A woman has spread out a blanket at the side of the road and covered it with thousands of cushioned insoles in various colors and sizes.
Huicho crouches down in the fine dust and studies the jumble of footprints.
When he gets tired his shoulders slump forward and his chin drops, but his legs keep driving and the distance behind us grows.
After a few minutes we cross a busy highway into a lot occupied by a rowdy crowd and a family handing out oranges to the passing pilgrims.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I ask Huicho as we swoop in for an orange without relaxing our businesslike pace. Huicho works as hard as anyone I know, and he could be resting today instead of going on a pilgrimage. He looks at me and removes the blue surgical mask he wears, which is meant to filter out dust but also brings to mind blood and broken bones. I’m glad I’m with someone who seems prepared to handle those things.
I don’t know, he says, por gusto? I had expected him to say something about God or belief.
Gusto? I say. Gusto suggests pleasure and fulfillment. It can be deeply felt or or short-lived. I wonder which kind Huicho means. He adds: You don’t have to do something out of belief, you can just do it because you like it. Then he snaps his mask back over his mouth.
I look around for signs of gusto. The iron green country is thick with the teardrop pads of the nopales cacti, the hydra-headed garambullo, and the granddaddy magueys posed as succulent flames. The earth gives off its heat slowly. The road is littered with Styrofoam cups and empty soda bottles; plastic wrappers nest in the bare-knuckled trees. We pass a polychromatic trash dump and I ask Huicho what the people are doing in there. They live there, dude.
I wonder if all the pilgrims are doing this for gusto. They wear knee and back braces, use sugarcanes for walking sticks, carry their infants in swaddling blankets. A number of women push baby carriages and a pair of trembling old ladies walk arm-in-arm to steady each other. People stop to briefly genuflect before a bejeweled shrine the size of a coffin featuring a likeness of the Virgin in her flowing blue robes. I want to snap a picture of the Lady but Huicho is not going to stop for her now.
Dusk slips in quietly as more and more walkers meet the flat road. I peel my orange and concentrate on savoring every bight. Mixing with the sugar I can taste the road’s grit between my molars. I look over and Huicho is nibbling his like an apple, peel and all.
At midnight we have overrun La Mesa de San José, thousands of us lying in the cold dust under the sky. Huicho and I have walked twenty miles in the last five hours, building up our fatigue to pour out at this pit stop of ‘the table.’ The square mountain looms over us like a black curtain spread out across the stars. At its base lies a town of bare cement and chipping white stucco. The way into it twinkles with swags of tiny lights hung as they are at a carnival, and it is decked with people who could be the tired ticket holders.
We roost in a patch of gravel beneath the mountain and Huicho, already sore and wobbly below the waist, removes his shoes. The Dr. Shoal’s knockoffs inside fall out like a pair of dead fish. He grimaces and peels off his sweaty socks and begins rubbing his feet with cream made from snake venom. It smells like Vicks. Five minutes ago I saw him buy this bottle from a man in a Volkswagen bus playing a looped recording through a bullhorn mounted on top. The Spanish voice rushed along like an auctioneer’s patter and left me snatching at random words. The pilgrims flocked to him with coin in hand. Now I study the words on the side of Huicho’s bottle with skepticism.
Cáncer, it says in bold.
Look, I say to Huicho as I hold up the bottle. It even cures cancer!
He declines comment and instead rubs his feet patiently, mopping the soles and toes with the dubious salve. His eyes focus so intently on his tired feet that I feel like I’ve trespassed on an anointing ceremony. My sarcasm seems to have thudded, while the scene around us is bright and lively. My eyes are adjusting to the welcome light.
Old ladies behind food stands cook tamales and enchiladas and serve these to the tired walkers with steaming cups of the cinnamon-scented, corn-based drink atole. They brew hot punch of orange, hibiscus, tamarind, and apple in battered copper kettles on portable gas burners. The peregrínos, the ones who are awake, eat and drink and play cards huddled in groups like drunken celebrants. Some are truly drunk. Others splay out before us in the mesa’s moonlit shadowy bulk, many with their eyes closed and legs propped up against a wall or chain-link fence, wearing faint smiles, heads resting on backpacks, heads in the dirt. Laughter bursts over accordion-driven ranchero music playing from cell phones and small boomboxes strapped around people’s waists. Someone is enjoying ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and there’s Aerosmith blasting among the nervous combusting pops of fuegos artificiales. It’s like the midnight Mexican Valhalla, although we are not even halfway to our destination and will not be staying here long.
Huicho lets out a grunt as he reaches for his socks and slides them back over his bruises and blisters. He takes a deep breath and looks ponderously, I think, at the moon. His Spanish, which has been described to me as almost Shakespearean by those who appreciate the campesino vernacular, catches me off-guard. He says,
There’s a shitload of cancer in the United States, right Pato?
Yeah, I say, rolling my eyes. There’s cancer everywhere.
No, he says. Not like there, dude.
Sometimes Huicho does this, leading me through a short Socratic exercise in which he makes the final statement. It is always satisfyingly conclusive, even if we don’t agree. Now I lie back and listen to the ambient rascally noise we thousands create. It is a poor sort of carnival with all the rides shut down and everyone playing the games for free or dreaming under the arcade of the sky. My fingers rest on my belly and feel little burrs clinging to my green sweater. I close my eyes and hear more of the snappy fireworks.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote that going on pilgrimage is a way to find escape from the flame of separateness. To be alone, then, is to burn inside with a cruel intensity, and one way we can cure the burn is to go with each other to a place we agree is holy. We don’t have to believe, we just have to agree to go. Our collective endurance creates a soothing release from a feeling of inner desertion, which is felt to be scalding hot. My desire at the moment before we left la mesa was to remove my shoes and socks and reach for the snake venom, so I did. I rubbed it between my toes like I’d seen Huicho do. It felt good.
After leaving La Mesa de San José, the ground underfoot becomes colder and the cacti along the road extend shadowy claws. By 3 AM we are in and out of pitch-black country. We cross an overpass, railroad tracks, a deserted highway, all black. In the stubble of a cornfield we stumble over furrows like speed bumps. Clusters of small roadside stands, puestos, selling food, handmade crafts, and plenty of religious and unreligious kitsch interrupt the empty stretches about once an hour. Here plastic lucha libre action figures mingle easily with ceramic Virgins and the familiar sundries: bottles of water, individually wrapped double doses of aspirin, an enticement of Mexican snack brands and pocket packs of Oreos, whistles, glow sticks, coconut candies, cheaply printed prayers, rings, bandanas with skull-and-crossbones. Mexican retail revels in an almost campy cheapness that disarms my cynicism about being a consumer. I feel like I am traveling through a huge collection basket studded with plastic gems, and this is fine.
It’s early morning, still dark, and Huicho and I are deep in the dry, cold campo atop a hill. The metal flashlight that we trade back and forth hangs heavy as if gravity had doubled. I mark his progress by fixing my downcast eyes on the wobbling circle of light the bulb casts as it knocks off his hip with each step. We see clusters of orange sodium lights of small pueblos in the distance. I remind myself that our wandering through this backcountry isn’t really wandering at all, but simply the most sensible and unobtrusive route between two places. It isn’t the logic of roads as we know them; it’s the logic of migratory animals.
I am thinking about The Plumed Serpent, a D.H. Lawrence novel about a beautiful and jaded young widow who comes to Mexico and finds it a country impossible to get away from.
Mexico is hard to leave because Kate, the woman, becomes involved in a cult revival of the Aztec religion of the god Quetzalcoatl, the so-called Plumed Serpent. The pagan in her meets and becomes entrapped with the lover. Through Quetzalcoatl, Kate discovers in herself a sensitive vulnerability and a desire for connection with the supernatural world that she wasn’t aware of before. She feels enthralled to the point of enslavement.
Huicho and I enter a steep decline and get bottlenecked with the rest of the herd. I feel our collective breath on the back of my neck and hear our steps drumming the boulders underfoot. Otherwise all is silent. I remember something Huicho told me.
The first people who went believed that if you talked too much or touched each other something bad would happen. You notice how people move out of each other’s way and only touch when they are pushed together?
He said that some have died on the camino. He described walkers from Mexico City who were hit by cars.
We dip down into a hollow and the starry night retakes us. People whistle and tweet to keep track of one another, and as the hours roll on I can recognize several distinct calls. Coo like a pigeon, hoo like an owl. I hear Huicho’s unique sparrow chrip and turn my head in time to see him duck off the main path into the darkness of the adjacent hillside. He has seen an old horse trail that no one else has, so we follow that for a few minutes until it becomes impassable with cacti. Their spiky shadows seem to slither in the corners of my vision. Huicho looks for a way back to the main trail while my eyes play tricks on me, and I remember one of Lawrence’s particularly opaque sentences:
Who treads down the path of the snake in the dust shall arrive at the place.
This seems like just the chant I am looking for. Ominous, profane and blindly resolute. My senses are merging and quickening as I begin to lose feeling in my feet. They’re threatening to leave my body stranded here in outer Jalisco—but I barely resist. I hear faint rattles coming from somewhere nearby.
Are their rattlesnakes out here? I ask Huicho. He is leading us back towards the murmuring sound of the thousands of walkers on the main path. Theirs is the sound a stream would make if there was any stream out here. The people twist and wind wherever the earth twists and winds. Imagine seeing their serpentine length from such a height that you couldn’t tell what kind of animal they were, or how many.
Nah, Huicho says. Don’t worry about it, dude. He might mean, there aren’t many of those here, or, one way or the other you don’t need to think about it. I know that either way he is right, but I want my outer senses to reward my intuitions. I want to see a snake.
My gaze goes down, then it goes up. The Milky Way bends its long spine across the sky.
Huicho has a bowlegged shuffle and I’m falling asleep mid-stride by the time we run into a four-lane divided highway turning us a few degrees south and west. Underneath his fatigue is the same old sweet stare. We stop in a field just short of the road and sit down in the wet grass among cow pies, me with my head hanging between my knees and Huicho crouched somewhere nearby in the delirious dark. Dawn should come in an hour.
On the highway we settle into a march. Walkers fill the road’s shoulder to a distant vanishing point in midnight blue. Double-trailer semis roar past us in advance of a caravan of RV buses with Texas plates. An older gringo woman with fried platinum hair flashes bug eyes from her towering passenger seat. Some of the other walkers linger down in the ditch, but most of us are up on the shoulder, even drifting into the oncoming lanes when they are empty. The fields of agave and pink prickly pears along the road have devised a brilliant gambit by staying absolutely still. In this livid world anything on two legs is exceptionally vulnerable. Animal senses entail the risk of hallucination. As the sun rises I see mirages bubbling all around us.
I take the chance to sit on the highway’s steel guardrail and feel the bloodweight in my feet lift away for a few seconds. It feels wonderful. My head and shoulders droop while Huicho urges me to get up. ‘It just makes it harder when you stop,’ he keeps saying.
I can’t move. My body feels primitive and rooted. I hear sugarcane tap-tapping and stroller wheels scraping on the bleached asphalt. The back of my neck burns under the dawn sun, but I can’t rouse myself to drape a shirt over my neck as Huicho has done. He looks like a Bedouin from this angle but it’s hard to focus on his face. He is staring down the highway tenderly.
Then I hear someone crying behind me and I turn to see a teenage couple crouched together in the grass. The boy has his arm around the girl’s shoulder and she hides her face in her hands. The boy whispers something to her and stands up and walks to the road with his hands out. ‘Can anyone spare something to eat?’ he calls. When no one responds he repeats, louder, and reaches out towards a woman carrying a full backpack. She puts a hand in the bag and produces a sandwich and an orange and gives it to the boy. With this little bit of food the girl stops crying. I see this and decide it’s time to stand up.
Huicho has already started out ahead of me because he knows that we are yoked together.
The city and the church.
We enter the city as a pair among multitudes, neither at the front or the rear, if those points could be approximated. It feels like afternoon. My first observation of the industrial outskirts of San Juan de los Lagos is it has many stacks of tires, old cars on jacks, and auto repair garages. For a few minutes we crash on an island of crunchy grass in the parking lot of a Pemex gas station.
I know we’re close when I hear the basilica bells ringing. Huicho escorts me down a steep avenue. No one walks on his knees or flagellates himself, as I’d imagined when we began. Everyone hobbles along in an easy, rolling kind of way. Our locomotion has advanced to an ugly state of grace that feels vaguely like floating. The pain lifts as we head downhill, peacefulness settles in, and the ringing bells promise our conclusion.
When we arrive at the basilica the stone plaza is hard to see for the thousands of people sprawled across it. This is the first time I have seen the peregrínos spread out before me in full daylight. They are as various as any group you’d find in Guanajuato’s downtown: college kids and emo teenagers, sunburnt backpackers, boys and girls, single older men with creased faces and great blank windows for eyes. They have arrived, perhaps prayed, then beached themselves like seals below the basilica’s two Baroque spires and beside a fountain. Heads are resting on stomachs that rise and fall slowly; bodies arrange themselves involuntarily, limbs twined around and among each other in flower-like forms. Groups are laughing and breaking out into song. All I want to do is collapse on the stone under the ringing bells with the rest of these broken, sighing creatures.
So, we have followed the path and arrived at the place. I lie down and Huicho lines up to enter the church. I have always hated waiting in lines. When he comes out I ask him what he did inside. I asked for a good year, he says while demonstrating the sign of the cross: forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. It’s the only ritual he memorized from his occasional attendance at mass with his mother years ago. Then he says: That’s it—let’s go!
It feels like something else should happen before we board a bus back to Guanajuato. I want to prolong the conversation with Huicho a little bit more because once we leave we won’t talk about it.
— Why do they come to this city, Huicho?
— Because of the church, Pato. The church is really old, and they came here once and there were miracles, so they kept coming
— Miracles by the Virgin of Guadalupe?
— Yes, but also a saint. Like the Virgin but different. There are many things.
— Like Saint John?
— Yeah, a saint.
I want to ask him, Did a miracle happen to you? But I don’t. All the writing I’ve found says the peregrínos come to see the Virgin of Guadalupe who performs the miracles. Huicho and I have been over this many times. He always says something different, as if the question was irrelevant or too simply stated. He insists that what draws him is not just the Virgin, but something else as well—maybe many things. I think there is much more than religion in the ritualized appearance of so many at the doorstep of a remote church in Mexico. There is pleasure, fortune-seeking, compassion and camaraderie, custom, and maybe a brutal inward burning. Who could say all of this? If it could be said, who would believe it?