A Pilgrims Progress

I asked the question confidently, my tone disguising the butterflies already gathering in my stomach.

“Why don’t I go?” I said, letting my editor know I was ready for my first on-the-ground assignment.

By late afternoon, the plan was in place. I’d drive nearly 600 miles southwest from Salt Lake City to visit El Santuario de Chimayo, the site of an annual Holy Week pilgrimage in New Mexico, to write about how being a pilgrim enriches a person’s faith.

I was proud of myself for suggesting the trip, but also terrified. And I still had to tell my parents.

I’ve always been a nervous traveler. I remember calling all of my family members before I left for London on a spring break adventure during my junior year of college, convinced that, if something went wrong, they would at least know I loved them.

My mom and dad recognize this about me, which explains why my mom responded to my text about New Mexico with concern, rather than support.

“Can’t you ask someone else to come with you? Do you have to go?” she wrote.

My mom asked the questions that were already bouncing around my mind. But I responded with rage, demanding she celebrate the opportunity and help me brainstorm the best way to tell the pilgrim’s stories I’d have the chance to hear.

We chatted on Skype later that week, carefully sidestepping our days-old conflict. I talked about the great interviews I’d already had by phone, interrupting my parents’ advice on roadside safety with random observations about how, why and when people become pilgrims.

At Chimayo, they gather to pray and share picnic lunches, to prepare for the Easter holiday or heal aches and pains with the site’s allegedly sacred soil. Most come on foot, but I would come all but the last two miles by car.

My dad is a driver. He’s spent decades crisscrossing the Midwest in his truck to check on cornfields. I’ve ridden along on some of these trips, always falling asleep within the first few hours.

That’s why dad was nervous when I turned 16. “I’ve never met someone who could fall asleep faster in a moving vehicle,” he said.

But by this spring, I’d been taking long drives alone for years, from Illinois to Iowa during college and to the east coast for grad school. My parents were nervous about my New Mexico trip even though they’d been sharing their car keys for years.

Admittedly, this journalistic journey was quite a bit different than earlier adventures. Before, I’d always started or ended in our cul-de-sac in Lincoln, Illinois. Crossing Utah and Colorado, I was tethered only to an article assignment, connecting the dots between hotel room reservations and a Catholic pilgrimage, with no loved ones checking their front windows for my car’s headlights.

I did feel isolated as I made my way south on U.S. 6, but I wasn’t lonely. It was a luxury to spend hours lost in thought, considering the 10 months that had passed since I moved west and wondering what it would be like to celebrate Good Friday with thousands of strangers.

In everyday life, my overactive brain regularly overwhelms me, running up and down my mental to-do list and replaying conversations where I failed to say exactly what I meant. The road mellows me, shifting my focus from everything I must accomplish to what variety of fast food sounds good for my next meal.

By the time I reached Chimayo, I felt refreshed. And, after a great morning of interviews and successfully completing the first leg of the return voyage, I was overflowing with joy, chatting up the hotel concierge and swapping tales about growing up in the Midwest with the cashier at Dairy Queen.

My texts back home were triumphant, of course, but the person I’d really impressed was me. With sunburned cheeks and a smudge on my hand from checking my car’s oil, I felt brave and a little less like the woman whose eyes still often welled up with tears when thinking about home.

I remember opening the door to my sunny apartment the next day and sinking into my couch. In the process of writing about pilgrims, I’d become one, deepening my faith in myself. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and grateful. 

-Kelsey Dallas 

Kelsey is a reporter for the Desert News National in Salt Lake City, Utah. You can read here original article about her journey here