SAN LUIS - They started from Chama, gathering in the church amid the adobe homes with busted roofs and boarded-up windows, amid yards with wagon wheels and broken-down Chevies, with children's bikes and basketball hoops with wooden backboards and no nets.
They would walk 4 miles west to San Luis, singing praises and asking for mercy on this Friday honoring their savior's crucifixion.
They'd take turns holding a cross, marching through the San Luis Valley's mountain-wrapped sage fields, following the road littered with beer cans and cigarette cartons, keeping their eyes on the destination: the soaring shrine on the hill that would make proud the settlers of Colorado's oldest town.
They went with a prayer.
"This journey is a special time to remember all the things the Lord has given us in our past," Father Damian de la Cruz said at the Chama church, "and all the good things he will give us in the future."
The people of San Luis, population 629, don't need much. Easter with each other is more than enough.
"If it came down to it, these people would be self-sufficient," said Mike Maldonado, among the volunteers who met at dawn to prepare lunch for 35 walkers taking part in the 33-year-old tradition.
The ways of their ancestors are far from forgotten.
Farming families still help other families dig ditches, continuing the acequia irrigation system of Spanish colonies. They feed cows the natural alfalfa. Many hunt and chop wood. Gardens are a source of pride, almost as integral as faith and family.
When somebody dies, funerals have to be moved from the churches to the bigger school gym.
Recipes have been passed down, and they were meant to be shared.
"We've always helped each other. That's the way we were brought up, to help whenever the community needs," said Theresa Maldonado, the San Luis native in the volunteer kitchen slicing potatoes to go with the fish, rice and the sweet sope she was taught to bake as a youngster. Every Friday throughout Lent, she helped make meals for as many as 90 people.
Out front, in the parking lot of the Sangre de Cristo Parish, Miguel Vigil waited beside a shuttle van. He "just wanted to help out," so there he waited to drive people to Chama to start the walk.
"You can read about it in the books, how people used to live here and help each other out," said Vigil, 80, who's been in San Luis all his life.
He was taught to work hard; as a young man, he made 25 cents an hour on a farm. And he was taught to celebrate Easter, "the best day to be with our dear Lord," he said.
The tradition leading up to it might best display the devotion by which the town was settled.
A Catholic church erected in 1851 marked the establishment of San Luis, the name chosen for the patron saint. Religion was at the forefront of lives with the view. Legend has it a dying explorer gazed at those mountains and with his last breath uttered "sangre de Cristo," blood of Christ.
"For most of us, (faith) is probably the main focus of our lives," said Maggie Duarte, the lifelong resident leading the march into San Luis.
After 4 miles, they came to the trailhead for the Stations of the Cross. This is the pride of San Luis, this ornate shrine announcing the town as anything but forsaken. A chapel with domes and towers was dedicated in 1997, and it can be viewed from a distance, high over little San Luis.
The group stopped at each statue, 15 showing Jesus' path to the cross and tomb. They prayed on bended knee until reaching the top of the hill, where beside the chapel Jesus is seen resurrecting, reaching for the sky.
They prayed together: "Do not let us ever be separated from you..."