Updated: April 19, 2014 at 6:52 pm
The road to Chimayo, N.M. is long and tiring during the Christian holy week leading up to Easter.
But the spirits of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 pilgrims who walk for hours to reach a famous Roman Catholic church outside of Santa Fe are anything but weary.
George Warda of Parker has made the journey for the past 20 years. Maybe more; he's lost count.
At about mile 13 of his 15-mile trek on Good Friday, Warda was sending thanks to God for his family's blessings and praying for a little help with health challenges.
"There's nothing more beautiful than this time," he said. "It's very spiritual. I wouldn't miss it."
Pilgrims, from babies in strollers to the elderly with canes, come from nearby towns and faraway states. Warda wore a Colorado T-shirt.
The destination of the masses strung out along all roads leading to the village is El Santuario de Chimayo. The small adobe church has a history dating to the early 1800s and is believed to be built on ground with dirt that cures and restores the human body and soul.
Easter pilgrims, and the hundreds of thousands of other visitors throughout the year, scoop dirt out of a narrow but deep hole inside the church, known as "el pocito," or "the little well," where a shining light and a crucifix was said to be found on Good Friday in 1810.
They rub the holy dirt on their bodies, give it to friends who are in need of physical or spiritual healing and take some home. The anteroom of the church is filled with discarded crutches and braces, presumably from people who left them behind after being healed. Photos of loved ones with special prayer requests line the walls. Small shrines contained burning candles, rosaries and other religious artifacts.
"The Lord really shows his face here," said the Rev. Javier Gutierrez, a Catholic priest who pastors a neighboring church and was part of a group of several hundred people.
"El pocito is a blessed place, where miracles are born. I have seen it myself."
He tells the story of a teenage boy, who three years ago became paralyzed from a disease and wasn't expected to ever fully recover. Gutierrez said he took the boy some of the holy dirt, prayed over him, and just two days later, the boy was showing signs of improvement. In a week, he was walking, Gutierrez said, and within a month was playing football again.
"It's not just the faith of the people," he said. "It's the actual elements. The elements are a source of energy from God. You see the change in people, the difference it makes in their lives."
Many pilgrims forgo human comforts and desires during their sojourn.
Eighteen-year-old Melissa Herrera and her aunt, Elvira Valencia, of Pecos, N.M., were fasting until they finished their Good Friday observance, which included walking 18 miles to El Santuario de Chimayo.
"We drink water so we don't get dehyrated, but that's all," said Valencia. "Thank God for the good weather today."
Unlike some years, it wasn't raining. Still, pilgrims were alternately chilly and sweaty throughout the sunny yet overcast day.
Herrera said she passes the time by thinking about how "we need to sacrifice for our sins, like Jesus sacrificed for all of our sins. So we're paying back."
Martin Aranda of Albuquerque, N.M., was on his 38th pilgrimage. While he said his sore feet and aching body were not comparable to Jesus' suffering, he views the discomfort as a symbol of solidarity.
"It's giving back some of the pain. It's not the same, but it's something to let the Lord know we believe in Him," he said.
Dick Wessel, a Catholic from St. Peter's church in Monument, started wearing out his shoes early in the morning. He drove from his hotel and parked about five miles away from the church. He said just as spring brings new life, the pilgrimage is a time of spritual renewal.
"It's a very moving experience," he said. "It's pretty incredible."
The Xerox salesman has participated in the ritual for 15 years and brought his children when they were younger, as a special way to prepare for the message of Easter.
"You reflect on Jesus dying for us so we could be saved," Wessel said. "That's what it's really all about."
Tables with free bottled water, popsicles, candy and fruit were positioned alongside the roads, as were porta potties.
Some people pray aloud while they trudge across the hilly terrain. Many seem weighed down by heavy wooden crosses in their arms or unseen matters of the soul.
Justin Chavez of Albuquerque hoisted a large cross high in the air.
"I carry the cross because all of my family couldn't make it. I thought if I put some weight on myself, it would for them, like they're here with me," he said.
Christiana Padilla of Las Vegas, N.M., held two medium-size decorated wooden crosses while she stood in the hours-long line to enter the church in Chimayo and partake of the dirt.
She did the pilgrimage to acknowledge "God's sacrifice."
"It makes you stronger. It links you to others," she said, nodding to the crowd.
Drawn by faith
The ancient annual tradition marking the day Christians believe Jesus was crucified for the sins of mankind attracts the spectrum of faithful, from devout Catholic to people who claim no religious affiliation.
Cherie Cree, who lives in Manitou Springs, believes she is a product of a miracle that orginated from her first Easter pilgrimage to Chimayo in 2010. Diagnosed with stage four cancer just months before, she said her lab results came back normal shortly after that initial visit.
"It's a powerful place of healing. People from all cultures and backgrounds go there," said Cree, who defines herself as "spiritual" but not religious, and "definitely not Catholic."
People are drawn to the march for different reasons -- to seek blessings, give thanks, atone for sins, remember a loved one.
"It's something people have done for two centuries. Part of it is that prayers are answered," said Sister Carmela Trujillo, a nun at Mount St. Francis in Colorado Springs who has worn a habit for 64 years.
Trujillo, who grew up in northern New Mexico, has made the pilgrimage numerous times.
"It feels good to do it," she said. "The idea that we're all sinners seeking God's forgiveness is evident and moving."
While the Catholic Church has not officially recognized the site or its dirt as producing miracles, the practice once thought of as superstition now is deemed holy, Trujillo said.
"It has been found to be a deep faith of the people, so it's not a superstition or cultural fad," she said. "It's a real religious practiced that's been baptized as legitimate."
The Rev. Michael Sheehan, archbishop of Archdioese of Santa Fe, led pilgrims who had reached the church by mid-morning in a prayer service.
Along with requests for an end to terrorism, the safety of active-duty military, protection for abused children, healing for the sick and relief for persecuted Christians came this petition:
"We pray that Christ's sacrifice on the cross will be understood by all people."