The sun was glaringly bright in a cloudless sky. As I drove the little red Nissan pickup down the barren stretch of desert highway, I noticed something up ahead. Checkpoint. A group of dark-skinned men in military fatigues manned their posts. Sandbags protected machine gun emplacements, and there was at least one Humvee parked near the side of the road. A young man stepped out into the road with an assault rifle in hand and motioned for us to stop. I exchanged a nervous glance with my friend Tomas, sitting in the passenger seat. In the bed of the truck, our other friend, Paul, slept soundly on a mattress wedged between wheel wells and protected from the elements by a fiberglass cap. Anxious, I rolled to a stop and cranked the window down.
“A dónde vas?” The serious-faced guy with the gun was young. Younger than I was, and I was just a college kid. I looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere. We had heard the rumors about what could happen to foreigners out here. They could kill us and dump the bodies, and nobody would ever know. I swallowed hard and mustered up my Spanish. A voice in the back of my head warned me to take it easy on the accent. My natural proficiency for picking up native pronunciation tended to make people think I was more fluent than I was. In this instance, less was more.
“Hola. Somos estudiantes Catolicos. Vamos a ciudad de Mexico para la dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.” Close enough. I said it without stumbling, but I could feel the tremor in my voice. The soldier looked past me at Tomas, then nodded and walked around to the back. He opened the back window and tailgate and began searching the contents of our belongings, another soldier joining him. Paul slept like the dead, and as things were moved around in his vicinity, he started kicking in his sleep. Paul, an Idaho farmboy of solid, German stock, was at least twice the size of the men poking around with the rifles. They looked at him warily as he pumped his leg. I knocked on the window and raised my voice, telling him to wake up. It was no use. He was the kind of guy who slept through the fire alarms rowdy dorm-dwellers would pull sometimes in the middle of the night.
After a half-hearted search, the soldier closed the truck back up, banged the side twice with his hand and motioned for us to drive through. Relief flooded through me, and I tried not to speed as I shifted into gear and pulled away.
This wasn’t the first checkpoint we had weathered. And it wouldn’t be the last. We were on pilgrimage to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and we’d been driving hard for two days. The trip had begun on December 9th, 1998 in Steubenville, Ohio. We were college sophomores at Franciscan University, and I had finished my last semester final that afternoon. Less than two hours later, we were rolling past the twinkling lights of the Mingo Junction coke plant. We’d had to stop for repairs to the exhaust system in San Antonio the previous day, and we now we were somewhere deep in the interior of Mexico, burning through miles as quickly as possible to make up for lost time, taking turns sleeping in shifts in the back end while one guy drove and the other road shotgun, keeping the driver company and helping keep him awake. With that rotation, we could drive 24 hours a day. We had no choice if we wanted to get there in time.
The danger we perceived back then was real, if less than it would be today. The Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, while becoming more active at the time, weren’t yet seizing entire towns in the blood-drenched turf wars that now engulf the region; the country as a whole was not yet on the verge of collapsing into a narco-state, and the violence that now comes not only at the hands of gangsters and outlaws but the Mexican military itself had not yet spilled over across the Southern U.S. border.
But it was hardly safe. In 1998, the U.S. State Department had issued a handful of travel advisories that, had we been fully aware of them, would no doubt have given us pause. Taxi cab robberies and murders in the federal district. Armed assaults on isolated stretches of highways committed by anyone from bandits to police. Extortion, also at the hands of police, who would find cause for a traffic stop in the dead of night only to demand payment. Even the occasional kidnapping of Americans who turned up later in some hellhole of a prison, calling family back in the states for ransom, or sometimes – even more frightening – never to be seen or heard from again.
Even so, we were on pilgrimage, and that meant that the odds — and God — were on our side. Whenever the going got rough, we had a little slogan to get us through: “Is she not our mother?” We’d say it to each other, smile, and keep on going.
The quote was a reference something the Blessed Virgin Mary said to St. Juan Diego when he was overburdened with worry at the mission she had given to him. “For am I not here with you, your mother? Are you not safe in the shadow of my protection? Am I not the source of your life and your happiness? Am I not holding you in my lap, wrapped in my arms? What else can you possibly need? Do not be upset or distressed.*”
The trip was far from effortless. With the car trouble we’d had back in Texas, we were behind schedule. The border crossing had proven harder — and more expensive — than we had anticipated, and we’d almost turned back. The military checkpoints and periodic searches were unnerving, and travel conditions were sub-optimal. Long stretches of unlit highway would be punctuated by enormous, vehicle-swallowing potholes, or littered with broken down cars and trucks that were deadly obstacles if approached unseen. Bridges that were out of commission would be marked only by a string of Christmas lights or a single orange cone, a last, understated warning before unwary drivers would find themselves plunging into whatever lay below. One road I drove down through some heavy nighttime fog almost dropped me straight into the ocean. Small villages dotted the path as the road, unprotected by guardrails, wound through treacherous mountains. Twice we saw vehicles that had gone over the edge, one of which was a passenger bus that had dropped over 50 feet into a switchback ravine before lodging in the cliff walls. I have no idea if there were survivors, but there was already a crowd on the scene and we didn’t stop. We just prayed.
I did a lot of praying, that trip. I would later come to realize that this is the value of a pilgrimage — not just the grace to be found at the destination, but the spiritual fortification provided by the journey. Pilgrimages by their very nature are hard, filled with unexpected obstacles and setbacks, some of which can only be overcome by faith. They are also filled with the witness of the faith of others, as we saw while passing the many village parades and processions in honor of Our Lady’s feast day.
When we at last made our way down from the tropical mountain roads in South-central Mexico and into Mexico City, it was late in the evening on December 12th. We finally approached the Basilica at about 9PM, just as they were cleaning up the grounds from the festivities held earlier in the day. The gates were locked, and we stood, hands on the iron bars, looking toward the church where we knew the miraculous image was displayed. We were tired, hungry, and disappointed.
“She knows we’re here.” I said. “And we made it today, even if we can’t get inside.”
We found a place to stay and got the first real sleep we’d had in days. In the morning, we made our way back to the Basilica to make our visit. We stood on the conveyor belt that kept the crowds moving in front of the image, making several passes as we each presented our petitions. We spent time on the Basilica grounds, buying stale churros from a little boy singing out his wares: Churros! Diez pesos, diez pesos, diez pesooooos! The old basilica, with its high altar made from solid silver, was in disrepair, and was closed to the public at the time. But we got a tour from a man who (we discovered when he held out his hand) expected a small bribe in return for his off-the-books favor. We hiked up the hill to Tepeyac, to the small chapel on the exact site where Our Lady first appeared to St. Juan Diego. Finally, our opportunities exhausted, we realized that we had accomplished our purpose. The anti-climax of every great journey had come at last, and it was time to move on.
We were not quite done with the adventure yet, though. Our trip continued for another week, up the West Coast of Mexico and back into the states via Arizona, eventually leading to Denver, where Tomas lived. Paul was on his way home to Idaho, which left me to hitch a ride back to New York with some friends of a cousin of mine living in Colorado. The two were heading home for Christmas with a sick dog in an old station wagon with a broken heater, in one of the coldest stretches of weather the Midwest had seen in years. I sat there in the back seat for over 2,000 miles, feet freezing, listening to the agonizing Stephen King book on tape they played for 26 hours straight, holding a plastic shopping bag for their poor, sick dog to throw up in. The trip was punctuated by their rather frequent marijuana indulgences and their penchant for Andy Cap Hot Fries, along with other convenience store delicacies. I had to laugh at the situation. I was feeling pretty grateful. I hadn’t made any plans for my ride home to stay with my family for Christmas. It had just sort of worked out. Like things on a pilgrimage tend to do.
I had started the trip with no money, not even thinking I could go. My friends had persuaded me to come along despite my inability to contribute financially. They had paid for the gas, the food, and even the hotels. They asked for nothing in return but my company and my contribution to driving duty.
I couldn’t have been more thankful. I had brought some very important petitions before the miraculous image of Our Lady, and after all was said and done, I felt strongly that they had been answered. When the beat up old station wagon finally dropped me off at my grandmother’s house in the snow, I did the math on our adventure. I had traveled over 11,000 miles in 14 days through almost every climate and geography North America had to offer. As a group, my friends and I had been on the business end of guns, evaded attempted extortion by crooked cops, sat on beaches and sipped piña coladas in places we hadn’t even known existed, climbed pyramids where human sacrifices were once made before the Faith came to Mexico, and smoked cigars and drank brandy from a hotel room high above the waters of Acapulco. Through it all, I had spent many hours laying in the back of a cold, dark pickup truck, thumbing my rosary beads, begging that we’d make it through just one more obstacle that seemed sure to stop us. There was a special kind of intensity to that prayer, and it was the most nourishing sort for the soul that you can imagine.
At the center of the entire experience, I had stood beneath that 500-year-old tilma, covered with the miraculous image of Our Lady, and come to know that she was my mother, too, and that she had brought my petitions before Our Lord.
14 years ago today, I stood at the gates of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, not knowing how much the experience would change me. I’ve traveled far and wide in my life, but there was never — and probably never will be again — a trip like that one.
Our Lady of Guadalupe – Ora Pro Nobis!
* Original post had different version of this quote. Updated with better translation.