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Driving in northern New Mexico requires special caution today. It's Good Friday and tens of thousands of people, some of whom have walked all night, are converging on the village of Chimayo. They've come to pray inside a 200-year-old chapel before a carved wooden image of Jesus. NPR's John Burnett joined up with some of the pilgrims and sent this audio postcard.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: As it does every year, the New Mexico Highway Department has put out portable toilets, orange barriers and signs warning motorists of the Santuario walkers. The man in the fluorescent orange shirt and striped sneakers, walking determinedly along the shoulder, is Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, a democrat who represents the area. He started in Santa Fe.
REPRESENTATIVE BEN RAY LUJAN: From this point, I think we only have about six left. I think all in all it's an 8 1/2- to nine-hour walk.
BURNETT: He says he's making the pilgrimage this year to honor his father who died of cancer last year. Others trek to Chimayo to collect the so-called sacred dirt beneath the chapel.
LUJAN: There's been many people that have told stories how they've been healed in miraculous ways, and that's why it's an important place to us here in New Mexico.
BURNETT: New Mexico has been deeply, expressively Catholic ever since the conquistador Juan de Onate, accompanied by Franciscan missionaries, made his way along this same route 415 years ago. Today, this pilgrimage looks more like something you'd encounter in Spain or Latin America. The faithful - with walking sticks, rucksacks and water bottles - hike beside sand hills freckled with pinyon pine and juniper, with the snow-capped Sangre de Cristos in the distance.
A Navajo woman named Betty Box, a casino worker from Colorado wearing a straw hat and carrying a rosary, takes a break beside the road. She says she's praying for the world and for the people she met on this day.
BETTY BOX: People always come up to us and - before we start the walk, and they know we do it. So, they say: Can you pray for my dad? He's really sick. Or my child's having problems.
BURNETT: For the town of Chimayo, the pilgrims who flock here during Holy Week - who buy a tamale and maybe a crucifix - are the biggest business all year.
RAYMOND BAL: We get extremely busy here in this little store.
BURNETT: Raymond Bal runs the Vigil Store right next to the church. It sells red chili, souvenirs and Catholic items.
BAL: What's moving for me is driving to work in the morning. I try to get here as early as I can because there have been people arriving all through the dawn and through the early morning, and they're deep in contemplation.
BURNETT: Then, as if on cue, four heavyset men wearing black T-shirts and black hoods, one of them dragging a cross, slowly make their way down the road.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
BURNETT: All day, the plaza of the Santuario fills up with tired pilgrims at the end of their journey. Rolando Romero is a historian and a columnist. He rests on a bench with a tired but satisfied smile. How far did you walk today?
ROLANDO ROMERO: It's a little over 8 miles, I think. I'm really amazed that people walk all the way from Albuquerque, from Taos, from Truchas, from Cordova. They come from everywhere to this sacred place. It's, you know, it's like the Lourdes of the Southwest, aptly named.
BURNETT: Why does he do it?
ROMERO: Blessings for my family, the blessings, you know, that this place provides.
BURNETT: Rolando Romero says he's been making this pilgrimage all of his life. Asked his age, he says 66 or 67, he's not sure.
ROMERO: Age means nothing to me as long as I can fly-fish and make this pilgrimage.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Espanola, New Mexico.