An elderly couple rests against one another, quietly reciting prayers from books as wrinkled and worn as the hands holding them. Her lips are lined with bright pink lipstick; he looks like a tourist in his flowered shirt and brown fedora. But the golden crucifix around his neck reveals their journey's true purpose.

Peg and David are pilgrims. They've come to this place to visit God.

El Santuario de Chimayo, a church located about 30 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the most popular pilgrimage site in America. During Holy Week, it welcomes up to 40,000 visitors, men and women who travel up to 100 miles on foot from nearby towns.

On this Good Friday, the pilgrims span miles and generations. They trek along crowded road shoulders, carrying babies and water bottles, walking dogs or using walkers.

Some, with stories of past miracles in mind, seek healing. Others, a story to tell.

Peg and David, who didn't want their last name used for reasons of privacy, speak of Chimayo like an old friend. They've come often over the last 15 years. Each visit is both ritual and routine, like reading prayers from their books.

They sit quietly in Chimayo's bustling courtyard, enjoying their view of other pilgrims.

"Nobody pays attention to us," said Peg, 77. She likes it that way. Since her breast cancer diagnosis in November and the chemo treatments that followed, she's been carefully watched by family and friends. But, in Chimayo, crutches, knee braces and oxygen tanks are more noticeable than her gray headscarf with silver threads that catch the sunshine.

"There's a spirituality that you feel here," said David, 80. "This place is special every year."

According to pilgrimage researchers, travelers often use words like "special" when they talk about their journeys. And each pilgrim has unique reasons to describe it that way, depending on where they went and what they were searching for.

"A pilgrimage is a journey away from that which is routine in search of something sacred," said Heather Warfield, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. The course can be a famous trail like El Camino de Santiago in Spain or a quiet journey to a place special to a single family.

Pilgrimages can deepen faith or transform lives, impacting people's minds, bodies and souls, Warfield said. They can also inspire more subtle changes, helping people feel more peaceful one step at a time.

Motives and open minds

Pilgrimages have existed for centuries. Religious texts in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions all describe men and women called by a higher purpose across difficult terrain. The Quran teaches that all Muslims should participate at least once in their lifetime in the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and at least 2 million make the journey each year. The Ganges River, the city of Jerusalem and the spot where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment also draw millions of pilgrims annually.

However, it wasn't until the 1990s that pilgrimage researchers turned their attention to individual pilgrims, Warfield said. Before then, studies focused on how the act of gathering together in a place like Chimayo can create a new community.

In contemporary research, "the whole idea is, 'I can't define your pilgrimage, and you can't define mine,’ ” she said. Her own work centers on people who take trips to regroup in the midst of career transitions, as well as men and women who visit their ancestral homelands. No two journeys are the same, but many people describe them in terms of their impact, remembering feeling lost and then found or returning home renewed and refreshed.

In a 2013 study on El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage in northwestern Spain, researchers polled 126 pilgrims, asking them to list their reasons for making the trip. Two-thirds cited "seeking clarification" as their motivation, and 44 percent noted athletic inspiration, the study found. Spiritual (39 percent) and religious (31 percent) motives were slightly less common.

Although Chimayo is affiliated with Catholicism, its pilgrims represent a broad spectrum of believers, from men and women who attend church each week to curious people excited to observe the scene and snack on roasted corn.

Ray Romero, 62, who walked to Chimayo from Santa Cruz, has participated for 30 years, summarizing each annual walk as an opportunity for self-reflection.

"For me, (the Chimayo pilgrimage) is a day to think about what I'm doing right and what I could do better," he said. "It's kind of a selfish thing. I get out of my regular routine and walk and walk and walk."

He lets his mind sort through memories from the months since his last trip, trying to be open to wherever his mind wanders.

Warfield said the kind of mental openness Romero described is an essential part of any pilgrimage, no matter the traveler's motivation.

"It's been my experience that Americans tend to over-prepare. We want to know exactly what kind of gear to bring … and become obsessed with the minutiae. We forget that it's important to go into it feeling that you're not prepared" and that stumbling upon unexpected experiences or ideas is one of the most intriguing parts of the journey, she noted.

On this year's walk, Romero said his mind turned to the many ways he fails to give time and attention to the people in his life. He thought about how to be more present with others, bringing a slower pace to everyday life.

"I want to stop walking past opportunities to engage with people," he said.

Sensing the journey

A few yards from the Chimayo gift shop, 9-year-old Diego Ortiz quietly snacks on the food offered by his godmother, Naomi. He's just finished walking a mile for each year of his life, from Nambe to Chimayo.

"It was a long walk," he said, a smile spreading under his sleepy eyes. "I prayed for our family." His grandfather's been sick.

Naomi Ortiz admitted that friends asked her to reconsider bringing Diego along on the pilgrimage because of his age, but she said it was important for her to pass on the tradition.

"It's a sacrifice," she said. "But it means so much to be in this holy place."

For many pilgrims, the aches and pains associated with the journey are as enlightening as the final destination. The act of pilgrimage is often physically demanding, awakening the senses in a way that rarely happens in everyday life, Warfield said.

"We bring our bodies to the site," she said. "You're soaking in the sounds, sights and smells."

Judy Schaffer, founder and president of Heroes to Heroes Foundation, a nondenominational, nonprofit organization that brings combat veterans on pilgrimages to Israel, also noted the role physical sensations play in pilgrimage, highlighting the importance of touch in awakening personal transformation.

For many, feeling God's presence is a natural part of sitting in a church or synagogue and connecting with other people of faith, Schaffer said. But others, including many of the veterans who travel with Heroes to Heroes, benefit from physically touching something. They can feel the Western Wall or the stations of the cross with their hands, and use all five senses to experience Israel.

"We find ways to make spirituality physical," Schaffer said, noting that the trip involves not just visiting sacred sites, but also planting trees and picking broccoli for the poor.

In Chimayo, many pilgrims won't rest until they touch the site's holy dirt, which is believed to have healing powers. They run it through their hands and say prayers for stronger knees or better lungs, and then collect it in Ziploc bags as a sacred souvenir.

Hillary Kaell, an assistant professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal and author of "Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage," said pilgrims often look for material objects to take back to everyday life as a reminder of their journey. It's a way to continue feeling the mental, physical and spiritual changes that took place on the road.

"People are bringing back rocks, dirt, twigs, leaves (from the Holy Land). If you can break it off and bring it home in your suitcase, they're going to do it," she said. "By hanging those things in your home, you get a little jolt of remembrance every time you pass that wall."

Seeking something deeper

It's hard to miss Gerardo Garcia, even in Chimayo's bustling crowd. He's carrying an 8-foot wooden cross he built early that morning, resting it against his shoulder as he waits to see the sacred dirt.

"I made a promise to God when my wife was sick last year," said Garcia, 50, who is from Hobbs, New Mexico. "I told him I'd carry this cross today."

His 13-mile walk was intensely spiritual and centered on giving thanks for God's protection of his wife and family in the past year, rather than asking for some new miracle in the present.

Like many other pilgrims, Garcia didn't come to Chimayo to seek transformation. Instead, he saw it as a recommitment to his faith.

Kaell said sensations like recommitment can get lost in pilgrimage folklore, which often preferences the stories of those who report incredible personal transformation. Through her research, she's learned to focus on more subtle changes.

"Sometimes I would try to use words like transformation (in interviews) and the pilgrims would stop me," she said. "It's a deepening. It's a recommitment. Those were the words they really liked to use."

Most people don't emerge from a pilgrimage with newly found religious faith or the desire to become a totally different person. Instead, like Garcia, they use the experience to express or reflect on their deepest spiritual concerns, reconnecting to parts of themselves often forgotten in the shuffle of busy lives.

"What we see is a renewal," Schaffer said. "Our pilgrims regain faith in themselves, in their fellow veterans, in what they have to offer to their families."

After walking through the church, Garcia makes his way to a semi-circle of benches surrounding a small gazebo, joining a prayer service led by Father Michael Sheehan, the Archbishop of Santa Fe. His wife, Emily, and two children have joined him, and they sit together to soak in the priest's message.

Let us give thanks to "a God who calls us from darkness into his marvelous light," Father Sheehan said. A God who takes people from sickness to health. And, in Garcia's case, from Pojoaque, where he began his walk, to Chimayo.

Forever a pilgrim

In her interviews with Christian pilgrims to Israel, Kaell learned that the spirit of pilgrimage lives on in pilgrims long after they've left the trail.

"All of the pilgrims impressed upon me that their stories are ongoing, that they don't have a finite beginning or a finite end. When I wanted to talk to them about the pilgrimage, they wanted to talk more broadly about how they viewed the trip beforehand and the way they'd integrate it into their everyday lives," she said.

Even if they don't come back a new person, the pilgrimage has reoriented their outlook on life, their relationship to their body or their faith in some way. Romero will work hard to be a better friend and colleague. Diego Ortiz will boast to friends about how far his legs carried him.

And Peg said this year's journey will empower her to put her cancer battle in perspective as she remembers how many other pilgrims walked — or limped — miles to experience the sacredness of Chimayo.

Under Chimayo's monument to pilgrims — a statue of a man with a large sun hat and walking stick — David and Peg have traded their prayer book for a plate of nachos, refueling and reflecting on their day and the difficult months of treatment they're ready to leave behind.

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However, Peg said she wasn't letting her illness define the trip. Regardless of Chimayo's rumored healing powers, she came to offer prayers for others, not to dwell on her own struggles.

"I was anxious to come. Not so much for myself, but because I had so many people to pray for," Peg said, looking at her fingers as if to count.

"But don't get me wrong," she added, with a smile, "I'm praying for me, too."

Email:, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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