The sun was blinding in a cloudless sky. As I drove the little red Nissan pickup down the barren stretch of desert highway, I noticed something up ahead. A 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, who sat in the passenger seat. In the bed of the truck, Paul, the third member of our party, 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 a college sophomore. I looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere. We had heard the rumors about what might 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.” We’re Catholic students. We’re going to Mexico city for the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or 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 silently and walked around to the back. He opened the rear 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 shifting, then kicking in his sleep. An Idaho farmboy of solid, German stock, whose nickname on the football field was “Big Train”, Paul was easily twice the size of the young 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. I had seen him sleep through a dorm fire alarm at 3AM, his roommate at the time finally giving up on him after pounding on his chest with his fists to rouse him and get him to evacuate.
After a half-hearted search, the soldier closed the truck back up, banged on the side twice with his hand, and motioned for us to drive on. 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 endured. And it wouldn’t be the last. We were on pilgrimage, and we’d been driving hard for two days. Our trip began on December 9th, 1998, in Steubenville, Ohio. We were students at Franciscan University, and after Paul and Tomas had convinced me to come on the trip, I found myself rolling past the twinkling lights of the Mingo Junction coke plant just two hours after I finished my last semester final. We’d made good time across country, but had to stop in San Antonio for repairs after the exhaust system had developed a noisy hole. It had set us back, and as we moved beyond this latest checkpoint, 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 rode shotgun, as much to keep him awake as for company. 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 were in at the time was real, if less severe 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 dealt out not just by gangsters and outlaws but the Mexican military itself had not yet spilled 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 bandits, police, or military deserters. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Extortion, also at the hands of police, who would find cause for a traffic stop in the dead of night so they could demand payment. Even the occasional kidnapping of visiting Americans — who would later turn up later in some hellhole of a prison to call home for ransom. Some never turned up again at all.
But the way we saw it, 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 like a mantra, smile nervously, and keep going.
The phrase was 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 not easy. 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 were punctuated by enormous, vehicle-swallowing potholes, or littered with broken down cars and trucks that were deadly obstacles if approached unseen. Bridges out of commission for repairs were at times marked only by a string of Christmas lights or a single orange cone, a last, understated warning before unwary drivers would find themselves plunging down to whatever lay below. One road driven in heavy fog in the middle of the night ended without warning at the coast — the moonless night offering no clue of what lay ahead until the headlights lit the oncoming waves lapping at the narrow beach. Small villages dotted the path as the road, unprotected by guardrails, wound through treacherous mountains. Twice we saw vehicles over the edge. We came upon the scene of a passenger bus that had dropped over 50 feet into a switchback ravine before the chassis lodged in the curve of cliff walls. A large crowd had gathered, and there was nothing we could do. We just prayed and kept driving.
I did a lot of praying, in fact. 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 the Federal District, it was late in the evening of December 12th. We approached the Basilica at about 9PM, just as they were sweeping up the remains of 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. A conveyor belt carried us past the image, and we rode it back and forth, making several passes as we each presented the petitions we had come to lay at the feet of Our Lady. 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, had been slowly sinking into the swampy ground for years, and was closed to the public. A man with access to the building surprised us with the offer of a private tour, and we realized his motive was something other than Christian altruism when he held out his hand for payment. 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, the sights exhausted, we agreed that we had accomplished our purpose. The anti-climax of every great journey had come at last, and it was time to move on.
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 scrambling to hitch a ride back to my parents’ house in New York. As luck would have it, I called the one person I knew in Colorado — a cousin I hadn’t seen in years — and found a ride with two of his friends who were headed back East to be with family for Christmas. Which is how I spent an additional 2,000 miles in the back seat of an old Volvo station wagon, the heater broken, through one of the coldest stretches of weather the Midwest had seen in years, gazing out the window, my feet freezing, listening to an agonizing Stephen King audiobook for 26 hours straight while I held a plastic shopping bag for their poor dog — sick with Giardia — to throw up in. They smoked marijuana at pretty much every stop, feeding their insatiable appetites with various convenience store delicacies. They took turns driving, and we never stopped anywhere to sleep, which was fine with me, because I had no interest in prolonging the experience. As strange as it was, I had to laugh. I was feeling pretty grateful. I hadn’t made any plans for my ride home to stay with my family for Christmas. I didn’t know these guys, but somehow, they happened to be driving home within a single day of my arrival in Denver. 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 generous friends had persuaded me to come along despite my inability to contribute. They had paid for the gas, the food, and even the hotels. They asked for nothing in return but my company and my turns at the wheel.
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 I finally emerged from the jalopy at my grandmother’s house, the world covered in a fresh blanket of snow, I felt incredibly alive. 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 scrutinized by armed soldiers, 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 under a sleeping bag in the back of a cold, dark pickup truck, thumbing my rosary beads, begging that we’d make it through just one more obstacle, each appearing as certain to stop us as the last. 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 had come to know that she was my mother, too, and that she had brought my petitions before Our Lord.
19 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!
This article was originally published at CatholicVote.org, and is reprinted with permission. It has been updated..