Woman at the top, kneeling at the statue of Jesus on the Cross, weeping into her cellphone--"Hi, mom. I'm up here on the top. I up here with Jesus. I love you, mom, I love you."
Tattooed man on a cellphone--"Okay, sweet baby, I'm going to hang up. We're going to pray now."
Woman to her mother, hugging her and crying--"He called me a super bitch, he said I don't know what I'm doing."
In the midst of life, we are in death.
They said in the paper that the best guess was that 30,000 people climbed Cristo Rey Mountain last Sunday. I’ve been in El Paso 30 years now and most of those years I’ve said to myself, I need to make that climb with everybody else. Finally I did. The trail is 2½ to 3 miles to the top, depending on where you start; somewhere between 800 to 1000 feet in altitude. The mountain sits at the intersection of three states--Texas, Chihuahua and New Mexico. It was a beautiful day, a cloudy sky to shade us from the sun, just a little bit of a breeze. I started walking about 945am. The trail is only 8 feet across in most places, thick with dust and gravel and stone. I got lost in all the people, just one more pilgrim in the midst of the horde, most of us going up, but others already coming back down--a sea of brown faces, some gringos like myself, the faces of El Paso--kids and babies and parents and abuelitos, cholos and pretty girls, high school kids, tourists, reporters, a barefooted monk from Guatemala in his white robe and purple sash, many other barefooted pilgrims saying their prayers and their Hail Marys, giving thanks and asking for forgiveness. It’s a hard walk. The sore muscles, the bleeding feet, the beating heart, the shortness of breath, the chatter of people, the thirst, the laughter, the worry about death, the drumbeat of the Matachines atop the mountain pulling us along. It was the Feast Day for Christ the King, the last Sunday of October. My friend novelist and poet Ben Saenz once told me the closer you get to the border, the closer you get to Mexico, the more religious the language becomes. And he’s right. The language becomes charged with God-words. blessing-words, prayers. In the midst of the sacred though, people don't forget the profane--they go about their business selling burritos and water bottles, they talk on cell phones, they laugh and hold hands and make promises of love, they trade secrets and they gossip. I got to the top before noon. The Matachines were dancing, the Church bazaar vendors were selling water and pelotas and soda and pan dulce. At the very top loomed Christ on the Cross. We circled the huge statue. Some were kneeling and praying, weeping, lighting candles. A woman slowly sang “Amazing Grace.” Others, like me, took photos and looked down into the valley. A crowd had taken their place, waiting for the Bishops--one from Las Cruces, the other from El Paso. I saw them on the way back down. One was walking, the other (a pudgy guy with big lips) in a white jeep. The jeep was lost in an entourage of banners and people. The trail was only a few feet wider than the vehicle, so we had to climb up on rocks to let them pass. The two bishops blessed us as their entourage crawled higher up the mountain. They were doing their job. I was on the way back home. The downhill journey can be a struggle too. My leg bones ached, my knee twisted when I slipped on some rocks, my feet felt hot and tender. But I was happy and at peace. At the bottom church ladies were making food. I bought a plate of three fresh gorditas for $4 and I wandered back to my car hungry and thirsty and exhausted. I’ll do it again next year.
More photos of the journey on my Picasa account here.