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Mexico Guru

Journey to Talpa

I was born to walk.

It started when I was 6 years old, doing five-mile forced marches across the downs in England with my British grandmother. It’s in my blood.

Logically I chose a career “right up my alley”: a trekking guide. My job has taken me on pilgrim’s trails: Portugal’s “Caminho Portugues” route to Fatima and the Camino of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and France. Then, some years back, my job, a passionate-but-brief love affair and the subsequent birth of my son brought me to Tuscany where I now live. My adopted home is on none other than the ancient Via Francigena, Italy’s medieval pilgrimage route. Continued after photos....

This ongoing theme may be purely coincidental but on a recent trip to Jalisco it was my destiny to happen upon a full-blown pilgrimage once again! Divine intervention you ask? I thank the Virgin of Talpa, and Cohuacoatl, her pre-Christian incarnation as Earth goddess for blessings received.

Bigger: Not Necessarily Better

I’m always looking for those smaller towns in Mexico that remind me of my first trip south more than 30 years ago. They have gotten increasingly hard to find. On a close friend’s recommendation, I rented a car and headed west from Guadalajara to visit the towns of Macota and Talpa, which my friend had described as “genuine.” Four hours later, passing through a landscape filled with sugar cane and agave, I found myself at the crossroads of Talpa and Mascota, each equal distance from the junction. So now the question: Talpa first then Mascota or Mascota and then Talpa?

I turned the car around exactly four times, paused, parked, pondered, studied the map and then pondered some more. Talpa had the Virgin and maybe was busier than Mascota. All I really wanted was to get out of the car and rest. A decision! Overnight in Mascota and visit Talpa tomorrow. Never did I imagine how I’d be getting there!

Getting a room in Mascota was more complicated than I had anticipated. Everything seemed full. What on earth attracted so many people to this small town? “Peregrinos, señora!” said the hotel’s owner, surprised that I had no idea. Suddenly things started making sense. The mules tied up outside were pack animals, the overstuffed pickups everywhere were surely sag wagons. The 10 young men, 50 kilometers back, plodding steadily along the road packing heavy grain sacks on their backs. One of the yearly pilgr../images to Talpa was in full swing, and tomorrow was the last day of the Fiesta de Candelaria (Candlemass). My chance to be a pilgrim had presented itself once again.

Into the Night

Being on my own meant finding out where the trail started. The hotel owner wagged her finger and advised me not to go alone or I’d get lost in the maze of trails in the woods. The waitresses at dinner busily asked other patrons for hints. I was touched by how helpful they were, but it became obvious that few Mascota natives had ever done this last bit of pilgrimage on foot. I finally chanced upon a courtyard full of exhausted pilgrims, some lying on bedrolls, others sleeping on woven mats surrounded by packs, boots and hand-carved hiking sticks. A group of middle-aged ladies waved me in, inviting me to hike with them at 3 a.m. I graciously declined “But if I left later could I find the trailhead on my own?” “Pues, claro. ¡No te preocupes! Whenever you start there’ll be someone to walk with! People you can trust! ¡Qué te vaya tranquila!”

The next morning at 4 a.m.---my trusty headlamp (never travel without it!) firmly strapped to my baseball cap and my hood pulled down tight---I set out on the dark streets. I walked briskly into the cold wind blowing down from the mountains. I soon came upon other pilgrims on their fifth and final day; they had walked all the way from Tepic. We headed down the dark, silent streets of Mascota, into the woods, and over a wobbly suspension bridge.

The 27-kilometer hike on dirt roads and trails unfolded. Winding through fields and along streams, we climbed steadily up to pine forests. Finally, crossing over the 6,000-foot ridge, we walked down into the expansive valley where Talpa lay.

At first, conversation with my fellow pilgrims was limited. A certain code exists of respect, discretion and acceptance. As a middle-aged American woman hiking alone in the darkness with a group of unknown men, it was thoroughly liberating to experience no judgment whatsoever. During the trek our group broke apart and rejoined; each pilgrim finding his or her own pace and taking as much time and space as needed.

One has plenty of time to think while walking. I call it the great “mobile meditation.” Why do we do it?

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

What is the explanation of these pilgr../images? Each pilgrim has personal reasons, but what we have in common is that we are all inspired: to move, to walk, to breathe, to see, to hope. What “makes” the pilgrimage is the whole mix: the hardship, the dedication, the doubt, the joy, the fear, the isolation, the inspiration. The journey itself is a microcosm of life and each pilgrim defines the spirit.

One thing I’ll never forget about this experience is the face of a small boy on the back of his dad’s mountain bike. For five days his father alternately had ridden, pushed and pulled the bike along the trail from Tepic. As we passed each other in the dark, I never managed to see the expression on the child’s face. At dawn they passed me for the last time. The knit cap that had completely covered his head and face was finally peeled back to reveal a beautiful smiling 5-year-old.

Another memory is the sun rising over the mountains while the fog lifted off the water of an isolated reservoir. But above all I will remember the polite companionship of my fellow pilgrims from Tepic, the time we spent together and the coffee we shared next to the fire of a makeshift rest-stop deep in the pine forest. The exotic taste of that hot, sweet, smoke-scented coffee will stay with me always. I walk away feeling blessed for having this experience. Thank you, miraculous Virgin of Talpa, and Cohuacoatl, the sacred Earth goddess, for helping me decide to go to Mascota before Talpa!

---Lisa Halderman