As I drive east up and out of southern Colorado’s immense San Luis Valley towards the Spanish Peaks — La Huajatolla in Spanish and Wahatoya in Ute — I am looking for a roadside shrine that I found three decades ago along U.S. Highway 160, somewhere west of Walsenburg, Colo.
I took a photograph then. Now, it’s a faded Kodachrome slide, but it still holds the image of the Virgin Mary in a stone grotto, brilliantly lit by late afternoon light. White beads grace her neck, and her arms stretch south, perhaps toward Mexico, the homeland of so many wanderers across the West.
As I drive the highway thinking of my journeys over the years, my comings and goings between mountains and mesas, cliffs and canyons, I wonder if the shrine still exists and want to see it again. As I come up and over a rise, I am struck again by the beauty of the Spanish Peaks and the cultural persistence of Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos in this fabled landscape of sorrow, struggle and survival. I begin to despair of seeing the shrine again and assume that it has disappeared like so much else, as the Old West has evolved into hobby ranches and second homes.
Some mining, lumbering and ranching persists even as newcomers bring eco-tourism, fly-fishing and mountain biking to the rural West. It’s an odd amalgam as retirees and wealthy New Westerners mark the land with trophy ranches and huge, ugly ranch gates that proclaim the size of their egos and their wallets. In Texas, they say, “The bigger the gate, the smaller the place.” Here in western Colorado, the saying is: “The newer the neighbor, the bigger the gate.”
When are we going to have an Ugly Pickup Parade in which the winner gets a cold case of local brews and baling wire to repair his or her pick’em-up truck? These days, Westerners take themselves way too seriously. It’s time they put some scratches and dents in those luxurious, leather-seated SUVs, or maybe just drop them off a cliff. Use ‘em as riprap to improve trout habitat.
As I grouse away to myself, toting up some of the historical changes on the rural back roads, I suddenly see the Hispanic shrine I’ve been seeking. After all these years, it’s still there.
Time has only increased the shrine’s pull and power. Now there are large wooden crosses in front of the grotto and dozens of offerings left upon the four-strand barbed-wire highway fence. The crosses are made of landscape timbers and railroad ties. Smaller crosses, made of two cottonwood sticks affixed with wire, are hung up and down the fence, along with rosaries, faded plastic flowers, key rings, gloves, belts, strands of hair, toy bears and small plastic U.S. flags. Socks and T-shirts, caught in the fence, blow in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags.
On the ground a simple stone cross lies embedded in the soft earth. The Virgin Mary remains in her grotto, wearing the same white plastic beads that she wore when I first saw her, though now she has more necklaces and her blue dress and cloak have faded to gray. Mary stands serene where she has stood for at least 30 years, looking off to the south, still smiling.
The crosses and the offerings are a testament to faith and humility, as her outstretched arms appear to receive us all. As small wooden crosses shiver in the wind, I am amazed at the power of place and the resilience and persistence of culture.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.