Pilgrims on the Road to Taos

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I didn’t plan on visiting Dennis Hopper’s grave, but like many things in life, it was just sort of something I stumbled across. I would have driven past oblivious had it not been for a casual conversation the night before at the hotel bar.

Throughout this trip so far, I’ve had a lot of alone time to think and sometimes those thoughts drift towards, “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Don’t get me wrong, the amazing things I’ve seen and people I’ve met so far have been great, but often the ride is too hot or too cold or too windy or too rainy. It’s difficult to find the sweet spot between abject boredom and downright dangerous. It also gets lonely sometimes and sleeping in a different town every night can be mentally exhausting.

While I stood at the edge of the grave of the man who played Billy in “Easy Rider,” I realized that he might have had something to do with planting the seed for this crazy journey long ago. I watched the movie that Hopper co-wrote and directed over and over in high school and college. I bought my first motorcycle during university in Colorado, a Honda Nighthawk 250, and 20 years later found myself in a cemetery near Taos, New Mexico, dressed in riding gear, holding a motorcycle helmet and standing beside Dennis Hopper’s grave. Seeing the number of weathered biker bandanas tied to the wooden cross memorial, I could sense that others had felt the same as I. Later, as I fired up the Triumph and pulled out of the dirt road through the unmarked cemetery, I felt as though my journey had somehow been in some small way sanctified by the moment.

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I continued down the road from Taos to Santa Fe. The “High Road to Taos,” as it’s called, is a designated scenic byway and with good reason. The road twists through tiny towns, through the Carson National Forest and the desert and pines of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Blood of Christ Mountains. It runs past a shrine called the Santuario de Chimayo, possibly the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the country and one that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims per year. These faithful flock here every year for the miraculous power of the earth surrounding the shrine, which is said to have divine powers of healing. There is a prayer room, the walls of which are covered in testimonials attesting to this fact.

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On its surface, the concept of magical dirt may seem silly to most people, but I suppose it’s just a matter of faith and, frankly, it’s no more silly than the feeling I had when I rode out of that dusty cemetery only an hour before.

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