Every Holy Week, tens of thousands of Catholic faithful travel from across the world to Chimayó, about an hour north of Santa Fe, long notorious in law enforcement as a center of heroin sales and consumption in New Mexico, but beloved by true believers because miracles happen here. The pilgrims come by car, by foot, all along roads that wind off U.S. Route 285 toward the Santuario de Chimayó—the town’s sanctuary, a humble adobe church built around a hole.
The Catholic Church maintains that in the 1800s, a Chimayó man discovered a cross in the ground while digging for water. He placed it inside the local church, but the cross mysteriously returned to the pit the following morning. The man built a sanctuary around the posito (watering hole) to mark this mystery, and it’s still there, inside a small room toward the back of the sacred structure. Next to that room is a larger one filled with children’s shoes lined up on a shelf and crutches that lean against the wall, along with hundreds of pictures and testimonials by families claiming they found cures for their terminal diseases by merely touching the dirt from the posito. Two hand shovels stay in the small pit so people can scoop dirt home to take with them, although warnings in distributed pamphlets urge people not to eat it. The Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe freely admits that the redemptive soil isn’t self-regenerating, a sort of dirt-based Miracle of the Loaves, but rather comes from the mountain range that is the church’s scenic backdrop, the towering Sangre de Cristo—the Blood of Christ.
This Lourdes of the America is a magical place, and not just because of its supposed curative powers. Gift shops run by elderly, cranky people (one has installed an alarm that automatically reprimands shoppers who don’t close the door to stave off the chilling winds from outside) ring the Santuario, and another chapel offers homage to the Santo Niño de Atocha, an apparition of the infant Jesus beloved across New Mexico dressed like a pilgrim. And there is food—bags of roasted pecans sold in roadside stands, sacks of piñon (pine nuts) harvested from the fragrant, spindly trees, mounds of dried or fresh chiles depending on the season, Chimayó’s other notable cultural product. Some get tied into colorful ristras, dried chiles strung up in wreaths that automatically bring a bit of the Southwest wherever they hang.
In Chimayó, as in the rest of New Mexico, people find magic—try and visit during the winter, just after a snowstorm, when snow blankets the region in white until the Sangre de Cristo mountains are as bright as a mirror, and the harsh sun melts the rooftops to create dozens of streams that create a fugue of splashing water—that has attracted tourists and settlers alike for centuries. But I did not know of this Chimayó until visiting for this book. The only Chimayó that I knew stood a thousand miles away from the village, on the edge of the Pacific, in Huntington Beach. There, Chimayó at the Beach lasted 15 years ago as a “Southwestern” restaurant, part of the empire of celebrity chef David Wilheim. It was already a relic when it opened in 1998, having missed the Southwestern food craze of the previous decades. And Chimayó at the Beach was itself a spinoff of Chimayo Grill, a restaurant co-created by Wilheim and Taco Bell in an effort to try and create a chain of Southwestern-inspired high-end restaurants to capitalize on America’s latest obsession with borderland cuisine.
That didn’t happen, and Chimayó at the Beach from the start offered food that was more accurately Mexican. Toward the end, long after Wilheim abandoned it, it didn’t even bother with appearances other than sprinkling chile on some dishes, pecans on others, and baskets of blue corn tortilla chips at all tables. Toward the end, new management announced the addition of “street-style” tacos that were “authentic” to the menu, despite the fact that tacos have about as much to do with the historical Chimayó as surfing.
Thankfully Chimayó at the Beach is long-gone, but when I mentioned the restaurant to the food critic at the Santa Fe Reporter, the city’s alt-weekly, he laughed. “At the Beach?” he asked incredulously. Yep. Laughs across the table.