Cyndi Catanach says her family 26 years ago started a tradition of offering fruit, drinks and even chairs for walkers to rest as they made their way to El Santuario de Chimayo during Holy Week.
The annual pilgrimages by the Roman Catholic faithful draw lines of people along the roads leading to the Northern New Mexico village of Chimayo on the Thursday and Friday before Easter.
But Catanach worries that the tradition of offering roadside comfort to the walkers is jeopardized by the New Mexico Department of Transportation's concerns about pedestrian and motorist safety.
The agency announced this week that it asked law-enforcement agencies to enforce a state policy that "does not allow encroachments, including concession or roadside stands, along [the] state highway right of way."
A policy titled "Removal of Encroachments, Obstructions, Abandoned Motor Vehicles, and for Restrictions of Vending," revised in 2001, became effective in December 1998. It states that no vending-type businesses should be permitted to operate on the highway right of way. Under the policy, "These structures shall be treated as encroachments, hazardous obstructions or nonhazardous obstructions, as the circumstances warrant."
The department's District 5 engineer, Miguel Gabaldon, said the agency acknowledges the religious significance of the pilgrimages, but officials are concerned about booths drawing crowds or causing people to walk too close to traffic.
Gabaldon said the number of booths along the roads has increased over the years. He also cited a 2010 incident in which a 6-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle on N.M. 503 while his family was operating a roadside booth. The boy did not suffer life-threatening injuries, according to a news report at the time.
"It's a safety concern on our part," Gabaldon said. "We're always concerned about the walkers and drivers."
Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia said he will cooperate with the state Transportation Department but won't order his deputies to issue citations to booth operators for simply handing out water and oranges to walkers.
"I'm going to work with [people]," the sheriff said. "I'm not going to go there heavy-handed, ordering citations for everybody." Unless booths obstruct traffic, he will try to allow them to help walkers and drivers have a safe pilgrimage, he said.
"Even without the concession stands, when the crowds get so heavy, not only do people walk on the shoulder but they walk on the roadway as well," Garcia said.
Sheriff's deputies plan to hand out about 3,000 glow sticks on Thursday and will set up a DWI checkpoint east of Nambe in an effort to detect impaired drivers.
Preparing for the pilgrimages is a multiagency operation, said Rosanne Rodriguez, Transportation Department spokeswoman. "Maintenance crews have been working really hard to clean typical routes and will be going out again because of snow [that fell Tuesday]."
The department will set up orange barrels and electronic message boards along U.S. 84/285. The department also will set up portable light towers at the Pojoaque Wellness Center and intersections on N.M. 503 and County Road 84. Additional signs to warn drivers about high volumes of pedestrians will go up along N.M. 68, N.M. 76 and N.M. 503.
Rodriguez said the state agency will also provide trash receptacles.
Past estimates indicate that 30,000 to 50,000 people drive or walk to Chimayo during the pilgrimages.
A family who has never forgotten the damage a drunken driver can cause is among those urging the public to be careful. On Sunday, Dale McKinnon's family will have a special celebration of Mass to honor the teen, who was killed 30 years ago by an intoxicated driver as he rode his bike to Chimayo.
Dale, then 17, was killed April 8, 1982, as he tried to cross a roadway to reach a convenience store in the Pojoaque area.
"He was riding for religious purposes," his sister, Dorothy McKinnon, 46, said, then cleared her throat and cried. "He was riding with two other guys. That night my mom begged him not to go, but he insisted. He said, 'I have to go.' He said it was his time to do the walk."
On Easter Sunday, the family will attend a celebration of Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Fe. On Friday, Dorothy McKinnon will walk to Chimayo, as she has done in the past, offering prayers for her family and for her brother's soul.
Dale loved music. He was a drummer and had joined a rock 'n' roll band named Rosie. Dale was the oldest sibling and the only boy in his immediate family. He took great care of his three younger sisters, McKinnon said.
"Last year, I walked directly from the site where he was killed to the santuario," McKinnon said. "A lot of people walk because they do it for religious reasons, important reasons. People don't walk just to walk."
Chimayo pilgrimage tips
--Motorists should be on the lookout for pedestrians heading north from as far away as Interstate 25.
--Pedestrians should wear light-colored clothing, carry water and a flashlight, and stay in areas marked for pedestrian traffic.
--People shouldn't light bonfires along the roads.
--Check for road conditions at www.nmroadconditions.com.
--Meteorologist Brian Guyer, with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, gave the following forecast:
Thursday: Low 30s in the morning, with afternoon highs in the 60s. The sky will have high clouds, so sunscreen is still recommended.
Friday: Mid-30s in the morning, 70s in the afternoon with west winds in the afternoon hitting at 15 to 20 mph.
Saturday and Sunday: Morning temperatures in the mid-30s and reaching the 70s in the afternoon. Light southeast winds are expected.
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