The Virgin never leaves Hispanic roadside shrines dot the mystic West

Thursday, April 18, 2013 9:44 PM
At a shrine to La Virgin Maria just north of Abiquiu, N.M., folk artists created a stone grotto where the Virgin stands and is covered with gifts of necklaces. Other offerings are left at her feet, including small statues of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe and votive candles.
A cross with a wreath of brambles is silhouetted against the sky at La Virgin Maria shrine north of Abiquiu, N.M. Nearby wooden crosses include names and dates of family members who have died. On one such cross a baby’s plastic pacifier is wired to the wood.
Wooden crosses at Hispanic roadside shrines receive all kinds of adornments and offerings, including this cross accented with yellow highway reflectors.
Multiple crosses lean against the stone grotto, representing the passage of different pilgrims and honoring family members who have passed on. Crosses are left. Prayers are said. Tears wet dry ground.
At the roadside shrine to La Virgin Maria in northern New Mexico the half-acre site is covered with stones arranged in the shape of crosses. Dozens of such simple crosses, of varying sizes, cover the site.
Crosses at the La Veta shrine can be as small as a few inches or as large as railroad ties. Pilgrims leave offerings as they travel the Southwest. By leaving gifts they hopefully “vaya con Dios” or “go with God.”

Driving across the mystical West, it is important to say a prayer, leave an offering, think of others. The Spanish phrase is “vaya con Dios,” or “go with God.” North of Abiquiu, N.M., is a roadside shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary. She rests in a small stone grotto surrounded by offerings of rosaries, necklaces, full beer bottles, coins and children’s small toys all weathering in the wind and snow.

As I drive east up and out of the San Luis Valley toward the Spanish Peaks, or the Breasts of the Earth (La Huajatolla in Spanish or Wahatoya in Ute), I am looking for another shrine that I found years ago along U.S. Highway 160 somewhere west of Walsenburg. I remember this shrine because in those days of driving slow-moving Volkswagen buses, the wind whipped my bus back and forth, and I hung on to that steering wheel with all my might. Sooner or later, the tie-rod ends would give out, but that’s another story.

I took a photograph 30 years ago. Now it’s a somewhat faded Kodachrome slide, but it’s an 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 toward the Breasts of the Earth and even farther south toward Mexico, the homeland of so many wanderers across the West. Now as I drive the highway thinking of my own journeys, my comings and goings between mountains and mesas, cliffs and canyons, I wonder if the shrine still exists or if some highway official has ordered it removed.

As I come up and over a rise, having sailed down La Veta Pass, 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 and survival. I begin to despair of seeing the shrine, and I assume that it has disappeared like so many other “roadside attractions” as the Old West has evolved into the New West and now the Next West of empty second homes and aging baby boomers.

Extractive industries of mining, lumbering and ranching have become silhouetted backdrops for ecotourism, fly-fishing and mountain biking as the Lycra-clad legions sally forth from urban centers to explore the hinterland. The rest of us try to make a living in a Mountain West now populated by retirees who are modem cowboys and equity émigrés living on incomes derived far from the mountains and the mesas that we love. They get to retire while our children get minimum wages and high-priced housing.

Some 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. As they say in Texas, “The bigger the gate, the smaller the place.” No local would build such eyesores, but newcomers often erect large log paeans to prosperity and private property. One entrance to an exclusive development has stylized barbed-wire gates shaped like gigantic tennis rackets big enough to whack a moving van. In western Colorado, “The newer the neighbor, the bigger the gate.”

In the Mountain West, natives build fences out of used skis. Rusted pickup trucks beside a barn are not so much junk as yard art. But New West newcomers don’t like our old ways and the manner in which, with signs and symbols, we’ve fit into the landscape with humor by bolting a rural mailbox to an old plow or to a milk can set in concrete.

When are we going to have an Ugly Pickup Parade in which the winner gets a cold case of Ska brews and baling wire to repair his or her pick’em-up truck? New Westerners take themselves so damn seriously. It’s time they put some scratches and dents in those large, luxurious, leather-seated SUVs and drop them off a cliff. Use ’em as river riprap to improve trout habitat.

The old traditions of living and learning from the land are anathema to some second-home owners who seek only magnificent views and lattes, all the while missing the smaller views, the vistas. They know the landscape from maps, not from slowly passing over the soil on foot or on horseback and living upon it. To a fourth generation Western rancher, a meadow set between high peaks is a working landscape. To a newcomer it’s scenery.

As I muse upon historical change and marvel at the Breasts of the Earth, I suddenly see the Hispanic shrine. After all these years, it’s still there.

I pull over to the north side of the highway listening to the wind whip around my truck, and I see that 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, perhaps the work of Penitentes or the Brotherhood of Light. Smaller crosses, merely 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. There are high school ID tags, crushed cans, coins, baseball caps, pine-needle boughs, Christmas ornaments and teething rings.

On the ground a simple cross of stones lies embedded in the soft earth. The Virgin Mary is still there, wearing the same white plastic beads, though now she has more necklaces and her blue dress and cloak have faded to gray.

Charms of all sorts line the fence, covered with boots and shoes, fishing lures and macramé. Socks and T-shirts blow in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags. Mary stands serene where she has stood for at least three decades looking to the south, smiling upon the simple offerings left by the faithful in an ancient response, a folk response, to travel and travail and the need to say and leave prayers as we traverse the Western landscape.

The crosses and the offerings are a testament to faith and humility. Her outstretched arms receive us all. As small wooden crosses turn in the wind, I am amazed at the power of place, the resilience of cultures.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. Contact him at