A few years ago, I spent the month of March strolling around Santa Fe, camping on the beach in Baja California, then trekking through Araviapa Creek on my first-ever backpacking trip.
In Mexico, I slept on the beach. The night sky was at once astonishing and consoling, and I spent hours stargazing, trying to memorize the arrangements, reconnecting with the universe. I wanted to be able to stay there forever, but knew that eventually the perfection would crumble. Still the experience felt miraculous and comforting: my faith in the earth as a welcoming place was restored.
Redemption was my due for this journey to Mexico. My first journey there had been cold and damp, the rhythm of the tides a mismatch for my own. This trip, even my chores seemed smoother, more like pleasant pasatiempo than drudgery.
My trip to Santa Fe was more populated, less contemplative. A friend had an exhibit opening at a gallery there. Our first day, we braced against a windy snowstorm, but then the weather turned pleasant and sunny. We spent our days scouring the thrift stores for treasures, trying on theatrical outfits in high-end stores, browsing in the art supply store on Canyon Road. We fantasized about buying showy designer cowgirl boots. We made new best friends everywhere we went.
At her shop, we met Connie Hernandez, and found the best selection of milagros and saints’ cards I had ever seen. This tiny, lively, seventy-something woman was full of stories, in particular about the miracles performed by Padre Pio, a priest, martyr and stigmatic from Italy who was canonized in 2002. After nearly two hours, as we finished our shopping and prepared to leave, Connie said, “Wait, I want to give you something.” She walked back to her desk, pulled out a bag of medals, and brought us each one.
“These St. Benedict medals were blessed by Padre Pio,” she nodded. “You can wear it on a chain, or pin it into your undergarments, and it will protect you from bad people.” Her face displayed the intense conviction of unquestioning faith.
A couple of weeks later I found myself — literally — backpacking in Aravaipa Canyon with three other women. Aravaipa Creek is a miracle of a different sort, a perennial spring-fed creek running through the desert, a protected oasis home to a host of birds, mammals, plants and insects.
Our first night out I scrunched down in my sleeping bag. Reading by the light of my headlamp, I made the mistake of looking out beyond my tarp’s edge to find: a host of spiders plotting their revenge. I tossed all night, grabbing at my face and arms anytime I felt a twinge. In the middle of the night, something dropped onto my chest. I calmly picked it up and flung it out into the dark. Turns out, caterpillars were hurling themselves off the tree branches above me.
Glad I don’t sleep with my mouth open.
Early the next morning, with my sheet pulled over my head, I felt something crawl over my face: a lizard? a bird? a mouse? Ten minutes later, fifteen coatimundi came down off the rocks behind our campsite. They raced across the beach – over the exact spot where I had been camped –scrambled over the creek, up a low tree branch, and disappeared into the brush on the other side.
The next night I moved my camp and vowed not to look out into the darkness.
Once home from backpacking, I found my back and thighs weren’t sore at all. What hurt were the sides of my torso and the sides of my calves – my balance muscles. I wasn’t accustomed to maintaining my equilibrium over rocky trails and stony streams while wearing a 30-pound backpack. The soreness wasn’t unpleasant; rather, I felt stronger.
I came home feeling like a new woman, but the fact is I was the same, only smoother: caressed by a bath in the creek, polished by the wind and beach sand, cooled by the night air, blessed and protected by St. Benedict and Padre Pio. The March elements were kind to me and I was both old and new.