Just 25 miles north of Santa Fe, Chimayó, New Mexico, is a beautiful place. To the east stand the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, capped with glistening plates of snow. To the west is the blue Jemez range. The town itself is a scattering of adobe homes, nestled among cottonwoods.
At one end of town is the congregation of mud buildings around the Santuario de Chimayó, the most famous pilgrimage shrine in New Mexico, tended by a nonagenarian priest from Spain, Padre Roca, who arrived in 1955. Famed as the “little priest who restored the shrine,” he still shuffles around greeting visitors, telling them how when he first arrived—“reborn” in the mountains after a long illness—mules were stabled in the vestry and chile plants grew right up to the church door.
Chimayó is celebrated for two things: its “sacred dirt,” which has been credited with healing miracles over the decades, as testified to by the long lines of crutches hanging in the shrine room; and its near-sacred chile pepper. The stories of the shrine and the chile are intertwined. Pilgrims started coming here in the nineteenth century. Even today, each Easter tens of thousands of people walk up, some from hundreds of miles away. Over the years, the pilgrims who came would leave with vials of holy water, buckets of holy dirt and sacks of the local chile.
I used to be afraid of chile. Ever since I bit into what I thought was a small, wrinkled tomato and a pain exploded in my mouth that didn’t dissipate for 24 hours, I feared the Scoville Heat Unit—the index of a chile’s fieriness. But a few years ago, on a long lonely drive across the plains of New Mexico, the only thing I could find to eat in a tiny general store was a pack of tortilla chips and a jar of “Religious Experience” hot sauce. By the end of the drive, I had lost my Scoville virginity and become a devout convert.