What was the best part of this assignment?
What was unexpectedly the best part of the trip for me was how welcoming all the cowboys were of me and of my group. And we were such obvious outsiders (we had women in our group, for one thing). The pilgrimage was more than just "an event," I quickly realized, it was a genuine enactment of radical welcoming so that the reenactment of the welcoming of the Christ Child by the three wise men was implicit in the welcome the cowboys gave us. There was something deeply spiritual and moving about that experience—spirituality made physical. I was surprised that it felt so multidenominational while being so very Catholic (if you see what I mean). In other words, although it was exclusively Catholic in its trappings, banners, prayers, incense—the spirituality of the event felt transcendent.
What was the trickiest part of the assignmet?
It was tough to see some of the horses suffering and not feel either equipped or culturally able to step in and do something about it. Telling a cowboy not to hit his horse, for example, or telling them not to gallop their exhausted mounts.… I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut. A great deal of the horses were well cared for and the cowboys had a real connection with their animals, but there certainly were a few people who abused their animals. Also, the carelessness with which the riders treated their landscape—throwing garbage as they went and leaving piles of refuse wherever they stopped; the rivers chocked with sewage and rubbish—it's hard not to moralize and lecture. At least it was for me!
Did you come across anything particularly interesting?
Some of the riders were absolutely reckless, so there was a sense of surrealism about how and where we rode: off steep eroded paths and on slick cobbles, down narrow village streets (vehicles not bothering to make way or slow down, often). I just kept waiting for someone to get really badly hurt and no one ever did—or at least not really badly hurt. The only casualty in our group was when one of the crazier horses collided into the back of a pickup truck. At one point, on the ride back from the mountain to El Rodeo, we had to ride under a highway. There was a pedestrian underpass, just tall enough that the horses could go through it without hitting the top of their saddles. The cowboys we were with (by then quite drunk) did not dismount, instead they hung themselves sideways off their saddles (which also seemed impossible, given the tunnel was narrow) and rode through whooping and hollering. Someone should have been injured, but everyone emerged unscathed.