Indian Hill at 115 degress, The Shaman's Cave, Part II
edited: Monday, April 21, 2003
By David John Taylor
Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2003
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Baptized in my own sweat, searching in a desert cauldron for a cave thought to be home to Shamans.
(This is a sequel to an article that appears at DesertUSA.com: http://www.desertusa.com/mag00/dec/stories/cave.html)
My neck muscles strained as I took gulping breaths, sucking for air. It wasn't getting better. Like hot water, it wasn't quenching my thirst.
A hundred and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit in the shade will do that, and I wasn't in the shade. Given time, I was sure the sun would sterilize my soul. Indian Hill seemed a long way off, although it only lay across the little valley. I was alone on this hike. Solitude, blissful rambling, getting tinged with peril.
My God, I thought. I've done it again.
I was searching for the Shaman's Cave.
I'd come across Reverend Detzers's little pamphlet, "Bullets, Bibles and Bullion along the Border". In it, he mentions a shaman's cave that Ben Wyly of Jacumba had led him to:
"Following Ben to the southeastern side of Indian Hill to a small rock cave, located up the steep mountain, one finds colorful pictographs (pictures drawn on rock surfaces with mineral paint). ... These particular pictographs are thought to have been painted by shamans or witch doctors and relate to the Indian boy's puberty ceremonies."
I discovered the Reverend's pamphlet in July, and promptly became obsessed with finding the Shaman's Cave. It was, after all, a reason, an excuse, to do what must be done, to wander in the desert.
Consumed as I was, the temperatures in the Anza-Borrego were not encouraging, lows in the 90's, highs in the 110's.
I filled up two canteens, a two quart and a one quart, the night before, and put them in the freezer. With fruit juices and a couple of sodas, I threw the frozen canteens in a cooler after work and drove out to Dos Cabezas.
I went west along the railroad track, and parked at the end of the road, where I checked my gear again. I'd been drinking juice as I'd driven out, and now I slammed another bottle. There. Hydrated. I decided I would only bring the two-quart canteen. Indian Hill was only a mile, after all. It was now the afternoon, the sun was laboring towards the horizon.
In the June 1991 issue of Backpacker Magazine, Steve Howe writes about walking in the desert. Don't walk in the midday sun. Wear light colored cotton clothes. A gallon of water a day is standard. Howe continued: "If you're planning an August trek in the desert, where the only shade is under cactus or the wings of buzzards, my list of recommended gear is a large umbrella, a camel train, and one hundred goatskins of water...."
Quiet as a pause, the desert still needed to exhale, and a rare breeze would wash over me, yet give no relief from the pitiless sun. The rocky horizon and anything above it looked like a stage backdrop against the cobalt blue sky. I staggered out onto the floor of the valley, crossing an old Jeep trail that once traversed it.
Out ahead, getting closer, Indian Hill vaulted up like a relic from the flat sandy valley floor, as if a Goliath's forearms had swept the stones of the area together in a chaotic tabernacle.
Through sparse, thorny ocotilla and a labyrinth of cholla cactus, I walked slowly, paused often, and drank liberally from my canteen. In the short distance I'd traversed, the ice had melted.
In the refuge of rocks that mark the northeastern perimeter of Indian Hill, I collapsed, and waited for my breathing and heart to approach anything even vaguely normal. I could smell the rocks around me baking.
While I gasped, I looked over my shoulder, and did a double-take. A Yoni, painted with yellowish green paint, was right over my shoulder. I've always associated Yonis with water. The nearest water on the map is Carrizo Springs, 1.5 miles due west.
Though my heart slowed down, my gasping breaths continued. I rose and slowly, very slowly, started around the base of Indian Hill, pursuing the clues that the reverend had given on locating the cave.
In a recent conversation with Dr. Florence Shipek, considered the pre-eminent scholar on the Kumeyaay Indians of the southwest, she told me that the Kumeyaay had shamanism separated into three distinct disciplines; medicine, spiritual leaders, and then those knowledgeable about the world, their physical scientists.
She also told me no white person knows what the Indian drawings mean, and that, back in the fifties and sixties, when she was doing extensive oral histories with older Kumeyaay (elders she contends that had to be at least a hundred years old), whenever she related some scholar's theory on what a set of drawings meant, the old Indians would look at each other and snicker knowingly.
The cave was supposed to be on the southeast side of Indian Hill, but I wasn't sure if the mound I walked around was considered part of the Hill. A saddle about a third of the way along the hillock nearly split it in two. I didn't find the morteros Detzer mentioned, but there were an awful lot of caves. I started up, and in the rarified, searing heat, began looking into possible candidates, climbing the 240-foot tall rock basilica. The drone of bees interrupted the cooking silence. One landed on my forearm and sucked at my sweat. I raised it to my eyes. Sure enough, a honeybee.
Screwbean hung heavily on mesquite that grows through the rocks, and other plants I did not recognize had blossoms breaking out on them.
I studied the floor of the basin to the southeast. Shouldn't there be a trail leading to the cave? From the top of Indian Hill, I took yet another long pause in the shade of a boulder, drank from my still cool canteen. My tongue stayed pasty. I'd walked a single mile, climbed some rocks, and at 115 degrees, I was close to my limit.
All that water down my throat, all that liquid out my pores, my body laboring just to filter it through. Here in the crucible of the extracting sun, I had the most curious, shimmering thought. Was there purification in this self-inflicted suffering, some vague baptism in my own sweat? Was I worthy to be there?
With binoculars hot against my eye sockets I glassed the base of the hill, looking for the morteros.
Then I saw something. Omitted from the map, there appeared to be a faded jeep trail in the trough to the southeast.
I shook my canteen. Less than a quart left, and I was looking at a long walk back. I kicked myself for leaving the other canteen behind. Why'd I bring it if I didn't intend to use it? My temples pounded with thick blood.
Another time, another man, I'd have thrown chance to the wind and charged ahead, but if the brutal beautiful desert has finally taught me anything, it's this: In its non-sentient perfection, the desert doesn't care whether I live or die, know or concern itself with whether I persist.
Grudgingly I submitted, turned away from my goal and started back toward my truck. I'd be back in three weeks, though, on an even hotter day, with reinforcements, and a new plan.