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David John Taylor

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By Moonlight, Shaman's Cave Part III
by David John Taylor   

Last edited: Saturday, March 08, 2003
Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2003

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I find the Shaman's Cave I sought. So what more did I lack?

(This is a seguel to an article that appears at

Late August, 2000

"Can't go on, 'Cowboy," Mason said.


I had just bounded up some rocks with more morteros. By moonlight and flashlight, we had found morteros all along the bottom of this hill, along with a cave that had been dug underneath a huge flat boulder.

"The heat?" I asked. No response.

I grunted absently. The stones around us had absorbed the sun and now radiated that energy at about a hundred degrees.

By moonlight, I studied the boulder I stood on. This set of morteros matched Reverend Detzer's description. They had a symmetrical quality to them. I looked back towards the dark edifice behind me. Around shattered stone, there seemed to be a route rising up into this hill.

"Sharkbait. Up for it?"

"I think I better stay with Mason," Sharkbait answered.


I adjusted my headlamp, hung another flashlight around my neck, didn't really look back at either of my hiking partners that I'd dragged out to Doz Cabezas, then took off up the steep climb.

"I'll call down when I find it," I said over my shoulder. What 'it' was, was the Shaman's Cave.

I had read about the cave in Reverend Detzer's 'Bibles, Bullets And Bullion Along The Border'. In it, he describes a place he calls a shaman's cave, where ancient Indian rituals were performed, up on Indian Hill. A significant gallery of pictographs is what remains.

I had tried to find it during the day at 115 degrees, and failed. Now, a new tactic, searching by moonlight.

We had started out at twilight, and instead of the sun hammering down on us, the heat radiated up. A short hike, by moonlight, the temperature was still 95 degrees.

Twilight faded into night, the world shrank, the mountains around us faded to profiles.

The sky came to dominate our world, Moon to the south, stars to the north in the sable cloak draped over us. Dull moonshadows stretched out from ocotilla and barrel cactus as we moved through them, dodging cholla that choked our way. The smell was hot, the taste was hot. Sweat barely got us wet before wicking into the dry air.

In the daytime, the terrain looks like something big swept the rocks together, leaving the valley's stones piled toward the center. This is Indian Hill, a silhouette of black in the night.

I started hand-over-foot into the hill, grunting up and over some boulders that felt like sandpaper.

By moonlight, everything had a cold bluish tint, belying the heat radiating from the boulders. The cracked rock rose up high above me into a tall cave. I gained my feet and walked through the portal of a cathedral of a harsh creed, lichen on rocks for stain glass windows, quatrefoils and mullions shaped by wind and rain.

Walking up the nave, passages appeared both to my right and left, columbariums and sacristies made from a darker, more ragged rock. The reverend, though, intimated the cave was far up the hill, and besides, I had a strange desire to climb, to rise up through this miasma of splintered stone, as if kicking up through bath water, rising until I could truly breath. I hoisted myself toward a ledge, hands and knees getting as much traction as my boots.

Up I rose, over trefoils and traceries, through rock vestibules, into sanctuaries of stone.
The rock wall below me had a triforium of chip marks, the work of some other people, ancient man, the Kumeyaay or Cahuilla. At least one source had place both there at one time or another. What were they doing there?

I reached the top with only a few spires and pinnacle above me. Nothing. Except for the chip marks, nothing human, no shaman's cave, no pictographs.

The moon was at its zenith in the south, making it ten thirty, eleven o'clock. A hot wind crackled over me, sucking moisture from my lips, my flesh. I looked down, and in the dull light I could see I'd scrambled up maybe two hundred feet. I wasn't winded. I had not brought water, but I was not thirsty.

To the north, Coyote Mountains, the Badlands. Dos Cabezas and the lights of Ocotilla were to the east, the Jacumba Mountains, south.

I sighed, then started down.

It crossed my mind that finding a cave, in the dark, the fundamental premise of this hike, a single cave described as 'small' by Reverend Detzer, was a pretty ridiculous plan just then.

Still, on the way, I checked more caves, crevices, and vestries. There was one cave that had a funnel as an entrance. I slid down into this cave, onto soft cool sand. The wind moaned through. I studied the walls above and around me. Nothing.

This should've been a shaman's cave, I told myself as I crawled up the funnel.

The trail I had leapt up suddenly appeared very steep. I had to be careful. Moonlight plays tricks. The drops don't look so awful, the stones not so hard, a very dangerous illusion.

I had another thought as I crawled along, the wind coming in bursts. Would I know the cave if I saw it? You see pictures in a book, someone points them out to you in a hike, a sign marks them for you. Finding them like this, hidden, unmarked, in the moonlight, of all lights, following old and dubious directions, would I know them if I saw them? Had I seen them already, and because they didn't meet my preconceptions, had I simply not acknowledged them?

Light danced through a crevice. Sharkbait and Mason were shining their lamps up through the cathedral's portal, the way I'd come up. When I got to the narthex, however, I paused before the portal.

"I got up that?" I asked out loud. I would have to slide down those sandpaper boulders a good six feet, in the dark.

A passage to my right framed pale rock on the other side, reflecting moonlight. I walked through the threshold, looking down for an easier path. Then I looked up.

The ledge ahead was covered with symbols in black, blue, red, yellow and white, a pagan's alter. I staggered a few feet toward the ledge, then probably ruined a potentially sacred moment by bellowing back over my shoulder.

"Hey! Hey guys! I found it! I found the shaman's cave!"

"I'm -- I'm coming!" Sharkbait barked back.

The ancient drawings seemed to appear in every crevice I looked at, every pore of rock had colors jumping out, strange, unimaginable symbols, many of them which I found vaguely, unexplainably, hopeful.

Sharkbait came through the entrance to the ledge, paused, then swayed as he approached it.

"They're..." he whispered, "Magnificent."

A large drawing of a black stick lizard would hurry across the roof of the cave for all time. Two orange, perhaps red, figures with fuzzy heads stood next to each other for eternity.

"Scott," I yelled back. "Where are you?"

"I'm not coming up," he answered conversationally. Sharkbait and I both looked at each other, then back toward the portal.

"We've got a situation here. We're down to our last quart." We'd brought nearly two gallons of water between the three of us.

"Take your pictures, then let's get out'a here."

We blistered several rolls of film on the cave, then left unceremoniously.

Back at camp, it was too hot to sleep. We slammed Snapples and sodas to stay awake in our lawn chairs, watched distant Ocotilla go dark around one (Last person to leave Ocotilla, turn off the light) then watched the Perseid Meteor Shower stream down through the sky until three, when the buzzing in my head convinced me I had to lie down.

But as I slipped into slumber, I suddenly, grimly realized, I simply hadn't finished my mission, the thing I knew I had to do, now, or at least very soon. As much as I might wish I were, I wasn't finished with the Shaman's Cave.

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