It was an irresistable urge. I had to sleep in the Shaman's Cave on the night of the full moon.
(This is a seguel to an article that appears at DesertUSA.com: ahttp://www.desertusa.com/mag00/dec/stories/cave.html)
I was at a roofless rock structure just above the railroad tracks of Carrizo Gorge in the Anza Borrego when night overtook me. It's sable cloak settled over the stark landscape, seeming to absorb the desert sounds as well as its pigments. I started working back towards the Shaman's Cave.
The long unused Jeep trail runs due east. I kept having to look back to relieve my eyes from the strain of the just risen full moon. It lit the landscape with its melancholy lifeless beam, draining everything of color. Time and again, desert ghosts flitted across the road ahead of me, only to turn into Mormon tea or buckwheat or creosote along the road. Desert ghosts are tricky that way.
It was while I walked along, squinting into the moon, that the wandering of my lone thoughts, unencumbered by sound or the presence of company, traipsed off without me, and began to look for something pursuing me, tracking me. The first thought was a coyote in chase. I looked for a skulking form dashing from shadow to shadow. Then a new thought, much more vivid, had a mountain lion tracking, yet not stalking me.
I marveled at my curious notion. Why not stalking, why not looking for a kill? Well, it had just gorged itself on a mule deer, it was going along the road to its lair, when it sensed a fellow night traveler. Closing in through stone and bush, it discovered a lone human. Here the mountain lion had several choices. Sated as it was, it was not hungry. It could kill me for sport, but the mule deer had been especially entertaining as it scampered desperately up and over rock, through brush and wash. The lion, tired, its stomach bursting, was yet intrigued by the situation. Well, if it wasn't going to kill me, perhaps it could share the moment, commiserate, even at a distance, with a nocturnal colleague. And if later the mood should strike him, he could dispatch me for its entertainment value. For the moment, though, it felt a kinship with me, perhaps even affection in its murderous heart.
With this dreamlike musing pursuing me, I staggered into the moonlight, at times completely dependent on my GPS. I had suspected this might happen, so I'd programmed in ▒Turn Right Here', and ▒Favor Left' into the little green box as I had walked. I'd gone around the north side of Indian Hill to get to the road, but now, at the western end, I went to the south side, an area I hadn't explored before.
The terrain here falls off into tight washes that I had to scamper down into and climb back out of. The world shrank to a few feet in front of me. I could look back and see up the sides of ravines and rocky mountains, but forward was glare and blindness. Finally, the ground started flattening out.
Back at the cave, the gear I'd dropped off coming in was undisturbed. Even the wind that gathers force pushing through these boulders hadn't disturbed my inflated mat. I assumed from this that I was welcome.
From the moment I read Dr. Detzer's description of the Shaman's Cave, I knew I would spend the night alone there. I'd brought friends, explored and researched, trying to sate this urge, but here I was, doing the inevitable. I could not resist the urge to wander in the desert. Here.
The night offered little relief from the desert's summer heat. The stone and sand, having stored the energy all through the day, now released it in the Moon's barren light. The hot dry wind moaned hollow through the boulders. The long shadows on the stone shrank as the moon rose higher into the sky. Overhead, bats squeaked erratically. It was 9:30, and it was 87 degrees, although the rocks that surrounded me were much hotter.
Few stars could compete with the moon, at least in the southern sky. I had to hold my hand up to the moon to be able to see the view I had from the cave's ledge.
The moon painted the little valley in naked hues of blueish grays that glowed off cholla, creosote and ocotilla. Even the sky was blue past the Jacumba Mountains, which were black silhouettes.
Something moved in the lacework of brush below, out in the valley. It darted from moon shade to moon shade, working its way toward me. I stirred. It froze, merged with a shadow, then melted away. I didn't see it again that night.
The wind built. The near winds searched through the crevices of the rocks with a shallow sucking, The distant winds grew, crested, roared, then slid away like waves on a remote shore.
Wraith-like clouds appeared, blown and whipped by the wind, stretching across the moon in a swirl, south to east to north.
With a sudden revelation, I realized,having sat on it for hours, that the ledge before the cave was partially sculpted, a molded Yoni.
What a little research can do. Manfred Knapp, in his book 'The Forgotten Artist', calls this cave the most signifigant archeological site in the Anza-Borrego desert. It was studied heavily in the 1980s, and doctoral papers were done on it.
It was 11:53 and 82 degrees. The rocks had begun to cool.
I turned on my light, hesitated, then crept into the Shaman's Cave itself.
Moonlight doesn't reflect. Whatever it hits absorbs its beams, then glows, leaving everything around it in murky shades of blacks and grays. The cave, then, was dark, the rock noticeably cooler, the sun's light having never touched the interior here. I slipped onto my back, adjusted my light, and studied the drawings on the walls and roof.
The pictographs within the cave hadn't changed since my last visit, as they haven't changed for centuries, except at the hands of long-dead shamans.
The stick figure couple in orange don't hold hands, but they belong to each other. Above me, the whimsical black lizard crawled through eternity. Red and yellow boxes made me think of school work problems being worked out.
I sighed. The desert sighed. The air waves crashed.
The hot wind grew. The hollow sucking slithered off, but just before it faded away completely, I heard a chirp that sounded like either a bird or a bat. It dawned on me that I'd heard that chirp ever since I'd arrived. One chirp.
The air waves crashed, removed, rhythmic, eternal. A hint of wind ruffled my leg hairs. The chirp again. The wind gusted, pulling at my shorts, and then died away, and the crashing of those invisible waves could be heard a great distance off on the mountains and hills that are the desert wind's shoreline. Just as the sigh fell to a dying whisper, the chirp came.
So it was two limbs of ocotilla, or creosote or yucca, or sage, rubbing against each other, somewhere on the far side of the rock caves I've come to call the cathedral, squeaking just as they touched, coming and going with the wind.
The wind built, siphoning through the rocks. Chirp.
I waited, lost in the slumbering pulse of the wind. It came again, distant crashing wind waves. A stir, and chirp.
I listened to the process of the squeaking limbs for a long time, then shifted my attention back to the cave's walls. The sand that covered the floor of the caves was soft, cool. After staring at the drawings for a long, long time, I turned my light off.
I sought to still the internal conversation. I meditated. I prayed.
I woke with a start. The ledge was in total darkness, the little valley all the more bright for it. The moon had disappeared past the boulders that rise high to the west. I crawled out of the cave onto the ledge, found the GPS and lit it off to check the time. The temperature was a balmy 81 degrees.
The GPS's back lit screen came up and, besides the Eastings and Northings, gave the time; 3 am.
I thought about that, then smiled. For the last twenty years my alarm clock has been set to three in the morning. My internal clock had roused me.
It would have been good to stay until sunrise, but that was a luxury I couldn't afford.
No dreams dreamt, no visions seen, only the miracle of the Here and Now, the dogma of the desert.
I loaded my gear and headed into the cholla labyrinth between me and my truck.