The Warrior's Path to
the Shaman's Cave
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
by David Taylor
"Looks like we’ve got company." Sharkbait pointed with his walking stick at the ground ahead of him. I looked to the white gravelly sand of the wash we hiked without breaking my stride. Human prints. "They look fresh," I said.
The light was still good. The sun, though low, had not yet set. No clouds marred the chances of capturing the near-full moon. The heat had long crested, though it still hovered in the 90’s.
"Real fresh," Sharkbait agreed. "Walking alone, and I suspect he’s left-handed." I did a double take, blinked at the impressions in the sand, glanced anxiously at my companions, Sharkbait and Mason. They suspected nothing.
"See?" Sharkbait continued. "The round plug next to the foot prints. He’s got a walking stick, and it’s landing on the left-hand side."
"You’ll have to translate for me."
I steered us away from the footprints. I thought how fortuitous it was that I hadn't brought my walking stick. It would have been a sure tip off.
We walked along the wash, tracking the unwelcome guest on our sweltering desert hike, climbing gently toward Indian Hill, west of the Dos Cabezas railroad tower in the far southeastern corner of Southern California’s Anza Borrego Desert State Park, working towards the Shaman’s Cave. We came out of the wash, and toiled through a maze of cholla cactus before reaching a vague trail close to Indian Hill. At the foot of the hill, we passed two large stones that Mason studied silently as we walked past them.
At a set of morteros – ancient grinding holes in bedrock – we climbed into the cathedral hill, and we unloaded photographic gear on the ledge before the cave. Bracketed by boulders on the ledge, we took a break and stretched out on the still-hot rock.
We had a grand view of the little valley to the southeast and the Jacumba Mountains beyond. The silence was inevitable, and good. The first stars began to blossom in the still blue sky, furtive little buds of light. The slightest breeze stirred through our perch. I looked back into the cave, into the darkness that hid the multi-colored artwork inside—mysterious symbols and creatures in yellows and blacks, red and oranges that were vibrant, alive, ancient. Hopeful.
I had studied these markings for hours, contemplating them. Their meaning is lost to eternity, the culture that created them blotted out, but like all real art, they evoke emotions. The petroglyphs over in Davies Valley, crude, mean, disturbing, images reserved for nightmares, haunt me. I look at them and ponder the thin line between genius and lunacy. The petroglyphs seem unhinged.
The drawings in Shaman’s Cave, however, make me feel like a child back in school. The joy of life, the mysteries ahead to be learned, the confidence of a bright future, whatever it might be, faith in family, church and country. These are the impressions I get from the bright artwork in the Shaman’s Cave. There is nothing evil, dark or threatening there. Not to me.
I sighed. The desert sighed, and beckoned. Shadows melted into each other until there was nothing but shadows, and then even the shadow makers, the ocotillo and barrel and cholla cacti, were consumed by the darkness. The stars grew stronger, no longer fragile blossoms, but crystals of color, powerful, commanding. The little valley, though murky, still had a lacework of sand and plants that seemed both delicate and mighty. Powerful medicine. The strength of the desert night filled me with its calm quiet energy. It is a potent place, Shaman’s Cave.
Finally, we pulled ourselves away from the meditation of the gloom, photographed the cave with multiple light sources and different cameras, films and formats. Though his second time there, Mason had never seen the pictographs in the cave.
"They're magnificent, aren't they?" Sharkbait murmured.
"Let me spray some obscenities on the rocks and we can talk about my style," Mason countered as he adjusted his lens, "because that’s what they look like to me."
When the moon came up, a telescopic lens replaced the wide angle. Diverse exposures and angles were applied as the gold-tinged orb hung low on the horizon. "Just short of full," Mason commented as he looked down into the viewer of the Rollei.
"Ninety-two percent full," I said. "The full moon was Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, according to my computer program."
"I prefer this," Mason said, although he didn’t say why.
I wanted to go out on the full moon. I modified my work schedule so nobody would miss me. Originally, Mason agreed. Then he couldn’t change his schedule, and he said the weather report talked about it being overcast, and that Sharkbait wanted to go, but couldn’t get off work either, and that we’d end up going on Saturday anyway, and with the price of gas the way it was...
"Forget about Tuesday," I finally told him over the phone. "Let’s concentrate on Saturday."
The hours slipped away, and though we were exhausted, I didn’t want to leave. The calm, intoxicating power seduced me. I wanted to stay, to lie down and sleep here. The thought filled me with peaceful joy. It was one o’clock in the morning.
The photographic gear went into packs that got hoisted to our backs, and we started off. "We’re out of the rocks, guys. Shut off the lights," Mason urged. "We don’t need them."
He was right. The moon was rising over the still warm land. Its cool azure light drained away all the other colors of the terrain. The sand and cactus and the tumbled boulders that piled suddenly up to Indian Hill glowed with the light of the moon. We started threading our way through the labyrinth of cactus. As we passed the two giant rounded boulders at the end of the hill, I saw Mason’s eyes study them. He smiled with what looked like relief. Ocotilla, cholla and Mormon tea in patches choked our route. Mason looked back toward those boulders.
"What were you searching for, Cowboy?" Mason asked, motioning back toward Indian Hill. "Back at that Cave. What’s it got on you?"
I smiled with what I hoped was disarming mirth.
"In the Old Testament, young men dream dreams, old men see visions," I said. "I don't know what young men do today, but old men sort, collate and file." My smile faded. "I’d dearly love to see some visions."
Mason snorted and shook his head.
"Well, you’re in the right place, but you want the wrong thing."
I didn't answer.
"Didn’t read much Carlos Castanadas, did you, Cowboy?"
"Tried once, back in college," I answered. "Bored me."
Mason nodded knowingly. "The last time we came here, I wasn’t prepared. I just didn’t think about where we were going."
"What are you talking about?"
"A Shaman’s Cave. A Place of Power. I just wasn’t prepared, and then, without even thinking, I came with different eyes."
"Earth to Mason," I said. "Oh, wait a minute..." I looked around at the otherworldly landscape, sand and hill glowing, with patchwork shadows hiding crevices and crannies stuffed with mystery, an alternate reality. I motioned to Mason. "Go...go on. Explain."
"Don Juan talked about looking through different eyes," Mason said as we picked our way through the cholla. "It’s an exercise, to observe without seeing, to know the world in another way. To see through different eyes."
"To accomplish what?"
"To gather power." He adjusted his glasses. "Remember walking down the railroad track? And with these new stupid bifocal glasses, without even thinking about it, I was seeing down without looking down, trying to avoid tripping on the ties, trying to step on them without seeing them."
I frowned in confusion. I remembered walking on the ties, changing my gait to keep my balance, a cadence out of sync. Mason acted oddly after that, resentful, fearful, until we got back to camp.
When I located the cave, in the dark, he didn’t even bother coming up to see what I had found. "It dawned on me where we were going, when we got to the Communal Cave, and I knew, right there, in the dark, I knew the path to the Shaman’s Cave." He looked at me, square in the face. "So did you."
We walked silently for a while. I glanced furtively around me. The ground was flat and open, the cactus garden labyrinth only knee high. I saw no cougar.
"Remember how I looked all around the Communal Cave, the morteros, the caves above it?" Mason started again. "I wanted so badly to find something that would satisfy you, so we could go back, so we wouldn’t go to this Shaman’s place."
We’d gone much further west this time, avoiding the thick field of cholla that we’d come through getting there.
‘You weren't, of course, sated," Mason said. He turned, pointed to Indian Hill while walking backwards. "And when we went through those two boulders, it was like passing through some portal in reality. Remember when you guys went up the hill, and I said I was going on? I hoped you’d find something there that would make you happy, and when I came across that one set of morteros, I knew the cave was there. I went a little further. The ground starts dropping off right there, a real radical ditch, and I suddenly felt like I was passing out through the other side of that portal. I walked all the way back to the boulders and passed through, and I started calling you guys. I called twice, but you didn’t answer. And I suddenly thought, maybe we weren’t all together, in the same place anymore."
He turned back around. "The moment I passed back through the boulders, I called for you guys from inside the portal and you answered."
We broke through the last of the cactus, and fell into the wash that once was an old jeep trail. "When we got back to the morteros, and I sat down on that boulder." Mason shook his head. "I no more could have climbed up into that rock than levitated. I had a weight on me...no," Mason paused, then nodded. "I was just plain weary, exhausted."
"I was elated," I answered.
"You came prepared," Mason answered. "You’ve been obsessed with this cave since you read that little pamphlet about it." He pointed at me. "You harvested power there at the cave. Tonight, too. But that first time, the place took power from me."
"What about you, Sharkbait?"
"I’m neutral to such things."
"No one’s neutral," Mason protested.
"I choose to be," Sharkbait answered flatly. He studied a quartz-studded stone that loomed over the wash as he spoke. "That thing about ‘seeing through different eyes...’ how you see the spirit guides. Ghosts...spirits are there. All around us."
There was a pause. "Do you see any of them now?" I asked with attempted humor.
"I’ve chosen not to look," said Sharkbait. We trudged on. He started again. "When I practiced the martial arts...there were other things my sifu taught me. Searching for the spirit guides." Sharkbait looked away, talking into the gloom. "Past life souls...dead relatives... demons..." Another pause. "When my father got sick, I consciously set it aside. I didn’t want to see the future. Not like that."
"Back in college," Mason said, "when I was reading a lot of this stuff, I went hunting in Deer Valley with my .41. I was out there all alone, and I stopped at one point and did some of the exercises from the book, and I was really feeling spacey. I walked down a path, and something just said, ‘it’s time to turn around.’ I turned around, walked to this little crest, and there, maybe a hundred yards away, was this coyote, sitting by the side of the path." Mason motioned with his hands. "Prettiest animal I’d ever seen. Not your mangy coyote. This thing’s fur was shiny red, almost like a red fox, only it was a coyote. She was looking straight at me."
Mason took a swig out of his canteen. "I knew what she was thinking, kind of like, ‘Well, are you coming or not?’ like she could care less if I did or didn’t. I stood there, and she stared at me, and finally I felt her exasperation, and she stood up and started walking away, and I thought, to hell with this, and I pulled out the .41, and fired off a shot. Well, the gun was brand new. I hadn't sighted it in yet. In fact, that was the first round I ever put through it. It hit just behind her tail, and she jumped about a foot, and that’s the last I’ve seen of her. The very next day I read about Castanadas meeting his coyote spirit guide." We walked on.
"There’s real dangers to this power gathering, Cowboy," Mason said. "Those footprints we saw on the way in." I braced myself. "We’re not the only ones who know about the Shaman’s Cave. That’s a place of power. If we’d run into a Warrior, and he’d perceived us to be a threat, he would’ve torn us apart."
"A Warrior," I asked.
"Don Juan talks about Hunters and Warriors. Hunters seek and harvest power. Warriors have chosen a path where, if they think they have to, they’ll destroy the power of others that might be a threat."
"There they are again," Sharkbait announced. The footprints, deep holes in the soft sand, with a spiked hole next to them, the edges, the tread, sharp, fresh. I stopped cold. Mason ignored them and just kept walking.
I fell behind. "Why couldn’t he just be a hiker?" I asked. "I’ve hiked out here alone."
"The coyote tracks that were running alongside him going in."
"What tracks?" I asked.
"You veered off for a while," Sharkbait answered.
"Now, it could have been a dog," Mason went on. "They were big enough, bigger than most coyotes, but the tracks joined him, they weren’t there to begin with. A pet starts a hike with you." Mason motioned at the solitary tracks at our feet. "And ends it with you."
I glanced around again, checking the creosote that was appearing along the edges of the wash. The ocotilla quivered in the slight breeze.
"Could have been a coyote, or something tracking the hiker, maybe hours later," Mason continued. "Canines trail by smell. They walk right over the tracks of the prey they’re tailing, to keep the scent, until the catch comes into sight. Then they peel off and get to cover. Those tracks back there ran with him, on his left side, about a foot out."
I accepted this revelation dispassionately. Intellectually, I understood the implications, yet no emotion touched me. "He could be just another Hunter," I suggested.
Mason looked down at the prints and shook his head. "I don’t think so."
I tried to stay up with Mason and Sharkbait, who had picked up their pace. "What’s the purpose of gathering power?" I asked.
"To control your physical world," said Mason. "You think, and things happen. Don Juan talks about ultimately using the power to know yourself better. You become a Man of Knowledge."
"So you chased off your potential spirit guide?" I asked.
"And good riddance. I can point to that event as a fork in the road—earth-bound power or salvation. I chose salvation."
I didn’t respond.
"Exchange Sorcerer for Warrior and you’ve switched cultures, not content." Mason went on. "Whether it’s Yaqui Indian or Salem Wicca, it’s all magic. No white, no gray, it’s all black, it’s all evil. I may not be a Man of Knowledge, but I’m not a damned soul either."
"It draws you in," Sharkbait said softly. "It’s like drugs. It takes more than it gives."
"That’s why I haven’t let you come out here alone, Cowboy."
I thought again how lucky it was that I had left my walking stick at home.
"That’s why, when you talked about coming out here on a full moon, I invited myself along." Mason looked hard at me. "Don’t play with it, Cowboy. You aren’t strong enough."
In the light of the moon, the footprints suddenly veered out of the wash, onto what might be the remnants of an old road. Mason walked past them.
"Hey," I stopped and pointed.
"The truck’s at the end of the wash," Mason said.
"But aren't you curious?"
"Let him go, Cowboy," Mason answered forcefully.
I followed the guys back up over the abandoned railroad tracks down the wash to where Mason had parked his truck. He opened the back.
I slowly pulled my backpack off. "Do me a favor?"
"Let me go down the road a ways."
Mason slid his pack deliberately into the back of the truck. "Why?"
"I don’t know," I lied.
Mason nodded. "You want to walk or ride?"
"Ride," Sharkbait said.
"I’ll walk with you," Mason offered.
"I walk, you follow me in the truck."
"Take the truck," Sharkbait said.
"We walk together or we ride together, Cowboy."
"Ride," Sharkbait urged.
I thought about it, then nodded. "Let’s ride."
We drove a short distance. The headlights fell across a widening in the road.
"Stop," I said.
"Is this where he parked?" Mason asked as I slid out of the cab. I didn’t answer. I walked over to the parking spot and studied the tracks there. Like the footprints out in the wash, the tire tread looked as fresh as if I had just pulled out, but the full moon had been Tuesday, four days past. I frowned. How could they look so fresh? Had I learned something new about tracking? Was it a phenomenon of summer in the desert? But there had been wind, there had been dew in the morning when I’d walked out here alone, as far as I knew.
I threw the beam of light toward the barbed wire fence that hung loosely between the road and the railroad tracks. There they were. Huge prints, bigger than any coyote I had ever seen. They didn’t circle or meander around the spot, but stepped up into the clearing, then started straight down the road. I followed the tracks as they ran alongside the roadbed, throwing my light to the right and left, searching for other tracks, for other things. I could feel Mason's consternation and concern as he started following in the truck.
Finally, I stopped. At first, I had thought it was a mountain lion. How could I have been so wrong? Lost in thought, I climbed back into the crowded cab.
"Nothing?" Mason asked.
"We were supposed to find something," I said absently.
"You think he left you something?"
"We were supposed to find something," I repeated.
"Can we get out of here now?" Sharkbait demanded.
We all fell silent and Mason maneuvered the truck around and headed for the highway.
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