Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Magic, Mystery, and Rock Art

I received this most interesting story from Joel Baiocchi of Dutch Flat.


I read your missive on the area's petroglyphs. After a while, an old experience broke loose from memory and surfaced to the top of my soup of tissue and neurons called a brain.

I was backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest about twenty years ago. It was my intent to spend a few days at a potrero (locally, the Spanish term for meadow, sometimes with a spring) at the crest of a high and wild ridgeline. Some prior research indicated that because of a reliable spring, it was a seasonal camp for the Chumash; and supposedly there were some petroglyphs in the area, so trying to find those would be an interesting diversion once I arrived.

Also, this was winter solstice. Santa Barbara, where I lived at the time, has an annual summer solstice, a Bacchanalian event for locals and tourists. But it was the winter solstice that, as was true with many ancient peoples, was a somber and imprtant event for the Chumash. The days were getting shorter; would the sun disappear altogether? Legend had it that on the winter solstice, the sun would shine into otherwise dark crevices and light up the drawings of the Chumash.

This area was in a very remote part of the LPNF; it took several hours to drive to the trailhead. I usually hiked the area in the wintertime; the area was dreadfully short of water in the summer, and the flies would chew you alive. But, the higher elevations of the area did get snow in the winter. Not very much by way of measurable in inches, but the worse kind to be out in: heavy, wet soppy stuff that provided no insulation and could really suck the heat away.

So, an unexpected snowstorm moved in. So did darkness (though not unexpected), as I had underestimated the time it would take me to hike in. It wasn't too far, perhaps eight miles, but I had never been there before. I took one wrong turn and ended up on a steep sandstone dead end that my trusty companion, Shasta, an Australian Shepherd, could not navigate, so that cost more time. Eventually we reached the top of the ridge, and lo and behold, in the last vestiges of light, there was the potrero.

The last thing I wanted to do was sleep on exposed ground in a snowstorm. I had a bivy sack, but it was not going to provide much protection. There was a broken sandstone formation nearby, so I decided to see if there was some sort of overhang that might afford some protection. And then I found The Cave.

The Cave was the most remarkable ancient "church" I have ever seen. The man-made monuments one finds in old Europe or Tibet are surely impressive, but they of course are by definition artificial. This was purely a creation of nature. The Cave was about twenty feet up a steep cliff, but was accessed through a natural tunnel leading to a hole in the floor. In The Cave, during daylight hours, one could look out over the meadow, across several wild ridges, and weather permitting, out to the Pacific Ocean.

And the drawings! I am sure my jaw was dropped wide open for an hour. Coincidentally, I had been working with an archeologist on a job, and I could identify some; a huge red-orange blazing sun the size of a dinner plate; condors, the masters of space and time. A horizontal black line, with vertical lines underneath drawn at an angle, representing all-important rain. A fish. Some humanoid figures, but not exactly human. Odd winged cretures. Squiggles and abstract forms that I could only guess at. Pure awe.

After I regained my sense of time and place, I decided that, sacreligious as it might seem, that I was going to wait out the storm in The Cave. Shasta liked it in there and was already sound asleep. I snacked on some nuts and dried fruit, drank some water, rolled out the sleeping bag, and lay down.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous at first; was there some curse that would befall this intruder while I slumbered? But soon I felt comfortable, turned off the flashlight and fell asleep. And had the strangest dream. It was quite hallucinogenic, although I can assure you that I was definitely not under the influence of anything, except perhaps the ancient spirits of the Chumash.

In my dream (or was it a dream?) I was laying on the floor of The Cave, just as I had been. There was the sleeping dog, my pack, water bottle, etc. I began to hear the slow, rhythmic chanting of men in a strange, deep, old language. It sounded like a religious chant, and very faint at first. As their voices began to increase in volume, a curious thing happened. With each verse, if I can call it that, the volume of the ancient tongue increased, and correspondingly, the walls of The Cave began to grow higher. From the base height of, say five feet, to seven feet. To ten, to twenty, to fifty feet high. Eventually, the walls of The Cave were hundreds of feet high, and the chanting of the men was deafening. Brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, with black accents, were everywhere.

I don't recall how any of this ended. In the morning the dog was still asleep, the skies were steely gray, and snow remained on the ground. We headed back home that day. I have not been back since; it was not so much that the experience was frightening. Rather, how could something like that ever be repeated, or even explained?

Best to leave some things, such as the memory of the Chumash, alone.



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