Ho-Ho-Kam

It’s impossible for me to see a bit of wildness and not want to be out in it – surely it’s a reachable walk to the Hohokam ruins at the top of a small mountain nearby in the national forest?  I am smart enough to take water with me into the desert, but my friend arms me with a walking stick for snakes.  My route is circuitous – up the path past the sheds to the stream bed, up from the stream bed to the high-wire pylons, up from the pylons to the sticky-outy rocks, and among the careening boulders to the series of foundations at the top – still no more than a couple of miles.

The Hohokam were canal builders who inhabited this desert up through the 1200’s, and the hilltop encampment must have been some kind of fort arrangement overlooking either the village or the canals, for it would have no water of its own.  There is one oval ‘mystery room’ – I have no doubt: a hospital, the medicine man’s room – you have to take them out of their usual surroundings to heal them, so this would be a special round healing room.  But of course I have no idea, and neither does anyone else in our white world, and maybe not the aboriginal world either.  It is very hard to put ourselves into the mentality of even Europeans living 800 years ago, let alone the inhabitants of this forbidding desert.

Walking through such Sonoran desert reminds me of the Don Juan series of books, written by the now-deceased (if he ever existed at all) Carlos Castaneda.  Although I lost my grip on the series five or so books in (I only made it through one Harry Potter, but gorged on the entire Aubrey-Maturin series of Patrick O’Brian), the first three or four, especially the incomparable Journey to Ixtlan, are full of unforgettable life lessons – listening to your death, accepting personal responsibility, the four enemies of a man of knowledge, wrestling with your ally – that have stuck with me all my life in my personal ‘desert’.

The books are written from the point of view of an anthropologist studying the otherworld of the Yaqui Indians’ brand of sorcery.  Whether it is true or not, whether there is a Don Juan or not, took up a lot of ink in the 1970’s, and I am sure some of my generation took off for the Sonoran desert to try to find either Don Juan or Carlos.  Thought about it myself.  In retrospect, I think Carlos was more of an invention than the brujo Don Juan.

In the books, young Carlos is the narrator, the anthropologist who stumbles into this magical find and is inducted into a training most of us would kill for.  His steady maintenance of the Western logical reductionistic head space in the face of all evidence to the contrary is alternately amusing and exasperating.  Nevertheless, the books reveal the inner world of the sorcerer, first through drugs and then through ceremonial vision quests, in such a knowing and complete way that the narrator, who purports to be the writer, is far too stupid and thick-headed to have accomplished.

In other words, the narrator is the fiction, and in fact a very, very clever act of fiction.  Whether Don Juan and Don Genaro and all their antics and miracles are fiction is beside the point, really.  One accepts it or not – but the consummate art of the writer is to get you to accept the narrator, who is clearly a rational impossibility.  Once you have accepted Carlos, you accept the whole premise, and the lessons in the books – timeless, harsh, and aimed straight for the practical and intrepid soul – flow like water.

I won’t go on any more about it, you had to be there – but the the books are still there to be read by another generation should they wish.

I am thinking about the Hohokam shaman and Don Juan as I survey the way back down to my friend’s house, out of sight in the Cave Creek canyon.  She has warned me that the blue-y green desert is rougher going than the brown-y green.  I have to try it for myself, and she’s right.  I saw no snakes or scorpions, but in the blueish desert seeds and prickers abound, catching my clothing and riding along with me.  Ducking through a patch of bushes, I catch a bunch of cholla.

Now there are cactus and there are cactus. In this desert I am surrounded by hundreds of huge vertically rugate saguaro taller than my head, arms lifted in gestures alternatively grandly noble or ridiculously pompous.  There are prickly pears, flat ones and round ones and a hundred others I cannot name, but in all my wandering I have never come across this cholla, which appears to be a little green berry of a succulent surrounded by small thin resilient 1″ spikes.

Little spikes? Little spikes? Within a second these barbed and incredibly attractive ends have buried myself in my finger pads, nail beds, thumb sides, and then into the finger that came to rescue those fingers and any attempt to remedy the situation just makes it worse, and within half a minute I have six digits from both hands tangled inextricably and very painfully in nature’s own Chinese finger puzzle.  From thinking of myself as superior to Carlos in my understanding of Don Juan (you see? that’s his art), and thus a budding desert shaman, I am reduced within a minute to a blubbering helpless landlubbing fool with both (delicate bodyworker’s) hands hooked in a dozen places and no fingers left to extricate each barb – how in the hell do you get these things off?

Others later offer help: Use duct tape (and how do you get it out of your pocket, given that you happened to bring it along on your walk?) and other impossible remedies, like ‘eat peyote’. The best ex post facto comes from a gardener: pick up a stick with your mouth and get the prickers out that way.  That advice I could have used, but after getting past the pain, and then the helplessness, and then laughing, and then considering walking all the way home in cellulose handcuffs, I opted for the tear-it-out model of a quick separation of my hands, which did in fact involve considerable pain, and the last of the barbs did not exit my skin – despite everyone’s subsequent good advice – until I completed some deep needle work a week later.

So, the saguaros aren’t the only pompous thing in the desert, and their little cousin the cholla cut my pomposity down to size in a minute; I arrived back at my friend’s house a humbler man with a rueful smile of respect for the small and tenacious.

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