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Sunday, July 14th, 2013

The Cave

Sunday, July 14th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Max & Katie keeping warm in their cave, December 1985

Third in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Arrows in the Fog

It all began in the fall of 1981, on a drive back to CalArts from a weekend of cheap gambling and debauchery in Las Vegas. We were taking the scenic back roads, so that Mark could show me his new favorite camping spot in the desert. I had driven across the Mojave several times on the interstate, but my Midwestern eyes hadn’t really seen it – it looked empty to me, a big nothing of flat basins and distant mountains that just chewed up a few hours of a road trip.

We drove up a long, straight road toward an indistinct horizon between low hills, flanked by rugged mountains of bare rock, and at the top we entered a dense fog and the road turned to dirt and gravel under our tires. Both of us were surprised and puzzled to find fog in the desert. We couldn’t see off the road, and a short way down the other side of the pass Mark pulled off onto the shoulder.

Mark said that somewhere out there in the fog was his cave, but how could we find it and not get lost? We settled on arrows in the ground – we would set off with Mark in the lead, using a stick to scratch arrows in the hard-packed dirt, sand and gravel along our way. He led me on a winding course down gullies and up over low ridges and around the looming, ghostly edges of pale granite boulders and rounded, dark-green juniper trees, carefully avoiding grasping thorn bushes and branching cacti and their fallen stubby joints lying in wait like land mines waiting to pierce our shoes, and we could never see more than a few yards ahead of us through the fog. It was eerily silent until we came upon rivulets of clear water trickling down tiny gullies. We breathed tangy herbal fog. It was the most magical environment I’d ever entered. We found his cave – a low, deep cavity under a boulder. We followed our arrows back to the car. For weeks, I couldn’t get those images out of my mind, but I had no idea that this short walk in the fog would become the most important thing that ever happened to me.

Bohemians in Nature

Mark was finishing school at CalArts outside Los Angeles, and I was making art and music in a loft in San Francisco. The two of us became the nexus of a gradually expanding group of artist-campers, urban bohemians who escaped into nature. Mark and I worked sporadically as an art duo called the Didactyl Brothers, producing rude, irreverent music and installations. His desert cave was part of a rolling plateau of house-sized boulder piles at the foot of white granite cliffs, and on our cave camping trips, we started experimenting with large-scale tempera paintings on rock faces. We discovered that the water-based paint on exposed surfaces would completely weather away within a few months, leaving another blank canvas.

We’d park beside the dirt road and make two or three hikes to the cave with a cooler full of beer and ice, water jugs and food, camp stove and utensils, sleeping bags, guitars and folding chairs. His cave was small and low-ceilinged, only big enough for two people to sleep in. We’d wake up in the morning, make coffee on a propane stove outside the cave, carry our paints, water and beer to the rock face, mix the powdered tempera with water, and go crazy. At night, we’d grill steaks over a crackling fire of pungent juniper wood and warm up beans on the stove. The coyotes would start their eerie calls along the horizon, and we’d get wild and crazy and make up satirical songs and comic rants feeding off each other to higher and higher heights of crude genius, until we were literally rolling on the ground, laughing uncontrollably.

Wild Domestic

One of those early trips, in the spring of 1984, happened right after I’d broken up with a previous girlfriend and met a new one. Katie, a popular figure in the Los Angeles art scene, played bass in Mark’s band, and she’d heard about his cave and was curious. Soon she and I were out there scouting for our own cave. She was an experienced outdoorswoman and we were thorough. We found a larger, better rock shelter and started working to improve it. We drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms for thrift-shop tools and furnishings and occasional free showers in the town park. Shopping for our cave was fun, like being kids again, playing house!

There was a nasty pile of cholla cactus joints in one corner of the cave that we failed to recognize as a pack rat nest. We got the bright idea of burning it out. Pack rats create layers of compacted, urine-soaked, slow-burning waste, similar to a seam of coal. We ended up with a smoky, hard-to-get-at fire that burned for five days while we tried many ways of putting it out with increasing desperation. Early on, we drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms to buy a fire extinguisher, drove it back and used it all up in less than two minutes without any noticeable effect on the fire. In the end we laboriously dug out the fire and smothered it bit by bit with dirt. And turned our cave into a luxurious desert home with vaulted ceiling, sleeping alcove, living room/kitchen with indoor fireplace, storage closet, outdoor shower, and an elevated porch facing west to watch the sunset.

Katie showed me creative ways to camp in comfort. Permanent furnishings, which were stored in the “closet” when we departed, included straw mats for the floor, foam pads and a roll of carpet for our bed, tools, folding chairs, propane camp stove, and insulated ice chests full of cooking utensils, dinnerware and paper goods, matches, cooking oil, seasonings and candle lanterns for ambiance – the round, knobby, tinted glass ones used in older restaurants. In a desert thrift shop we found a beautiful vintage chrome breadbox to protect our bread, chips and crackers from the rats. On our arrival from the city, we hiked from the car to the cave carrying perishables and stuff that was too valuable to leave out there: water, ice, food, drinks, sleeping bags and musical instruments.

Then we settled in for an idyllic interlude of hiking and exploring, improvising and recording music, writing songs and poetry, drawing and painting – all by ourselves in a vast, ancient, and timeless landscape that felt welcoming and embracing, with its mild weather and its rounded, organic architecture of granite boulders and domelike junipers. A symphony of birds and insects surrounded us on hot summer days. I began to notice subtle ways in which the desert was making me healthier. My eyes, trained to focus at short range in the city, were learning to pick out details of mountains ten miles away. In the city, our lives were hectic and our minds were always racing; here, we learned to slow down and relax. One evening as I sat on the porch, a glass of whisky in my hand, watching the light fade above the jagged cliffs in the west, a great horned owl flew over my head from behind and landed on an opposite boulder to watch me in silence until darkness fell.

(Improvised by Max & Katie in their cave, 1985, and recorded by Max in 2010)

Katie shared my passion for the desert and together we pursued it farther. We wanted to know about the plants and animals, we wanted to know if Indians had lived out here and how? Putting down roots in this exotic piece of raw wilderness, actually becoming at home here, freed us to get to know it on levels inaccessible to ordinary campers and backpackers, who were always on a journey to somewhere else.

Shrooms and Science

By December 1985, Katie had moved into my San Francisco loft, and we planned a trip to the cave with our roommate Laurie, another artist. It was a ten-hour drive, and we arrived late to find the high desert, and the cave, blanketed with six inches of snow. But inside it was dry, and Laurie and I quickly warmed it up with a roaring fire as Katie ran around outside ripping dead branches off junipers and tossing them to us.

The next day we dosed on shrooms and hiked west through the snow out of our boulder garden toward a vacant cabin I’d discovered on an earlier trip. Approaching the cabin just as the shrooms were coming on, we suddenly realized there was a person sitting in front of it, watching us. Chris turned out to be a friendly biology student from the University of California; when he heard we were shrooming he wanted some.

That night he showed up unannounced at our cave – the first spontaneous visitor we’d ever had, making us feel like we were part of some sort of latter-day Flintstones neighborhood. Fortuitously, he was interested in Laurie, and became part of our group for the rest of our visit, informing us that the University had obtained land surrounding our area and was planning to establish an ecological preserve.

Back home, I contacted the University and learned they had just hired a director for the preserve, so on our next trip, Katie and I went over and introduced ourselves to Philippe and Cindy, who became two of my closest friends. Over the years, we would house-sit for them and I would work for Philippe here and on the Bay Area preserve he later managed, and get to know their son Ben from birth.

Images from the desert were beginning to dominate my art and music, and Katie and I began studying prehistoric native rock art throughout the Southwest deserts. Mark met a new girlfriend, Maureen, who later became his wife, and they moved from his old cave to a new, more ambitious rock shelter that had an elevated porch like ours. Another artist couple from Los Angeles developed their own cave a short distance away, so now we had three desert households and could visit each other back and forth.

We discovered a large, partly open rockshelter with a high vaulted ceiling that we dubbed the Party Cave, where we hung out on hot afternoons, creating an evolving gallery of paintings. With the advent of the preserve, our plateau had occasional visitors, including classes on field trips, but they almost always walked right past our caves, unaware, since we used a rake to erase our footprints when we left. Once, Mark and Maureen sat on their porch while an entire class filed past below them without looking up. Another time, Katie and I arrived from the city to find a paper plate inscribed “Nice place, have fun!” propped against our fireplace. Never did we find anything damaged or missing, despite the fact that we were only a half mile away from a road that was seeing more and more traffic, and was eventually paved.

Echoes of the Past

On one visit after particularly heavy rains, Katie and I discovered that deposits of pottery shards had been uncovered all over our area. We realized for the first time that we were part of a long tradition – Indians had camped here before us! Looking closer, we also found beautiful flakes of multi-colored agate from stone toolmaking, and Katie hit the jackpot: a perfect miniature “bird point” finely chipped from delicately mottled pink agate. But my favorite find on that trip was Snarling Head, the skull of a coyote with the desiccated nose and whiskers still attached, which was displayed in a place of honor back home, as Katie unleashed a new body of art work consisting of found objects from the desert – from bones to bushes to rusty cans – combined in ingenious, enigmatic formations and mounted on black foam core or rusty sheet metal.

For my part, I longed to engage more fully with this part of the desert, and with Philippe and Cindy’s new enterprise. Since childhood, I’d been a compulsive organizer, recruiting co-conspirators for secret clubs and events. My network of friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco had grown into an inspiring mix of artists and scientists, and we began collaborating on ambitious, intense weekend gatherings called Pow-Wows, in which we shared ideas, experiences and stories. The second and third Pow-Wows, in 1987 and 1991, were held at the cabin where we’d met Chris in December 1985, now part of the ecological preserve. These gatherings, which people called “life-changing,” enlightened us about everything from habitat restoration to aboriginal survival skills.

In the meantime, I had learned much more about the Chemehuevis, the nomadic Indians who had lived here, sometimes in semi-permanent villages. I had struck up a friendship with the only archaeologist currently working in the Mojave, and Katie and I had met the last living Chemehuevi basket-weaver, Mary Lou Brown. From the work of the legendary linguist and ethnographer Carobeth Laird, I learned that the last Chemehuevi shaman, known to whites as “Dusty,” had lived and died near our cave.

Beyond the Cave

Katie and I broke up in 1988, but I became even more obsessed with the desert and began looking for wilderness property, advised by Cindy and Philippe. Katie and her new boyfriend Gary continued to use, and improve, the cave that had been ours, while I explored the wider desert and eventually bought a big tract of mountain wilderness with the help of another desert-loving artist friend. Then, on the advice of my old mentor, my art teacher back in Indiana, I attended the “toughest survival school in the world” to learn the skills of the desert Indians.

In May 1992, chasing my dream, I moved to the desert for a year, living outdoors on my land and then on the ecological preserve not far from our old cave. By this time, the Mojave was truly the world to me! I was befriending and helping the scientists who were doing the cutting-edge research in wildlife biology, botany, geology, and archaeology. I was working with government agencies on habitat restoration and land use issues. I was absorbing the colorful histories of ghost towns, springs, canyons, mines and mountain ranges from crusty old desert rats. I’d experienced powerful visions and performed private rituals in my desert, and considered it my spiritual home, a sacred landscape. Once, while living on my land, I drove over to the caves to camp with Mark and Maureen. Maureen asked if I’d seen myself in a mirror lately and remarked that I looked dangerous and should probably get a haircut.

That year in the wilderness cost me the woman I loved, and I ended up back in the city, broke and homeless, with no viable livelihood. The desert had become a place of bittersweet memories, as I struggled to survive in the city. But I continued to venture out to my land once or twice a year, sleeping on the ground, watching the stars turn slowly overhead, wondering what my future would bring.

In June 1995, my friend Leslie, another artist, visited from Chicago, and we drove out and camped at the cave, which was still intact and comfortable after seven years. She had a vision while we were hiking in the nearby dunes; the desert affected her profoundly and she returned the following year for another dose.

In the late summer of 2001, unemployed after the dotcom crash, I joined Mark and Maureen and her brother Kevin at their cave, and Kevin made a miraculous, almost unbelievable discovery – a well-hidden shrine to Dusty, the last shaman. At that point our group had been using the caves continuously for 20 years.

In summer 2002 I lived in the cabin on the preserve as artist-in-residence, meeting more cool scientists. Returning a year later to house-sit for them, I hiked over to the caves and the shrine, and on my return watched an evolving sunset so beautiful it brought me to my knees, weeping.

In December 2005, twenty years after our snow & shrooms adventure, I visited the caves with Philippe and his son Ben and shared with them the mystery of Dusty’s shrine.

And finally, in April of this year, on my way to the Bay Area for work, I stopped and spent a relaxing afternoon at our old cave. Everything was there, but rats had gnawed through plastic storage bins and damaged some paper goods. Mark and Maureen likewise hadn’t been to their cave in years, but their stuff seemed to be in even better shape than ours.

Beginning with those arrows in the fog, the Mojave Desert seduced and captivated me, transforming every facet of my being, to the point where my life itself became a quest for a way to sustain myself in this ancient, mysterious and powerful land. I couldn’t find the right combination in the California desert; ultimately those arrows led me across the arid Southwest to my current home in New Mexico.

But the caves are waiting – for the next generation, or for future archaeologists. Years ago, Cindy recommended a book, Colin Fletcher’s The Man from the Cave, which poignantly describes his discovery of a furnished cave in another part of the Mojave, and his years-long search for its occupant. I may be able to save the next investigator some trouble…