An introduction to Shaman in the Sagebrush.

High in the mountains of the Sangre de Christo range in New Mexico, just south of Taos is a place the locals call Llano Quemado, (yawnoh kemawdo).  The Burnt Plain. 

The legend for the name was that it had been a piñon forest where early Conquistadores had encamped, and a huge forest fire burned so hotly that nothing grew there for many years afterwards.  The conquistadores split into several communities in the area.  Abandoned Catholic chapels dot the landscape and their walls are often the only indication that there were ever any villages there.

Today it is a featureless sagebrush prairie with several hot springs bubbling out from the foothills.  At the Northern end of the plain along the foothills, is an abandoned swimming pool that I remember was an operating pool when I was a child of eight or so.  The pool was called Talpia Hot Springs.  However, the pool couldn’t meet the chlorinating requirements of the State because of the continually flowing water, so the owners simply closed it and let it go to ruin.  That area now also sports the upscale community of Llano Quemado and “Ponce de Leon Hot Springs”.  Pardon me while I retch.

I and a few other hippies had moved in there after some heated arguments in the surrounding hippie communes.  We had very few rules in the communes, but thievery was rampant, and some of us fled the formal communes and settled there in the abandoned buildings to escape the avarice.  We had no locks on the doors, and people came and went at will.  Thievery didn’t happen because we had nothing to steal.

Winter had settled in with ferocity that year, and our meager wood supplies where quickly exhausted.  Many of the hippie residents went searching for warmer quarters, but a few of us remained.  It was at that time that I met Ben.  Ben wasn’t his real name, but I swore I would not reveal it, and even though he has certainly passed away by now, I will still honor that oath.  A Brujo rarely gave out his real name.  In thinking back, I believe that I was the only one at the commune/crash pad that did know Ben’s real name.

I was huddles by the little adobe fireplace in the corner of one room we called the bunkroom.  The others were clustered together for warmth and sex under piles of blankets and sleeping bags in a huge bunkbed we had built off the floor along one wall. Group sex was not my forte’ and I would excuse myself after a few obligatory kisses and caresses. Ben arrived some time after midnight when the happily trammeled group had happily collapsed in post coital bliss. 

He was bearing a bundle of piñon wood and peyote, which was not all that unusual for him. Wordlessly, he sat beside me in front of the fire, and frugally fed the piñon sticks into the fire as he brewed up peyote tea in a small clay bowl.  When the tea was ready, he carefully cut up one more peyote button into the tea, and the pieces floated on the top of the brew.

Then he  softly chanted as I watched, mesmerized, as the little pieces of peyote in the bowl followed his instructions to move away from him, then flow toward him.  Then he took a sip, and passed the steaming bowl to me.  I took a small sip, and my stomach lurched violently with the bitter brew. 

Ben commanded, “Another!” as he pantomimed drinking from the bowl

Again, I raised the bowl to my lips, watched the steaming bits on the surface retreat from my lips, and took a bigger sip.  Again, the flash of nausea, and the fighting back of the bile.

“Good!” he said.  “I knew you would be awake.  I tell only you.  This is not your home.  I will come again and show you home.  But tonight I show you your guide.”

I didn’t think much about that comment.  I was still busy trying to keep the bitter brew in my stomach.  Finally, I fled out the front door into the hard winter night, and retched the tea up, then returned to the fire to re-warm myself.  A warmth that didn’t come from the fire began to softly envelope me and I settled back on my haunches and let peyote bathe me in its fire.  I opened my blankets and let the firelight flicker on my bare chest and watched the coyotes jump about in the dancing flames.

“You see the coyotes!” Ben exclaimed. 

I replied, “yes?” … why would that amaze him?  They were there for all too see, or so I thought, anyway.

“Mescalito likes you.  He dances for you.”

“Mescalito is a coyote?”  I asked.

“Sometimes.  Sometimes he is dog.  Sometimes he is wolf.  Usually he is coyote, though.  Mescalito fears humans.  But he likes you.  He dances for you. He will be your guide.”

The fire slowly began to change colors, dissolving from reds to greens to yellows to blues to violets.  Each color had a new theme.  I watched plants go through complete lifecycles.  I saw gargoyle like creatures clumsily dance in strange cities.  I saw men with shell like hair.  I saw vast landscapes that heaved like oceans.  I saw beauty, I saw ugliness.

Then, with the winding blacks, violets and purples, a young woman danced a very sensuous and inviting dance.  She was wearing a long black satin dress, and a deep purple lace mantilla graced her head and shoulders.  Her long hair was a lusterous black glistened with tiny violet and purple streaks.  She was breathtaking in her beauty.

“You must not dance with her.” Ben warned.  “She is the bony lady.  Santisima Muerte .
Oddly, I did meet her several times in the two years afterwards.  It was always when I was drinking, and usually when the crowd was breaking up at the end of the party.  She never talked, just beckoned to me to follow.  I don’t know why I didn’t follow her.  She was very strange.  She beckoned to others as well, but they did not seem to notice her, which was very odd as well.  Most of the men I knew did not pass on a beckoning beauty.

As the harsh gray fingers of dawn began peeking around the edges of the pine door, Ben suddenly roses and left.  I didn’t hear a car start.  Later I discovered that his hogan was just a couple of miles out in the sagebrush from the hot springs.

As I tell you this story, you may think my matter-of-fact tone is odd.  I guess it is, but most of these “meetings” with the bony lady and other Mexican/Indian spirits were very ordinary.  No one seemed to notice the silent young woman with long black hair wearing a long black dress and a deep purple veil.  No one noticed the laughing coyote sitting on the bar.  No one even looked up at the kachina’s[1] dancing the walls.

I walked with the spirits, and thought nothing of it.  They seemed so ordinary to me.  You might think that I was insane, and I do not deny that I was frequently in an altered state, but if you search it out, you will find that my experience was far from unique. Mystics have reported similar results for ages.

In the weeks to follow, I will attempt to pull up more cohesive tales to enlighten you.  They do require a certain amount of creative editing in the retelling, because I walked in two worlds at the same time, and segued between the spirit world and the real world continually, and it is hard to remain in one or the other while telling you about that odd time in my life.

In the real world, all is order, things have a logical beginning, a middle and an end.  In the spirit world, all is chaos, where beginnings take place at the same time as endings, and the middles weaves itself among the two poles. Beauty is treacherous, and rare kindness is found in repulsiveness.

I hope to be a bit more descriptive than my earlier vignettes were.  But if they seem to be a bit fairy-tellish, remember that they were the real life perceptions of a mad man.  To quote Mark Twain; I told the truth.  Mostly.


[1] Ancestral being of the Pueblo Indians. As each tribe has its own kachinas, there are more than 500 of these spirit-beings. They are believed to reside with a tribe for half of each year and can be seen by the community if its men properly perform a ritual while wearing kachina regalia. The being depicted through the regalia is thought to be actually present with the performer, temporarily transforming him. Kachinas are also represented by small wooden dolls that are carved and decorated by the men of the tribe and used to teach children the identities of each kachina and its associated symbolism.

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