Cuchama was reportedly an island once, a spot that Evans-Wentz says sheltered local Indians during a great flooding.
  • Cuchama was reportedly an island once, a spot that Evans-Wentz says sheltered local Indians during a great flooding.
  • Image by Jim Coit

There are mountains which are just mountains and there are mountains with personality-vessels of cosmic power. — Lama Anagarika Govinda


We waited for dawn. It was thirty-eight miles back down the highway to San Diego and only three to the Mexican border, closed and deserted now at five in the morning. In this part of the country, there are no distractions at this early hour; the radio is full of static, no businesses are open, and it’s too dark to walk. Anyway, we had to have enough light to find our trail, for beside us loomed Cuchama, the “high, exalted place” of the Diegueño Indians.

Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup and Evans-Wentz, Gangtok, Sikkim, c. 1920. Evans-Wentz spent more than twenty years between the world wars ranging around holy spots in India, mostly in mountainous areas — Kashmir, central Ceylon, and Darjeeling-Sikkim.

It was silent around Cuchama — it usually is, even in daylight. A deep, unbroken collection of star clusters hovered over us. A bright quarter moon created an ethereal starkness, a continuum of reflected glare from the broken country. The dry, barren aspect of this area prevailed through the dark; slices of raw earth (new fire trails) appeared as luminescent veins snaking over the ground; massive white boulders dotted the dark ridges.

At first glance it doesn’t look like much. Made of Jurassic rock and formed about the middle of the Mesozoic era 135 million years ago, Cuchama stands somewhat rugged and forbidding on the boulder-strewn line of the international boundary. However, Indians (Diegueños, Luiseños, and Cochomis) used it in secret initiation rites long before the white man arrived.

From the mesa on Cuchama. A slight wind brought occasional sounds from the ranchos — sounds of dogs, chickens, and of braying donkeys. Three times Isa paced the top, chanting, her fine, strong Indian face set in reflection.

And the power here is still to be reckoned with. It comes on subtly at first, in the clarity of the air. To city dwellers so accustomed to the sick halftones of what passes for the atmosphere, the cloudless, clean-smelling intensity is a bit overpowering. Dust and plants take on different perspectives. They belong here more than we; it is we who are the intruders, much as they are in our cities. There is little of the Twentieth Century to deal with at Cuchama; only a few ranchos arc scattered at her base and the border town of Tecate is some five miles away. There is nothing else around.

Walter Evans-Wentz. Katherine Tingley, founder of Lomaland, the Point Loma Theosophical Society, drew him to San Diego and he became a member in 1902.

In the early years of this century, Dr. Walter Evans-Wentz, pioneer editor/ translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovered the spiritual power of this mountain while horseback riding. It impressed him enough that over the years he bought approximately 3000 acres here. Decades later he claimed to his friends that though he might not be very psychic about people, he was attuned to places. One San Diego acquaintance of his, John Theobald, remembers he would come into a house sniffing, just to get the current spiritual reading.

He lived near the main branch of the public library and a short walk from the House of Nutrition on Sixth Avenue, for years the only vegetarian restaurant downtown. He was quiet, according to Cliff Lucas, former owner of the Keystone Hotel.

For the last twenty-five years of his life, Evans-Wentz divided his time between the Keystone Hotel on Tenth Avenue in downtown San Diego and Cuchama. He stayed in a small wooden house on the lower slopes during his meditation retreats and practiced the Dharma, the Buddhist “way of truth.” He was a devout vegetarian, a practitioner of an obscure yoga, and a scholar of arcane religious practices. He keenly felt the power of this place known as Tecate Mountain and renamed it Cuchama in honor of the redmen.

Cuchama lies surrounded by the foothills near the high desert, by weirdly shaped defiles and mesas. It’s hard country and quite often looks as though the devil plowed it up. This morning Isa Tercero, daughter of a Nicaraguan healer, and I were far up the fire trails before the full blast of the summer light hit us. The red-orange light seemed to creep along the mountain ribs like a slowly approaching tide, flooding and covering all the shadows with the morning heat. Everything here surrenders to the sun, which, in turn, has withered and wrinkled most of the works of man that lie scattered at Cuchama's base. Not a land for easy living or casual pursuits.

In his will, Evans-Wentz stated, “I desire this holy mountain in the southwest United States be made a public property in honor of the redmen to whom it was a temple.” As a result, the land was divided between the San Diego County Council of Boy Scouts (who now have a “Camp Coochama” there), the San Diego YMCA, and the state, the lion's share going to the state. One clause prohibited any sale, alienation, or commercialization of any part. The bequests were made on condition that the land be used as an experimental reforestation area, recreational spot, and game refuge. Basically, it remains untouched and accessible only by fire trails which present an almost impossible variety on the approach, with several dead ends, private driveways, and rutted cow-paths from the border-crossing station. They lace the mountain in a series of switchbacks, cutting through the rock fields and ravines in easy undulations.

For the two of us this morning the silence was pervasive; even the birds were quiet. It was as though the sun had beaten down all thought of sound or movement. Our smallness slowly became greater the longer we were in the overwhelming presence of the mountain itself.

Evans-Wentz was no stranger to the vastness and solitude of mountains. He spent more than twenty years between the world wars ranging around a great triangulation of holy spots in India, mostly in mountainous areas — Kashmir, central Ceylon, and Darjeeling-Sikkim. It was in Gangtok. Sikkim, where he met the Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, whom he worked with and who started him on his journey in preparing for the Western world The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Tibet's Great Yogi. Milarepi; Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; and The Tibetan Book of Great Liberation.

Cuchama and Sacred Mountains was his last work. After being in publishing limbo for more than fifteen years, it will be out shortly. Before his death in 1965, Evans-Wentz and his friends tried to arouse some interest in it, but without success. John Theobald, professor emeritus of San Diego State University, feels it may have been due to the late doctor's denunciations of the white man for what was done to the Indians. The entire third section of this manuscript contains his commentaries on the superiority of the redmen’s spiritual life and the paucity of the Europeans’, and the bloody history between the two. (The first two sections of Cuchama and other sacred mountains of the world serve almost as introductions to the third.) San Diego did not escape notice in his listings of cruel acts against the native Americans. One action he cited was that of a Lieutenant Ybarra in 1826, who sent to the San Diego Mission twenty sets of ears from a band of Indians he slaughtered.

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