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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Mountains grow and decay, they breathe and pulsate with life,” Lama Anargarika Govinda, a German-born Tibetan Lama, writes in the introduction to the work. “The worshipful or religious attitude is not impressed by scientific facts…nor by the ambition to ‘conquer’ the mountain. Few who hear the call keep alive through the ages the arcane knowledge of these terrestrial sources of divine inspiration.”
The approach to this mountain must be made with a reverential attitude, for its immensity dwarfs most efforts. Gargantuan rocks, some three stories high, point toward the crest like giant fingers. Many appear shaped as animals — lizards, squirrels, roadrunners — and take the place of the real but absent residents. Though tracks abound in the road dust, none are seen.
Evans-Wentz believed and reported in Cuchama and Sacred Mountains that though lightning struck frequently around Cuchama (3887 feet), it was not known to hit the mountain itself. “It may be due to a protecting envelope of terrestrial magnetism or to an emanating psychic force,” he declared. This theme on the sanctity of places he had developed over the years; he felt holy areas had psychic protection. “In varying degrees,” he wrote in May 1942 for The Theosophical Forum, “[they! have been made holy by that same occult power of mind to enhance the psychic character of the atom of matter; they are the ripened fruit of spirituality, the proof of thought’s all-conquering and all-transforming supremacy.”
Cuchama was reportedly an island once, a spot that Evans-Wentz says sheltered local Indians during a great flooding in historical times. Further, he wrote, other tribes throughout Southern California spoke of this and told of other mountains in the vicinity that provided similar services.
Indians in this area, he reported, also believed there was a lake within the mountain which allowed the “orderly green shrubbery” on the north and west sides to be watered. (While ‘‘orderly ’” and “green” appear to be stretching descriptions of the nearly barren north and east sides, there are remarkable differences. While the opposite sides are covered with boulders and brush, the north and east have an almost topiary, heatherlike ground cover.) Even a “thermal belt” is spoken of. While thermal normally refers to a warm or hot condition, in this case it refers to a psychic-climatic shield. Not far below the ridge line the fog stops, as though halted. While it may be explained away by wind conditions and temperature changes, Evans-Wentz thought otherwise. What-broad daylight. Such was the power of this extraordinary phenomenon that separate replicas of the same floated in nearby ravines.
Kailas, in Tibet, was the center of the world to many Buddhists, who felt it was a primary source of power. Though a difficult and dangerous place to journey, it attracted a great number of pilgrims. The, surrounding hills were strangely shaped and the colors of the earth and the light were bizarre. Great rivers (Brahmaputra. Indus, Sutlej, and the Kamali) radiate out from it like spokes of a massive wheel. Visitors have reported great visions in the powerful silence and solitude. Strange sounds and voices have been heard.
Arunchala, the “hill of light” in South India, Evans-Wentz circumnavigated himself barefoot in 1936. Adherents believe it is the divine light of Shiva (Hindu god of destruction), and, as such, at the base is the ashram of the late Sri Ramana Maharishi, one of the greatest Indian holy men of this century. The physical mass of the mountain is viewed as the lingam. the phallic symbol “of the ever-becoming which sustains the never-ending pulsation of the cosmic heart of Brahma.”
Closer to home is Mt. Rainier, which was the redman’s “holy land of peace,” Evans-Wentz reported. Tribal members who were found guilty of infractions were sent there to do penance. No weapons were allowed on this mountain, which the Indians called Tacoma, “the mountain that was God.” Evans-Wentz did not like Europeans desecrating mountains with their Western names. In the early 1960s, he felt the oncoming American renaissance would have to correct these faults and give the redman his due after repressing him for so long.
After two hours and four miles we arrived on top of Cuchama, where the panorama is limited only by “the immense circle of the world’s horizon,” as Evans-Wentz so aptly put it. The main peak is conical and capped with a small, humming telephone relay station. A great ring of treeless, distorted mountains surrounded us.
Mexico was below; Tecate a stone's throw away. The smoke from her morning fires, the blue, scabby haze from her shacks and huts created the feeling of an abandoned central Asian city edging toward total destruction, a place peopled with refugees. Ribbons of road led nowhere. Small farms stretched into the canyons. The impression was that of being surrounded by an endless deserted country that man had only touched temporally. To the west, stretching infinitely toward and over the Pacific Ocean, was a carpet of fog, covering all but the nearest and highest peaks.
For more than an hour we rested and meditated. 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. How appropriate that she, whose ancestors were Mayan, cousins of the initial visionaries of Cuchama, should pray and give the thanks for being on the mountain.
We walked down about a quarter mile to the second level of Cuchama, a slightly rounded mesa, and experienced a pro-founder silence. Tilting slightly north, with long streamers of grass, with bushes and with boulders in a rough circle, this area is easily missed. No trails lead to it; in fact, it can be overlooked because it appears so insignificant. Perhaps by design this is so. No one was around — no animals, no birds, barely a whisper in the air. The wind kept moving, however, causing a slight rattling in the vegetation. Here is where the Indian shamans came. Here is where the visions were given.
“The redman believes only that which they realize through their own psychic experience. mainly in dreams and the disembodied state of astral-body projections,” Evans-Wentz wrote. “Dogmatics, Bibles, are not essential to the inner vision. "
There is orenda here, which he describes as an Iroquois word meaning “holy chant” or “holy song.” Great magnetic forces attracted the awakened medicine man to these areas. Long interested in dealing with the supernatural, Evans-Wentz spent some years (1907-11) wandering over Celtic countries, where he gathered lore for his first book, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. While there, he discovered the great local healing areas. William Butler Yeats himself introduced the American scholar to some. Cryptically, Evans-Wentz describes in several places in his notes that he believed there were three such major healing centers in America. Though loath to speculate on the possibility, there were hints he believed Cuchama might have been the center affecting the entire Southern California area.
Today there is only silence up here. There is nothing to deflect one’s attention in the rock circle. It was obvious to Isa and me from the beginning this place had once been involved with great activity and power. Though the entire mountain had been used as a stronghold for the Indians as they warred against each other before the white man came, the mesa was off-limits — no trees, no hogans, just a natural alignment of rocks which at first glance serve no apparent purpose.
The Diegueño Indians reportedly had a symbolic ground painting of four holy mountains in Southern California, four being a sacred number to them. One of the points, Evans-Wentz wrote, was for San Bernardino in the northeast. In the northwest were the Santa Catalinas, while the southwest was represented by the Coronado Islands. Then the southeast, he felt, was Cuchama. The two northern points were indicated in the painting by two small circles; the southwest Coronados by a small circle within a larger one. Cuchama was signified the same way as the Coronados; however, a vertical line bisected it, perhaps indicating more importance.
Was this slightly built man, who lived in an obscure hotel and who caused the local librarians (my aunt among them) to feel he was playing an ironic joke by checking out his own books (he hadn’t any copies; he was forever giving them away), and who often dressed in a suit without a tie — was he a shaman himself? Or was he just an advanced pilgrim without need to worry over externals? A frugal man, sparse in habits and somewhat short with those not on the Path. Evans-Wentz felt the need to protect such places as Cuchama. However, he considered himself merely the caretaker of such, not the owner.
He lived near the main branch of the public library (in which he studied constantly) 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. He said only “good morning” or “good evening” as he entered or left. Evans-Wentz had few needs, only space and privacy to continue his work.
Early in life he knew he was to be a wanderer. In his unpublished autobiographical notes, written in Sikkim in 1920, he tells of his first “ecstatic-like vision.” He had been alone on the upper Delaware River (mid-1890s) in the midst of “wild daisies and buttercups in one of my secret retreats communing with nature. As I walked home slowly, I fell to singing a song of ecstatic rapture, composed as I sang it. There came flashing into my mind with such authority that I never thought of doubting it, a mind-picture of things past and to come. No details were definite, there was only the unrefutable convictions that I was a wanderer in this world from some far-off unfathomable and undescribably yet real realm; that all things I looked upon were but illusionary shadows. And there came to me a vague knowledge of things to be. I knew from that night that my life was to be that of a world-pilgrim, wandering from country to country, over seas, across continents and mountains, through deserts to the end of the earth, seeking, seeking for I knew not what.”
As if in fulfilling this prophecy, he spent most of his life on the move. From his home state of New Jersey he went to Florida and successfully speculated in real estate. Katherine Tingley, founder of Lomaland, the Point Loma Theosophical Society, drew him to San Diego and he became a member in 1902. Then he spent five years at Stanford (surviving the devastating 1906 earthquake on that campus), where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Then he took off for Oxford, where he became the first American to be awarded a doctorate in comparative religion. A windfall of property rentals allowed him in 1913 to start world traveling in earnest. From this date until 1941, when he settled into the Keystone Hotel, he traveled constantly, moving in a great circle from San Diego, through Oxford, to India, and back again. He rarely spent more than a few months in any one place.
However, up on Cuchama all this seemed so far away and from another time. The immensity of the horizon, along with the compelling nature of the silent circle of boulders on top, demanded from one more attention. There was a distinct magnetism here, a feeling of power and peace. The attraction this mountain had for the Indians became more evident the longer Isa and I stayed there. However, it was apparent to us that the white man was once again attempting to scatter and diffuse this energy, despite the mountain’s relative isolation.
Though holy people can infuse a place with their presence, it is also true their polar opposites can deplete an area of its sacredness. Drunk vandals regularly hurl their beer cans into the brush while spray painting their names in Spanish on the rocks. Trash on the top is much in evidence despite a heavily locked gate. A group of businessmen, headed by former San Diego City Councilman Tom Hom, have plans for “developing” a new town just this side of the border crossing. At alarming intervals, signs pop up along the old Highway 80 announcing vertical acres on Cuchama at moderate prices. It is fashionable for San Diego land speculators to trade on the area’s beauty, handily dodging the fact they themselves are contributing to its demise. When the condos arc up, the highways in, and the traffic flowing, what will there be worth seeing from the mountain’s sacred heights? Carl Jung could have been referring to Cuchama’s uncertain fate when, in his commentary on Evans-Wentz’s The Tibetan Book of Great Liberation. “I have serious doubts as to the blessings of Western Civilization.”
Dr. Walter Evans-Wentz died fifteen years ago near the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. Its founder, Parmahansa Yogananda, whom he had met as a young man in India, once told him he could stay in the ashram as long as he felt the need. Sadly, it was only for a few months. Long plagued with a nervous condition, Evans-Wentz found himself increasingly more unable to write or take care of himself. His notes and his diaries became more and more difficult for the man himself to copy, let alone anyone else to read.
His last months were spent in a small bungalow, which he shared with his secretary, Lou Blevens, near the main Fellowship grounds. Far from being a sad time for him, the learned scholar had many visitors he spoke with cordially, and he busied himself as best he could in disposing of his letters and belongings. Occasionally, he would sit in a chair and quietly meditate. When he knew he was dying, Evans-Wentz “sniffed out” a local rest home and told Blevens to take him there.
Now his ashes rest in a magnificent white stupa in northern India overlooking the “abode of snows,” the Himalayas he so often wrote of and had studied in for so many years. In the local funeral service, Lou Blevens read in the traditional Tibetan liturgy: “Oh nobly born…listen. Now thou are experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality...”