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Harry Crosby finds painted animals in Baja's Sierra de San Francisco,

“The most beautiful rock art I had seen since Lascaux”

Artist's representation of paintings at El Batequi
Artist's representation of paintings at El Batequi

Erie Stanley Gardner, creator of the Ferry Mason books and television series, lived in Temecula for the last 32 years of his life, but he loved Baja California. He traveled there as often as he could, and he wrote a series of books about his adventures south of the border. Offbeat bits of folklore would catch his interest, such as the one he describes in Hidden Heart of Baja, published in 1962. Gardner had heard of a race of giant Indians who once lived on the peninsula, and when someone told him about a family of very tall men from a remote mountain village, he wondered if they might not be descendants of the legendary people. He helicoptered into the village to check out the story, and although the villagers seemed normal enough, they did lead him to something extraordinary in a nearby cave.

Harry Crosby at El Batequi cave painting, 1974

“There were...paintings of giant men, 12 or 15 feet tall, and the paintings were done with a considerable amount of primitive skill,” Gardner wrote about the site. A second cave “was nearly two hundred yards long, and the smooth wall was ornamented with pictures of men and animals, paintings that were well executed and...so similar to the [first] ones...it was apparent they had been executed by people of the same cultural background.” Convinced that he had “stumbled upon something that was going to make archaeological history,” Gardner organized a return trip for which he brought along a UCLA anthropologist named Clement Meighan.

Meighan produced a scholarly account of his findings, and Gardner further publicized the rock art in a 1962 spread in Life. A casual reader could have come away with the sense that a thorough study of the paintings had been completed. That’s what La Jolla resident Harry Crosby thought when he happened upon a rock art site in 1967. Crosby was in Baja California to take photographs for a Commission of the Californias book commemorating the bicentennial of the opening of Alta California. The assignment was a plum, considering how new Crosby was to professional photography. From 1951 to 1963, he’d been a science teacher, first at Memorial Junior High, then at Mission Bay and La Jolla High Schools. He’d been good at teaching, but he was hungry for more creative expression, and in June of 1963 he had resigned his $10,000-per-year teaching position to try his hand at freelance photography. His first year he’d earned only $4000 or $5000, he recalls today, but the second year, “I made damn near twice as much as I had teaching.... I picked up little jobs here and there, and then things snowballed.” Within three years, he was providing photos for such publications as UCSD’s maiden recruiting brochure, SDG&E’s annual reports, and the Commission of the Californias book.

Although Crosby had often ventured with his students on trips to the Mexican mainland, he was new to Baja California, and the book project proved an exhaustive introduction to the arid wilderness. To get the photos he needed, he covered 600 miles by mule, following the Camino Real of the Mission period. In the spring of 1967, he came to a spot about 25 miles southeast of San Ignacio covered with crumbling paintings of animals and birds. Crosby assumed that these were some of the paintings described by Gardner. He’d read those descriptions with great interest and had envied Gardner’s find.

So Crosby photographed the painted animals, but his attitude toward them was “nonchalant,” in his words—that of a tourist viewing a well-known sight, not an explorer making a discovery. What impressed him far more during that 1967 assignment were the people he met in Baja California’s remote mountain enclaves. Descendants of the Spanish soldiers brought to the New World by the first Jesuit explorers, these “Californio” families were “carryover frontiersmen,” Crosby realized. “To me it still seems like the Wild West,” he says today. And that feeling was even stronger back in 1967, six years before a paved highway stretched the length of the peninsula. He wanted to photograph the people and learn more about their life in the mountains, and in 1971, he returned to do so.

He hired a local guide in the Sierra de San Francisco, the mountain range north of the oasis town of San Ignacio, and for two weeks the party rode on mules over precipitous trails, visiting a dozen ranches and collecting legends, oral history, and anecdotes. On the last morning of the trip, over breakfast, the guide suggested a short detour to visit some nearby paintings. “Nothing about his manner implied anything out of the ordinary,” Crosby would later write. But he decided to risk the “probable loss of half a day.”

When he and the guide reached the long shallow cave, “Surprise is an inadequate word for my reaction,” Crosby recorded. On a panel above the opening of the cave “was painted a tumultuous procession of human and animal figures at perhaps double their life size. All the beasts seemed to form a herd in movement from right to left; huge red and black deer and an equally immense red mountain sheep dominated the surge. The successive figures were partially superimposed, creating a powerful sense of crowding, urgency, and motion — each animal in mad flight, treading on the heels of those ahead and straining to free itself from the crush behind.” Amidst the creatures, Crosby picked out the scattered presence of eerie humanoid figures. “Whereas the hurrying animals moved in profile across the stony canvas, the men faced us, frozen into identical erect postures with their arms upraised.”

Unlike his previous encounter with the rock art, this astonished him. He had become used to viewing Baja California Indian remains as “rather sad reminders of what is irrecoverably lost,” he writes, “remote and impersonal.” But “the flamboyant painted scene at San Gregorio was alive and eloquent; the artists’ work was an unforgettable message blazed across the ages.” It didn’t look to him like any of the other primitive art he knew from the Americas. Instead it made him think of the paintings he had seen years before on the walls of Lascaux in France.

Flooded with questions and excited by the mountain men’s assurances that outsiders had not visited most of the painting sites in the area, Crosby made a crucial decision. Though he was due back in La Jolla, he followed his guide to the Arroyo del Batequi. Within open rock shelters there, the former teacher found walls with paintings that had deteriorated almost beyond recognition. But he also found a 70-foot-long painted ceiling covered with “the most beautiful rock art I had seen since Lascaux.” The “unity and composition” of the cavalcade of humans and animals stunned him. “The mural is clearly not the work of a single artist,” Crosby would later write. “It is certainly the product of many generations.” He began to feel “the acute desire to share the experience. In those moments, I knew the loneliness of private art collectors and I understood why so many donate their treasures to society.”

Crosby spent almost three more weeks seeking out caves with his guide, Tacho Arce. They went to the ones Gardner and Meighan had reported, and they visited many new sites. “Everywhere we went had paintings,” he says today. “And a lot of them Tacho didn’t know about. It wasn’t until we got to a ranch and someone would be talking, and then we’d go and look someplace, and then sometimes Tacho would remember, ‘Oh yes! When I was a kid somebody told me there were paintings there.’ ” Crosby began to suspect that the peninsula might contain hundreds of artistically related painting sites, and, if so, this would be startling, new information.

When he finally returned home, he made a trip to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, and there he learned that Gardner was not the first outsider to see the cave paintings. Jesuit missionaries had written about them in the 1700s, and just before the turn of the 20th Century, a French industrial chemist had described 18 of the Baja California murals. But, Crosby found, no previous explorer seemed to have a clue to the potential size of the phenomenon. “I was the first one who ever even came close to posing that question,” Crosby says. And having asked himself just how many murals the rocky walls of central Baja California contained, he says the compulsion to try to answer the question was overwhelming. “Logically I couldn’t really afford to do it,” he says. But his photographic work gave him flexibility, and “psychologically I couldn’t afford not to do it.”

Over the next three years, Crosby made about a dozen trips to Baja California. Many, including three treks that lasted more than 40 days, were in the company of another La Jolla resident by the name of Enrique Hambleton. A Mexican national who’d been educated in the United States, Hambleton was a fellow photographer who met Crosby through a camera-shop connection and became fascinated by the older man’s quest. Hambleton also proved a match for the grueling physical challenges. The realm they penetrated “is a maze of deep-cut water courses with towering walls” that is “difficult to learn or to find one’s way through; any part of it is physically demanding to traverse,” Crosby has written. “Trails are forced into tortured horizontal and vertical courses which multiply the miles and tax the muscles of men and beasts of burden.” Water is “scarce or absent,” and “the complexity of the landform insures that no one can know it all.”

Despite the obstacles, by 1974 Crosby and Hambleton had documented the existence of about 180 previously unknown painted sites and become aware of the striking consistency of their artistic conventions. It’s not that all the murals look alike. Crosby eventually identified five painting “schools,’' each located in a different region of the peninsula’s interior. Within each of those schools, the Painters (as Crosby calls them) followed formal and arbitrary rules that led Crosby to classify all the works as Great Murals, “a separate, distinct art form.” Individual works “have a codified relatedness reminiscent of what is seen in centuries of Russian icons or millennia of Chinese brush painting,” he concluded.

The mural painters never drew flowers, for example, or mountainscapes. Their subjects are “creatures in the natural world — humans, deer, mountain sheep, antelope, rabbits, hares, mountain lions, bobcats, various birds, fish, turtles, snakes, whales, or pinnipeds,” Crosby writes. Each of these is nearly always portrayed in a characteristic manner. Humans are static, presented “head-on with arms extended upward in a gesture suggestive of the classic ‘I surrender’ pose.” In contrast to the frozen humans, four-legged animals “were given active profiles as if running or leaping.”

Harry Crosby

The mural-makers outlined the creatures and filled in the outlines with paint. Sometimes they divided the interior into two parts, using a different color in each sector. Sometimes the)' filled the field with patterns such as stripes or checkerboards. But they never included within their outlines such details as eyes, noses, or mouths. Instead, they used the outlines to communicate the detailed information — a constraint that often required them to distort the naturalistic perspective. The humans’ feet thus turn outward and one can count their toes. Females sport long pointed breasts that seem to grow down and out from their armpits. In the animals, the viewer always sees both ears and both horns (when they exist). Dewclaws on the deer are swung out so that “both appear above each hoof.”

Another characteristic of the Great Murals is overpainting. Figures often crowd on top of each other. Deer leap between the viewer and fading painted humans. One consequence of the Painters’ willingness to cover up the work of predecessors is that the tableaux have a startling sense of motion. The humans jostle each other. Animals seem to stampede.

A more prosaic result of this painting technique is that it provides clues to the age of the paintings. “We see a dramatic contrast between the newest, which are in quite good condition, and the oldest, which are about to vanish,” Crosby has written about the painting at El Batequi. “If the newest are over 500 years of age, as I believe, then a logical argument could be made that the oldest have been on that rock face for 2000 or more years.”

Today he bases this conclusion on a number of considerations. One is that Jesuit pioneers in Baja California at the turn of the 18th Century never mentioned rock painting “as a contemporary activity.” On the contrary, two padres who had seen some of the Great Murals in the mid-1760s and questioned their Cochimí converts about them “both reported folkloric accounts of a giant people from the north who had painted in the sierras,” Crosby writes. Each Jesuit made it clear that he thought the paintings were already quite old. “This puts the creation of the newest of them back over 500 years if we allow them two or three centuries to have acquired the appearance of age.”

In the fall of 1971, the La Jolla explorer found another clue to the murals’ antiquity in a slit cave in the Sierra de San Francisco. On its ceiling, one painting “showed a circle, with rays like a conventional sun symbol." Crosby’s written account continues that he was “immediately struck by its uniqueness. Even at that rather early date in my investigations, I was aware of the rarity of abstract symbols in the Great Mural heartland." He assumed that the painting represented an astronomical sight such as Jupiter or Venus and the moon. But Crosby later read about a brilliant supernova that had appeared in the constellation Taurus on July 4,1054. Visible in broad daylight for 23 days, this event created the great Crab Nebula, 20th-century astronomers have established. Just before dawn on July 5, the supernova and the crescent moon appeared in the sky together, a juxtaposition that was visible only in western North America. Indians in Northern Arizona painted the startling sight, and when Crosby sent a photo of the Baja California painting to an astronomer who had studied other rock-art depictions of the supernova, he replied that Crosby’s example “very clearly”resembled them.

Alter comparing the Baja California supernova painting with other Great Murals, Crosby believes that the 944-year-old work “is neither remarkably older nor newer than the average...’’ The fact that much older-looking works can be found leads him to conclude that some of them may have been created as long as 2000 years ago. (Attempts to use such scientific assays as radiocarbon dating and measurement of amino acids that undergo time-related changes have proven frustrating because the paints contain little carbon or amino acids.)

Back in the 1970s, Crosby was less interested in the ages of the paintings than in figuring out where they were. To do this, “I evolved the technique of local inquiry,” he explained in a KPBS documentary about the Mystery Murals of Baja California that aired early in 1975. “I simply get a man I know...who’s honest and by common consent knows the mountains as well or better than anyone else.... I ask him to hire a second man that can help him, and I arrange usually through him to hire animals. . .both riding animals and pack animals. And we set out and visit every single spot that we have heard reported has paintings, and we visit every ranch, and we talk to everyone from the 12-year-old goatherd on up to the 80- and 90-year-old men who were once 12-year-old goatherds and hunters.”

Today Crosby says he wasn’t sure what he would do with the information he was gathering. His career had taken another turn about 1970 when Richard Pourade, editor-in-chief for Copley Books, asked Crosby to write a book about his 600-mile mule trip. “1 had never written anything before in my life,” Crosby says, but he produced a manuscript. He says “almost at the instant” that he turned it in, he decided to show Pourade a little hand-bound “prospectus” he had made for a book about the cave paintings. About a week later, Pourade called Crosby back and said, “We want to do it, and we want to do it next year.” Crosby’s King's Highway came out in 1974. The Cave Paintings of Baja California was published the following year.

Crosby expresses no remorse over his failure to look for a bigger or better-established publisher for the latter, explaining, “I didn’t have any particular self-confidence” about what he had written. He lacked training in either the visual arts or anthropology, and “it’s a difficult stretch to get yourself out of La Jolla and into the mainstream with an agent. I was diffident about that.”

When the book appeared, however, “It was a dreadful disappointment,” he says today. His wife, Joanne, “burst into tears when she saw the first copy.” Whereas Copley books written by Pourade “had first-cabin treatment,” the color in Crosby’s cave-painting book “was just vile,” he declares. “The layout I can characterize by saying that the book was given to the two nice ladies who every week pasted up the [Copley’s] Borrego Sun. They were the designers.... Just look at the graphics and the printing!” he says, pulling a boxed edition from his bookshelf. The only editing was by a “barely competent proofreader,” he adds.

Rushing the book into print had also resulted in its being incomplete. “I was very aware there were areas we simply hadn’t had time to get in.” So Crosby continued scouting for additional cave paintings until 1980, by which point he felt confident he had determined the boundaries of the Great Mural sites and identified all the painting schools. Crosby then turned his attention to writing The Last of the Californios, a description and history of the mountain people who had so intrigued him ten years before.

Hambleton remained involved with the paintings. He had written his own book, La Pintura Rupestre de Baja California, published in Mexico in 1979, and was convinced that the art needed protection. Up to the early 1980s, prehistoric art of Baja California held no interest for any level of the Mexican government. All the archaeology was being concentrated on the high cultures of ancient Mexico — Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and so on, according to Hambleton. He began trying to change this—stressing the value of the cave paintings to “governors, presidents, directors of institutions, and other people with the power to make decisions,” and in the mid-1980s, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) opened regional centers in the two Baja California states. In 1989, Hambleton created a private foundation dedicated to “the conservation and understanding of Baja California Sur’s cultural heritage.” Archaeological investigations began to unfold, and a few years later, “UNESCO designated the Sierra de San Francisco as a World Heritage Site,” according to Hambleton. He adds that authorities now agree that the Baja California murals rank as one of the five most important examples of rock art in the world (alongside the Paleolithic art of Europe, Australia, South Africa, and the Tasili Plateau in Algeria).

Ironically, by the time UNESCO bestowed its designation in December of 1993, the most comprehensive study of the paintings — Crosby’s book — had disappeared from print. Although Copley Books in 1984 had published a somewhat expanded second edition (containing accounts of Crosby’s trips in the late 1970s), the local publishing house folded in the late 1980s. An El Cajon resident named Diana Lindsay was working as the company’s sales manager at the time, and she says she had become aware that Crosby’s book was the company’s most successful offering. When Copley Books went out of business, Lindsay bought as many copies as she could afford, planning to sell them through Sunbelt Publications, a small book-distributing business that she owned. “We had a good stock for a long time, but of course it eventually ran out,” she says. “We were always getting calls for the cave-paintings book. And we had to say it was out of print.”

Awareness of that demand is one reason Diana and her husband Lowell began to think about publishing a new edition of Crosby’s book. The idea appealed to their emotions as well. The couple had moved to San Diego County in 1966, when Lowell, a Navy helicopter pilot, was stationed at Ream Field in Imperial Beach. Longtime nature lovers, they began exploring both northern Baja California and the Anza-Borrego desert, and Diana wrote several papers about the latter as part of her undergraduate studies at San Diego State. She wrote so many, she says, that she eventually expanded them into a master’s thesis. Unbeknownst to her, one of her thesis advisers passed her finished work on to Pourade at Copley Books. Pourade wanted to publish a book about the desert, and he offered to bring out Lindsay’s thesis as a Copley Books offering.

Under the title Our Historic Desert, it appeared one year before Crosby’s Kings Highway. The cave-paintings book followed the next year, and the Lindsays admired it. “It brings together so many different disciplines,” says Lowell, a forthright, exuberant man of 57. “It’s about good science. It’s about good adventure. It’s about Baja and the border and the people of the mountains.”

Lowell says by the early 1980s he and Diana had begun to dream about someday publishing such works. He had left the Navy in 1971 and had gone to work for the YMCA. But the Lindsays had retained a foothold in the literary realm. They had collaborated on a guide to the Anza-Borrego desert that was published by Wilderness Press in 1978. Today some 55,000 copies have been sold, but in the early 1980s Diana felt frustrated by the absence of both it and her earlier desert book from what seemed to her to be natural sales outlets, such as shops in the desert state park. When she complained, Copley Books and Wilderness Press offered to sell copies to her at a discount, and she in turn sold them so well that she became a sales rep for both publishing firms and eventually sales manager for Copley. In 1985 she and Lowell themselves became publishers when they (as Sunbelt Publications) released a bike guide to the Southwest. Other Sunbelt books (mostly works on natural history written by local authors) followed, and in the early 1990s, the Lindsays acquired a line of full-color multilanguage guidebooks. “In the back of our minds,” Lowell says, “was always our roots — the Copley style of book in which you have color along with content. Your typical coffee-table pictorial has little content. And your typical natural history book has lots of content, but it doesn’t have the full-color impact. So the vision that was emerging for us by the mid-’90s was: how about a combination of the pictorial presentation and the value of a natural history book. And Harry’s Cave Paintings was the natural move there.”

The Lindsays recall approaching Crosby about reprinting his book in the summer of 1996 and finding him “real standoffish.” Crosby confirms this, and he explains he was afraid such a project would distract him from his present work: writing a biography of a soldier who participated in the opening of Alta California. (After Crosby wrote his book about the Californios, his career mutated again, and he produced an exhaustive and scholarly history of Jesuit California, Antigua California, for the University of New Mexico Press. That work led him to the current project.)

The Lindsays kept pestering him about the cave-painting book, however, and Crosby says he finally changed his mind because he thought the subject matter was important. Also, the Lindsays were offering him the rare opportunity to redo something he felt had been bungled. “On the whole I think they did a splendid job,” Crosby says about the revised volume, unveiled by the Lindsays late last year. “They’ve put a lot of money into it. And I’m sure they will get it out eventually. Although I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as they think.”

Diana Lindsay says she and her husband invested $100,000 in the cave-painting book. Lowell adds that with the sale of the last book in the first print run (10,000 copies) “we’ll just about break even.” By late spring of this year, the Lindsays were buoyed by the news that the Getty Foundation (which has donated substantial resources to conserve the Baja California cave paintings) might help fund a documentary about the rock art. The Lindsays also had found a San Diego film producer who was interested in such a project.

In early May, the El Cajon couple organized a scouting expedition into the Sierra de San Francisco. Included in the seven-member group was local cinematographer Cindy Erdman, who had agreed to shoot painting sites for the film producer. The Lindsays also invited me, along with their friends and hiking companions, Eric Mustonen and Amee Wood. For all the time they’d spent exploring northern Baja California and putting Crosby’s book together, the Lindsays themselves had never been to any cave-paintings sites. So they hired Eve Ewing to outfit our trip.

Few Americans have been venturing into Baja California for longer than Ewing. Her family moved to La Jolla in 1945, and her father, a Scripps oceanographer, introduced Eve to the peninsula about five years later, when she was 14. She recalls him landing his Cessna on the hard-pan salt flats of Guerrero Negro (today a bustling town of 11,000) back when the only structures in town were five metal Quon-set huts. Baja California then was “a very, very wild place,” she says. “Even from the air, there was a sense of emptiness and space. Once in a while, you’d get a glimmer of the dirt road. But the rest of the time it was a land that belonged to the natural world.”

The senior Ewing and his daughter met Erle Stanley Gardner on one of his outings and thus wound up on the pages of Gardner’s 1962 Hidden Heart of Baja. But the Ewings didn’t accompany Gardner on the trip that led to his cave-painting discoveries.

Eve saw her first Baja California cave painting two years later, in early 1964, an encounter that she found interesting rather than electrifying. She saw it while traveling with a group of Americans who were attempting to cross the largely uncharted terrain between Tecate and Cabo San Lucas aided only by mules and burros. A Baja California rancher named Andy Meling had organized the adventure. Eve had found out about it from her father, who had flown into Bahía de los Angeles, met the group, and learned that Meling was seeking replacements for participants who had dropped out. Via radio phone, Gifford Ewing had asked his 27-year-old daughter if she wanted to join the expedition. If she did, he told her, she should bring a saddle, stirrup covers, chaps, 50 pounds of horseshoe nails, 25 pounds of dehydrated eggs, and long underwear, adding, “You’ve got 24 hours to get here.”

Ewing today explains that her father knew how much she loved riding horses. She’d spent summers on Peñasquitos Ranch and had helped friends round up cattle on Clairemont Mesa (then the San Clemente Ranch) and on the Richardson Ranch (now University City), herding the animals down to the railroad shoot in Rose Canyon. “You can still see the cement foundation of the old barn and corrals,” she says. “There was a spur off the railroad and the train would take the cattle to the Cudahy meat plant at the foot of Mission Valley.”

The next day she was at Tijuana’s airstrip, boarding a small plane for the ride south. She had no idea how long she’d be gone. When she joined the group, she learned that one objective was to see some of the cave paintings Gardner had chronicled in the Life article and his book. The trip turned out to be so grueling, however, that the group never made it to Gardner’s famous finds. “Basically, we made all the mistakes,” Ewing says. One of the biggest was that the expedition was undertaken at a time when Baja California was experiencing a terrible drought. “It had not rained for four years!” she exclaims. Some ranches hadn’t seen rain in a decade. As a result, “There wasn’t a green leaf on any of the plants.” Other hazards threatened the pack animals’ survival. Ewing says Meling’s largest mule was slaughtered by a mountain lion well known to local ranchers as a killer. “The way [the lions] do it is they jump up on [the larger animal’s] back and they wrap their front claws around the throat. Then they take their dewclaws and they rip open [the victim’s] stomach. Ghastly.” When this happened to the Meling animal, Ewing says so many of the other mules panicked that “some of them fell off cliffs and had to be shot.”

The party did make its way to one painting site, known today as Cueva de la Natividad. But the roughness of the terrain pushed the animals to their limits, and halfway into the Sierra de San Francisco Ewing recalls that Meling declared, “We have to make a choice right now. We can either go to Cabo San Lucas with these mules, or we can go and see the cave paintings. We can’t do both. The animals cannot make it.” The group decided to press on for the cape, but only Meling and his girlfriend Joanne Alford succeeded in reaching it. Several of the animals had died or been left at ranches along the way, and all the other expedition members had dropped out, including Ewing.

She made it to La Paz, but there she learned that her mother had died unexpectedly, so she flew home. Not long after-ward, Ewing moved north to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute with such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Imogen Cunningham. She returned to the San Diego area around 1970 but didn’t make another mule trip into Baja California until the year after Crosby’s book came out. In the fall of that year (1976), friends asked her to organize a trip for them into the Sierra de San Francisco to see the Great Murals.

One of the sites they visited is Cueva Pintada, an enormous cave that Crosby describes in his book as “the most painted place in the most painted part of the entire range of the Great Murals.” Ewing says the south gallery electrified her. “It seemed to express an echo of the experience that I was feeling and of the land itself,” she says. “Mind you, in those days we may have been the only outsiders who went in that whole year to see the cave paintings. So the sense of wildness and beauty and mystery were still very present at that time.” In the 22 years since, Ewing has made two to four mule trips into Baja California every year, she figures. She calculates that she has visited more than 100 of the peninsula’s cave-painting sites. Over the years, deciphering the meaning of the paintings has become her life’s work.

At 62, Ewing’s physical presence is a study in contrasts. Her hair is more white than gray, and she wears it cut in a bob that holds up well on treks. She wears jeans and hiking boots and denim vests and work shirts like second skins. Her build is stocky, and years of sun and wind have carved lines into her face. But her voice is soft and girlish and often breathless with enthusiasm.

On the first real morning of the expedition, our group met for breakfast at a restaurant in Guerrero Negro. Erdman, the cinematographer, and I lacked experience at trekking in desert wildernesses, and the talk soon turned to hazards we might encounter spiders, rattlesnakes, and the like. Ewing assured us that in the 10 or 11 visits she’d made to Cacariso (the place that would be our primary campsite), she’d seen rattlers only twice. One was rearing up like a cobra next to the trail, she said. The second was on a footpath.

Everyone in the restaurant listened as Ewing regaled us with snake stories. She talked about Ray Bogowitz, the Baja California buff from San Diego who was killed in 1986 by a rattlesnake bite in the Sierra San Pedro Martir. Ewing had been scheduled to go on that trip but at the last minute had been unable to join it. Still she recounted the details of what had happened with solemn accuracy. She told another story about a friend who was camping in the desert with a group. The others were surprised when the woman slept late one morning. It became so late, in fact, that her friends began teasing her. Then someone noticed that a rattlesnake had curled up next to her neck during the night. She was too terrified to speak, let alone stir, lest she disturb it. Someone urged her not to move until the day warmed up enough for the snake to slither away. It finally did and the woman was unharmed, according to Ewing.

Erdman asked if our guides would shoot any rattlesnake that turned up. “They’d probably kill it with a rock,” Ewing answered. “I’ve seen them kill a fox with a rock from a distance of 20 to 30 feet.”

With all the storytelling, it was almost ten before we finished loading our two vehicles and headed for Vizcaino, the dusty junction 40 or so miles inland. We stopped for gas at a large Pemex station that bustled with activity. But the pumps were dry, we learned, and our vehicles were close to empty. Eventually we noticed men with siphon tubes selling gas from barrels out of the back of a shiny blue Ford pickup. They charged the equivalent of about $2.36 per gallon. As Lowell and Eric bought fuel, Ewing watched the proceedings and mused, “Since the road has come in, Baja seems more civilized, but it’s not. You think a paved road means there are facilities, but that’s not necessarily true.” Government planners expected a lot more traffic and development, but when it failed to materialize over the years, the services had dried up, she declared. Although the frontier area has shrunk, “it still exists.”

Eve Ewing and Baja California guides

On the other hand, bureaucracy has penetrated the realm of the cave paintings. Four years ago, INAH, the Mexican government’s overseer of historical and anthropological sites, began requiring anyone bound for the Sierra de San Francisco to register in the village of San Ignacio, about 50 miles beyond Vizcaino. Our group headed there next.

In the harsh, stark landscape that surrounds it, San Ignacio materializes like some cinematic vision of a desert oasis. The early Jesuits planted date palms that have spread and multiplied over the centuries. Their greenery shocks the eye of the traveler grown accustomed to tans and browns. Situated at the upwelling of a huge underground spring, the town luxuriates in water and the coolness water makes possible. In the central plaza, stout, dense Indian laurel trees create a refuge from the heat. The plaza has other charms too. It faces a 212-year-old stone mission church that seems too massive and grand to belong to the humble community. And in an adjoining building, archaeological authorities have created a tiny but meticulous museum that describes the peninsula’s enigmatic rock art.

Each member of our expedition signed a logbook in a low-ceilinged room next to the museum, and we confirmed the price of hiring local guides and animals. It would cost 54 pesos (about $6.75 per day) for each guía and 48 pesos ($6.00) for each beast. We would meet up with most of these at a mountain ranch later that day. But the time of that rendezvous kept receding like a mirage. Before we left San Ignacio we needed to find some lunch. And Erdman wanted to interview the priest who ran the mission church, Father James Francez.

The Lindsays had met him in San Diego and had sensed in him an antipathy to the cave paintings, a feeling that they were pagan artifacts, best forgotten. Erdman was hoping to capture this provocative echo of the ancient missionary/native tension with her video camera. But Francez turned out to be an amiable Louisiana native who, when pressed, seemed neither interested in nor hostile to the art tucked amongst the mountains that surrounded him. In his 38 years in Baja California, he had seen a cave painting only once, back in the early 1960s, he confessed, and then, “I was thinking mostly about the donkey” he was riding. “I mean, to be frank, I didn’t know anything about the paintings” he said. He added that he saw nothing wrong with them. Whoever had painted them seemed to be “clean people,” he offered. “There were no pornographic images.” On the other hand, he felt certain that the murals had no religious significance.

We didn’t leave San Ignacio until 3:15, and then we had to go all the way back to Vizcaino to meet two of the men who would be our guides, Arturo Villavicencio and Miguel Angel Ojeda. Arturo, a quiet man in his mid-40s, “has been my guide for 23 years,” Ewing announced, adding, “He’s one of the best cowboys in the country.” Born on a huge Spanish land-grant ranch on Baja California’s gulf coast, he and his aging parents continue to raise cattle, Ewing told us. But to enable his children to attend school, he also ekes out an existence in Vizcaino as a guide, a cowboy, an animal transporter, and so on.

Upon our arrival, he and Miguel Angel directed their mules up a ramp into the back of Arturo’s dilapidated animal trailer. They made this look easy. They noticed that one of the tires was flat, but under the hood of his truck, Arturo had transformed an old air conditioner into a built-in air compressor. Ewing used tubing attached to it to fill the sorry tire, and our caravan got underway.

The sun was low in the sky when we turned off the paved highway between Vizcaino and San Ignacio. About ten years ago, the government built a dirt road that climbs from here to the village of San Francisco de la Sierra, 23 miles away. Ewing says the road at times has been so bad it’s taken her four hours to drive that distance, and a huge tropical storm last fall made things worse. But the government had just sent in a grading machine to improve the surface. We were thus able to bump over it at the brisk pace of maybe five to ten miles an hour.

We stopped often to take in views that grew grander and more stunning with each mile. Lowell Lindsay seemed particularly ebullient. “Having worked on this book for two and a half years, I know every twist and turn of the road on the map. And every peak. But I’ve never seen it before. And here it is!”

A while later Ewing pointed out a distant dark spot on the other side of a wide arroyo — Cueva Obscura, described in Crosby’s book and a devilish place to reach. “I tell you, my respect for Harry Crosby is immense,” she declared. “Every cave he went to is just hard!” She moaned, surveying the hardness and the scale of the country stretching before us. “Oh, I just love this country! I just absolutely flip out. I feel so good!”

It was almost 8:00 p.m. by the time we reached Rancho Palo Rayo, a collection of small dwellings just beyond the tiny village of San Francisco de la Sierra. Two more of our guides, Manuel and Francisco Arce, lived here and had invited us to camp on the property. While Ewing greeted them, the rest of us scrambled in the dark to set up tents and sleeping bags. At 3500 feet, the wind was icy, and the prospect of a festive goat barbecue — discussed earlier—seemed nonexistent. Instead, Ewing herded us into a small structure with a roof made of palm fronds lashed together. A long wooden table was set for ten, illuminated by an electric bulb overhead. The seven Americans and three of the guides crowded in around it, and Manuel’s wife and daughter served us homemade flour tortillas, soupy pinto beans, chopped green cabbage, diced tomato, and beef bones laden with fat and chunks of tasty meat.

Later, I climbed into my tent and listened to the night sounds of the rancho: dogs barking, burros braying, a two-way radio squawking so loudly that every word must have been audible a quarter-mile away. I woke to the sound of bleating goats. Cheese made from their milk provides most of the income for Manuel and Francisco’s families, as it does for other residents of San Francisco.

The main event of this day would be our group’s descent into the Arroyo de San Pablo. But as Ewing supervised the packing of the burros, she urged the rest of us to make a quick visit to Cueva del Ratón, a painting site we could reach by car in maybe 15 minutes. From an elder in the village, we picked up a key that unlocked a gate guarding the site. Mexican federal government money helped to pay for the gate and fencing, as well as for a comfortable walkway and steps up to a wide wooden viewing ramp. Elegant signs in English and Spanish pleaded for help in conserving the “irreplaceable legacy” of the prehistoric imagery. These trappings, which would fit right in at any American national park, are a little startling in the Baja California hinterlands. We commented on them, then our attention shifted to the figures looming over us.

Here the Painters created deer, mountain sheep, and enigmatic creatures that Crosby says are rabbits and a mountain lion. Frozen humans stand among them, arms raised in the manner of robbers caught in the act. Once again Lowell Lindsay seemed most moved. “This is heavier than I thought,” he muttered. “I thought Cueva Ratón was kind of a lightweight. I wasn’t prepared for this.” Tears came to his eyes as he tried to describe his emotions. “I’ve felt so close to this land, like I knew it so well, but only as an observer from far away. And now to come face to face with the animals and the figures that I came so close to on paper — it’s pretty heavy.”

We spent an hour contemplating the figures, then we raced back to Rancho Palo Rayo. Our group would be traveling with 21 animals. The guides had loaded the burros with the gear and provisions, but there remained the complex task of matching gringos to mules. It was almost noon by the time we were in our saddles and plodding down the trail.

I’d drawn a doughty auburn animal named Alegre, who didn’t seem too happy to be embarking on the journey. As we set off, I thought I knew why. After just a few minutes, the path all but disappeared. Only the relative absence of scrub under our animals’ feet suggested a common route, but it was choked with boulders and pebbles and rocks, often pitching up and down over rocky thrusts of the earth. After an hour and a quarter, I was beginning to feel that I was adjusting to the mule’s lurching motion. Then we came to the edge of the canyon.

The previous day, one of the Lindsays had proclaimed that the arroyo where we would be traveling was like the Grand Canyon, a comparison I had dismissed as hyperbolic. In a strict sense, it is. The Grand Canyon is about a mile deep, compared to the Arroyo de San Pablo’s 1000 to 1200 feet. But the Mexican canyon is relatively much narrower, a fact that heightens the appearance of its depth. On the rim, preparing to go to the bottom, the difference between the two canyons seems trivial, especially given the absence of a wide, well-groomed trail leading into the Mexican one. Barely discernible, the path that we went over switched uncountable times through 180-degree turns. Often it was so steep that — leaning back almost as far as my animal’s rump and gripping the back of the saddle (the proper gringo descent style) — I felt as if I were standing upright, with Alegre’s head somewhere below my feet.

Days later, Lowell Lindsay told me that the descent had reminded him of the first time he landed a fixed-wing plane on an aircraft carrier. He had fretted about it for months. “But finally, I decided that I simply had to have faith in my equipment and my support personnel,” he said. “And then I was fine.”

We agreed that we felt the same way about our mules. The only way to get down the canyon was to entrust them and the vaqueros with our lives. So we did, though several times that afternoon, on slippery rock shelves right on the edge or descending down steeply canted faces with the void yawning next to me, fear poked some holes in my faith.

After several hours, Arturo halted the group and, securing the mules to trailside scrub, led us down a short path to a rocky grotto where a small collection of deer and mountain sheep had been painted. Small sites such as this are like chapels, Ewing asserted, as we munched on the lunches she had packed (sour cream Pringles, a Babybel Bonbel cheese, an orange, and a Tootsie Roll). She commented that she likes these chapels because she thinks the Painters put only the “really important” stuff in them, whereas in a “cathedral” such as Cueva Pintada, “There’s so much to see that it’s hard to sort it all out.”

It took us about six hours to reach the bottom. In the riverbed we skirted a ranch that, in passing, looked like a paradise of lush mature fruit trees and birdsong. We plodded on through a rock-strewn watercourse that soon became filled with boulders, then we had to climb off our mules and let a guide lead them up a longer, more negotiable path. About 7:00 p.m. we stumbled on foot into our campsite, a beautiful spot under skyscraping palm trees with a stream running nearby. The cobalt sky was deepening, but there was plenty of light to set up our tents. (Ewing and the cowboys slept on saddle blankets in the dirt.) As darkness fell, the stars emerged, along with thousands of daddy longlegs. Wherever I shined my flashlight I counted a half-dozen dancing in the beam.

The insects were gone the next morning, and the birdsong at dawn made the canyon sound like a tropical jungle. Our first destination would be Cueva de las Flechas, a short but challenging hike from our base. This cave gets its name from the painted arrows (flechas) that pierce the bodies of several humans and animals depicted on the rock walls. The weaponry isn’t unique; Crosby has noted arrows at dozens of other sites. Here they add drama to a scene already pregnant with ominous power. Not only the large size of the figures but also the way they’re arranged in relation to each other compels attention and raises questions. They look as if the Painters were trying to send a message through their composition. But what were they trying to say?

Ewing was eager to share her conclusions with us. “I am totally convinced that this art has a tremendous amount to do with rain and prayers for rain,” she said. Adequate rainfall meant the difference between life and death for the people who lived here, she pointed out. “We know from mission records that mothers [of that era] would sometimes kill their newborns in a drought year,” she told me. “The thing that’s so poignant about Baja California is that [the weather] is very, very unpredictable. You’re a little too far south for dependable northern winter rain. You’re too far north for dependable summer tropical rain.” Some years you’ll have both, overlapping. “And some years, you’re going to have nothing. How do you make such an unpredictable world more predictable?” Ewing has come to believe that the people who lived in Baja California’s central mountains tried to do this by having shamans intercede with the spirits of the underworld and the sky world. She thinks Cueva de las Flechas must have been a place where shamanic initiation took place.

The cave has an element she thinks is critical — a large crack that runs from the uppermost part of the cave down to a figure below a gigantic deer positioned vertically on the wall. Ewing says she never paid any attention to this or any other crack until her seventh or eighth visit to this canyon. On that occasion she was reflecting on something she had heard from her mentor, Ken Hedges, a curator at the San Diego Museum of Man. “Ken kept telling me that this was shamanic art,” Ewing recalls, adding that shamans are always associated with spirit travel. “So I asked myself, how are [the Painters] illustrating the spirit travel?” In part, the direction of the art does that, she figured. Compositions generally flow upward. “But then it hit me when I was over in the south gallery of Cueva Pintada. There the peak figure has his hand on a huge crack that goes right up to a water shoot.” When Ewing scrutinized the scene at Cueva de las Flechas, she found that it also had a pronounced crack. The more she studied the two natural features the surer she felt that the Painters had used them as compositional elements. “This crack is absolutely essential to the art in this cave,” she now insists about the scene at Flechas. She claims that since her first insight into the cracks’ significance, she has found similar cracks in 80 percent of the 100-plus cave-painting sites she’s visited.

Crosby and Acre at Cueva Pintada, c. 1972

As our group contemplated the arrow-strewn cave that morning, Ewing talked nonstop, a hyperactive docent in hiking boots. “Here’s a fascinating figure!” she called out. “This is one of the only two female figures in the cave. Do you see her little breasts hanging out? Notice: one of her sides is gone. I propose that her spirit died with the deer.” Another “very, very important” humanoid figure with what appeared to be a swollen knee “is literally holding up this big guy here,” she lectured. “In some way, he is a deformed person,” she said, adding that deformity was a sign of power in shamanic cultures. “Cripples were often considered to be closer to the spirit world. And often they were considered to be healers.”

Ewing pointed out the triangular composition of the painting, and she elaborated that the specific shape was “a pubic triangle. The cave is female,” she said. “The rock is sacred. The rock has power. We’re looking here at a panel of death and rebirth, and who is the expert on birth? The female! The cave is about males and male energy, but the impetus comes in from the female.”

Later Ewing turned contemplative. The people who painted these images had evolved beyond the wild animals with whom they lived. The Painters knew they wouldn’t live for very long. “They were aware that their lives were fragile,” she said. “How do you make them less fragile? Well, hope. And the fantasy of a better life.” Why did these people take time to paint when gathering enough to eat everyday must have demanded almost all their time and energy? Without pausing for breath, Ewing answered her own question as if the Painters themselves were standing in front of her. “This art is important to them. This art is telling everyone in the community, ‘This is going to help make your life better.’ ”

Amazement over the difficulty of the achievement lingered with me as we made our way down from the Cueva de las Flechas, across the arroyo, and up the path that leads to Cueva Pintada. Many of the Cueva Pintada paintings soar as high as 30 feet above the ground. In this rough terrain, an immediate question that arises is how the Painters got themselves high enough to create the visual wonders. Crosby and Hambleton say they could have built scaffolds out of split palm trunks and the skeletons of cardón cactus. In fact, the two La Jollans in 1980 wrote an article for National Geographic in which they described how they themselves had built a serviceable scaffold out of just those materials in very short order.

But knowing how something was done doesn’t always make it less wondrous. What’s more impressive than the mechanics of the Painters’ achievement, I reflected, is its essence: this most human activity — the creation of art — in a realm so inhospitable. The hike from Cueva de las Flechas to Cueva Pintada provides a sharp reminder of the landscape’s challenges. From each cave, you can look diagonally across the canyon and see the other painting site. If you could walk in a straight line between the two, you’d cover a distance of perhaps two city blocks. But no one walks in a straight line for more than a few yards anywhere in this part of the world. Instead, you inch down crumbling inclines. You thread your way around boulders and stones and rocky projections. You have to concentrate to avoid brushing against plants that jab or stepping on dead palm fronds that swing up and slap you.

All that changes when you arrive at Cueva Pintada. Like Cueva del Ratón, Cueva de las Flechas, and three other painting sites in the Sierra de San Francisco, Cueva Pintada has been bedecked with the elaborate system of wooden ramp-ways paid for by the Mexican government. These walkways are massive things, supported by huge steel beams that somehow made the harrowing descent into the canyon on the backs of burros. From a distance, the finished constructions reminded me of three-dimensional graffiti; the hand of Civilization had tagged the canyon walls.

But the walkways do protect the crumbling canyon vestibules. They keep visitors out of the path of any temptation to pick up valuable artifacts, such as the 3000-year-old textile fragment found in one cave a few years ago. And they make it possible to sit on sun-warmed wooden flooring, lean against steel cables, and gaze up at the murals in comfort. At Cueva Pintada, there’s even a viewing platform where you can stretch out full-length, your day pack under your head, and lose yourself in the spectacle arrayed above. When I did this, doves were hooting nearby. The guides were talking in a murmur of soft Spanish, and the burros’ bells tinkled in the distance. From time to time the wind rustled through the giant Mexican fan palms that marched below us in the canyon. The beauty that rocked me, however, was that of the silent painted animals, deer leaping with arched backs, birds bursting into flight.

The artfulness of the paintings struck me again and again over the next two days as we visited three more major painting sites. We also took one break from the relentless sightseeing. On our third afternoon in the canyon, we hiked from one of the murals to a rocky area where the stream filled a series of waterholes. After days of heat and sweat, it felt wonderful to change into a bathing suit and slip into the chilly pool, and it felt better still to stretch out later in the sun and listen to the water rushing nearby. Some of us were content to stay there, but Ewing and Erdman and Lowell Lindsay trudged back for a second visit to Cueva Pintada. As a result, we bathers missed one of the trip’s most dramatic moments. “It was insane!” Ewing exclaimed when she and the two others returned to camp, hours later, giddy with adrenaline. Tripping over each other’s words, they explained that they had gotten permission from our INAH guide to leave the ramp and view a spot in the back of the cave that Ewing believes is a yoni — a representation of female genitalia. As the sun sank lower in the sky, a beam of light had approached this spot, sending Ewing into a frenzy. She’d long suspected that Cueva Pintada might have been used in solstice ceremonies, and the position of the light on this afternoon (May 15) seemed to suggest that on the summer solstice the light would penetrate the stylized vulva. She barked at Lindsay to figure out a way to use his compass to measure the angle of the light, at the same time ordering him to capture it on film. “She was throwing me all over the place!” Lowell said. “She’s the queen of archaeo-porn!” Ewing was unabashed. “I’m so excited that I could just about die! It’s basic California mythology about how Father Sun will fertilize Mother Earth.... You’ve got so much life-energy symbolism. It’s just mind-blowing!”

Our visit to a site called Cueva de la Soledad the next morning seemed anticlimactic. After examining it, we hiked and rode back through the arroyo to Rancho Teresa, whose idyllic orchards we had passed on our way in. We camped there in a place that the daddy longlegs seemed not to have discovered, and in the morning, Ewing insisted that we pay our respects to the wife of the family that runs the rancho. Unlike most of the people we met on the trip, the Señora was guarded and uneasy, and she grew tenser when we asked about the cave paintings. She’d never seen them, she said, though she had lived in the arroyo most of her life. She milked 100 goats a day, she told us in response to another question.

We didn’t stay long but mounted our mules for the climb out of the arroyo. Compared to the descent, the mules seemed to rocket upward. I felt exultant, flooded with confidence in the animals’ ability. I drank in the colors of the passing rock and the lichen that frosted it: lime and forest greens, ochre, lemon yellow, rust.

It took only about two hours to reach the canyon rim. Back at the ranch, an hour’s ride farther, we drank beer (forbidden in the canyon) and spent hours shuffling baggage from the mules and burros into our vehicles. Ewing doled out extra food to ranch residents and distributed drinks, Tootsie Rolls and granola bars to the children. They tore off the wrappings and discarded them on the ground. By the time our caravan pulled away in the middle of the afternoon, however, every scrap of litter had vanished. Only later did it occur to me that goats must have gobbled it all up.

That night as our group prepared to disperse, Ewing vowed to return on the summer solstice to settle the question of whether the sun’s rays would penetrate the yoni in Cueva Pintada. I called her at the end of June to hear what she had discovered, and she sounded matter of fact when she told me that they hadn’t. She was disappointed, she conceded. But no one ever said that interpreting rock art was easy, she pointed out. Still, Ewing is convinced that such interpretation is a legitimate enterprise. “Because art is able to communicate. It is a visual language. And there are clues...that seem to be substantiated by analogous cultures.”

Harry Crosby views the matter of interpretation very differently. “I will take a back seat to no one in my admiration for the Painters,” he told me one recent morning, sitting in the spacious office built into the back of his La Jolla home. “I remain dazzled by the fact that they evolved such a stylized art in such primitive surroundings and carried it to such an elegant fruition.” At the same time, however, Crosby thinks there is “no imaginable way” for people today to reconstruct the meaning of specific images. Any attempt to do so is yet “another of the many examples of man constantly trying to evolve a treatise on the gods,” he says.

He does believe the murals must have been created in connection with religious practice. All the evidence suggests that the Painters were organized into small bands occupying discrete territories, he points out, and everyone in those bands must have contributed to the murals’ creation. While the Painters painted, other members of the band must have been “collecting or hauling building materials or grinding paint or picking pitahaya or whatever.” Such community activity “immediately begins to make you think of medieval cathedral construction,” Crosby says. Moreover, by adhering to certain overriding principles, the art “seems to celebrate something greater than the power of a tribal leader or a band. If that sort of petty aggrandizement were its main objective, we would expect to see many truly individual statements. Instead, the artworks of all bands seem designed to make more universal statements. I cannot imagine a unifying force more likely than religion.”

Beyond that, Crosby says, contemporary visitors can draw upon personal feelings and intuitions to guess at the meaning of the murals’ contents. He acknowledges that he himself has had such insights. “When you live with these things for years and you sleep under them and you know them... you feel that you have a sense of the relationship between the people and the country and the rocks and the art. You form mental pictures of all this happening.” But you shouldn’t kid yourself “that you have literally reconstructed historical occurrences,” he says. You might have conjured up an incorrect image. There’s no way to verify your guess as to what the paintings meant to the people who created them.

Crosby says he’s “absolutely bitterly opposed” to the proposition that one can learn about Baja California’s mural painters by studying the Yaquis or the Otomí or other Indian cultures. For one thing, he asserts that the Great Murals don’t resemble the art of those other peoples. He chuckles and says that Baja California’s cave paintings seem to have been designed by a deity just to frustrate would-be interpreters. “Because they are so unique! Here they are — an Island of stuff. And where is there anything comparable?”

If any similar elements can be found, Crosby argues, you can’t say that those elements meant the same thing to both cultures. “It’s a little like saying that if you find a swastika in a culture in India it means the same thing it meant in Nazi Germany. The swastika is also found in American Indian art. It’s found in various places, and I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that it has the same significance in all of them. I think people thought, ‘Hey! That’s a good, strong graphic form.’

“Man is an artist, among other things,” Crosby says. “And he recognizes the beauty and the possible uses of symbols. But does that mean we can interpret the symbols of people long gone who’ve left us no glossary? I think not!”

I asked Crosby how he felt about the cave paintings turning into tourist attractions. Did he feel any sense of regret, seeing the burgeoning government bureaucracy, the guardrails and walkways, the eager pilgrims convinced that the walls can speak to us today?

He answered that he didn’t so much feel happy or sad but rather saw these things as “a kind of necessity thrust on everyone. I totally agree with Enrique [ Hambleton] that the business of educating the people in the mountains was essential.” Before that education took place, “It was not tourists who were vandalizing the paintings,” he says. To the extent that they were being vandalized, it was by local people who thought them so commonplace as to be worthless. “They meant nothing. One, blew up the big deer at Los Mo-- de San Juan because he was ticked off about getting fired and he got drunk.” Today that probably would not happen, Crosby thinks.

Crosby says he grappled with the question raised by “that old argument about whether the tree makes any noise when it falls in the forest where no one observes it.” He says you have to ask, “Is art art if there’s nobody to see it? The Great Murals are not going to last forever. And to argue that we ought to somehow seal off the Sierra de San Francisco and not let anybody in there for 100 years and then appreciate it — why? It’s art because you open it up and people can look at it and say, ‘That’s art.’ ”

I told Crosby that the paintings continued to haunt me here, hundreds of miles away. “That’s because you’ve seen them!” he exclaimed. That’s true. But the image that comes to me is not the memory of being there and looking up at the eerie forms. I find myself thinking of Cueva de las Flechas as it stands most of the time—in the dark of night, in the blazing heat of summer, in the occasional torrential rains, probably right at this moment — magnificent and silent and alone.

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Artist's representation of paintings at El Batequi
Artist's representation of paintings at El Batequi

Erie Stanley Gardner, creator of the Ferry Mason books and television series, lived in Temecula for the last 32 years of his life, but he loved Baja California. He traveled there as often as he could, and he wrote a series of books about his adventures south of the border. Offbeat bits of folklore would catch his interest, such as the one he describes in Hidden Heart of Baja, published in 1962. Gardner had heard of a race of giant Indians who once lived on the peninsula, and when someone told him about a family of very tall men from a remote mountain village, he wondered if they might not be descendants of the legendary people. He helicoptered into the village to check out the story, and although the villagers seemed normal enough, they did lead him to something extraordinary in a nearby cave.

Harry Crosby at El Batequi cave painting, 1974

“There were...paintings of giant men, 12 or 15 feet tall, and the paintings were done with a considerable amount of primitive skill,” Gardner wrote about the site. A second cave “was nearly two hundred yards long, and the smooth wall was ornamented with pictures of men and animals, paintings that were well executed and...so similar to the [first] ones...it was apparent they had been executed by people of the same cultural background.” Convinced that he had “stumbled upon something that was going to make archaeological history,” Gardner organized a return trip for which he brought along a UCLA anthropologist named Clement Meighan.

Meighan produced a scholarly account of his findings, and Gardner further publicized the rock art in a 1962 spread in Life. A casual reader could have come away with the sense that a thorough study of the paintings had been completed. That’s what La Jolla resident Harry Crosby thought when he happened upon a rock art site in 1967. Crosby was in Baja California to take photographs for a Commission of the Californias book commemorating the bicentennial of the opening of Alta California. The assignment was a plum, considering how new Crosby was to professional photography. From 1951 to 1963, he’d been a science teacher, first at Memorial Junior High, then at Mission Bay and La Jolla High Schools. He’d been good at teaching, but he was hungry for more creative expression, and in June of 1963 he had resigned his $10,000-per-year teaching position to try his hand at freelance photography. His first year he’d earned only $4000 or $5000, he recalls today, but the second year, “I made damn near twice as much as I had teaching.... I picked up little jobs here and there, and then things snowballed.” Within three years, he was providing photos for such publications as UCSD’s maiden recruiting brochure, SDG&E’s annual reports, and the Commission of the Californias book.

Although Crosby had often ventured with his students on trips to the Mexican mainland, he was new to Baja California, and the book project proved an exhaustive introduction to the arid wilderness. To get the photos he needed, he covered 600 miles by mule, following the Camino Real of the Mission period. In the spring of 1967, he came to a spot about 25 miles southeast of San Ignacio covered with crumbling paintings of animals and birds. Crosby assumed that these were some of the paintings described by Gardner. He’d read those descriptions with great interest and had envied Gardner’s find.

So Crosby photographed the painted animals, but his attitude toward them was “nonchalant,” in his words—that of a tourist viewing a well-known sight, not an explorer making a discovery. What impressed him far more during that 1967 assignment were the people he met in Baja California’s remote mountain enclaves. Descendants of the Spanish soldiers brought to the New World by the first Jesuit explorers, these “Californio” families were “carryover frontiersmen,” Crosby realized. “To me it still seems like the Wild West,” he says today. And that feeling was even stronger back in 1967, six years before a paved highway stretched the length of the peninsula. He wanted to photograph the people and learn more about their life in the mountains, and in 1971, he returned to do so.

He hired a local guide in the Sierra de San Francisco, the mountain range north of the oasis town of San Ignacio, and for two weeks the party rode on mules over precipitous trails, visiting a dozen ranches and collecting legends, oral history, and anecdotes. On the last morning of the trip, over breakfast, the guide suggested a short detour to visit some nearby paintings. “Nothing about his manner implied anything out of the ordinary,” Crosby would later write. But he decided to risk the “probable loss of half a day.”

When he and the guide reached the long shallow cave, “Surprise is an inadequate word for my reaction,” Crosby recorded. On a panel above the opening of the cave “was painted a tumultuous procession of human and animal figures at perhaps double their life size. All the beasts seemed to form a herd in movement from right to left; huge red and black deer and an equally immense red mountain sheep dominated the surge. The successive figures were partially superimposed, creating a powerful sense of crowding, urgency, and motion — each animal in mad flight, treading on the heels of those ahead and straining to free itself from the crush behind.” Amidst the creatures, Crosby picked out the scattered presence of eerie humanoid figures. “Whereas the hurrying animals moved in profile across the stony canvas, the men faced us, frozen into identical erect postures with their arms upraised.”

Unlike his previous encounter with the rock art, this astonished him. He had become used to viewing Baja California Indian remains as “rather sad reminders of what is irrecoverably lost,” he writes, “remote and impersonal.” But “the flamboyant painted scene at San Gregorio was alive and eloquent; the artists’ work was an unforgettable message blazed across the ages.” It didn’t look to him like any of the other primitive art he knew from the Americas. Instead it made him think of the paintings he had seen years before on the walls of Lascaux in France.

Flooded with questions and excited by the mountain men’s assurances that outsiders had not visited most of the painting sites in the area, Crosby made a crucial decision. Though he was due back in La Jolla, he followed his guide to the Arroyo del Batequi. Within open rock shelters there, the former teacher found walls with paintings that had deteriorated almost beyond recognition. But he also found a 70-foot-long painted ceiling covered with “the most beautiful rock art I had seen since Lascaux.” The “unity and composition” of the cavalcade of humans and animals stunned him. “The mural is clearly not the work of a single artist,” Crosby would later write. “It is certainly the product of many generations.” He began to feel “the acute desire to share the experience. In those moments, I knew the loneliness of private art collectors and I understood why so many donate their treasures to society.”

Crosby spent almost three more weeks seeking out caves with his guide, Tacho Arce. They went to the ones Gardner and Meighan had reported, and they visited many new sites. “Everywhere we went had paintings,” he says today. “And a lot of them Tacho didn’t know about. It wasn’t until we got to a ranch and someone would be talking, and then we’d go and look someplace, and then sometimes Tacho would remember, ‘Oh yes! When I was a kid somebody told me there were paintings there.’ ” Crosby began to suspect that the peninsula might contain hundreds of artistically related painting sites, and, if so, this would be startling, new information.

When he finally returned home, he made a trip to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, and there he learned that Gardner was not the first outsider to see the cave paintings. Jesuit missionaries had written about them in the 1700s, and just before the turn of the 20th Century, a French industrial chemist had described 18 of the Baja California murals. But, Crosby found, no previous explorer seemed to have a clue to the potential size of the phenomenon. “I was the first one who ever even came close to posing that question,” Crosby says. And having asked himself just how many murals the rocky walls of central Baja California contained, he says the compulsion to try to answer the question was overwhelming. “Logically I couldn’t really afford to do it,” he says. But his photographic work gave him flexibility, and “psychologically I couldn’t afford not to do it.”

Over the next three years, Crosby made about a dozen trips to Baja California. Many, including three treks that lasted more than 40 days, were in the company of another La Jolla resident by the name of Enrique Hambleton. A Mexican national who’d been educated in the United States, Hambleton was a fellow photographer who met Crosby through a camera-shop connection and became fascinated by the older man’s quest. Hambleton also proved a match for the grueling physical challenges. The realm they penetrated “is a maze of deep-cut water courses with towering walls” that is “difficult to learn or to find one’s way through; any part of it is physically demanding to traverse,” Crosby has written. “Trails are forced into tortured horizontal and vertical courses which multiply the miles and tax the muscles of men and beasts of burden.” Water is “scarce or absent,” and “the complexity of the landform insures that no one can know it all.”

Despite the obstacles, by 1974 Crosby and Hambleton had documented the existence of about 180 previously unknown painted sites and become aware of the striking consistency of their artistic conventions. It’s not that all the murals look alike. Crosby eventually identified five painting “schools,’' each located in a different region of the peninsula’s interior. Within each of those schools, the Painters (as Crosby calls them) followed formal and arbitrary rules that led Crosby to classify all the works as Great Murals, “a separate, distinct art form.” Individual works “have a codified relatedness reminiscent of what is seen in centuries of Russian icons or millennia of Chinese brush painting,” he concluded.

The mural painters never drew flowers, for example, or mountainscapes. Their subjects are “creatures in the natural world — humans, deer, mountain sheep, antelope, rabbits, hares, mountain lions, bobcats, various birds, fish, turtles, snakes, whales, or pinnipeds,” Crosby writes. Each of these is nearly always portrayed in a characteristic manner. Humans are static, presented “head-on with arms extended upward in a gesture suggestive of the classic ‘I surrender’ pose.” In contrast to the frozen humans, four-legged animals “were given active profiles as if running or leaping.”

Harry Crosby

The mural-makers outlined the creatures and filled in the outlines with paint. Sometimes they divided the interior into two parts, using a different color in each sector. Sometimes the)' filled the field with patterns such as stripes or checkerboards. But they never included within their outlines such details as eyes, noses, or mouths. Instead, they used the outlines to communicate the detailed information — a constraint that often required them to distort the naturalistic perspective. The humans’ feet thus turn outward and one can count their toes. Females sport long pointed breasts that seem to grow down and out from their armpits. In the animals, the viewer always sees both ears and both horns (when they exist). Dewclaws on the deer are swung out so that “both appear above each hoof.”

Another characteristic of the Great Murals is overpainting. Figures often crowd on top of each other. Deer leap between the viewer and fading painted humans. One consequence of the Painters’ willingness to cover up the work of predecessors is that the tableaux have a startling sense of motion. The humans jostle each other. Animals seem to stampede.

A more prosaic result of this painting technique is that it provides clues to the age of the paintings. “We see a dramatic contrast between the newest, which are in quite good condition, and the oldest, which are about to vanish,” Crosby has written about the painting at El Batequi. “If the newest are over 500 years of age, as I believe, then a logical argument could be made that the oldest have been on that rock face for 2000 or more years.”

Today he bases this conclusion on a number of considerations. One is that Jesuit pioneers in Baja California at the turn of the 18th Century never mentioned rock painting “as a contemporary activity.” On the contrary, two padres who had seen some of the Great Murals in the mid-1760s and questioned their Cochimí converts about them “both reported folkloric accounts of a giant people from the north who had painted in the sierras,” Crosby writes. Each Jesuit made it clear that he thought the paintings were already quite old. “This puts the creation of the newest of them back over 500 years if we allow them two or three centuries to have acquired the appearance of age.”

In the fall of 1971, the La Jolla explorer found another clue to the murals’ antiquity in a slit cave in the Sierra de San Francisco. On its ceiling, one painting “showed a circle, with rays like a conventional sun symbol." Crosby’s written account continues that he was “immediately struck by its uniqueness. Even at that rather early date in my investigations, I was aware of the rarity of abstract symbols in the Great Mural heartland." He assumed that the painting represented an astronomical sight such as Jupiter or Venus and the moon. But Crosby later read about a brilliant supernova that had appeared in the constellation Taurus on July 4,1054. Visible in broad daylight for 23 days, this event created the great Crab Nebula, 20th-century astronomers have established. Just before dawn on July 5, the supernova and the crescent moon appeared in the sky together, a juxtaposition that was visible only in western North America. Indians in Northern Arizona painted the startling sight, and when Crosby sent a photo of the Baja California painting to an astronomer who had studied other rock-art depictions of the supernova, he replied that Crosby’s example “very clearly”resembled them.

Alter comparing the Baja California supernova painting with other Great Murals, Crosby believes that the 944-year-old work “is neither remarkably older nor newer than the average...’’ The fact that much older-looking works can be found leads him to conclude that some of them may have been created as long as 2000 years ago. (Attempts to use such scientific assays as radiocarbon dating and measurement of amino acids that undergo time-related changes have proven frustrating because the paints contain little carbon or amino acids.)

Back in the 1970s, Crosby was less interested in the ages of the paintings than in figuring out where they were. To do this, “I evolved the technique of local inquiry,” he explained in a KPBS documentary about the Mystery Murals of Baja California that aired early in 1975. “I simply get a man I know...who’s honest and by common consent knows the mountains as well or better than anyone else.... I ask him to hire a second man that can help him, and I arrange usually through him to hire animals. . .both riding animals and pack animals. And we set out and visit every single spot that we have heard reported has paintings, and we visit every ranch, and we talk to everyone from the 12-year-old goatherd on up to the 80- and 90-year-old men who were once 12-year-old goatherds and hunters.”

Today Crosby says he wasn’t sure what he would do with the information he was gathering. His career had taken another turn about 1970 when Richard Pourade, editor-in-chief for Copley Books, asked Crosby to write a book about his 600-mile mule trip. “1 had never written anything before in my life,” Crosby says, but he produced a manuscript. He says “almost at the instant” that he turned it in, he decided to show Pourade a little hand-bound “prospectus” he had made for a book about the cave paintings. About a week later, Pourade called Crosby back and said, “We want to do it, and we want to do it next year.” Crosby’s King's Highway came out in 1974. The Cave Paintings of Baja California was published the following year.

Crosby expresses no remorse over his failure to look for a bigger or better-established publisher for the latter, explaining, “I didn’t have any particular self-confidence” about what he had written. He lacked training in either the visual arts or anthropology, and “it’s a difficult stretch to get yourself out of La Jolla and into the mainstream with an agent. I was diffident about that.”

When the book appeared, however, “It was a dreadful disappointment,” he says today. His wife, Joanne, “burst into tears when she saw the first copy.” Whereas Copley books written by Pourade “had first-cabin treatment,” the color in Crosby’s cave-painting book “was just vile,” he declares. “The layout I can characterize by saying that the book was given to the two nice ladies who every week pasted up the [Copley’s] Borrego Sun. They were the designers.... Just look at the graphics and the printing!” he says, pulling a boxed edition from his bookshelf. The only editing was by a “barely competent proofreader,” he adds.

Rushing the book into print had also resulted in its being incomplete. “I was very aware there were areas we simply hadn’t had time to get in.” So Crosby continued scouting for additional cave paintings until 1980, by which point he felt confident he had determined the boundaries of the Great Mural sites and identified all the painting schools. Crosby then turned his attention to writing The Last of the Californios, a description and history of the mountain people who had so intrigued him ten years before.

Hambleton remained involved with the paintings. He had written his own book, La Pintura Rupestre de Baja California, published in Mexico in 1979, and was convinced that the art needed protection. Up to the early 1980s, prehistoric art of Baja California held no interest for any level of the Mexican government. All the archaeology was being concentrated on the high cultures of ancient Mexico — Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, and so on, according to Hambleton. He began trying to change this—stressing the value of the cave paintings to “governors, presidents, directors of institutions, and other people with the power to make decisions,” and in the mid-1980s, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) opened regional centers in the two Baja California states. In 1989, Hambleton created a private foundation dedicated to “the conservation and understanding of Baja California Sur’s cultural heritage.” Archaeological investigations began to unfold, and a few years later, “UNESCO designated the Sierra de San Francisco as a World Heritage Site,” according to Hambleton. He adds that authorities now agree that the Baja California murals rank as one of the five most important examples of rock art in the world (alongside the Paleolithic art of Europe, Australia, South Africa, and the Tasili Plateau in Algeria).

Ironically, by the time UNESCO bestowed its designation in December of 1993, the most comprehensive study of the paintings — Crosby’s book — had disappeared from print. Although Copley Books in 1984 had published a somewhat expanded second edition (containing accounts of Crosby’s trips in the late 1970s), the local publishing house folded in the late 1980s. An El Cajon resident named Diana Lindsay was working as the company’s sales manager at the time, and she says she had become aware that Crosby’s book was the company’s most successful offering. When Copley Books went out of business, Lindsay bought as many copies as she could afford, planning to sell them through Sunbelt Publications, a small book-distributing business that she owned. “We had a good stock for a long time, but of course it eventually ran out,” she says. “We were always getting calls for the cave-paintings book. And we had to say it was out of print.”

Awareness of that demand is one reason Diana and her husband Lowell began to think about publishing a new edition of Crosby’s book. The idea appealed to their emotions as well. The couple had moved to San Diego County in 1966, when Lowell, a Navy helicopter pilot, was stationed at Ream Field in Imperial Beach. Longtime nature lovers, they began exploring both northern Baja California and the Anza-Borrego desert, and Diana wrote several papers about the latter as part of her undergraduate studies at San Diego State. She wrote so many, she says, that she eventually expanded them into a master’s thesis. Unbeknownst to her, one of her thesis advisers passed her finished work on to Pourade at Copley Books. Pourade wanted to publish a book about the desert, and he offered to bring out Lindsay’s thesis as a Copley Books offering.

Under the title Our Historic Desert, it appeared one year before Crosby’s Kings Highway. The cave-paintings book followed the next year, and the Lindsays admired it. “It brings together so many different disciplines,” says Lowell, a forthright, exuberant man of 57. “It’s about good science. It’s about good adventure. It’s about Baja and the border and the people of the mountains.”

Lowell says by the early 1980s he and Diana had begun to dream about someday publishing such works. He had left the Navy in 1971 and had gone to work for the YMCA. But the Lindsays had retained a foothold in the literary realm. They had collaborated on a guide to the Anza-Borrego desert that was published by Wilderness Press in 1978. Today some 55,000 copies have been sold, but in the early 1980s Diana felt frustrated by the absence of both it and her earlier desert book from what seemed to her to be natural sales outlets, such as shops in the desert state park. When she complained, Copley Books and Wilderness Press offered to sell copies to her at a discount, and she in turn sold them so well that she became a sales rep for both publishing firms and eventually sales manager for Copley. In 1985 she and Lowell themselves became publishers when they (as Sunbelt Publications) released a bike guide to the Southwest. Other Sunbelt books (mostly works on natural history written by local authors) followed, and in the early 1990s, the Lindsays acquired a line of full-color multilanguage guidebooks. “In the back of our minds,” Lowell says, “was always our roots — the Copley style of book in which you have color along with content. Your typical coffee-table pictorial has little content. And your typical natural history book has lots of content, but it doesn’t have the full-color impact. So the vision that was emerging for us by the mid-’90s was: how about a combination of the pictorial presentation and the value of a natural history book. And Harry’s Cave Paintings was the natural move there.”

The Lindsays recall approaching Crosby about reprinting his book in the summer of 1996 and finding him “real standoffish.” Crosby confirms this, and he explains he was afraid such a project would distract him from his present work: writing a biography of a soldier who participated in the opening of Alta California. (After Crosby wrote his book about the Californios, his career mutated again, and he produced an exhaustive and scholarly history of Jesuit California, Antigua California, for the University of New Mexico Press. That work led him to the current project.)

The Lindsays kept pestering him about the cave-painting book, however, and Crosby says he finally changed his mind because he thought the subject matter was important. Also, the Lindsays were offering him the rare opportunity to redo something he felt had been bungled. “On the whole I think they did a splendid job,” Crosby says about the revised volume, unveiled by the Lindsays late last year. “They’ve put a lot of money into it. And I’m sure they will get it out eventually. Although I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as they think.”

Diana Lindsay says she and her husband invested $100,000 in the cave-painting book. Lowell adds that with the sale of the last book in the first print run (10,000 copies) “we’ll just about break even.” By late spring of this year, the Lindsays were buoyed by the news that the Getty Foundation (which has donated substantial resources to conserve the Baja California cave paintings) might help fund a documentary about the rock art. The Lindsays also had found a San Diego film producer who was interested in such a project.

In early May, the El Cajon couple organized a scouting expedition into the Sierra de San Francisco. Included in the seven-member group was local cinematographer Cindy Erdman, who had agreed to shoot painting sites for the film producer. The Lindsays also invited me, along with their friends and hiking companions, Eric Mustonen and Amee Wood. For all the time they’d spent exploring northern Baja California and putting Crosby’s book together, the Lindsays themselves had never been to any cave-paintings sites. So they hired Eve Ewing to outfit our trip.

Few Americans have been venturing into Baja California for longer than Ewing. Her family moved to La Jolla in 1945, and her father, a Scripps oceanographer, introduced Eve to the peninsula about five years later, when she was 14. She recalls him landing his Cessna on the hard-pan salt flats of Guerrero Negro (today a bustling town of 11,000) back when the only structures in town were five metal Quon-set huts. Baja California then was “a very, very wild place,” she says. “Even from the air, there was a sense of emptiness and space. Once in a while, you’d get a glimmer of the dirt road. But the rest of the time it was a land that belonged to the natural world.”

The senior Ewing and his daughter met Erle Stanley Gardner on one of his outings and thus wound up on the pages of Gardner’s 1962 Hidden Heart of Baja. But the Ewings didn’t accompany Gardner on the trip that led to his cave-painting discoveries.

Eve saw her first Baja California cave painting two years later, in early 1964, an encounter that she found interesting rather than electrifying. She saw it while traveling with a group of Americans who were attempting to cross the largely uncharted terrain between Tecate and Cabo San Lucas aided only by mules and burros. A Baja California rancher named Andy Meling had organized the adventure. Eve had found out about it from her father, who had flown into Bahía de los Angeles, met the group, and learned that Meling was seeking replacements for participants who had dropped out. Via radio phone, Gifford Ewing had asked his 27-year-old daughter if she wanted to join the expedition. If she did, he told her, she should bring a saddle, stirrup covers, chaps, 50 pounds of horseshoe nails, 25 pounds of dehydrated eggs, and long underwear, adding, “You’ve got 24 hours to get here.”

Ewing today explains that her father knew how much she loved riding horses. She’d spent summers on Peñasquitos Ranch and had helped friends round up cattle on Clairemont Mesa (then the San Clemente Ranch) and on the Richardson Ranch (now University City), herding the animals down to the railroad shoot in Rose Canyon. “You can still see the cement foundation of the old barn and corrals,” she says. “There was a spur off the railroad and the train would take the cattle to the Cudahy meat plant at the foot of Mission Valley.”

The next day she was at Tijuana’s airstrip, boarding a small plane for the ride south. She had no idea how long she’d be gone. When she joined the group, she learned that one objective was to see some of the cave paintings Gardner had chronicled in the Life article and his book. The trip turned out to be so grueling, however, that the group never made it to Gardner’s famous finds. “Basically, we made all the mistakes,” Ewing says. One of the biggest was that the expedition was undertaken at a time when Baja California was experiencing a terrible drought. “It had not rained for four years!” she exclaims. Some ranches hadn’t seen rain in a decade. As a result, “There wasn’t a green leaf on any of the plants.” Other hazards threatened the pack animals’ survival. Ewing says Meling’s largest mule was slaughtered by a mountain lion well known to local ranchers as a killer. “The way [the lions] do it is they jump up on [the larger animal’s] back and they wrap their front claws around the throat. Then they take their dewclaws and they rip open [the victim’s] stomach. Ghastly.” When this happened to the Meling animal, Ewing says so many of the other mules panicked that “some of them fell off cliffs and had to be shot.”

The party did make its way to one painting site, known today as Cueva de la Natividad. But the roughness of the terrain pushed the animals to their limits, and halfway into the Sierra de San Francisco Ewing recalls that Meling declared, “We have to make a choice right now. We can either go to Cabo San Lucas with these mules, or we can go and see the cave paintings. We can’t do both. The animals cannot make it.” The group decided to press on for the cape, but only Meling and his girlfriend Joanne Alford succeeded in reaching it. Several of the animals had died or been left at ranches along the way, and all the other expedition members had dropped out, including Ewing.

She made it to La Paz, but there she learned that her mother had died unexpectedly, so she flew home. Not long after-ward, Ewing moved north to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute with such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Imogen Cunningham. She returned to the San Diego area around 1970 but didn’t make another mule trip into Baja California until the year after Crosby’s book came out. In the fall of that year (1976), friends asked her to organize a trip for them into the Sierra de San Francisco to see the Great Murals.

One of the sites they visited is Cueva Pintada, an enormous cave that Crosby describes in his book as “the most painted place in the most painted part of the entire range of the Great Murals.” Ewing says the south gallery electrified her. “It seemed to express an echo of the experience that I was feeling and of the land itself,” she says. “Mind you, in those days we may have been the only outsiders who went in that whole year to see the cave paintings. So the sense of wildness and beauty and mystery were still very present at that time.” In the 22 years since, Ewing has made two to four mule trips into Baja California every year, she figures. She calculates that she has visited more than 100 of the peninsula’s cave-painting sites. Over the years, deciphering the meaning of the paintings has become her life’s work.

At 62, Ewing’s physical presence is a study in contrasts. Her hair is more white than gray, and she wears it cut in a bob that holds up well on treks. She wears jeans and hiking boots and denim vests and work shirts like second skins. Her build is stocky, and years of sun and wind have carved lines into her face. But her voice is soft and girlish and often breathless with enthusiasm.

On the first real morning of the expedition, our group met for breakfast at a restaurant in Guerrero Negro. Erdman, the cinematographer, and I lacked experience at trekking in desert wildernesses, and the talk soon turned to hazards we might encounter spiders, rattlesnakes, and the like. Ewing assured us that in the 10 or 11 visits she’d made to Cacariso (the place that would be our primary campsite), she’d seen rattlers only twice. One was rearing up like a cobra next to the trail, she said. The second was on a footpath.

Everyone in the restaurant listened as Ewing regaled us with snake stories. She talked about Ray Bogowitz, the Baja California buff from San Diego who was killed in 1986 by a rattlesnake bite in the Sierra San Pedro Martir. Ewing had been scheduled to go on that trip but at the last minute had been unable to join it. Still she recounted the details of what had happened with solemn accuracy. She told another story about a friend who was camping in the desert with a group. The others were surprised when the woman slept late one morning. It became so late, in fact, that her friends began teasing her. Then someone noticed that a rattlesnake had curled up next to her neck during the night. She was too terrified to speak, let alone stir, lest she disturb it. Someone urged her not to move until the day warmed up enough for the snake to slither away. It finally did and the woman was unharmed, according to Ewing.

Erdman asked if our guides would shoot any rattlesnake that turned up. “They’d probably kill it with a rock,” Ewing answered. “I’ve seen them kill a fox with a rock from a distance of 20 to 30 feet.”

With all the storytelling, it was almost ten before we finished loading our two vehicles and headed for Vizcaino, the dusty junction 40 or so miles inland. We stopped for gas at a large Pemex station that bustled with activity. But the pumps were dry, we learned, and our vehicles were close to empty. Eventually we noticed men with siphon tubes selling gas from barrels out of the back of a shiny blue Ford pickup. They charged the equivalent of about $2.36 per gallon. As Lowell and Eric bought fuel, Ewing watched the proceedings and mused, “Since the road has come in, Baja seems more civilized, but it’s not. You think a paved road means there are facilities, but that’s not necessarily true.” Government planners expected a lot more traffic and development, but when it failed to materialize over the years, the services had dried up, she declared. Although the frontier area has shrunk, “it still exists.”

Eve Ewing and Baja California guides

On the other hand, bureaucracy has penetrated the realm of the cave paintings. Four years ago, INAH, the Mexican government’s overseer of historical and anthropological sites, began requiring anyone bound for the Sierra de San Francisco to register in the village of San Ignacio, about 50 miles beyond Vizcaino. Our group headed there next.

In the harsh, stark landscape that surrounds it, San Ignacio materializes like some cinematic vision of a desert oasis. The early Jesuits planted date palms that have spread and multiplied over the centuries. Their greenery shocks the eye of the traveler grown accustomed to tans and browns. Situated at the upwelling of a huge underground spring, the town luxuriates in water and the coolness water makes possible. In the central plaza, stout, dense Indian laurel trees create a refuge from the heat. The plaza has other charms too. It faces a 212-year-old stone mission church that seems too massive and grand to belong to the humble community. And in an adjoining building, archaeological authorities have created a tiny but meticulous museum that describes the peninsula’s enigmatic rock art.

Each member of our expedition signed a logbook in a low-ceilinged room next to the museum, and we confirmed the price of hiring local guides and animals. It would cost 54 pesos (about $6.75 per day) for each guía and 48 pesos ($6.00) for each beast. We would meet up with most of these at a mountain ranch later that day. But the time of that rendezvous kept receding like a mirage. Before we left San Ignacio we needed to find some lunch. And Erdman wanted to interview the priest who ran the mission church, Father James Francez.

The Lindsays had met him in San Diego and had sensed in him an antipathy to the cave paintings, a feeling that they were pagan artifacts, best forgotten. Erdman was hoping to capture this provocative echo of the ancient missionary/native tension with her video camera. But Francez turned out to be an amiable Louisiana native who, when pressed, seemed neither interested in nor hostile to the art tucked amongst the mountains that surrounded him. In his 38 years in Baja California, he had seen a cave painting only once, back in the early 1960s, he confessed, and then, “I was thinking mostly about the donkey” he was riding. “I mean, to be frank, I didn’t know anything about the paintings” he said. He added that he saw nothing wrong with them. Whoever had painted them seemed to be “clean people,” he offered. “There were no pornographic images.” On the other hand, he felt certain that the murals had no religious significance.

We didn’t leave San Ignacio until 3:15, and then we had to go all the way back to Vizcaino to meet two of the men who would be our guides, Arturo Villavicencio and Miguel Angel Ojeda. Arturo, a quiet man in his mid-40s, “has been my guide for 23 years,” Ewing announced, adding, “He’s one of the best cowboys in the country.” Born on a huge Spanish land-grant ranch on Baja California’s gulf coast, he and his aging parents continue to raise cattle, Ewing told us. But to enable his children to attend school, he also ekes out an existence in Vizcaino as a guide, a cowboy, an animal transporter, and so on.

Upon our arrival, he and Miguel Angel directed their mules up a ramp into the back of Arturo’s dilapidated animal trailer. They made this look easy. They noticed that one of the tires was flat, but under the hood of his truck, Arturo had transformed an old air conditioner into a built-in air compressor. Ewing used tubing attached to it to fill the sorry tire, and our caravan got underway.

The sun was low in the sky when we turned off the paved highway between Vizcaino and San Ignacio. About ten years ago, the government built a dirt road that climbs from here to the village of San Francisco de la Sierra, 23 miles away. Ewing says the road at times has been so bad it’s taken her four hours to drive that distance, and a huge tropical storm last fall made things worse. But the government had just sent in a grading machine to improve the surface. We were thus able to bump over it at the brisk pace of maybe five to ten miles an hour.

We stopped often to take in views that grew grander and more stunning with each mile. Lowell Lindsay seemed particularly ebullient. “Having worked on this book for two and a half years, I know every twist and turn of the road on the map. And every peak. But I’ve never seen it before. And here it is!”

A while later Ewing pointed out a distant dark spot on the other side of a wide arroyo — Cueva Obscura, described in Crosby’s book and a devilish place to reach. “I tell you, my respect for Harry Crosby is immense,” she declared. “Every cave he went to is just hard!” She moaned, surveying the hardness and the scale of the country stretching before us. “Oh, I just love this country! I just absolutely flip out. I feel so good!”

It was almost 8:00 p.m. by the time we reached Rancho Palo Rayo, a collection of small dwellings just beyond the tiny village of San Francisco de la Sierra. Two more of our guides, Manuel and Francisco Arce, lived here and had invited us to camp on the property. While Ewing greeted them, the rest of us scrambled in the dark to set up tents and sleeping bags. At 3500 feet, the wind was icy, and the prospect of a festive goat barbecue — discussed earlier—seemed nonexistent. Instead, Ewing herded us into a small structure with a roof made of palm fronds lashed together. A long wooden table was set for ten, illuminated by an electric bulb overhead. The seven Americans and three of the guides crowded in around it, and Manuel’s wife and daughter served us homemade flour tortillas, soupy pinto beans, chopped green cabbage, diced tomato, and beef bones laden with fat and chunks of tasty meat.

Later, I climbed into my tent and listened to the night sounds of the rancho: dogs barking, burros braying, a two-way radio squawking so loudly that every word must have been audible a quarter-mile away. I woke to the sound of bleating goats. Cheese made from their milk provides most of the income for Manuel and Francisco’s families, as it does for other residents of San Francisco.

The main event of this day would be our group’s descent into the Arroyo de San Pablo. But as Ewing supervised the packing of the burros, she urged the rest of us to make a quick visit to Cueva del Ratón, a painting site we could reach by car in maybe 15 minutes. From an elder in the village, we picked up a key that unlocked a gate guarding the site. Mexican federal government money helped to pay for the gate and fencing, as well as for a comfortable walkway and steps up to a wide wooden viewing ramp. Elegant signs in English and Spanish pleaded for help in conserving the “irreplaceable legacy” of the prehistoric imagery. These trappings, which would fit right in at any American national park, are a little startling in the Baja California hinterlands. We commented on them, then our attention shifted to the figures looming over us.

Here the Painters created deer, mountain sheep, and enigmatic creatures that Crosby says are rabbits and a mountain lion. Frozen humans stand among them, arms raised in the manner of robbers caught in the act. Once again Lowell Lindsay seemed most moved. “This is heavier than I thought,” he muttered. “I thought Cueva Ratón was kind of a lightweight. I wasn’t prepared for this.” Tears came to his eyes as he tried to describe his emotions. “I’ve felt so close to this land, like I knew it so well, but only as an observer from far away. And now to come face to face with the animals and the figures that I came so close to on paper — it’s pretty heavy.”

We spent an hour contemplating the figures, then we raced back to Rancho Palo Rayo. Our group would be traveling with 21 animals. The guides had loaded the burros with the gear and provisions, but there remained the complex task of matching gringos to mules. It was almost noon by the time we were in our saddles and plodding down the trail.

I’d drawn a doughty auburn animal named Alegre, who didn’t seem too happy to be embarking on the journey. As we set off, I thought I knew why. After just a few minutes, the path all but disappeared. Only the relative absence of scrub under our animals’ feet suggested a common route, but it was choked with boulders and pebbles and rocks, often pitching up and down over rocky thrusts of the earth. After an hour and a quarter, I was beginning to feel that I was adjusting to the mule’s lurching motion. Then we came to the edge of the canyon.

The previous day, one of the Lindsays had proclaimed that the arroyo where we would be traveling was like the Grand Canyon, a comparison I had dismissed as hyperbolic. In a strict sense, it is. The Grand Canyon is about a mile deep, compared to the Arroyo de San Pablo’s 1000 to 1200 feet. But the Mexican canyon is relatively much narrower, a fact that heightens the appearance of its depth. On the rim, preparing to go to the bottom, the difference between the two canyons seems trivial, especially given the absence of a wide, well-groomed trail leading into the Mexican one. Barely discernible, the path that we went over switched uncountable times through 180-degree turns. Often it was so steep that — leaning back almost as far as my animal’s rump and gripping the back of the saddle (the proper gringo descent style) — I felt as if I were standing upright, with Alegre’s head somewhere below my feet.

Days later, Lowell Lindsay told me that the descent had reminded him of the first time he landed a fixed-wing plane on an aircraft carrier. He had fretted about it for months. “But finally, I decided that I simply had to have faith in my equipment and my support personnel,” he said. “And then I was fine.”

We agreed that we felt the same way about our mules. The only way to get down the canyon was to entrust them and the vaqueros with our lives. So we did, though several times that afternoon, on slippery rock shelves right on the edge or descending down steeply canted faces with the void yawning next to me, fear poked some holes in my faith.

After several hours, Arturo halted the group and, securing the mules to trailside scrub, led us down a short path to a rocky grotto where a small collection of deer and mountain sheep had been painted. Small sites such as this are like chapels, Ewing asserted, as we munched on the lunches she had packed (sour cream Pringles, a Babybel Bonbel cheese, an orange, and a Tootsie Roll). She commented that she likes these chapels because she thinks the Painters put only the “really important” stuff in them, whereas in a “cathedral” such as Cueva Pintada, “There’s so much to see that it’s hard to sort it all out.”

It took us about six hours to reach the bottom. In the riverbed we skirted a ranch that, in passing, looked like a paradise of lush mature fruit trees and birdsong. We plodded on through a rock-strewn watercourse that soon became filled with boulders, then we had to climb off our mules and let a guide lead them up a longer, more negotiable path. About 7:00 p.m. we stumbled on foot into our campsite, a beautiful spot under skyscraping palm trees with a stream running nearby. The cobalt sky was deepening, but there was plenty of light to set up our tents. (Ewing and the cowboys slept on saddle blankets in the dirt.) As darkness fell, the stars emerged, along with thousands of daddy longlegs. Wherever I shined my flashlight I counted a half-dozen dancing in the beam.

The insects were gone the next morning, and the birdsong at dawn made the canyon sound like a tropical jungle. Our first destination would be Cueva de las Flechas, a short but challenging hike from our base. This cave gets its name from the painted arrows (flechas) that pierce the bodies of several humans and animals depicted on the rock walls. The weaponry isn’t unique; Crosby has noted arrows at dozens of other sites. Here they add drama to a scene already pregnant with ominous power. Not only the large size of the figures but also the way they’re arranged in relation to each other compels attention and raises questions. They look as if the Painters were trying to send a message through their composition. But what were they trying to say?

Ewing was eager to share her conclusions with us. “I am totally convinced that this art has a tremendous amount to do with rain and prayers for rain,” she said. Adequate rainfall meant the difference between life and death for the people who lived here, she pointed out. “We know from mission records that mothers [of that era] would sometimes kill their newborns in a drought year,” she told me. “The thing that’s so poignant about Baja California is that [the weather] is very, very unpredictable. You’re a little too far south for dependable northern winter rain. You’re too far north for dependable summer tropical rain.” Some years you’ll have both, overlapping. “And some years, you’re going to have nothing. How do you make such an unpredictable world more predictable?” Ewing has come to believe that the people who lived in Baja California’s central mountains tried to do this by having shamans intercede with the spirits of the underworld and the sky world. She thinks Cueva de las Flechas must have been a place where shamanic initiation took place.

The cave has an element she thinks is critical — a large crack that runs from the uppermost part of the cave down to a figure below a gigantic deer positioned vertically on the wall. Ewing says she never paid any attention to this or any other crack until her seventh or eighth visit to this canyon. On that occasion she was reflecting on something she had heard from her mentor, Ken Hedges, a curator at the San Diego Museum of Man. “Ken kept telling me that this was shamanic art,” Ewing recalls, adding that shamans are always associated with spirit travel. “So I asked myself, how are [the Painters] illustrating the spirit travel?” In part, the direction of the art does that, she figured. Compositions generally flow upward. “But then it hit me when I was over in the south gallery of Cueva Pintada. There the peak figure has his hand on a huge crack that goes right up to a water shoot.” When Ewing scrutinized the scene at Cueva de las Flechas, she found that it also had a pronounced crack. The more she studied the two natural features the surer she felt that the Painters had used them as compositional elements. “This crack is absolutely essential to the art in this cave,” she now insists about the scene at Flechas. She claims that since her first insight into the cracks’ significance, she has found similar cracks in 80 percent of the 100-plus cave-painting sites she’s visited.

Crosby and Acre at Cueva Pintada, c. 1972

As our group contemplated the arrow-strewn cave that morning, Ewing talked nonstop, a hyperactive docent in hiking boots. “Here’s a fascinating figure!” she called out. “This is one of the only two female figures in the cave. Do you see her little breasts hanging out? Notice: one of her sides is gone. I propose that her spirit died with the deer.” Another “very, very important” humanoid figure with what appeared to be a swollen knee “is literally holding up this big guy here,” she lectured. “In some way, he is a deformed person,” she said, adding that deformity was a sign of power in shamanic cultures. “Cripples were often considered to be closer to the spirit world. And often they were considered to be healers.”

Ewing pointed out the triangular composition of the painting, and she elaborated that the specific shape was “a pubic triangle. The cave is female,” she said. “The rock is sacred. The rock has power. We’re looking here at a panel of death and rebirth, and who is the expert on birth? The female! The cave is about males and male energy, but the impetus comes in from the female.”

Later Ewing turned contemplative. The people who painted these images had evolved beyond the wild animals with whom they lived. The Painters knew they wouldn’t live for very long. “They were aware that their lives were fragile,” she said. “How do you make them less fragile? Well, hope. And the fantasy of a better life.” Why did these people take time to paint when gathering enough to eat everyday must have demanded almost all their time and energy? Without pausing for breath, Ewing answered her own question as if the Painters themselves were standing in front of her. “This art is important to them. This art is telling everyone in the community, ‘This is going to help make your life better.’ ”

Amazement over the difficulty of the achievement lingered with me as we made our way down from the Cueva de las Flechas, across the arroyo, and up the path that leads to Cueva Pintada. Many of the Cueva Pintada paintings soar as high as 30 feet above the ground. In this rough terrain, an immediate question that arises is how the Painters got themselves high enough to create the visual wonders. Crosby and Hambleton say they could have built scaffolds out of split palm trunks and the skeletons of cardón cactus. In fact, the two La Jollans in 1980 wrote an article for National Geographic in which they described how they themselves had built a serviceable scaffold out of just those materials in very short order.

But knowing how something was done doesn’t always make it less wondrous. What’s more impressive than the mechanics of the Painters’ achievement, I reflected, is its essence: this most human activity — the creation of art — in a realm so inhospitable. The hike from Cueva de las Flechas to Cueva Pintada provides a sharp reminder of the landscape’s challenges. From each cave, you can look diagonally across the canyon and see the other painting site. If you could walk in a straight line between the two, you’d cover a distance of perhaps two city blocks. But no one walks in a straight line for more than a few yards anywhere in this part of the world. Instead, you inch down crumbling inclines. You thread your way around boulders and stones and rocky projections. You have to concentrate to avoid brushing against plants that jab or stepping on dead palm fronds that swing up and slap you.

All that changes when you arrive at Cueva Pintada. Like Cueva del Ratón, Cueva de las Flechas, and three other painting sites in the Sierra de San Francisco, Cueva Pintada has been bedecked with the elaborate system of wooden ramp-ways paid for by the Mexican government. These walkways are massive things, supported by huge steel beams that somehow made the harrowing descent into the canyon on the backs of burros. From a distance, the finished constructions reminded me of three-dimensional graffiti; the hand of Civilization had tagged the canyon walls.

But the walkways do protect the crumbling canyon vestibules. They keep visitors out of the path of any temptation to pick up valuable artifacts, such as the 3000-year-old textile fragment found in one cave a few years ago. And they make it possible to sit on sun-warmed wooden flooring, lean against steel cables, and gaze up at the murals in comfort. At Cueva Pintada, there’s even a viewing platform where you can stretch out full-length, your day pack under your head, and lose yourself in the spectacle arrayed above. When I did this, doves were hooting nearby. The guides were talking in a murmur of soft Spanish, and the burros’ bells tinkled in the distance. From time to time the wind rustled through the giant Mexican fan palms that marched below us in the canyon. The beauty that rocked me, however, was that of the silent painted animals, deer leaping with arched backs, birds bursting into flight.

The artfulness of the paintings struck me again and again over the next two days as we visited three more major painting sites. We also took one break from the relentless sightseeing. On our third afternoon in the canyon, we hiked from one of the murals to a rocky area where the stream filled a series of waterholes. After days of heat and sweat, it felt wonderful to change into a bathing suit and slip into the chilly pool, and it felt better still to stretch out later in the sun and listen to the water rushing nearby. Some of us were content to stay there, but Ewing and Erdman and Lowell Lindsay trudged back for a second visit to Cueva Pintada. As a result, we bathers missed one of the trip’s most dramatic moments. “It was insane!” Ewing exclaimed when she and the two others returned to camp, hours later, giddy with adrenaline. Tripping over each other’s words, they explained that they had gotten permission from our INAH guide to leave the ramp and view a spot in the back of the cave that Ewing believes is a yoni — a representation of female genitalia. As the sun sank lower in the sky, a beam of light had approached this spot, sending Ewing into a frenzy. She’d long suspected that Cueva Pintada might have been used in solstice ceremonies, and the position of the light on this afternoon (May 15) seemed to suggest that on the summer solstice the light would penetrate the stylized vulva. She barked at Lindsay to figure out a way to use his compass to measure the angle of the light, at the same time ordering him to capture it on film. “She was throwing me all over the place!” Lowell said. “She’s the queen of archaeo-porn!” Ewing was unabashed. “I’m so excited that I could just about die! It’s basic California mythology about how Father Sun will fertilize Mother Earth.... You’ve got so much life-energy symbolism. It’s just mind-blowing!”

Our visit to a site called Cueva de la Soledad the next morning seemed anticlimactic. After examining it, we hiked and rode back through the arroyo to Rancho Teresa, whose idyllic orchards we had passed on our way in. We camped there in a place that the daddy longlegs seemed not to have discovered, and in the morning, Ewing insisted that we pay our respects to the wife of the family that runs the rancho. Unlike most of the people we met on the trip, the Señora was guarded and uneasy, and she grew tenser when we asked about the cave paintings. She’d never seen them, she said, though she had lived in the arroyo most of her life. She milked 100 goats a day, she told us in response to another question.

We didn’t stay long but mounted our mules for the climb out of the arroyo. Compared to the descent, the mules seemed to rocket upward. I felt exultant, flooded with confidence in the animals’ ability. I drank in the colors of the passing rock and the lichen that frosted it: lime and forest greens, ochre, lemon yellow, rust.

It took only about two hours to reach the canyon rim. Back at the ranch, an hour’s ride farther, we drank beer (forbidden in the canyon) and spent hours shuffling baggage from the mules and burros into our vehicles. Ewing doled out extra food to ranch residents and distributed drinks, Tootsie Rolls and granola bars to the children. They tore off the wrappings and discarded them on the ground. By the time our caravan pulled away in the middle of the afternoon, however, every scrap of litter had vanished. Only later did it occur to me that goats must have gobbled it all up.

That night as our group prepared to disperse, Ewing vowed to return on the summer solstice to settle the question of whether the sun’s rays would penetrate the yoni in Cueva Pintada. I called her at the end of June to hear what she had discovered, and she sounded matter of fact when she told me that they hadn’t. She was disappointed, she conceded. But no one ever said that interpreting rock art was easy, she pointed out. Still, Ewing is convinced that such interpretation is a legitimate enterprise. “Because art is able to communicate. It is a visual language. And there are clues...that seem to be substantiated by analogous cultures.”

Harry Crosby views the matter of interpretation very differently. “I will take a back seat to no one in my admiration for the Painters,” he told me one recent morning, sitting in the spacious office built into the back of his La Jolla home. “I remain dazzled by the fact that they evolved such a stylized art in such primitive surroundings and carried it to such an elegant fruition.” At the same time, however, Crosby thinks there is “no imaginable way” for people today to reconstruct the meaning of specific images. Any attempt to do so is yet “another of the many examples of man constantly trying to evolve a treatise on the gods,” he says.

He does believe the murals must have been created in connection with religious practice. All the evidence suggests that the Painters were organized into small bands occupying discrete territories, he points out, and everyone in those bands must have contributed to the murals’ creation. While the Painters painted, other members of the band must have been “collecting or hauling building materials or grinding paint or picking pitahaya or whatever.” Such community activity “immediately begins to make you think of medieval cathedral construction,” Crosby says. Moreover, by adhering to certain overriding principles, the art “seems to celebrate something greater than the power of a tribal leader or a band. If that sort of petty aggrandizement were its main objective, we would expect to see many truly individual statements. Instead, the artworks of all bands seem designed to make more universal statements. I cannot imagine a unifying force more likely than religion.”

Beyond that, Crosby says, contemporary visitors can draw upon personal feelings and intuitions to guess at the meaning of the murals’ contents. He acknowledges that he himself has had such insights. “When you live with these things for years and you sleep under them and you know them... you feel that you have a sense of the relationship between the people and the country and the rocks and the art. You form mental pictures of all this happening.” But you shouldn’t kid yourself “that you have literally reconstructed historical occurrences,” he says. You might have conjured up an incorrect image. There’s no way to verify your guess as to what the paintings meant to the people who created them.

Crosby says he’s “absolutely bitterly opposed” to the proposition that one can learn about Baja California’s mural painters by studying the Yaquis or the Otomí or other Indian cultures. For one thing, he asserts that the Great Murals don’t resemble the art of those other peoples. He chuckles and says that Baja California’s cave paintings seem to have been designed by a deity just to frustrate would-be interpreters. “Because they are so unique! Here they are — an Island of stuff. And where is there anything comparable?”

If any similar elements can be found, Crosby argues, you can’t say that those elements meant the same thing to both cultures. “It’s a little like saying that if you find a swastika in a culture in India it means the same thing it meant in Nazi Germany. The swastika is also found in American Indian art. It’s found in various places, and I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that it has the same significance in all of them. I think people thought, ‘Hey! That’s a good, strong graphic form.’

“Man is an artist, among other things,” Crosby says. “And he recognizes the beauty and the possible uses of symbols. But does that mean we can interpret the symbols of people long gone who’ve left us no glossary? I think not!”

I asked Crosby how he felt about the cave paintings turning into tourist attractions. Did he feel any sense of regret, seeing the burgeoning government bureaucracy, the guardrails and walkways, the eager pilgrims convinced that the walls can speak to us today?

He answered that he didn’t so much feel happy or sad but rather saw these things as “a kind of necessity thrust on everyone. I totally agree with Enrique [ Hambleton] that the business of educating the people in the mountains was essential.” Before that education took place, “It was not tourists who were vandalizing the paintings,” he says. To the extent that they were being vandalized, it was by local people who thought them so commonplace as to be worthless. “They meant nothing. One, blew up the big deer at Los Mo-- de San Juan because he was ticked off about getting fired and he got drunk.” Today that probably would not happen, Crosby thinks.

Crosby says he grappled with the question raised by “that old argument about whether the tree makes any noise when it falls in the forest where no one observes it.” He says you have to ask, “Is art art if there’s nobody to see it? The Great Murals are not going to last forever. And to argue that we ought to somehow seal off the Sierra de San Francisco and not let anybody in there for 100 years and then appreciate it — why? It’s art because you open it up and people can look at it and say, ‘That’s art.’ ”

I told Crosby that the paintings continued to haunt me here, hundreds of miles away. “That’s because you’ve seen them!” he exclaimed. That’s true. But the image that comes to me is not the memory of being there and looking up at the eerie forms. I find myself thinking of Cueva de las Flechas as it stands most of the time—in the dark of night, in the blazing heat of summer, in the occasional torrential rains, probably right at this moment — magnificent and silent and alone.

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