By Dean Mavridis
I’ve always liked maps. From the world map that adorned the wall of my room when I was a kid to detailed hiking maps I used when I started exploring the back country of my native land. To me, there is something inherently magical about representing the landscape that opens up in front of you on a two dimensional piece of paper. It’s art and science combined, possibly with a touch of the divine.
Ten years back, I had met a man that told me about some intricate paintings in a cave located in the central highlands of Baja California. Back then, I had holed myself in a seaside motel in La Paz where the cheapest option for a good meal was a diner owned by a black guy from Baton Rouge. The man had a Mexican wife and a little girl and drifted from place to place. From the looks of it, he was no longer interested in the life he had left behind in Louisiana. One night, after some shots of tequila, he told me about a majestic cave up in the mountains that was unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. Then, he went ahead, drew me a crude little map on a paper napkin and pushed it towards me. Little could he have known what he had just done but I had a mission.
There are many people who would consider a trip down to Baja in September as holidays in hell and for good reason. Summer weather in central Baja is hot – unbearably hot – and humid. Only the monsoon softens up the heavy hammer of a sun that mercilessly bears down on the volcanic anvil of the Sierra Guadalupe. Its summer storms give a new lease of life to all living things in the region. The soil is rejuvenated and the great unwound clock of the desert starts ticking again. Sudden downpours give the thirsty canyons a drink of water, insects hatch from their eggs, birds find food again and, like a miracle, everything turns green.
I had parked the truck at the end of an absurdly long and windy dirt road and took the trail towards the mouth of the canyon. Thorny bushes covered the far end of the canyon and giant green Saguaro cactuses dotted the arid, rocky landscape. The day was already unbelievably hot with the sun reflecting on the dry sandy riverbed and humidity levels making regular breathing a chore. Clouds of insects and black tailed insectivore birds buzzed overhead and even further afield I could see thousands of multicolored butterflies in flight.
I passed a dilapidated ranch and a goat corral hedged in by huge fig trees. At that point the canyon became narrower and the trail – that was more of a goat path – winded uphill on the south wall of the canyon. I made my way up the cliff and topped out where the wall leveled out. There were clouds high above the black peaks of the mountains. I had never seen whiter Cumulus clouds in what appeared to be the bluest sky imaginable. It would be a good while till the weather changed for the worse or so I thought. Straight down I could see the palette of reds, yellows and browns of the canyon walls and riverbed as if swirling in a feverish haze.
The cave did not seem all that impressive at first glance. In fact, you could actually miss it altogether if the trail did not take you right to its amazingly camouflaged entrance. It was uphill at the foot of a sheer lava vertical wall and about 70 feet deep. I expected, of course, to see paintings inside but nothing could have prepared me for the majestic spectacle I finally experienced.
Around eighty lifesize figures, mainly human, but also of fish and deer were painted on the ceiling of the cave with red, black, white, pink and gray colors. Fifty human forms, rigid and a bit rounded, were painted face forward with open arms – like chubby gingerbread men. The larger ones were eight feet long or more. Some of them wore colorful hats and they all seemed to be floating on the surface of a placid lake. Their arms were stretched out and quite a lot of them were pierced by arrows. The painted images were shockingly powerful and I had to retreat outside the cave for a bit to get some fresh air and gather my thoughts. Outside, the flycatchers and swifts were hard on their feeding frenzy resembling fighter jets as they flew high in the canyon. Down below, all I could see now was butterflies. A snowstorm of white and yellow wings filled the whole valley till the rims of the canyon. Below them, a gigantic black rock lay on the riverbed as monochromatic background to all those sets of light wings fluttering in the still air. That dark pyramid seemed out of place, left there by mistake as if to jam the hydraulic system of the valley.
As I pondered the surreal nature of what was unfolding before my very eyes, a dark cloud momentarily passed in front of the sun. It must have been some kind of cosmic sign because not more than a couple of minutes later there was not a single butterfly to be seen. Not only that but the birds had gone too and all I could hear was…nothing at all. All that loud chirping and buzzing in the air was suddenly replaced by a deafening eerie silence.
I had made a couple of steps to return to the cave when I heard the first thunder rolling far in the distance. The local Indians had said to the Jesuit priests that followed the Spanish Conquistadores in the area that the paintings in the cave were made by a tribe of giants that died while they played their lives in a card game. They played their lives and lost. According to the legend, the rest of the giants turned into rocks.
Then, it hit me like a ten ton truck! The paintings on the ceiling of the cave had nothing to do with hunting or life. The whole thing was a death scene. The figures were bloated as if they had died of the desert heat and most were pierced by more than six arrows and spears. Something decidedly evil had happened there.
It was time to get the hell out of there. As I picked up my pack and moved to the mouth of the cave I realized that the temperature was dropping rapidly. Thunder was getting louder and the wind had picked up bringing along the first drops of rain. The cave did not want to let go of me, not yet, so I took my place just inside the entrance and looked outside as a savage thunderstorm hit the mountain with all its awesome might. Rain was already whipping the mountainside and waterfalls of mud had started forming as tons of water emptied into the canyon. It was all mayhem outside but the cave was totally protected from the ravages of weather and so was I.
It didn’t last long. In just a quarter of an hour the rain let up and the thunderstorm expended itself. I walked outside and saw hundreds of mud streams turn into rivulets in front of my eyes. It was all very silent again. I started wondering when the creatures of the mountain will make their appearance once more when I heard something that resembled the drone of a small plane. I couldn’t figure out what that sound was but it was certainly getting louder by the second. Soon the hum had turned into a distant roar. I ventured to the edge of the canyon cliff to check out what was going on but I could just see the last vestiges of rainwater disappearing into the thirsty soil. All of a sudden, the wind picked up again and that roar became an ear splitting thunder echoing in anger along the whole valley below. Along with it came the unmistakable smell of geosmin that filled the afternoon air. I felt overwhelmed by that powerful earthly smell as if the air around me was ready to explode.
Then, right at the northern corner of the dark pyramid there was the wild crash of a wall of rushing water. The flash flood came as a lightning strike and wreaked havoc all along the canyon. A huge boulder came crashing on the black pyramid along with a whole bunch of broken trees that floated on the rushing waters as if they were matchsticks. The noise was deafening and the destruction down below indescribable. An early departure from the cave that coincided with that flash flood in the canyon would have been almost impossible to survive.
A few minutes later, a ray of light passed through the cloud cover. There was mist billowing up from the rocks and cliffs. Tiny fog clouds perched just below the rim and the flooded waters appeared to be receding calmly.
I went back to the cave but did not enter. I just put my pack on my shoulders and got ready to start down. I did not belong there. That was a magical place and I had received my tiny dose of magic that day. The thunderstorm had washed the canyon and erased all traces of me. Albeit, in its catastrophic power there is always a new beginning and that is the power to transform the land and everything that lives on it. The cave of death, the gigantic black pyramid and the life threatening trap that the canyon walls can become for unsuspecting hikers, give that valley its own particular kind of darkness from which I was now walking away. Who knows? I might never see another snowstorm of butterflies and I might never smell the aroma of disturbed earth again.
The day turned hot once again. As I made my way down the canyon, the butterflies took to the air once more filling the sky with white and yellow flakes. The sun appeared low on the horizon illuminating a path towards the sea and the road to the coast. Before long I would be driving along that road thinking about a card game that went sour and a giant tribe turned to rock.
Andrea Schieber https://www.flickr.com/photos/anschieber/