Saturday, September 10, 2016


Wrong Turns Can Be The Right Ones

Casa Del Curandero: Tachi Yokuts Bear Dance 2012

    I ignored the large white sign posted on the fence. "Private Property," it read in bold black letters. Why that didn't register in my brain as "turn around, dummy," I don't know. Maybe it was my bladder screaming to my brain to find a bathroom sooner than later. Maybe I thought it was just another way to get to the 101 entrance because I most obviously had missed the turn somewhere in the tall Redwoods. Whatever the reason—the push or the pull, I drove forward on the narrow canopied road which veered to the left.
    I'd come back to Northern California in less than three weeks of bringing my son to a college he said he'd made a mistake in choosing. Whatever it was—the isolation, the drug usage by the students in every direction at any time, the social differences between small town kids and his city upbringing, or he just wasn't prepared for this type of commitment, I was there to rescue him. The shear relief on his face when I walked into his dorm was priceless and punctuated with would-be promises of better things to come at San Francisco State University who would luckily take him the following semester. Motion was already in place despite criticism from many who told me he should've stayed in his original chosen college because he'd made that decision or that I was bailing him out of something that he hadn't given enough of a try at. Well, I'm a mom. More than that I'm a pretty good damn human being. I heard his pain. I saw his future through his eyes and it wasn't happy one and here I was. But eleven hour drives are meant to have a pause in between the coming and going. So the next day, Kyle and I set out to have a happy day in what he referred to as hell. We filled our morning and stomachs with severely missed McDonald chicken sandwiches, hash browns, and Starbucks ice teas and ate at the marina. And then we took a drive north up the 101 to a lagoon and then south again, only to off road into the woods for a minute, make a wrong turn, and end up driving past a small wooden house. A young child and two puppies were playing on the front lawn. One of the little varmints ran toward my car and into a blind spot, but the rear view mirror assured me he was safe as he scampered back into the distance.
    "He's okay," I said to Kyle, who quietly sat next to me in the car. "Maybe we can take him home?" I said. Kyle quickly challenged me.
    "You didn't want to take that cat home," he complained.
    "No cats in the car, but a dog will do," I said.
    My response coincided with the visual of two chemical toilets a few hundred feet ahead of us— Gump-style porta-potties backdropped by the expanse of wooded hills and ocean. A peaceful place to piss. I drove toward them passing some tents on the right and what appeared to be a makeshift lodge on the left and parked.
    "I'll be right back," I told Kyle and bailed out the car for the larger gray cubicle. Roominess in these emergencies can make all the difference in the world.
    The outhouse was disgusting, of course. It amazes me what comes out of people sometimes, whether it be their brains or their butts. Naturally, I hovered over the hole not wanting to touch any bit of it, though grateful that relief had miraculously dropped out of the sky for me. I was outta there in seconds. That's exactly how long it took for a man to approach my car while I'd been absent. He stood at the driver's side while my son sat waiting for me in the passenger seat. Odd, I thought. I hadn't seen him at all as we drove up. I greeted him as I returned to my car. He stood silently; a bulky Native American man. Nothing about my encounter with him registered that I might have potentially trespassed on private property. He didn't mention that—at least not yet. I looked at Kyle to make sure he was okay. He didn't say anything.
     "This place was filled with over three hundred people this weekend," the man said. "They came from all over."
    "For what?" I asked.
    "Bear Dance," he said.
    I glanced over to the a partially fenced area I'd seen coming out of the toilet. I'd seen two, if not three, severely weathered carved wooden bear statues in the middle of it. I didn't ask him about them. It's as if the question had been already answered.
    "They come here for healing," he continued.
    "How do they know about this?" I asked. I'm always curious about how people know where the cool stuff to do is, not realizing yet that I was about to learn of a truly traditional, if not ancient, spiritual practice.
    "Word of mouth," he said, which instantly confirmed that this man probably didn't have a website.
"You didn't see the sign," he added, stating the real reason he was having this conversation with me.
     "I don't think I did," I replied guiltily. "I think I took a wrong turn trying to get to the 101. All I saw were the bathrooms. I had to go bad,"  I added trying to deflect my mistake.
    "There going to be picked up tomorrow," he said, referring to the dumpers. "There were so many people here. We fed them all, too. I'm a healer, you know."
    I wish I had the power of recollection because the conversation that ensued between us should have been recorded, if not by my poor brain, but by some mystical force somewhere in the universe. Peter was his name. Not a very Native American one, I thought to myself. Sixteen years he'd been a Head Bear. Now, if Head Bear had been his name, it sounded more fitting of his large presence. He told me he'd been living on the bit of land under our feet since he was a baby and that he'd die there too.
    "Yurok villages were all around here," he said, as he pointed up to the hills. "They used to be prairies until they planted all those trees."
    His demeanor was matter-of-fact—easy. I was trying to make out if he was drunk or high, but he continued talking to me in an even tone, without so much as a smile. I asked him how he became a healer.
    "My brother was murdered," he said. I was hunting for his murderer for years."
    He continued on to tell how the unhappiness, and I guess the hatred, he held inside poisoned him—like a cancer. He encountered the healing practice, was healed himself, and eventually let his brother's death go. But he'd found his calling. It was now thirty-seven years without crack, thirty-five without alcohol, and it'd been five months since he smoked a joint. I considered that an accomplishment being we were in the biggest pot smoking county in all of California—Humboldt—and forgave him that.
     I glanced into the car at Kyle. I wanted to see if he'd been listening to this man's story. Kyle's eyes were riveted in our direction. I could tell he was indeed enjoying it. I gave myself one of those invisible pats on the back—the kind a mother does when she knows she's given her son the precious gift of an out-of-body experience.
     We learned that the people who migrate to this sacred spot by the ocean come for Peter's healing—and the spirits that he said still reside there. He reminisced about a nearby Indian grave. When he was a young boy, he stumbled upon what looked to be grave robbers, but who they were were archeologists from UCLA who had come to dig up artifacts. The disturbance of those graves left the spirits of those buried there without a place to go. Apparently, there'd been countless encounters with various spirits wandering the land—a mother and child on the beach and men walking the narrow road between the two sides of the campgrounds.
    Peter went on to say how he fed the all the visitors—his patients, as it would seem. The makeshift kitchen had been built to cook hundreds of salmon they'd fished from the ocean. The cooked them over open fires and feasted beneath the stars. And then he told us about the Bear Dance.
    Wearing a bear hide over his body; the head covering most of his and his hands gloved by the paws or claws, he dances to the beat of drums which replicate the bear's heartbeat among the crowd who gather in a circle around him. He said the people bring their cancers and other diseases to this place. Some "sweat it out" in small lodges built of canvas within the wooded perimeters of the campground. Lava rocks are heated by a fire and dumped into the center of these lodges and sprinkled with water to create steam. Inside, the people sit in the extreme heat. Peter said he himself can't stand the intensity of it and isn't sure how others do. The rest of the people wait for him to do his spirit magic to them. He grasps any person's head who offers it to him between his hand-claws and squeezes at their temples, his bear forehead pressed hard to theirs. He said he yells, "GRRRR!!! GRRRR!!!" He growled a few times like that to punctuate his bizarre story. Then other healers, ones with eagle wings, cleanse the subjects with a whoosh of the feathers. He said that sometimes the to-be-healed faint on the spot, convulse, puke up their salmon, or are overcome with tears or all of the above as the impurities leave their bodies. Peter said he too sometimes collapses after taking in these foreign impurities, but the strong bear spirit within pulls him up again to heal more people.
    The air was crisp. I'd left my sweater in the car and felt chilled, but in awe of Peter as I listened to him. I could tell he was a proud man—a proud Native American. A Healer. Head Bear. We'd been talking for almost forty-five minutes before we started to make closure on the conversation. As we said our goodbyes, I felt an urgency to hug this man. Perhaps hugging a healer would fend off dis-ease in me, my uncertainties, insecurities, or any future illnesses to come. But mostly, he deserved it. And I guess I did too. As Kyle and I drove away, I think we felt we'd been blessed or something. Well, maybe that's not what Kyle felt, but I sure did. I thought about Kyle's "mistake" and why I was there. Perhaps meeting Peter was a good thing, if not the greatest. No matter the reason, we would not have been in this right place had I not made that wrong turn.