(Journey to Ixtlan)
I drove up to don Juan’s house on Thursday, 31 August 1961, and before I even had a chance to greet him he stuck his head through the window of my car, smiled at me, and said, “We mustdrive quite a distance to a place of power and it’s almost noon.”
He opened the door of my car, sat down next to me in the front seat, and directed me to drive south for about seventy miles; we then turned east on to a dirt road and followed it until we had reached the slopes of the mountains. I parked my car off the road in a depression don Juan picked because it was deep enough to hide the car from view. From there we went directly to the top of the low hills, crossing a vast flat desolate area.
When it got dark don Juan selected a place to sleep. He demanded complete silence.
The next day we ate frugally and continued our journey in an easterly direction. The vegetation was no longer desert shrubbery but thick green mountain bushes and trees.
Around mid-afternoon we climbed to the top of a gigantic bluff of conglomerate rock which looked like a wall. Don Juan sat down and signaled me to sit down also.
“This is a place of power,” he said after a moment’s pause. “This is the place where warriors were buried a long time ago.”
At that instant a crow flew right above us, cawing. Don Juan followed its flight with a fixed gaze.
I examined the rock and was wondering how and where the warriors had been buried when he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Not here, you fool,” he said, smiling. “Down there.”
He pointed to the field right below us at the bottom of the bluff, towards the east; he explained that the field in question was surrounded by a natural corral of boulders. From where I was sitting I saw an area which was perhaps a hundred yards in diameter and which looked like a perfect circle. Thick bushes covered its surface, camouflaging the boulders. I would not have noticed its perfect roundness if don Juan had not pointed it out to me.
He said that there were scores of such places scattered in the old world of the Indians. They were not exactly places of power, like certain hills or land formations which were the abode of spirits, but rather places of enlightenment where one could be taught, where one could find solutions to dilemmas.
“All you have to do is come here,” he said. “Or spend the night on this rock in order to rearrange your feelings.”
“Are we going to spend the night here?”
“I thought so, but a little crow just told me not to do that.”
I tried to find out more about the crow but he hushed me up with an impatient movement of his hand.
“Look at that circle of boulders,” he said. “Fix it in your memory and then someday a crow will lead you to another one of these places. The more perfect its roundness is, the greater its power.”
“Are the warriors’ bones still buried here?”
Don Juan made a comical gesture of puzzlement and then smiled broadly.
“This is not a cemetery,” he said. “Nobody is buried here. I said warriors were once buried here. I meant they used to come here to bury themselves for a night, or for two days, or for whatever length of time they needed to. I did not mean dead people’s bones are buried here. I’m not concerned with cemeteries. There is no power in them. There is power in the bones of a warrior, though, but they are never in cemeteries. And there is even more power in the bones of a man of knowledge, yet it would be practically impossible to find them.”
“Who is a man of knowledge, don Juan?”
“Any warrior could become a man of knowledge. As I told you, a warrior is an impeccable hunter that hunts power. If he succeeds in his hunting he can be a man of knowledge.”
“What do you…”
He stopped my question with a movement of his hand. He stood up, signaled me to follow, and began descending on the steep east side of the bluff. There was a definite trail in the almost perpendicular face, leading to the round area.
We slowly worked our way down the perilous path, and when we reached the bottom floor don Juan, without stopping at all, led me through the thick chaparral to the middle of the circle.
There he used some thick dry branches to sweep a clean spot for us to sit. The spot was also perfectly round.
“I intended to bury you here all night,” he said. “But I know now that it is not time yet. You don’t have power. I’m going to bury you only for a short while.”
I became very nervous with the idea of being enclosed and asked how he was planning to bury me. He giggled like a child and began collecting dry branches. He did not let me help him and said I should sit down and wait.
He threw the branches he was collecting inside the clean circle. Then he made me lie down with my head towards the east, put my jacket under my head, and made a cage around my body.
He constructed it by sticking pieces of branches about two and a half feet in length in the soft dirt; the branches, which ended in forks, served as supports for some long sticks that gave the cage a frame and the appearance of an open coffin. He closed the boxlike cage by placing small branches and leaves over the long sticks, encasing me from the shoulders down. He let my head stick out with my jacket as a pillow.
He then took a thick piece of dry wood and, using it as a digging stick, he loosened the dirt around me and covered the cage with it.
The frame was so solid and the leaves were so well placed that no dirt came inside. I could move my legs freely and could actually slide in and out.
Don Juan said that ordinarily a warrior would construct the cage and then slip into it and seal it from the inside.
“How about the animals?” I asked. “Can they scratch the surface dirt and sneak into the cage and hurt the man?”
“No, that’s not a worry for a warrior. It’s a worry for you because you have no power. A warrior, on the other hand, is guided by his unbending purpose and can fend off anything. No rat, or snake, or mountain lion could bother him.”
“What do they bury themselves for, don Juan?”
“For enlightenment and for power.”
I experienced an extremely pleasant feeling of peace and satisfaction; the world at that moment seemed at ease. The quietness was exquisite and at the same time unnerving. I was not accustomed to that kind of silence. I tried to talk but he hushed me. After a while the tranquility of the place affected my mood. I began to think of my life and my personal history and experienced a familiar sensation of sadness and remorse. I told him that I did not deserve to be there, that his world was strong and fair and I was weak, and that my spirit had been distorted by the circumstances of my life.
He laughed and threatened to cover my head with dirt if I kept on talking in that vein. He said that I was a man. And like any man I deserved everything that was a man’s lot – joy, pain, sadness and struggle – and that the nature of one’s acts was unimportant as long as one acted as a warrior.
Lowering his voice to almost a whisper, he said that if I really felt that my spirit was distorted I should simply fix it – purge it, make it perfect – because there was no other task in our entire lives which was more worthwhile. Not to fix the spirit was to seek death, and that was the same as to seek nothing, since death was going to overtake us regardless of anything.
He paused for a long time and then he said with a tone of profound conviction, “To seek the perfection of the warrior’s spirit is the only task worthy of our manhood.”
His words acted as a catalyst. I felt the weight of my past actions as an unbearable and hindering load. I admitted that there was no hope for me. I began to weep, talking about my life. I said that I had been roaming for such a long time that I had become callous to pain and sadness, except on certain occasions when I would realize my aloneness and my helplessness.
He did not say anything. He grabbed me by the armpits and pulled me out of the cage. I sat up when he let go of me. He also sat down. An uneasy silence set in between us. I thought he was giving me time to compose myself. I took my notebook and scribbled out of nervousness.
“You feel like a leaf at the mercy of the wind, don’t you?” he finally said, staring at me.”
That was exactly the way I felt. He seemed to empathize with me. He said that my mood reminded him of a song and began to sing in a low tone; his singing voice was very pleasing and the lyrics carried me away: “I’m so far away from the sky where I was born. Immense nostalgia invades my thoughts. Now that I am so alone and sad like a leaf in the wind, sometimes I want to weep, sometimes I want to laugh with longing.” (Que lejos estoy del cielo donde he nacido. Inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento. Ahora que estoy tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento, quisiera llorar, quisiera reir de sentimiento.)
We did not speak for a long while. He finally broke the silence.
“Since the day you were born, one way or another, someone has been doing something to you,” he said.
“That’s correct,” I said.
“And they have been doing something to you against your will.”
“And by now you’re helpless, like a leaf in the wind.”
“That’s correct. That’s the way it is.”
I said that the circumstances of my life had sometimes been devastating. He listened attentively but I could not figure out whether he was just being agreeable or genuinely concerned until I noticed that he was trying to hide a smile.
“No matter how much you like to feel sorry for yourself, you have to change that,” he said in a soft tone. “It doesn’t jibe with the life of a warrior.”
He laughed and sang the song again but contorted the intonation of certain words; the result was a ludicrous lament. He pointed out that the reason I had liked the song was because in my own life I had done nothing else but find flaws with everything and lament. I could not argue with him. He was correct. Yet I believed I had sufficient reason to justify my feeling of being like a leaf in the wind.
“The hardest thing in the world is to assume the mood of a warrior,” he said. “It is of no use to be sad and complain and feel justified in doing so, believing that someone is always doing something to us. Nobody is doing anything to anybody, much less to a warrior.”
“You are here, with me, because you want to be here. You should have assumed full responsibility by now, so the idea that you are at the mercy of the wind would be inadmissible.”
He stood up and begin to disassemble the cage. He scooped the dirt back to where he had gotten it from and carefully scattered all the sticks in the chaparral. Then he covered the clean circle with debris, leaving the area as if nothing had ever touched it.
I commented on his proficiency. He said that a good hunter would know that we had been there no matter how careful he had been, because the tracks of men could not be completely erased.
He sat cross-legged and told me to sit down as comfortably as possible, facing the spot where he had buried me, and stay put until my mood of sadness had dissipated.
“A warrior buries himself in order to find power, not to weep with self-pity,” he said.
I attempted to explain but he made me stop with an impatient movement of his head. He said that he had to pull me out of the cage in a hurry because my mood was intolerable and he was afraid that the place would resent my softness and injure me.
“Self-pity doesn’t jibe with power,” he said. “The mood of a warrior calls for control over himself and at the same time it calls for abandoning himself.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “How can he control and abandon himself at the same time?”
“It is a difficult technique,” he said.
He seemed to deliberate whether or not to continue talking. Twice he was on the verge of saying something but he checked himself and smiled.
“You’re not over your sadness yet,” he said. “You still feel weak and there is no point in talking about the mood of a warrior now.”
Don Juan looked up to the sky for a moment and seemed to examine something in it.
“It’s time to leave,” he said dryly and stood up.
We walked in an easterly direction until we came upon a patch of small trees in a valley between two large hills. It was almost five P.M. by then. He casually said that we might have to spend the night in that place. He pointed to the trees and said that there was water around there.
He tensed his body and began sniffing the air like an animal. I could see the muscles of his stomach contracting in very fast short spasms as he blew and inhaled through his nose in rapid succession. He urged me to do the same and find out by myself where the water was. I reluctantly tried to imitate him. After five or six minutes of fast breathing I was dizzy, but my nostrils had cleared out in an extraordinary way and I could actually detect the smell of river willows. I could not tell where they were, however.
Don Juan told me to rest for a few minutes and then he started me sniffing again. The second round was more intense. I could actually distinguish a whiff of river willow coming from my right. We headed in that direction and found, a good quarter of a mile away, a swamp-like spot with stagnant water. We walked around it to a slightly higher flat mesa. Above and around the mesa the chaparral was very thick.
“This place is crawling with mountain lions and other smaller cats,” don Juan said casually, as if it were a commonplace observation.
I ran to his side and he broke out laughing.
“Usually I wouldn’t come here at all,” he said. “But the crow pointed out this direction. There must be something special about it.”
“Do we really have to be here, don Juan?”
“We do. Otherwise I would avoid this place.”
I had become extremely nervous. He told me to listen attentively to what he had to say.
“The only thing one can do in this place is hunt lions,” he said. “So I’m going to teach you how to do that.
“There is a special way of constructing a trap for water rats that live around water holes. They serve as bait. The sides of the cage are made to collapse and very sharp spikes are put along the sides. The spikes are hidden when the trap is up and they do not affect anything unless something falls on the cage, in which case the sides collapse and the spikes pierce whatever hits the trap.”
I could not understand what he meant but he made a diagram on the ground and showed me that if the side sticks of the cage were placed on pivot-like hollow spots on the frame, the cage would collapse on to either side if something pushed its top. The spikes were pointed sharp slivers of hard wood, which were placed all around the frame and fixed to it.
Don Juan said that usually a heavy load of rocks was placed over a net of sticks, which were connected to the cage and hung way above it. When the mountain lion came upon the trap baited with the water rats, it would usually try to break it by pawing it with all its might; then the slivers would go through its paws and the cat, in a frenzy, would jump up, unleashing an avalanche of rocks on top of him.
“Someday you might need to catch a mountain lion,” he said. “‘They have special powers. They are terribly smart and the only way to catch them is by fooling them with pain and with the smell of river willows.”
With astounding speed and skill he assembled a trap and after a long wait he caught three chubby squirrel-like rodents.
He told me to pick a handful of willows from the edge of the swamp and made me rub my clothes with them. He did the same. Then, quickly and skillfully, he wove two simple carrying nets out of reeds, scooped up a large clump of green plants and mud from the swamp, and carried it back to the mesa, where he concealed himself.
In the meantime the squirrel-like rodents had begun to squeak very loudly. Don Juan spoke to me from his hiding place and told me to use the other carrying net, gather a good chunk of mud and plants, and climb to the lower branches of a tree near the trap where the rodents were.
Don Juan said that he did not want to hurt the cat or the rodents, so he was going to hurl the mud at the lion if it came to the trap. He told me to be on the alert and hit the cat with my bundle after he had, in order to scare it away. He recommended I should be extremely careful not to fall out of the tree. His final instructions were to be so still that I would merge with the branches.
I could not see where don Juan was. The squealing of the rodents became extremely loud and finally it was so dark that I could hardly distinguish the general features of the terrain. I heard a sudden and close sound of soft steps and a muffled catlike exhalation, then a very soft growl and the squirrel-like rodents ceased to squeak. It was right then that I saw the dark mass of an animal right under the tree where I was. Before I could even be sure that it was a mountain lion it charged against the trap, but before it reached it something hit it and made it recoil, I hurled my bundle, as don Juan had told me to do. I missed, yet it made a very loud noise. At that instant don Juan let out a series of penetrating yells that sent chills through my spine, and the cat, with extraordinary agility, leaped to the mesa and disappeared.
Don Juan kept on making the penetrating noises a while longer and then he told me to come down from the tree, pick up the cage with the squirrels, run up to the mesa, and get to where he was as fast as I could.
In an incredibly short period of time I was standing next to don Juan. He told me to imitate his yelling as close as possible in order to keep the lion off while he dismantled the cage and let the rodents free.
I began to yell but could not produce the same effect. My voice was raspy because of the excitation. He said I had to abandon myself and yell with real feeling, because the lion was still around.
Suddenly I fully realized the situation. The lion was real. I let out a magnificent series of piercing yells.
Don Juan roared with laughter.
He let me yell for a moment and then he said we had to leave the place as quietly as possible, because the lion was no fool and was probably retracing its steps back to where we were.
“He’ll follow us for sure,” he said. “No matter how careful we are we’ll leave a trail as wide as the Pan American highway.”
I walked very close to don Juan. From time to time he would stop for an instant and listen. At one moment he began to run in the dark and I followed him with my hands extended in front of my eyes to protect myself from the branches.
We finally got to the base of the bluff where we had been earlier. Don Juan said that if we succeeded in climbing to the top without being mauled by the lion we were safe. He went up first to show me the way. We started to climb in the dark. I did not know how, but I followed him with dead sure steps. When we were near the top I heard a peculiar animal cry. It was almost like the mooing of a cow, except that it was a bit longer and coarser.
“Up! Up!” don Juan yelled.
I scrambled to the top in total darkness ahead of don Juan. When he reached the flat top of the bluff I was already sitting catching my breath.
He rolled on the ground. I thought for a second that the exertion had been too great for him, but he was laughing at my speedy climb.
We sat in complete silence for a couple of hours and then we started back to my car.
Sunday, 3 September 1961
Don Juan was not in the house when I woke up. I worked over my notes and had time to get some firewood from the surrounding chaparral before he returned. I was eating when he walked into the house. He began to laugh at what he called my routine of eating at noon, but he helped himself to my sandwiches.
I told him that what had happened with the mountain lion was baffling to me. In retrospect, it all seemed unreal. It was as if everything had been staged for my benefit. The succession of events had been so rapid that I really had not had time to be afraid. I had had enough time to act, but not to deliberate upon my circumstances. In writing my notes the question of whether I had really seen the mountain lion came to mind. The dry branch was still fresh in my memory.
“It was a mountain lion,” don Juan said imperatively.
“Was it a real flesh and blood animal?”
I told him that my suspicions had been roused because, of the easiness of the total event. It was as if the lion had been waiting out there and had been trained to do exactly what don Juan had planned.
He was unruffled by my barrage of skeptical remarks. He laughed at me.
“You’re a funny fellow,” he said. “You saw and heard the cat. It was right under the tree where you were. He didn’t smell you and jump at you because of the river willows. They kill any other smell, even for cats. You had a batch of them in your lap.”
I said that it was not that I doubted him, but that everything that had happened that night was extremely foreign to the events of my everyday life. For a while, as I was writing my notes, I even had had the feeling that don Juan may have been playing the role of the lion. However, I had to discard the idea because I had really seen the dark shape of a four-legged animal charging at the cage and then leaping to the mesa.
“Why do you make such a fuss?” he said. “It was just a big cat. There must be thousands of cats in those mountains. Big deal. As usual, you are focusing your attention on the wrong item. It makes no difference whatsoever whether it was a lion or my pants. Your feelings at that moment were what counted.”
In my entire life I had never seen or heard a big wildcat on the prowl. When I thought of it, I could not get over the fact that I had been only a few feet away from one.
Don Juan listened patiently while I went over the entire experience.
“Why the awe for the big cat?” he asked with an inquisitive expression. “You’ve been close to most of the animals that live around here and you’ve never been so awed by them. Do you like cats?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, forget about it then. The lesson was not on how to hunt lions, anyway.”
“What was it about?”
“The little crow pointed out that specific spot to me, and at that spot I saw the opportunity of making you understand how one acts while one is in the mood of a warrior.”
“Everything you did last night was done within a proper mood. You were controlled and at the same time abandoned when you jumped down from the tree to pick up the cage and run up to me. You were not paralyzed with fear. And then, near the top of the bluff, when the lion let out a scream, you moved very well. I’m sure you wouldn’t believe what you did if you looked at the bluff during the daytime. You had a degree of abandon, and at the same time you had a degree of control over yourself. You did not let go and wet your pants, and yet you let go and climbed that wall in complete darkness. You could have missed the trail and killed yourself. To climb that wall in darkness required that you had to hold on to yourself and let go of yourself at the same time. That’s what I call the mood of a warrior.”
I said that whatever I had done that night was the product of my fear and not the result of any mood of control and abandon.
“I know that,” he said, smiling. “And I wanted to show you that you can spur yourself beyond your limits if you are in the proper mood. A warrior makes his own mood. You didn’t know that. Fear got you into the mood of a warrior, but now that you know about it, anything can serve to get you into it.”
I wanted to argue with him, but my reasons were not clear. I felt an inexplicable sense of annoyance.
“It’s convenient to always act in such a mood,” he continued. “It cuts through the crap and leaves one purified. It was a great feeling when you reached the top of the bluff. Wasn’t it?”
I told him that I understood what he meant, yet I felt it would be idiotic to try to apply what he was teaching me to my everyday life.
“One needs the mood of a warrior for every single act,” he said. “Otherwise one becomes distorted and ugly. There is no power in a life that lacks this mood. Look at yourself. Everything offends and upsets you. You whine and complain and feel that everyone is making you dance to their tune. You are a leaf at the mercy of the wind. There is no power in your life. What an ugly feeling that must be!”
“A warrior, on the other hand, is a hunter. He calculates everything. That’s control. But once his calculations are over, he acts. He lets go. That’s abandon. A warrior is not a leaf at the mercy of the wind. No one can push him; no one can make him do things against himself or against his better judgment. A warrior is tuned to survive, and he survives in the best of all possible fashions.”
I liked his stance although I thought it was unrealistic. It seemed too simplistic for the complex world in which I lived.
He laughed at my arguments and I insisted that the mood of a warrior could not possibly help me overcome the feeling of being offended or actually being injured by the actions of my fellow men, as in the hypothetical case of being physically harassed by a cruel and malicious person placed in a position of authority.
He roared with laughter and admitted the example was apropos.
“A warrior could be injured but not offended,” he said. “For a warrior there is nothing offensive about the acts of his fellow men as long as he himself is acting within the proper mood.”
“The other night you were not offended by the lion. The fact that it chased us did not anger you. I did not hear you cursing it, nor did I hear you say that he had no right to follow us. It could have been a cruel and malicious lion for all you know. But that was not a consideration while you struggled to avoid it. The only thing that was pertinent was to survive. And that you did very well.”
“If you would have been alone and the lion had caught up with you and mauled you to death, you would have never even considered complaining or feeling offended by its acts.”
“The mood of a warrior is not so far-fetched for yours or anybody’s world. You need it in order to cut through all the guff.”
I explained my way of reasoning. The lion and my fellow men were not on a par, because I knew the intimate quirks of men while I knew nothing about the lion. What offended me about my fellow men was that they acted maliciously and knowingly.
“I know, I know,” don Juan said patiently. “To achieve the mood of a warrior is not a simple matter. It is a revolution. To regard the lion and the water rats and our fellow men as equals is a magnificent act of the warrior’s spirit. It takes power to do that.”