Amid a cluster of ramshackle mobile homes on a gently sloping mesa, a bearded man senses a presence and looks up from a truck engine. Turning toward the mountains, he sees a young woman standing motionless at the trail head, a blanket draping her shoulders and weariness haunting her dark eyes.
"Lisa's down," Roy says to Wolf, a wiry man with prominent cheekbones and braided hair.
For the past two days and two nights, Lisa has been on a vision quest, a Native American rite of self-discovery conducted alone in the mountains without food or water. After returning to her home on the mesa, she finishes her ordeal with purification and prayer in a sweat lodge, then breaks the fast with washna , a mixture of corn, berries, string beef, chopped nuts and raisins.
About the same time, at a waterfall a quarter-mile away, a shirtless man named Bud shakes a rattle and chants:
Hinda u, hinda u, hinda u, hinda hey no whey .
The ways of Native Americans are returning to the old lands. On the mesa of a private 100-acre enclave called Rancho Chorro Grande, drumbeats are once more piercing the stillness in the mountains of the Chumash. Riding a pan-Indian revival that has been building for 25 years across the nation as well as the county, Native Americans and others at Chorro Grande are bringing back ancient Indian rites, ceremonies and sweat lodges.
"This is not a religion, it's a way of life," explains Anotka, who lives on the mesa. "Like that tree over there, I am trying to become what Grandfather intended."
Chorro Grande, once the launch-pad for high-class packhorse expeditions, is being transformed into a "Native American inter-tribal spiritual encampment," says Wolf, a 34-year-old Huron descendant who, along with Anotka, is one of the leaders at Chorro Grande.
From Mondays through Saturdays, the mesa is occupied by about 15 men, women and children living rent-free: Wolf and Lisa. Roy, Ken, Rick and Bud. Anotka and his family. Randy and Rain. Mardee and Cliff. Others come and go on their journey down the "Red Road," the Indian way. Infrequently, someone is asked to leave for breaking the ban on alcohol and drugs.
On Sundays, when the weather cooperates and California 33 is passable, Chorro Grande opens to the public for a traditional Indian sweat lodge ceremony, one of a handful estimated within the Greater Los Angeles area. Aside from attracting practicing Native Americans, the event at the ranch draws numerous city dwellers seeking to blend a day in the mountains with an attitude adjustment in the sweat lodge.
Admission is free; donations in the form of practical items such as tools and clothing are appreciated. Participants bring a dish for the post-sweat feast--the leftovers used to supplement weekday menus and feed the dogs.
When the Mercedes and BMWs leave after sunset, life returns to normal. Or as normal as it gets at Chorro Grande.
Ya ha o ha ah, o ha o ah, hay ah o hay ah .
Ken Lambert's soulful chant and the accompanying drumming by Rick Puhl resonate inside the community lodge, the main house on the mesa.
Several dogs have staked out a place by the hearth, where an oak-fueled fire radiates warmth and light into a great room with a 12-foot ceiling. A dozen stuffed chairs and a massive coffee table sit on a worn Persian rug.
Lambert and Puhl, both in their 20s and alumni of Native American camps, continue to chant, beat drums and shake rattles. While Mardee Sprung occasionally leaves her pot of bubbling beef stew on the kitchen's wood stove and dances into the great room, throwing shadows on the walls, her husband, Cliff, reads the horse-racing page in a newspaper. Three or four others sit in semi-darkness, lulled by the fire, the staccato pounding and the sage smoldering on a small altar.
Just another Saturday night at Chorro Grande.
The entertainment goes on for about 45 minutes, ended by the arrival of the beef stew. Appetites are ravenous, most of the men having spent a long morning splitting nearly a cord of oak.
"We're poor, but we sure eat good," Puhl says.
Mardee corrects him. "We're not poor--we just don't have any money."
Lambert leans back against an easy chair. "As long as I have something to eat and a warm place to sleep," he says, "the whole world is my playground."
Except for indoor plumbing at the community lodge, living conditions haven't improved much at Chorro Grande since the Chumash camped there centuries ago.
The mesa is on Pine Mountain in Los Padres National Forest, 18 miles from the nearest telephone, mail drop and electrical outlet. A few of the men take jobs as carpenters or handymen, but getting down the mountain can be a problem: Wicked winters and malfunctioning autos often make the ranch a prison.
Although self-sufficiency is still only a dream for the current residents, they prefer a bare-bones existence and freedom over a conventional lifestyle in a confining urban setting.
"I reject going back to the city," Mardee says.
A 47-year-old flower-child cum grandmother, Mardee and her husband have been living in wilderness areas for 20 years, raising a family along the way. A recent convert to Native American traditions, Mardee says she has "not a drop of Indian blood but a respect for their ways." Seven years younger than his wife, Cliff is one-quarter Chickasaw and "the rest redneck," he says with a wink. For several years, they ran Pine Mountain Inn a few miles up the hill.
"You know the hardest part about living around here?" Cliff asks. "There ain't no 7-Eleven down the corner for a carton of cigarettes."
The Sprungs take care of the lodge and live in a back bedroom with the only television on the mesa. Tied into a 20-foot outside antenna, the small black-and-white set operates on 12-volt car batteries.
"You preserve your power and see only what you really want to see," Mardee says. "Up here, we have to watch a lot of weather forecasts."
Saturday night winds up about 9:30 with another song. But not one you'd expect. While dead serious and respectful about their ceremonies, members of the tiny community still have a sense of humor.
To the tune of the "Addams Family:"
Dum da da dum dum, da da dum da da, da da da da da, we're the Chorro Family .
None of this would happen without Pardner Hicks, "our No. 1 dude," Cliff says.
Hicks bought the ranch in 1977, using money from an inheritance. Opening Chorro Grande Pack Station in 1980, he and Tony Alvis escorted city slickers into the far reaches of Los Padres, becoming renowned as trail guides. But in 1986, at the age of 31, Hicks abruptly terminated the business to embark on an esoteric--and some would say quixotic--academic quest.
Fascinated with indigenous cultures and anthropology since his student days at upscale and earthy Ojai Valley School, Hicks became obsessed with proving that humans originated in the New World. The theory was popular 100 years ago, but today's scientists overwhelmingly support the belief that Native Americans arrived in this hemisphere 11,500 years ago by migrating across the Bering land bridge.
Without any formal training in anthropology, Hicks wrote and published research papers, attended scientific conventions and became phone pals with prominent scientists. Although the scientific community still rejects his maverick theory, he is encouraged by recent finds that, if confirmed, would push the arrival of man in the New World all the way back to 40,000 years ago.
The evolution of the ranch into a Native American cultural center was a natural progression for Hicks. In 1986, he began allowing Native Americans to hold sweat-lodge ceremonies. Intermittently since then, he has let Native Americans and others live for free on his property.
"I have more to learn from sharing than I do from seeking simple monetary gain," says Hicks, a bachelor who lives in Shell Beach and visits the ranch several times a month, staying in the community lodge. If he had kept the mesa as his own private preserve, he says: "It would have been a loss. This way, I'm doing something good for a community of people."
But not everybody is on the bandwagon.
Some critics within the local Chumash community dismiss Chorro Grande as a "New Age" retreat, but their main complaint is that non-Chumash ceremonies have been conducted in Chumash territory without permission, a breach of respect.
"You never go into someone's house and do anything you want without asking permission," says Kote Lotah, a Chumash doctor and priest who wears a slender bear bone through his nose.
Lotah, 48, and some other local Chumash leaders, were angered last year when a Cheyenne Sun Dance renewal ceremony--a test of fortitude and self-sacrifice that includes body piercing--was held at Chorro Grande without their OK.
"Tribes all over California heard we allowed (the Sun Dance) to happen," says Lotah, who lives in Ventura. "We're taking the rap for these people who had no respect for our traditional ways."
Hicks says he did contact several local Chumash but could not reach Lotah. Julie Tumamait of Ojai, whose late father was a leader among local Chumash, gave Hicks her blessings for the Sun Dance; so did an elder at the Chumash reservation in Santa Ynez.
Hicks believes his detractors should be more open-minded. "Look how many different kinds of churches there are in a town," he says. "Native Americans should support each other."
The Sun Dance incident has had an impact on Hicks, making him refine his vision for Chorro Grande. "We'll incorporate concepts of (all) Native American life and thought, but with respect for the Chumash as the traditional keepers of the land," he says. "We need to respect the Chumash first."
Buh waaaaaa .... buh waaaaaa.
Two blasts on a conch shell signal the start of the Sunday sweat lodge.
The sweat-lodge area, near the bottom of the mesa, is marked by four upright poles indicating the four compass points. The larger of the two sweat lodges is a squat dome, 18 feet in diameter, with a frame made of bent willow poles. When the lodge is in use, the frame is covered with layers of blankets that black out all light.
Adjacent to the sweat lodges is a large altar nearly encircled by an earthen berm, with a fire pit in the middle. Roy Lytle, 44, is the fire starter, turning a stack of oak into a furnace capable of making lava stones glow. In Indian mythology, the stones represent the oldest objects on Earth.
"The ceremony is about the wisdom they've collected over the centuries," says Wolf, who will lead the sweat. "The fire wakes up the stone people and they understand that the two-leggeds need them again."
About 50 participants show up for the ceremony, including several neophytes. Spring and Debra, fortyish Valley residents, were attending a sunrise Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when someone mentioned the sweat lodge. Brigitte and Steve Ferry of North Hollywood heard about it from a friend of a friend at a Saturday night dinner party. Aware they would be exposed to a couple of hours of discomfort, none were intimidated.
"I'm looking at it as a healing, spiritual experience," Spring says.
The ceremony is divided into four rounds, each lasting 20 to 30 minutes. Mixing prayer, song, mystic symbolism and group therapy, each round has a theme: The first acknowledges the living, the second focuses on personal healing, the third on death, and the final round on "going home," greeting ancestors in the afterlife.
With men wearing only shorts and most women in loose-fitting dresses, the participants duckwalk or crawl into the large sweat lodge, forming two circular rows around a shallow pit. Forty-two are allowed in at one time, the rest told to wait outside until someone drops out.
The wait isn't long. After the first round, the flap opens and a man leaves. He is a doctor of optometry taking part in his first sweat lodge. "It was incredible," he says. "You suffer, but there is good afterward."
So why did he get out? "I like to do things in moderation," he says. "If I was starting an exercise (regimen), I'd do the same thing."
Inside the sweat lodge, the bare earth is soaked with perspiration and condensation. Jammed together, sitting cross-legged, the participants gulp fresh air and await the next round. Wolf, sprawled by the pit, calls out to Roy to bring in the stone people. Using a pitchfork, Roy delivers four red-hot rocks through the flap, which is then closed, bringing complete darkness.
The stones quickly heat the dome, but not intolerably. Speaking in a voice as smooth as syrup, Wolf instructs, guides, prays. A drum and rattle are joined by songs. Several times, Wolf pours water on the stones, each spurt causing a hissing, popping sound and raising the air temperature to scorching intensity. Breathing hurts. More water. More pops. More heat and steam. People groan. Droplets of sweat from the unseen man in front of you trickle on your legs.
In the final round, the singing and drumming and searing heat reach a crescendo simultaneously. Then it's over. Wolf asks that all the flaps be opened. Drinking water--"a gift from the gods,"--is brought in. As a cool breeze washes over the participants, Wolf tells them to thank the wind for providing relief, then instructs them to exit the lodge by crawling single file across the now-muddy earth. On the way out, each must say o mitak we ah sa , which means "to all my relations," a way of making sure your prayers have included everybody.
Outside, Steve Ferry looks as if he has just finished sprinting a marathon in the rain. "It was a good deal more rigorous than I expected," he gasps. "It's not like Beverly Hot Springs."
Still, Ferry would do it again. "Anything grounded in earth religion I wholeheartedly support," he says. But the North Hollywood costume-maker also liked the spirituality of the ceremony. Praying for his nephew, who is diagnosed with leukemia, he came away "feeling positive."
His wife, Brigitte, also felt an emotional connection. "Listening to the feelings of the songs got me in touch with feelings I've been having," she says.
Brigitte was impressed by Wolf's respect for the land. "I'd like to incorporate that in my life," she says. "But it's hard. I'm a city girl."
Chris Mancini, a 20-year-old student living in Santa Monica, enjoyed her first experience at Chorro Grande. Mancini, who grew up on a South Dakota Indian reservation, had worried about the authenticity of the Chorro ceremony.
"Sometimes you get a group of white people together who've read a book and think they can run a sweat lodge," she says. "But I was very happy with this. It was very strong."
Spring was moved by her first sweat and the peaceful, gentle atmosphere at Chorro Grande. "Places like this are few and far between," she says. "It's to be cherished big-time."
Sweat Lodge May Be Too Hot for Some
Taking part in a sweat lodge isn't for everyone.
"Definitely avoid it if you have heart problems," said Siegfried O. Storz, a Ventura cardiologist. "People with heart trouble don't deal with extremes very well."
Temperatures in a sealed sweat lodge can reach an estimated 120 degrees or more. The high heat can lower blood pressure, making the sweat lodge potentially harmful for people with existing low blood pressure, Storz said.
Drinking alcohol before entering a sweat lodge can compound potential problems, Storz said.
Healthy young people don't have to worry in a sweat lodge, Storz said, but seniors "should check with their doctor if they have any questions."