The Hunt for Magic and Reason

Panamint Valley 2006


 The unmarked dirt road, a scratch of man, stretches into the distance, pointing like an arrow with the promise of destination into a Jackson Pollack jumble of tawny rocks and bushes on unprimed canvas. The sky, the carrier of lucent breath, falls in wide swaths, blanketing the landscape in crisp air. Wispy clouds open turquoise windows. Two desert guardians without wheels, rust side by side, like squatting toads pockmarked with bullet holes. The ground smells of ozone, disinfected by the unyielding sun, meticulously swept by the wind and the absence of man. Cradled in the west by the Argus, in the east by the Panamint Mountains, the blonde valley, dance floor of the currents, rises gradually to the north. On the slope, resting against a backdrop of speckled foothills and toothy mountain ridges, drape the dunes.

This is where they found the body, female, under 5’5” tall, in her 40s. Just a year ago, two backcountry hikers stumbled over bleached bones on the waves of sand. What made the dunes release her remains that were left to witness the tides of biting frost and sizzling heat?

The truck follows the invitation of the white gravel bed, rattling and shaking over the washboard surface, dodging sudden ruts between loose pebbles and dried mud pavement. With the landscape my thoughts unfold. She came to find solace in the soft arms of the sand and a resolve from the loss and confusion. We’ve come to see her place with our own eyes. Nuri vanished six years ago. Some said she followed the Nagual, others believed she took her portion of the inheritance and ran. But they whispered you could not live anymore. Rumors persisted that she and the other four women of Carlos Castaneda killed themselves shortly after his death in April of 1998. Nuri, the Blue Scout, the darling of the group, drove on a balmy Mayday into the emptiness of the desert to erase everything. But you erased only yourself. With this visit to your bed of sand I hope to put closure to the unfinished chapter of Castaneda's legacy.

Lake Hill, a morose brown bulge, passes by in slow motion on the left, an iron hump that reputedly collects rain in a bowl on top, supporting a carpet of spring flowers. After bumpy five miles the patient road veers to the right, deteriorating to a four-wheel track that ends in front of a streaked mountain wall. Geologists call this mesoproterozoic record of constant brewing pressure and heat the one billion year old Panamint metamorphic complex, a mélange of metasedimentary rocks marbled with granitic intrusions and overlain by basaltic volcanism, the color of dried blood. Next to the elbow of the dirt tracks is a flat area between the meager shrubs, with fewer rocks. The manager at the Panamint Springs motel advised us to park here.

This morning, at the dark-wooded rustic lodge, we found no trace of Nuri in the old visitors’ books; no small sign that she has been there. Unless, she used a code name. Everybody leaves markers. In May 1998, when she left her car on this spot next to the dirt road, a two-mile walk to the dunes, did she not think that we would all know where she ended up? Close to Death Valley, the California desert swallows many that tempt the borderline of exertion and succumb to the heat. Often times they are found soon after, dead, reported missing by loved ones. An abandoned vehicle is not taken lightly in this harsh environment.

Park rangers noticed Nuri’s Ford and finally towed it away after ten days. Nobody bothered to claim her abandoned car. To your shareholder companions you were dead the moment you left the city. They did not mourn the loss of one less party to share the fortune with. And you had estranged your family by systematic neglect, a prerequisite for becoming a sorcerer. From afar not more than a blank mirage in the distance, the dunes now resemble desert fortresses with grazing sheep on the surrounding foothills dotted with bushes. Police investigators collected about 70% of her skeleton, close to the western dune, littered over a small football field, a field of bones. Your eye sockets still wait somewhere to be discovered. No path leads to her grave.

We start the pedometer, fix the direction, a compass heading of West northwest, which turns out to be a straight line pointing to the lower dune, and set out in comfortable hiking temperatures of 58 degrees. She walked the same way in early May. Maybe she went in the evening to avoid the blistering heat. Awaiting death in the grandeur of this scenic desert valley seems a gesture as much heroic as self-inflated. The first time, I saw her standing in the last row, in the corner, behind the witches, a shy and fragile being, anorexic and flat, with slightly graying hair and bright eyes. Even though she came to class late, she received neither punishment nor scolding; something we other apprentices did not dare to risk, since it spelled instant dismissal by the teacher in front, the man who pulled the strings and made us dance like puppets. It was a precarious privilege to be in the presence of the elusive icon and best-selling author Carlos Castaneda, the man that portended to represent a lineage of sorcerers of ancient Mexico.

On one of his adventures he rescued Nuri, the Blue Scout, from another world so far from our human band that she appeared alien to us. In her childlike self-absorption she seemed strangely removed to me. Later, Castaneda began giving public seminars sponsored by the corporation he founded and Nuri took on the responsibility of representing her alien heritage with enthusiasm. Carlos gave her love, attention, encouragement, money, and meaning, in short, a reason for living. Her elevated position was envied within the growing group of women surrounding the esteemed master, but as untouchable as the three witches’. She was their official finder of things; the being that would guide them and the chosen ones on their last journey into infinity.

Colorful lava rocks, washed from the mountains, spray the ground. Soon they turn into coarse gravel, then crusted sand with the occasional wash cutting through, a dry meander between widely spaced creosote bushes. Rodent burrows collapse under our weight, our feet dropping three inches with every step. At 1.8 miles, after an imperceptibly slow climb of one thousand feet, feeling the desert skin with the soles of my feet, I’m out of breath. Looking back over the valley, my eyes carry me over the open expanse to the snowcaps on the horizon. Our truck is but a flicker of metal in the immensity of rock, sand and sky. The dunes, in front of us, are growing into four distinct shapes patiently waiting for our approach, enveloped by a desert devoid of cactus needles, treacherous terrain and dangerous animals. Castaneda could not have invented a friendlier one. Bleached branches, tossed casually by the wind, reach out with stiff fingers. A rabbit bone, white as china, lies decoratively positioned on the sand. Black jets scream through a sky they have all to themselves.

Castaneda held a special place in my heart, the door to the wilderness of my soul, where the rules of the ordinary world do not apply. My partner and I secretly spied on Castaneda, the self-proclaimed sorcerer; we videotaped him and Drudged through his trash, to touch the intangible. Carlos never knew that the two of us had become outer guardians of the membrane surrounding the group. An unexplainable energetic connection allowed us to approach and witness, without getting noticed. And never divulged our secret endeavor until months after Castaneda’ death.

We come to the first significant rise, the rolling bulwark of the dunes. For a moment the incline hides our destination. The sand is loose, dry as sugar, and carries muddled footprints of others that walked before us. Lines of motorcycle tracks scar the soft flesh, crossing our invisible path. The Panamint Dunes are not as popular as other sand features in nearby Death Valley, but they obviously attract enough visitors. Perhaps due to their sound producing capabilities. Booming deserts exist only under special, limited conditions in very few places in the deserts of our planet. Sand grains that produce sound have to be sorted, moderately well rounded and possess highly polished and spherical surfaces. Wind, working over long distances, creates these extremely smooth, frosted sand grains that sing, boom, squeak, or roar.

Clearing the hill, we are suddenly confronted by the dunes that loom like semi-liquid pyramids, majestically, beautiful and pristine, no more than a mile away; they are four unstable sisters, lovers of the wind, touching a cobalt-blue sky. A dramatic death, alone, at the foot of a grandiose pyramid was just like Nuri, the spoiled child. Did you think you could join Carlos?

Carlos, her father by adoption, had died two weeks earlier, in April of 1998, from a liver disease, the unthinkable death of an ordinary man, a flaw a sorcerer could easily avoid, according to his boasting in class, and a far cry from the promised group jump into infinity. During the last months of his decline he hid his dying face in shame, even from the chosen women lovers. He did not know that I watched him secretly while he dragged his tired feet from the car into the house, all spryness gone. As death descended I, the sidewalk witness shared the sobering sight with only the few women that took care of him. Florinda, the blond ebullient author of three books, Taisha, the subdued but brilliant orator, Kylie, the steely-minded movement instructor, and Talia, the devoted director of his latest business venture. Within days of Castaneda’s inglorious death the women closed their bank accounts, gave their jewelry away, destroyed their credit cards and disappeared. Nobody has seen them since. The estate lawyer portents she has not been dispersing any shares to the missing women. In the official statements the witches are overseeing the workshops that are still held by the remaining disciples. From beyond the dunes?

The signature of the wind folded sand ripples between blooming bladderpod bushes. The pale papery blossoms rattle in a quiet murmur. We are 2.3 miles from our car. It took almost two hours of steady slow hiking. According to the pedometer, we should be close to the place where her bones waited in the sun, baking like the rabbit bone, licked by frost and wind. Every bush, sitting on rodent-holed sand islands, every outcropping of metal-gray rocks lures my expectation, as if it could reveal the place where Nuri died. Just like us, you must have looked for an omen that points you to the perfect spot, separating from the others, drawn by some distinction on the surface of the land. Yet you leave no trace but the whisper in the air. We hope for some markers left by the police that searched the area. We find none. On the flat skin of white sand, manmade materials show up prominently. Why did five years go by before she was found? I can see her huddling against the strange sand boulders, the four feet tall humps of solidified sand, that lumber like beasts from the ground, abandoned by the bushes that occupied them. Her gaze grazing the valley that opens for sixty unobstructed miles to the south, and then watching the full moon rise over the ochre-streaked creases and wrinkles of the Panamint Mountain Range. All this time you stayed hidden you smelled the sand with hollow eyes, listened long to the tune of the wind and the calving of the sand. Red ants by day, scorpions by night were your companions, as the sun and the moon took turns. “Patience, Nuri”, spelled the soft flutter of owls across the Milkyway.

The first barren sweep of smooth sand stretches before us, swirling in elegant arabesques to the pyramids of sand, those breathing Egyptian sculptures fathered by the wind. The dune fingers form surprising hollows of sickle-shaped micro-worlds that are buffered by sand banks, offering the perfect hiding place. Resting against the sand wall she could have watched the sun set one last time over the mountain crags to the west and caressed the dune, displacing the sand as if playing a tune and then taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Pills seem the most likely method. After all, looking through the trash we found a description of barbiturates only weeks before the women left. We scour the area below the pyramid, but find nothing besides rusted soda cans and a half-buried sign prohibiting off-road vehicles. Small cat prints stencil the dune. My ears dive into the absence of sound. Technology, with its constant hum, the electronic white noise of refrigerators, transformers, engines, computers and ticking of clocks, is reduced to a blib in the distance.

The dunes heave. No birdcall, no fluttering wing, no humming bee, breaks the blanket of silence around us. The stillness eats the sky. Separated only by a short distance, it swallows our voices as well. Where is your skull, little one? Someone must have taken it as a grizzly Death Valley souvenir, or it is still out there waiting to be found. Waiting for the day when the other missing women will be discovered.

Walking back clouds push together in the sky, my legs numb from exertion, a somber mood and a dull emptiness follows in our heavy footsteps. Words have left us. A snow-dusted Telescope Peak becomes our homing beacon. The car is invisible in the sea of rocks, even with binoculars. I watch the sun play on bulging walls of streaked ocher and dried blood that hide the entrance to the abandoned silver mine. Dirt bike riders convinced us that there is nothing in the horizontal shaft, other than the beer bottles they most likely dropped. Besides, if the other four missing women killed themselves in there, where did they leave their car?

On the return the city feels foreign, an agitated anthill, feverishly occupied with its manufactured world, unaware of the bigger picture. Within me I carry the wide-open space, the vastness of the desert valley. It stares back at me like a conscious creature. The stillness that permeated the air, the sand, the color of the rocks, the crevices in the layered mountain walls, the sharp horizon defining the promising blue, they still watch me. And there is nowhere to hide. I am exposed like the bleaching skeleton of a bladder pod bush.