Spirits On Black Mountain
By Bill Gann
Walt Bickel was a Christian, but he always spoke with a
particular reverence about the sacredness of Black
Mountain. I misinterpreted his respect for Native
American beliefs, and always expected I might find some
sort of strange magic radiating from the peak. I was
young and foolish them.
One time, I felt sure the magic of the mountain was
calling me. I had hiked with my cameras to the end of
Sandy’s Mesa, and spent the night under the spring
stars. In the morning I heard a strange wailing call from
the top of the mountain. I grabbed a telephoto lens and
studied the mountain to see what caused the bizarre
crying voices. I found the sound came from an
undulating brown cloud that seemed to move over the
peak like an ameba. Adding doublers to my lens, made
me laugh when a flock of sheep came into focus.
Another time while hiking down Black Mountain, a plant
along the trail started a strange shaking dance. There
was no wind and all the other plants were still, as if
watching the performance. Until I figured out that some
sort of underground rodent was eating the plant’s roots
from below, I was sure strange spirits were trying to
communicate secret wonders.
There was one time, the time I’d like to tell about here,
where I may well have found what one goes seeking on
mountaintops. I may have had a supernatural experience
of mystical wonder, or I maybe I simply found myself.
I was with two friends, Eric Standring,and a person I'll
call The Marine for reasons I'll explain later. Eric had just
turned 18 and The Marine was a teacher I worked with in
Fullerton. We were practicing desert survival. This was
part of a wild-crafting hobby I was taking a bit too
seriously back then. The plan was to hunt, trap, and
gather our food. This seemed like a good idea at the
time, except we chose a foolish time of year, winter, to
live off the desert land. Game was scarce, and the only
eatable plants I could identify were Mormon Tea and
dried Desert Cabbage.
Desert Cabbage, in fact, was the plant I had once seen
dance while a rodent ate it from below ground. It’s also
called Desert Candle and has a wonderful flavor in the
spring. In the winter it tastes like hay. Mormon Tea is
simply a pine needle like bush that I now know gives one
a dose of the drug ephedrine. The ephedrine, I suppose
has limited nutritional value, but may account for
strange happenings on this trek.
In four days, all we were able to catch was a small
Cottontail Rabbit, a chipmunk, and a big fat desert rat. I
caught the rabbit with my hands after missing it with
buckshot. I had scared the poor creature up into shallow
and reachable hole, where I snatched our first food in
two days. Eric killed the rat and chipmunk.
The other fellow with us was a normally mild-mannered
teacher, but went nuts on this trip. As i said, I’ll call him
The Marine. He was an ex-Marine, and had really talked
up his survival skills a good deal before the adventure.
He didn’t tell us, however, that he was hypoglycemic,
and some of his behavior on this trip requires I not give
his real name. Mostly we starved on this little outing.
We caught the rabbit, as I said the second day. Three
men and one small rabbit isn’t much of a meal.
By the end of the second night, The Marine had Eric and I
at gunpoint around a campfire on top of Black Mountain.
“Silence! I’ll have total silence. There will be no talking at
all,” the bleary eyed ex-Marine insisted, as he waved a
small 25 automatic pistol at us. He had clearly lost it and
was making us sit, as if we were unruly students in his
Eric and I didn’t know what the problem was, but we
assumed too much Mormon Tea and too little food had
taken its toll. We finally talked The Marine into putting
his gun away sent him off to his sleeping bag.
Eric and I discussed in whispers how we must find more
food in the morning. I went to sleep hungry and worried
about what we were going to do with our fellow traveler.
The strangest dream awakened me in the night. I
dreamed I heard my grandfather’s voice coming out of
loudspeakers from all directions. “Billy!” my amplified
grandfather yelled. “What in the hell are you doing boy?”
This woke me from a dead sleep as if a foghorn had
blasted in my ear. I sat up, my bare back against one of
the cold volcanic rocks, and pulled my sleeping bag
around my hips. Something strange happened in the
hills to the east. I saw what looked to be a horn made of
white light rising from the horizon. I was astounded, and
kept pushing my back against the rock to assure myself I
was awake. The glowing white horn was real. In fact, it
grew until it became a rising crescent moon in the
starlight desert sky. I knew then that I too was becoming
a victim some sort of strange nutritional imbalance.
We were each sleeping in our own house ring, among
those that are on top of Black Mountain. Eric was in the
rock ring to the east. “Hey Eric,” I said in a loud whisper.
We gotta find some food in the morning.” Indeed, we
rose before sunrise and Eric killed the chipmunk and rat
before the golden glow wore off the morning.
We raced back to camp to find The Marine groggy and
disoriented. I cleaned both creatures and was about to
cook them whole when The Marine insisted I cut them up
as if they were miniature deer. For this, I used a razor
blade. He looked over my shoulder and named the
various cuts, “chuck, rib, sirloin, tenderloin, shank, and
brisket” as I worked. This seemed terribly important to
him, and I found that if I engaged him in the process, he
was a manageable but a muttering madman.
I cooked the miniature pieces in olive oil, using a
backpacking frying pan the size of a saucer. The Marine
must have realized how badly his body needed food, as
he actually burned his fingers trying to fish out a piece of
meat from the boiling oil. While we were more than
willing to let him have all of it, The Marine insisted Eric
and I eat some of the meat. One of the creatures tasted
like liver, and the other tasted like sweet chicken. At the
time we didn’t know which was which. I have since been
told that the sweet meat was the rat.
The Marine even discovered that we could eat the small
creature’s bones by grinding them to a powder with our
molars. In my survival kit, I also had a 35mm film can
full of Black-eyed Peas which I, soaked, cooked, and
seasoned with dried Desert Cabbage. This too we
devoured as we watched The Marine magically return to
a mild-mannered history teacher.
Eric guided the poor chap back down to Bickel Camp and
left me alone on top of Black Mountain. I took time to
ponder the meaning of all this. After an hour or so of
brooding in the silence one finds on mountain tops in
the Mojave, I decided my grandfather had indeed asked
the crucial question. What in the hell was I doing?
I packed my gear, and walked down the mountain to
Bickel Camp. Walt was cooking bacon, eggs, and Chia
seed pancakes for all comers. We laughed and told of our
adventure over many cups of Bickel’s strong black
coffee. The Marine was mostly quiet and seemed
ashamed of how he faired on the survival test. Bickel,
however, allowed as how, we were “all damn fools” for
running off unprepared. Basically, he pointed out, we had
been foolish and disrespectful of the desert and “you
ought not to do that again.”
So it is, I’ve followed Bickel advise on such matters and
have gone forth since with respect for all things sacred.
I’ve kept my grandfather’s words near the surface in my
wanderings. Since that experience, I’ve done my best to
always act with intent. I’ve come to understand what I’m
really doing with my life. And this has made it all, a
mystical, magical tour.
Speaking of mystery:
I found this poem posted on the Web two years ago. I
have a vague recollection of writing and posting this
some place—I don’t remember where. Strange feeling. I
was making reference to a Black Mountain climb many
Posted by desert rat on 02-03-2006 11:21 PM:
Coming down Black Mountain once, it had been a good
The Earth was spinning in place.
Desert light magically danced the soft sweet breeze.
I was younger then, but still I wonder.
Did you ever know Mother Earth with evening light in her
I was running out of time, but didn't know it then.
She came silently in the angel light.
May you hear that quiet song too,
at the end of a good day.
It is posted here:
Nice mystery—strange for this to happen. A poem I had
written and forgotten pops up. I remember the poem but
only vaguely--seems I posted on a blog or poetry site,
and wrote it on the spot. Here's to some guy named
Desert Rat who saved this from the ozone and posted for
me to find. The image below was in fact taken on the
way down down Black Mountain. Following the wash, I
came upon a fairyland of plants in angel light. The
moment was fleeting but produced both this photograph
and the poem.