“Rabbit Spring,” Cahuilla Village Site (Joshua Tree National Park)

Some places are magical beyond comprehension…

Imagine hiking across several miles of creosote covered desert. The desert floor, covered in granite pebbles from the decomposing mountains in the near distance. The only sign of life, a jackrabbit that scurries from creosote to creosote, making every attempt to avoid contact. You walk, and you walk.

It is only the middle of February, but the temperature surpasses 80 degrees. Sweat drips from your face, and a film of salt encrusts upon your forehead. You have an idea of what you are looking for, but there is no guarantee that it will be there. No guarantee that you are within 25, 50, 100 miles of it.

That is how it was on that fine day, and most days really. I stumble across the desert, up a mountain all with the hope of finding something. Most of the time I find nothing. But even then I do find something, myself, just a bit more. I don’t write about those days, to the average person that is boring.

Crossing that stretch of desert on that warm February day, it looked as though when I reached the horizon, I would fall off the edge of the world. But in reality what I was looking for sat on the other side. A jumble of black granite boulders in the middle of a valley. If my research was correct, it was among those boulders that I would discover a village or habitation site that had been utilized by the Cahuilla people several hundred to thousands of years ago. If I was wrong, I would find just another jumble of boulders.

 

Evidence of a pot break. Pottery sherds cover the ground in all directions.

Evidence of a pot break. Pottery sherds cover the ground in all directions.

 

Nearing the boulders, I began finding pottery sherds scattered across the landscape. Some were small, others several inches in length. It got to be that I couldn’t take a single step without a sherd being within eye-site. I damn well knew that I was onto something, but I still had no inkling of exactly how big of a find I was soon going to make. I meandered around the boulders for a good hour, finding rock shelter after rock shelter, many with sherds scattered around inside.

There were no signs of another human having been here in a very long time. No climbing bolts placed in the boulders, no carelessly discarded bottles of Evian water. This is as pristine as it gets for a National Park that is now bolstering over 2 million visitors a year. But then again, the hipsters that the park caters to don’t venture this far from pavement.

I was walking along with jumbles on each side of me when I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be an opening near the top. I scrambled up, poked my head inside, and was amazed to find a large cavern. I lowered myself down, and into the dimly lit room under the boulders, all the while hoping that nothing with teeth had taken up residence. From the inside, I could see that there were several adjacent rooms connected through natural passage ways. I took a few steps to round a bend, and stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes bulging out of my face like Roger Rabbit.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! In front of me was a large stone ring, with dried grasses neatly placed inside. It wasn’t a fire ring, there wasn’t any fire damage on the ceiling or walls around it. What I was looking at was clearly a nest that had been made for the safe keeping of a clay olla. The olla was used to store water for the villagers. It would have been carried to a nearby water source, filled, and returned to the nest for safe keeping. The built up circular structure of the rock circle would have kept the olla from tipping or falling over, while the grasses provided a layer of protection against the stone. The only thing missing was the olla itself, either broken long ago, or sitting in some backroom at Park Headquarters, never to be seen by the public.

 

The olla nest, tucked safely inside a cavern of monstrous boulders.

The olla nest, tucked safely inside a cavern of monstrous boulders.

 

A look inside the nest reveals the dried grasses that surrounded the clay olla.

A look inside the nest reveals the dried grasses that surrounded the clay olla.

 

It wasn’t apparent to me just how large this cavern was until I began visiting the adjacent rooms, which then opened up into additional rooms accessed through crawl spaces.  Inside some of these rooms were red clay pottery sherds scattered across the floor.

An Olla and basket.

An Olla and basket.
Photograph: NPS

The air inside felt, and smelled old.  I sat across from the nest, and pondering the idea of what this place looked like at the time of its habitation. The cavern could have housed dozens of people. It was interesting that the only thing that has survived all of these years is something that safeguarded their most precious resource, water.

I could have sat there all day, all night, and all the next day. There was a peaceful feeling around it, but I wanted to see what else may be hidden among the boulders. It wasn’t long before I found a panel of crudely pecked petroglyphs on a standalone boulder outside of the concentrated jumble. A wavy line made its way across the boulder, along with a few barbel looking shapes, and a few various other symbols. For the most part the petroglyphs were very similar to those found at the Hayfield site.

 

Petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs.

 

Petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs.

 

Petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs.

 

Across from the petroglyphs, in the jumble, I again spotted what looked like an interesting shelter high on top. On a whim I decided to investigate, again bouldering my way to the top, and dropping several feet down into the shelter. Where I landed, I was face to face with a wall containing a handful of very vibrant petroglyph designs. In the center of the shelter, a spirit stick was standing straight up, buried in rock. Spirit sticks were utilized by shaman to ward off evil from spiritual or sacred places. It is common to find them in rock shelters associated with the Cahuilla in this region.

I was floored by what I was seeing, never had I seen a place as intact as what I was seeing here. An archaeologist documented this site in 1975, and from the images of his that I have seen, nothing has changed. Everything remains untouched. It wouldn’t surprise me if I was the first person to step foot here in the last 40 years, and before that, the last people to have been here, the Cahuilla when they called it home.

 

A spirit stick planted in the rocks. Spirit sticks were utilized by shaman to ward off evil from spiritual or sacred places.

A spirit stick planted in the rocks. Spirit sticks were utilized by shaman to ward off evil from spiritual or sacred places.

 

Petroglyphs inside of the shelter with the spirit stick.

Petroglyphs inside of the shelter with the spirit stick.

 

Nearby, outside of yet another cave shelter my attention was grabbed by grinding slicks on a boulder, the pestle still sitting there, its underside smooth from being worked back and forth across the rock. Literally everywhere that I looked there was evidence of a time when this place was inhabited. By today’s standards this is the “middle of nowhere,” hundreds of years ago, this was the city, this was the place to be.

 

Grinding slick with pestle.

Grinding slick with pestle.

 

The split rock contains several petroglyphs.

The split rock contains several petroglyphs.

 

Petroglyphs on split rock.

Petroglyphs on split rock.

 

An arrowhead made of granite.

An arrowhead made of granite.

 

On a large split boulder, I found the largest panel of petroglyphs of the day. Circles, and lines joined together making images that we can not comprehend today. What we think we see in these images, we often attribute to what we see and known from our daily lives, things that didn’t exist hundreds or thousands of years ago. I find it best to not spend time trying to decipher the messages, their mystery is half of the mystic.

Just as my day was nearing the end, I popped my head into a shelter that was slightly obscured by a blooming bladderpod bush. Inside of the shelter it was at one time set up for habitation, containing a stone bench or table. There were three spirit sticks leaning again the shelter wall, and large sherds from a pot that had broken, all sitting as they fell when the pot shattered. It was obvious that the pot had broken some time ago, as many of the sherds stuck out from the ground that had engulfed them.

 

Peeking into a shelter, I saw this.

Peeking into a shelter, I saw this.

 

Inside, a broken pot lay shattered.

Inside, a broken pot lay shattered.

 

Spirit sticks lean against the shelter wall.

Spirit sticks lean against the shelter wall.

 

As I hiked back across that open desert on that day, my mind raced. I knew full well that I had just visited the most incredible place that I have ever seen with my own eyes. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay. I wanted to experience a night in the cavern, but I didn’t.

That evening, and the full next day, I found myself going back to this place in my head. So that is exactly what I did, I went back and spent another day among the ancients, and it was magical.

 

A yoni, carved into a nearby boulder.

A yoni, carved into a nearby boulder.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • pat

    What an amazing place Jim! Breathtaking history.
    Your narrative is introspective, informational and riveting. Loved it…

  • Ken Lee

    Wow. That place really looks so fantastic.

  • Clay Strong

    Jim, you are blessed to have been privileged to visit this site. As you looked upon it, you must have sensed that you were welcome.

  • wildthumb

    Magical. It’s great that you go so far off the beaten path that you can see these pristine places. Most people are afraid to go this far away from “pavement,” as you say.