In the footsteps of Carlos Castaneda

We need to reinvent the Gods, all the myths of the Ages” – Jim Morrison

In the mid-seventies like millions of other soul searching youth, and many adults too I might add,  I discovered the writings of counter-culture author and New Age icon Carlos Castaneda. No question, like most youth I was inclined to rebel against the world, particularly my small piece of it in a rather nice suburb of Washington D.C.  A ridiculous notion on the one hand, given the kind of affluence that most American suburbia enjoys and that I personally enjoyed. Not middle class by a long shot, in fact we were on welfare and food stamps for a time,  but all the basics were there; comfortable home, quiet neighborhood, baseball games in summer, a few chicks interested in me, a loving Mother. But looks are deceiving, I needed something more.

Carlos Castaneda

         A  young and scholastically inclined Carlos Castaneda in his early UCLA years.

Then I got into a few fights, I didn’t start them, but I ended a few. Suddenly there was a racial aspect to daily life that surprised and disgusted me.  I’d grown up pretty innocently and never really focused on my Latino background until it became an issue to other people.  In my junior year of high school I was one of the few students to stand up each morning and recite, with hand on my heart, the Pledge of Allegiance. Most of the class, mostly white students but there were blacks too, would remain seated. Incidents started to pile up in which I was discriminated against,  taunted a bit, definitely eyed with suspicion. Happy days of childhood were over, the ugliness of adult life had begun. I started recollecting early childhood  memories when my Bolivian father had boisterous get togethers in our apartment with some of his Bolivian friends and their families. There was lots of drinking, laughing, romantic dancing, and beaming smiles all around, usually to the sounds of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Sergio Mendez and Brasil 66. The guests weren’t all dark-skinned either, many were white, including my own American mother. These fiestas were proof that Latinos and Gringos can get along just fine. I remember an American guest, a big tall white man with buzzcut hair, I’m pretty sure he was a Marine officer,  laughing and wanting to hear “The Lonely Bull” over and over again. I remember my  father always enjoying the music of Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. My mother had New England Yankee roots, she could dance a mean cueca, a Bolivian folk dance. One of my father’s heroes was General Douglas MacArthur. My father wept watching Walter Cronkite and CBS News coverage from Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana BrassPublicity photo of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Looks are deceiving, none of them were Latino, yet alone “Mejicanos” but that  never stopped millions of  adoring fans (like myself)  from digging their music. 

Papa con conjunto  “There was lots of drinking, laughing…” In the middle holding court  is  “Incabird” (mi querido Papa).

Alas my father, for all his decent qualities and good-naturedness,  dropped out of sight when I got to high school and for those crucial, formative years I rarely even heard a word of Spanish or thought about Spanish culture at all. I even failed high school Spanish, leaving the teacher dumbfounded. Until of course I found myself living  in a neighborhood where race all of a sudden meant a lot  to people.  I found my heritage was being thrown in my face, and not in a flattering way mind you.  This, in a community which, to the passing stranger would appear to be an American utopia, complete with super highways, shopping malls, finely-trimmed yards and glistening glass and steel office buildings. Yes, looks are deceiving. I was gasping for breath and counting the days to finishing school so I could escape. And I started to discover new heroes.  Given the radicalism of that era, worldwide,  my little story is hardly unique. But try telling that to an 18 year old filled with rage.

283756588_ad5af0208e_oI started to discover new heroes…including The Who, defiant bad boys from the East End ghetto who refused to be fooled again.

Santana-Woodstock2    And Carlos Santana who helped rekindle Latino embers smoldering in my heart……

Muhammad-Ali-with-Pele                                             and some new sports heroes too…..

As fate would have it a popular hit being played constantly on the radio around that time was “A Horse With No Name“, by the folk-rock group “America”.


America’s first album, one of the greatest acoustic folk rock albums of all time.

Millions of listeners  thought it was Neil Young at first but upon buying the album I quickly realized that these guys were incredible in their own right.  Between my own inner turmoil, coupled with the harshness of racism, I found myself listening to this song a lot. … “after two days, in the desert sun, my skin began to turn red..” The lyrics then as now, struck a resonant chord despite a few lines being hard to grasp, ” … in the desert you can remember your name for there ain’t no one for to give you no shame…”.  No matter, the overall theme of the song was quite clear to me. It was a desert mantra, an uplifting powerful clarion call to Go West Young Man! that fired me up.  Under a scorching sun, whether in the desert or back east in the dripping semi-tropical days of summer, my naturally brown skin turns dark red, now my soul began to turn Red as well.Eight_Crow_prisoners_under_guard_at_Crow_agency,_Montana,_1887_-_NARA_-_531126

“Chief Plenty Coups and seven Crow prisoners under guard at Crow Agency, Montana, 1887”  Same historic photo used on the album cover, uncropped.  Unfortunately America did not include any liner notes or descriptions of the photograph, nor mention of the Crow or any  American Indian tribe so I had to do some sleuth work to track down this iconic image. Turns out the photo was taken during the Crow Uprising of 1887, lead by the Crow warrior Wraps Up His Tail, later, after experiencing a vision quest with the Cheyenne during the sacred Sun Dance, he adopted a new name, Sword Bearer.  

Even before graduation from high school I began to live my own separate reality and determined to leave the uptight, status-conscious Washington suburbs forever, my burning passion was to live in the desert, to be near and with and among “los indios”, even though I was no closer to them than any average white guy could be. My promise was fulfilled within weeks after graduation, when I hitchhiked to New Mexico and found work in a lumberyard in the small town of Gallup.  Got myself a room in the Lexington Hotel, overlooking old Highway 66 (this was pre-interstate days), second floor, with a west facing window. My first night was a bit harrowing, heard some screams in a nearby alley in the middle of the night only to find out the next day there had been a stabbing among a group of hard-drinking Navajos. So much for getting my kicks on 66. My shock turned to numbness over the next few months as this same sad scenario was repeated often, including stories of Navajos falling asleep on the tracks and being run over by mile-long Santa Fe & Pacific freight trains.  Gallup was a tough town alright, with liquor stores being its main commodity. It was a big white Texan owner who gave me a  job at Houston Lumber Supply. I liked him really, he was so straight up and willing to give me a chance. To this day I still appreciate him giving me a job. Clearly not all white folk were bad, I never doubted that to be honest. How could I? I’m half-Anglo myself for crying out loud. But it was with the Navajos I met in the lumberyard that I felt most comfortable. They were quiet, didn’t brag, didn’t yell, didn’t  raise their voices, there was just something so calm and wise, and innately powerful about them that I felt the rest of society was truly ignorant compared to these guys.  Unlike the poor drunks in town, these Navajo were physically imposing and dignified. Centuries earlier these would’ve been the warriors fighting off the Spaniards, Kit Carson and the U.S. Calvary,  and any others trying to invade their homeland. Despite a cool reception at first, which is so typical with Native cultures (a wise stance given what Europeans were known to do to them), they warmed up to me and we became friends. I wanted in on their secret to life. I even played on their all-Navajo softball team, a classic case of a Latino fox hanging out in the Navajo chicken coop.

Canyon de Chelly (10)             “…there was something innately powerful about them.”                                                                    –Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo sanctum santorium

I spent a few months in Gallup, hitchhiking with my backpack most weekends on short journeys into the Petrified Forest area, into Navajo country and more often  into the cool pine forests of the Cibola National Forest and the mesas of the  Zuni and Acoma Pueblo reservations.  I don’t think it was as adventurous  as it might sound, its easy to sleep outdoors in the high desert of  the American Southwest in summer. In fact it can be absolutely balmy with no insects, comfortable overnight low temperatures, and a dazzling night sky filled with the Milky Way from horizon to horizon.  Thru it all I usually carried a torn-up paperback copy of  “A Separate Reality- Further Conversations with Don Juan”.

pan01               Petrified Forest National Park, looking north towards the Painted Desert

Narrows Rim Trail-El Malpais Nat Mon (26) Acoma Pueblo territory, now part of El Malpais National Monument, looking west across a landscape of ancient lava flows.

I read “A Separate Reality“, Castaneda’s second book, with much fascination and interest.  For me, the writings of an anthropologist who claimed to achieve great wisdom and supernatural powers through his apprenticeship with a Yanqui sorcerer somewhere in the Sonoran desert of northern Mexico offered up mystery and strength sorely missing in my materialistic, everyday life. For a time you could say I studied the book, reading and rereading different passages, trying to make overall sense of it.  And then I moved on to his third, and for me, most brilliant piece of writing,  “Journey To Ixtlan“. Years later I would research Castaneda and his legacy and discover that amazingly, thousands of Gringos, all seeking the path to this uncertain enlightenment, had actually traveled down to Mexico looking for the real Don Juan and his companero Don Genaro.  I was deeply moved by both books, inspired really, but I never did stupid crap like that. Unlike Carlos Castaneda, I did reach Ixtlan eventually, but it was just a passing stop for me as I hitchhiked thru Mexico en route to Panama.

One of my first thoughts upon seeing a photo of the author was that he could easily be a cousin or uncle of mine from Bolivia.  For a guy so associated with Mexico and American southwestern desert culture, he was in reality (pardon the pun), of Peruvian blood. When I found that  out it all made sense, my gut inclination about him was right, he was of Andean blood just like me. But few readers knew that, or cared. After all, Castaneda was a strong believer in “erasing personal history“.  All that mattered was his brilliant story-telling and dream-filled ability to transport us out of our comfy homes and neighborhoods and place us starkly in a desert where brujos, hawks and mescalito reign. This, combined with a society seeking expanding consciousness thru any and all drugs available,particularly LSD and other psychotropic drugs, made the books best sellers. Was it all a coincidence or did Carlos Castaneda wisely jump on, or better to say, cash in on the New Age band-wagon? Depends who you ask probably.

                    Yaqui warrior dances his death song on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. 

“Art thou a soothsayer? Dost thou foretell events by reading omens, interpreting dreams or by tracing circles and figures on water? Dost thou garnish with flower garlands the places where idols are kept? Dost thou suck the blood of others? Dost thou wander about at night, calling upon demons to help thee? Hast thou drunk Peyote or given it to others to drink, in order to discover secrets or to discover where stolen or lost articles were?”  – Padre Nicolas de Leon, San Antonio, Tejas, 1760, typical questions asked of potential Indian converts.

IMG_0098   Bien venidos a todos los conversos pero deje el peyote afuera por favor! (Welcome converts, but leave your peyote outside please!) Colonial-era church, Valley of Oaxaca, southern Mexico

3nd-Out West-Aug 07 401Lone coyote somewhere near Death Valley, California appears out of the grasses and slowly walks past me, unconcerned with my presence.  In the desert strange encounters like this can play tricks on the wandering mind, was it perhaps Don Genaro in the guise of  coyote trickster?

From the beginning I have to confess I had some doubts about Castaneda and Don Juan. Even as a twenty year old who had only recently rediscovered Castellano (I grew up speaking English and only heard Spanish when my father came around on occasion), I constantly found myself wondering about the syntax of Don Juan. Castaneda had him saying some pretty long, tongue-twisting passages that struck me as odd.  I thought, this does not sound like an Indian to me. Not even close, this all sounds like its invented perhaps. Surely Aymara holy men in Bolivia don’t talk like that, nor would a Taos Pueblo elder, nor a Kiowa peyote man, let alone a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge”.

” Mammedaty was a peyote man, and he was therefore distinguished by these things: a necklace of beans, a beaded staff and rattle, an eagle-bone whistle, and a fan made from the feathers of a water bird. He saw things that other men do not see. Once a heavy rain caused the Washita River to overflow and Rainy Mountain Creek to swell and “back up”. Mammedaty went to the creek, near the crossing, to swim. And while he was there, the water began strangely to move against him, slowly at first, then fast, in high, hard waves. There was some awful commotion beneath the surface, and Mammedaty got out of the water and ran away. Later he went back to that place. There was a wide swath in the brush of the bank and the tracks of a huge animal, leading down to the water’s edge. ”    –“The Way to Rainy Mountain”, N. Scott Momaday, 1969resized mammedatyA real life “Don Juan” of the Southern Plains,  Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s grandfather, Mammedaty.


Chief Quanah Parker, revered Comanche chief who traveled the “peyote road” and encouraged other Indians to do the same. 

At about three o’clock in the morning, the silent hour and the time of the greatest manifestation of power, Quanah, the leader, knelt before the altar and prayed earnestly. Then, taking the eagle feathers in both hands, he arose to his feet. I saw at once he was under great inspiration. His whole personality seemed to change. His eyes glowed with a strong light and his body swayed to and fro, vibrating with some powerful emotion.” – eyewitness account by C. S. Simmons, circa 1911, Lawton, Oklahoma

d-day 215Tallgrass Praire Preserve, north-central Oklahoma, a vast landscape easily traversed long ago by Comanche  warriors on horseback. These “Lords of the Southern Plains” had many enemies and few allies. Oral histories say it was the Lipan Apache who first introduced them to peyote (Nahuatl peyōtl /ˈpejoːt͡ɬ/, said to be derived from a root meaning “glisten” or “glistening”).

Later, as a young anthropology student at California Polytechnic Institute, Pomona, California, I did a bit of simple library research on my own of the Yaqui and remember discovering that the Yaqui have no traditions or customs involving the eating of  peyote. Today, The Great Yaqui Nation web site makes no mention of peyote at all. Further, the natural growing range of peyote is entirely, and well east of  the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico, in the Chihuahua Desert while Castaneda’s stories, and the Yaqui tribe, are in the Sonoran Desert, west of the Sierra Madre. You don’t have to major in anthropology to see how something here is amiss. We can defend Castaneda to a certain extent in that many tribes adopted peyote even though their homeland was also outside of peyote’s natural range; like the Comanche, Kiowa, and Lipan Apache of the Southern Plains. But all of these tribes migrated frequently into the Chihuahua Desert year in and year out, particularly the Comanche who were known to plunge terror and fear into Mexican communities as far south as San Luis Potosi and the Pacific Coast, near where else, Ixtlan. Of course it was inevitable that they would gather and collect peyote buttons in their migrations. But Castaneda has Don Juan walking out into the Sonoran Desert collecting peyote and other medicinal plants that don’t grow there. They venture into the desert in the heat of  summer with no added detail as to how life-threatening this can be. They never get injured, there’s no trip hazards for these guys, no twisted ankles or falling on your ass when loose rock gives way.  No snake bites, no scorpions crawling into their shoes, no scratches or abrasions with cacti or ocotillo branches. Pretty amazing. In short, they cleanly walk thru the desert each and every time, no matter the season. Its the kind of safety record that any wilderness hiker would admire.

img005      Distribution of peyote (dashed lines) and star cactus (shaded area) habitat in southern Texas and northern Mexico

In short, I concluded long ago that Carlos Castaneda invented this story, it was all a big con job. I don’t like being lied to. However, to his credit, his story-telling and incredible style of writing, of weaving stories and drama into characters we want so much to know and explore, touched millions of people in a very profound way, including myself. The books gave me strength when I needed it most perhaps. And it seems likely that he did travel into Mexico to do some research, probably into Huichol territory where he met with native medicine men who trusted him enough to share their visions and knowledge of peyote with him.  He just didn’t live with any of them nor go thru any “apprenticeship” as the books claim. Mex-Chihuaha-Baranca del Cobre-Areponapuchi  Not a bad place for a vision quest. Lone Tarahumara woman stands on a precipice, observing the beauty of Barranca del Cobre, deep in the wilds of the Sierra Madre, Mexico

The sad legacy of Castaneda’s influence and Sixties drug culture…

  Pastor Jose Antonio Galvan on the rooftop of the insane asylum in the Chihuahan desert that he runs for “los olvidados”. 

The last years of Carlos Castaneda’s life were truly bizarre and finally all too revealing. Far from being a “man of knowledge”, “a warrior seeking his own Nagual”,  this Latino huckster retreated into a City of Angels mind-numbing occult world that android-like followers of Heavens Gate, Jonestown, and David Koresh could easily identify with.  How sad. A man who had such a gift, no not  “The Eagle’s Gift”, rather his was the gift of enlightenment and increased awareness manifested within a landscape of towering cliffs, brooding mountains and a desert vastness that forces the causal traveler to reassess one’s strength. That is if you get out of your air-conditioned car. You better carry plenty of water too, but also carry an inner strength because it can be very lonely in the desert, especially at night. I realized finally that you dont have to take drugs or read his books to figure that out. Even Boy Scouts camping in Big Bend National Park or ranchers tracking down stray longhorns in the box canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas develop a deep love for the desert and its secrets. Not to mention all the native tribes who have lived in those desert areas for centuries or longer.       

Looks aren’t deceiving for a change; a gallery of real-life characters from the Trans-Pecos Region and beyond…

apr08_tx_cowboys_250              Anglo cowboy and his faithful companion, west Texas, circa 1900

mexican_cowboy-7-2                                         Mexican vaquero, northern Coahuila

Satanta                                            Satanta, Kiowa War Chief, circa 1880

Buffalo_Soldiers_Old_Picture-1_574x600         Buffalo Soldier, mounted and ready to go on extended patrol, circa 1875

1340472954201_cached sierra indians                                                              Tarahumara runner

Cabinet_ranger                                   U. S. Forest Service ranger on fire patrol, circa 1915

peyote-indian                                Huichol peyote man with his recently-harvested crop

Castaneda’s books continue to be published today by Simon and Shuster as “non-fiction”,clearly one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time (besides certain religious texts perhaps?). S & S stands by the non-fiction designation for obvious financial reasons. Shredding all literary standards, they take the stand that no one has stepped forward with definitive proof that Don Juan didn’t exist. So until some one does, he must of course exist. Hows that for a separate reality? Even my high school English teacher would slap their knuckles with a ruler for that bullshit stance.  Besides, who needs footnotes or corroborative sources  when you’ve got Madison Avenue behind you? The Lizard King was right, we need to not only reinvent the Gods, we also need to question them more often, especially when they appear as luminous eggs.

Mex-Chihuaha-mirando la puesta del sol-Uruachi

“And I will leave.

But the birds will stay,

singing: and my garden will stay,

with its green tree, with its water well.

Many afternoons the skies will be blue and placid,

and the bells in the belfry will chime,

as they are chiming this very afternoon.

The people who have loved me will pass away,

and the town will burst anew every year.

But my spirit will always wander nostalgic

in the secret corner of my flowery garden.”

– “El Viaje Definitivo“, by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez

From the ending of Journey To Ixtlan, purportedly recited to Carlos Castaneda by Don Genaro


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