On The Road to The Sacred

06/21/2010 01:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"The first thing you have to do is catch a hummingbird with your hands," the Navajo runner was telling us.

Pausing near the bottom of Canyon de Chelly, we are greeted by the young man, who has passed us twice before as he raced up and down the steep switchbacks of the canyon's 600-foot cliff. "It never changes," he announces as he pulls up in front of us, barely breathing hard. "My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a famous runner and now all the men of our family keep his tradition alive."

He launches into his story as if we're old friends, his smile warm and pleasant, his gaze steady and sincere. "He passed on the form that our family follows in order to get the strength to run up the canyon walls. After you catch the hummingbird, you must hold it between both hands until it calms down. This teaches you patience because it might take a couple hours before it trusts you. Then you open your hand and let it perch there so it knows you are going to let it go. While it sits on your hand, you sprinkle corn-silk-pollen on its wings and wait for it to fly. As soon as it takes off, you have to run through the cloud of corn-silk-pollen that it leaves behind. I was able to complete the form when I was 16 years old and that is how I earned the strength to run up and down the canyon," he concludes, automatically pointing out the ancient route up the cliff that shortcuts the modern switchbacks.

I am as impressed by the young man's character as I am his physical prowess. Family, clan, memory, and land: he has a sense of identity and place that is supremely rewarding to witness. He brings to mind something a priest once told me about the Tarahumara peoples of the Copper Canyon: Their biggest sins are smaller than our smallest ones.

The next day we visit First Mesa in the Hopi Reservation. It is a remarkable place, a narrow plateau high above the high desert. Visitors cannot enter without a local escort and absolutely no photography of any kind is permitted. A series of three small villages perch atop the mesa, the last one, Walpi, being the oldest. Occupied continuously for the past 1,100 years, it maintains its traditions by not allowing any electricity, phone, or other modern conveniences.

"From here, you can see the sacred mountains where the Kachina spirits live the other half of the year when they are not here," the young Hopi woman tells us, pointing off toward Flagstaff. "The village is much more lively while the Kachinas are here. It seems so lonely when they leave in July." Her eyes tear up at the thought of the Kachinas' departure next month.

I follow her gaze to the distant mountains, trying to imagine how the village anticipates the Kachinas' return every February. Family, clan, memory, land: she has a sense of identity and place that is supremely rewarding to witness. She brings to mind something my Tarahumara teacher once told me: The land itself is spirit.

Out here in the inter-mountain deserts, the storm clouds sail across the landscape, trailing veils of rain that shimmer in the harsh light of the sun. At night, coyotes bay at the sliver of the moon and owls hoot at the edge of our campsite. The land stretches on forever, mirrored by the blue sky in the day and the clear stars at night. Time seems to have stopped several days ago.

The road runs through spirit without end.

A couple days later, we stop at Bryce to walk down into the canyon. At Sunset Overlook, a woman's hat flies off over the railing and lands on the sheer slope of the cliff. Immediately, her male companion crawls over the fence to retrieve the hat. Gallant or not, it is foolhardy in the extreme: his tennis shoes slipping on the loose sand, he clings to the mesh fencing with one hand while reaching for the cheap tourist hat with the other -- all the while oblivious to the 500-foot drop below. A backpacker in worn hiking boots turns away, grimacing apprehensively: "Is that piece of crap really as valuable as his life?"

Like a souvenir photo, the whole journey snaps into sudden focus.

There are two different worlds. One is populated by people who know the value of life and hold it sacred. The other is populated by people willing to leap out on the edge of self-destruction in exchange for meaningless trinkets.

The high desert wildflowers are in glory right now. After a long wet Spring, the sun is calling out all the hidden blossoms from the red sand. They will be gone soon. It is such a privilege to be here while they celebrate life. How short it all is. How can I open my heart more, to let in more appreciation? How can I make my will stronger, to move in concert with the will of nature?

It isn't just this Gulf oil spill that makes us sick to our stomachs and clouds our hearts. It's the loss of control we feel over the decisions that effect us and our children and our ultimate descendants. It's the other world of people worshiping meaningless trinkets and the way their all-consuming greed spills over into our world of sacred nature.

And it's everywhere.

Here in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, people have been fighting over the encroachment of the massive Desert Rock coal-fired power plant on Navajo land near Farmington. Consider these couple of links: and and

Then there's this unaccountable desire of a resort in the sacred San Francisco mountains, where the Kachinas live: a resort wanting to create artificial snow by using treated waste water and spraying it all over the sacred site! Fortunately, a higher court overturned the lower court's approval of this insane plan.

There's no end to it, of course. I mention these two instances because they relate directly to sites I have visited on my brief walkabout in the Southwest. But want to think about the BP oil spill as an effect set in motion by the Reagan years? Consider these historical perspectives on the Minerals Management Service that is supposed to oversight such drilling operations. See these two articles. I am indebted to Eric Janes for drawing my attention to several of these important matters.

Last night, we camped in Valley of the Gods. It is an ancient sacred site not too far from the better-known Monument Valley. Half a moon washed the towering monoliths of sandstone in cool white light, casting deep shadows on the night. The wind meandered through our tents warm, cold, warm, cold. The evening star set reluctantly behind a sandstone behemoth. No cities, not even towns, for many miles: the stars shone bright as possible, the zodiac stared back at us like the edge of the galaxy. Gnarled junipers danced in the moonlight to the timeless chanting of crickets. It was impossible to sleep when the whole desert was dreaming.

It was so quiet you could hear the mountains' prayers spilling out of their world into the other.


Please take the time to share your own spiritual experiences in nature. If those of us who know do not say it aloud, how will those who do not ever get a glimpse?


I am deeply gratified that The Toltec I Ching has been selected a Silver Winner of the 2010 Nautilus Book Awards. My deepest gratitude extends to my co-author, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and our enlightened publishers, Larson Publications.

The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World, hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Click here to go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.