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A Secret Is Kept in Search for the Past

January 20, 1994|WENDY MILLER | Wendy Miller is editor of Ventura County Life

When disasters such as earthquakes and fires lay waste to our homes and our lives, we realize what really matters: people, and the things that bind us to people. Pictures of the grandparents, poems from kindergarten, a late aunt's pearls--the mementos and heirlooms that give us a sense of purpose, belonging and continuity.

Without them we feel robbed of our rightful place in our own history.

This is a feeling that must be familiar to many Native Americans, especially those, like local descendants of the Chumash, who have seen many of their artifacts--especially their cave paintings and rock art--looted by souvenir hunters and dealers, and destroyed by vandals.

In this week's cover story, Jeff Meyers writes about the stolen past of the Chumash and what preservationists, Native Americans and the federal government are doing to preserve the artifacts that remain on public land.

In the process of researching this story, Meyers visited several sites where Chumash paintings and drawings can be found.

The best-preserved of those paintings, he found, have remained pristine, in large part, by being difficult to find.

One, in particular, was a little too difficult to find.

Meyers was guided to a secret cave in Los Padres National Forest by retired forester Herm Zittel. Meyers was so blown away by what he found--a red condor painted on the cave's ceiling hundreds of years ago--that he bragged about it around the office. Before he knew it, a hike was organized.

Confident of his ability to find the cave without Zittel's help, Meyers led a dozen co-workers into the county's mountainous backcountry last Sunday. Spending the better part of the afternoon marching single file over rugged terrain, the group reached the secret site--and couldn't locate the cave.

"The hike was more rigorous than I'd remembered, so I felt bad when it didn't pay off with this incredible condor," Meyers said. "We were pretty exhausted. There was talk of mutiny. I kind of felt like the leader of the Donner Party."

Skeptics among the hikers wondered if the condor hadn't been a figment of Meyers' imagination, but it does exist--and we have the photos to prove it.

Meyers called Zittel to find out where he went wrong.

"He told me we were probably within 100 yards of the cave," Meyers said. "I've vowed to return once more and find it."

He may have to make this hike alone.

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