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Weekend Escape: Monterey County

Tribal Paths and Pools

Hiking lands of a Native American band once thought to be extinct

June 08, 1997|VANI RANGACHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PINE VALLEY, Calif. — "Ho. Great Spirit, thank you for providing us with food today, and bringing these visitors to your valley. Eeekay."

Our guide, Hummux, my friend Gerard and I stood around a tall wood table, hands clasped and eyes closed as Hummux said grace. A small plate of barbecued chicken, bread and salad, morsels from the dinner we were about to eat, was to the side, an offering for the Great Spirit.

The Great Spirit that mid-May Friday evening had come through with aces. The setting for our al fresco meal was positively sylvan. The headwaters of the Carmel River gurgled yards beyond where we stood, and behind us, over a small hillock, was a mountain meadow ringed by rod-straight sugar pines and the ridges of mountains and rock formations. But there were small problems in this Eden besides the baby rattler that Gerard had seen slithering away from the trail earlier that day.

We were in Pine Valley in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, sandwiched between Carmel about 20 miles to the west and Soledad to the east. These also are the aboriginal grounds of the Esselen, a tribe of Native Americans once thought to be extinct.

A small tribe of fewer than 1,000, they inhabited the valleys and mountains of the Santa Lucia range and parts of the Salinas Valley. Then the padres came and used them as laborers--those who had not died from diseases the Spanish imported. Now the Esselen, who number about 300, are trying to reconstruct their tribe, their culture and traditions.

It took us about five hours of fast driving and five miles of hot, dusty hiking to get to Pine Valley from Los Angeles. We had left in the early evening on Thursday, and stopped for the night in King City. The last 50 miles on Monterey County G16 to the Ventana Wilderness Ranch, owned by Esselen tribal chairman Tom "Little Bear" Nason, were twisty and curving. The last four were on a tortuous dirt road.

When we pulled up to the ranch at 10 Friday morning, two mules, Coffee Bean and Alfie, were tied up to posts, patiently awaiting their burden--our packs and food for the next three days. Ventana Wilderness Expeditions, a nonprofit organization that funds tribal causes, had lent us a tent tall enough to stand in and thick foam sleeping bag pads. All the gear we had to lug were our sleeping bags and personal items; the mules carried the load, and Hummux would do all the camp chores and meals. We could have made it even easier and ridden horses here for about $150 more. Nason invited us to take a look around the kiva, a dugout mound used for ceremonies, and the sweat lodge. There was even a tepee, where we could have spent the night.

We met Hummux (pronounced HUM-ukh), which means White Wolf, our guide for this cursory introductory weekend into the area. A Kansas native with a Ph.D. in physics, he was once called Bob, but gave up that life to live among the Esselen as an adopted tribe member.

The mules were loaded onto the trailers, Gerard and I hopped into the bed of the pickup truck with our gear and we went roaring up the dirt road to the trail head at China Camp in Los Padres. From there we started up the trail with loaded-down mules and Hummux leading the way. We climbed for an hour through scrubland, the trail cutting through thick bushes of manzanita and sumac. We stopped for lunch under the shade of an oak before beginning our descent, via a series of steep switchbacks, into Pine Valley.

Ventana means "window" in Spanish, and the Esselen believe their mission is to speed prayers from other tribes onward through the window (a saddle between two peaks Hummux showed me) to the land of the dead.

The trail soon turned mercifully flat, and we walked through swarms of ladybugs. While the benign ladybugs were a delightful surprise, some other insects were not.

That is the Great Spirit's joke on humans in this beautiful place. Bugs--millions in many varieties: ladybugs, black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes and ticks. They all feasted on me. Hummux, taking pity, lent me a hat with netting to keep the swarms from my head. Wearing it, I felt like Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen." Gerard slathered himself with insect repellent.

Camp was a small clearing beneath pine trees, a piece of private land within the national forest owned by a friend of Nason. A national forest campground lies just opposite on the other bank of the Carmel River. We had our choice of sites for our tent, and picked an isolated one a short hike away under the pine trees that ringed the meadow.

While Hummux busied himself with getting dinner, and Gerard napped, I went exploring. I followed a trail to some rocks Hummux had pointed out. There I found depressions hollowed in bedrock, 13 set up in asymmetric lines. As I sat there I could imagine rows of women rhythmically pounding acorns, much like I remember my grandmother in India grinding the batter for dosas in her granite mortar.

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