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Legend of the Banished Shaman Captures Imaginations

September 15, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than 3,000 years, the wrathful spirit of a banished Cahuilla shaman named Tahquitz has kept watch over his namesake canyon in the rugged, boulder-strewn San Jacinto Mountains.

For just as long, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has produced lesson-legends as wondrous and complex as the desert landscape itself.

Tahquitz Canyon has been Shangri-La to filmmakers, hippies, hermits, the homeless and the legendary Tahquitz.

Only a few minutes southwest of downtown Palm Springs, the new Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center--operated by the Cahuilla Indians, who created the Tahquitz myth millenniums ago--is a place where tourists can view old photographs, ancient Indian artifacts and a 15-minute film on the "Legend of Tahquitz."

To this day, legend has it, Tahquitz (pronounced Taw-kwish) continues to consume the souls of those foolhardy enough to venture into his canyon. Some tribe members refuse to enter, just to be safe.

So powerful is Tahquitz, believers say, that he can manifest himself in various forms: an earthquake, an animal, lightning, an old man or a meteor.

Through the centuries, Tahquitz has been blamed for desert mayhem, including deaths, drought, famine, flash floods, fires and just plain bad luck. Even today, when the earth shakes, local Indians say Tahquitz is up to his old tricks.

Of course, the legendary curse doesn't worry everyone.

Tribal Ranger "Mountain Bob" Hepburn, for example, takes groups into the canyon every day, twice a day, for guided two-mile hikes. The curse seems to roll off his back like water over the falls.

To him, the canyon's beauty is far more meaningful than a myth.

"This canyon and these rocks seem to bring something out in the spirit of the people who come here," he said.

Along the hike, Hepburn points out wildlife, ancient rock art and a century-old irrigation system, all while detailing the many uses of dozens of native plants.

The creosote bush, for example, was the Cahuillas' medicine chest, used for everything from lung congestion to bowel complaints. The red barrel cactus, which is dark green with red spines, was used like a Crock-Pot, to cook meals. Jojoba was used as shampoo.

Wending his way past "Aunt Rock"--named for a much-loved Indian goddess who is said to have disappeared and then reappeared in the form of a rock--Hepburn treks up-canyon with the sure-footedness of the native bighorn sheep.

Eventually, he reaches a sycamore-shaded paradise where there usually is a 60-foot waterfall. These days it's dry because of a four-year drought. This tranquil oasis doubled as a mythical paradise in Frank Capra's 1937 classic movie "Lost Horizon," starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. In Capra's adaptation of James Hilton's romantic fantasy of Shangri-La, the Himalayan paradise where no one grows old, a film crew had to lift Wyatt's white horse to the top of the falls with a winch.

The canyon's blend of mythical malevolence and natural beauty--even with the mercury stuck at 110--has been embraced by writers, explorers and those who merely take delight in the outdoors.

A nature writer, Joseph Smeaton Chase, encountered the canyon's dark side in the early 1920s, when he heard things go bump in the night. Sleeping with his ear to the ground, he was awakened by "Tahquitz" making sounds like boulders crashing down from the mountains.

Although he returned safely to write about his ordeal in "Our Araby," a 1922 Palm Springs guidebook, others haven't been so lucky.

Since the Palm Springs mounted police search and rescue unit was formed more than half a century ago, its members have pulled more than 30 corpses from the canyon, some of them left after homicides, others the remains of luckless hikers.

Professional free spirit and songwriter Eden Ahbez found unexpected fame after he sat down on a hot, sunny boulder and wrote his autobiographical song "Nature Boy," which was popularized by Nat King Cole in 1948. His bohemian ways later inspired flower children, war veterans and the homeless to take up residence in the canyon's caves.

In 1969, during spring break, thousands of teenagers flooded into Palm Springs for a rock concert. Afterward, a rowdy crowd wound up in the canyon, where they spent days skinny-dipping in the canyon's icy pools and dancing on its boulders.

Finally, police evicted them and slapped a "closed" sign on the canyon. It stayed there for 30 years--until the Cahuillas built their visitor center, cleaned up the canyon and reopened it last year for guided hikes only.

The canyon's mouth is right in Palm Springs, where Cahuilla Indians built the Coachella Valley's first village more than 3,000 years ago. They called it Sekhi, which means "sound of boiling water," for its natural hot springs. Today, the site is occupied by the Spa Resort Casino, where health and wealth can be sought in tandem.

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