Sacred Journeys – The Song of the Old Ones
By Linda Monsees Stump ©2014
Growing up in Southern California, I’d heard the ghost stories of the Coronado Hotel, the Queen Mary, and tales of Hollywood stars whose lights on this plane burned out too soon…and who continued to delight in taking center stage after death as they had in life. I heard the stories of earlier ghosts, a Native American girl and a headless Spaniard at San Juan Capistrano, miners and those whose spirits linger in the abandoned mining towns of Calico and Bodie.
Ghosts aren’t foreign to me. As a teenager, I lived in a house built in 1900 where a former inhabitant walked up the stairs at night – stairs which had been blocked off after the big house had been divided to make an upstairs apartment. I have walked the trails where the Old Ones trod. I’ve felt the presence of those who went before in the wild places here in the U.S., as well as in haunted castles, manors, and ancient sites in England.
But those are stories for another time.
Ghosts were far from my mind one spring night in California. My husband and I, in the early years of our marriage, were embarking on a week’s vacation in Arizona. We were to stay several days with his grandparents outside of Payson, hiking the Mogollon Rim country, and finish the trip with two days in Scottsdale.
It was a Friday evening in late April, and we’d left straight from work, which meant I was still in a dress and heels, an apparent anomaly which made me the topic of conversation among the truckers with whom my husband chatted while trying out his new CB radio. This was before cell phones became the norm, and he thought it might be handy for emergencies. My husband used the call name “Tin Man,” since he worked in sheet metal engineering. “Have you seen Tin Man’s lady?” one trucker asked another. “She’s wearin’ a dress!” Much to my embarrassment, word traveled fast on Interstate 15 and before we knew it, truckers were pulling alongside us and waving.
We had dinner in Barstow, planning to go as far as Williams or Flagstaff, find a motel and then drive through the mountains by daylight. We were enjoying the high desert night on Interstate 40 between Barstow and the Colorado River, when the oil light suddenly came on.
We’d had the little blue Volkswagen bug in for a tune-up the week before we left – and the mechanic had checked the oil and topped it off – how could the oil possibly be low? We pulled over so my husband could assess the situation. It wasn’t promising. Not only was the oil low, it wasn’t safe to drive…we’d evidently had a slow oil leak ever since we’d taken in the car for service, and to compound the problem, my husband found that the oil cap wasn’t properly replaced. We were miles from an exit on an empty highway with only the expanse of the Mojave Desert around us.
We were properly stranded. My husband tried the CB radio, but no truckers seemed to be on the road in our area. All we could do was wait and hope that a California Highway Patrol officer might happen by, or we would manage to raise someone on the CB.
After about twenty minutes of sitting in the car, we decided to get out and stretch our legs.
Without the ambient light of the Los Angeles metropolis, and with no street lights on the open highway, the stars looked like diamonds on velvet. We could see the deeper shadows of the Clipper Mountains against the blackness of the sky.
In spite of our predicament, we were both able to appreciate the stark beauty of the desert night.
The breeze picked up, ruffling my hair and blowing my skirt around my legs.
And then I heard it, at first so faintly that I thought it was a trick of the wind. But it was a distinct melody, played on a flute, yet like no flute I’d ever heard before. The only way I can describe it is “organic” – this music wasn’t played on an instrument made out of metal, as on a modern orchestra flute, but upon a flute made of bone or wood. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and old as the land.
I clutched my husband’s arm. “Listen!” I whispered. “Can you hear that?”
“Why are you whispering?” he asked, but kept his own voice low.
“Just…tell me what you hear.” My husband’s hearing has always been much better than mine. He stood still, listening.
Finally he said, “Maybe it’s only the wind, but it sounds like a Native American flute.”
Relieved that I wasn’t the only one hearing it, I answered, “That’s what I thought, too. It sounds like something the Old Ones would have played.”
The Old Ones…Those Who Went Before. In Arizona they were the Anasazi and the Salado. In California they were those who wandered the remote ridges of the Chocolate Mountains before the Mojave tribes, and who knew the ways of the coastal mountains before the Chumash came. It was said they built the rock cairns along the trail – were they offerings to the spirits of the mountains? Perhaps they only marked the trails that led to water in a harsh landscape where water meant the difference between life and death. Or perhaps they wished simply to say, “I was here. Do not forget.”
Whoever they were, the spirits of the Old Ones were around us. I could feel their presence; we were not alone. It was not frightening at all; in fact, it was comforting. It was as though the Old Ones had watched us and, seeing that we appreciated this land they called home, gave us their blessing…and protection.
I don’t know how long we stood there, as the ancient melody played on, connecting us to the land and Those Who Went Before.
The CB crackled, and a trucker’s voice came over the speaker. “Tin Man, what’s your 20? I can help you out.” My husband responded with our location; the trucker said he was less than ten miles out. My husband responded with thanks, and the radio went silent.
Headlights came over the rise and our Good Samaritan trucker pulled in behind us. True to his word, he had a few quarts of oil which he gave us, refusing payment. He and my husband chatted as they filled the oil tank. While the men worked, I gathered several small stones and by the light of the truck’s headlights, I built a tiny cairn, my own way to honor the spirits of the land and the Old Ones who lived upon it.
Repairs completed, we thanked our trucker friend again, shook hands and waved as he pulled his rig back onto the road.
I stood still, listening, hoping to hear the ancient melody again. The wind still blew across the desert, but the song of the Old Ones had ended. We got into the car to restart our interrupted journey. I rolled down my window, breathing in the desert air. “Thank you,” I whispered into the night. “I will not forget