All my life I have been a mountain goat in disguise. The minute I encounter a sandstone outcropping, a grassy hillside, or a mountain pass, I convert into my animal self and cannot resist the urge to scramble up the slope and sprint back down. So when I had the opportunity to climb Boboquivari Mountain with my fellow travelers on the SDI pilgrimage last month, it was only with the utmost discipline that I managed to take up my appointed position at the rear to assist less experienced hikers ascend.
And yet, as always seems to happen when we slow down and allow ourselves to become fully present to the moment, great gifts began to reveal themselves. In between reaching out to hoist a courageous climber from behind or lift her from above, I took in the panorama and breathed in the complex fragrance of the Sonoran Desert. As I encouraged those who had never hiked through the wild places of the earth before, our essential interdependence with all of creation seeped into every cell of my body.
Baboquivari Peak is the most sacred place to the Tohono O’odham people. It is the center of their cosmology, the place where their creator, I’itoi was born, and where he still dwells in a cave at the base of the mountain. It was this sacred cave to which we were headed, and I was yearning to climb inside and listen to the songs its walls might sing.
By the time my ever-diminishing group reached the peak, it was long past our agreed upon turn-around time, so all we had a chance to do was squeeze through the narrow opening and tumble into the womb of the earth. There we sat in stunned silence as our eyes began to adjust to the darkness and the chamber took shape around us. The perimeter of the cave was lined with offerings, gifts to the Creator: hand-woven baskets and low-fired clay pots, plastic flowers and Christmas tinsel, beaded Saguaro sticks decorated with feathers, folded prayers, and photographs of ancestors.
We began to chant: “Thank you for this day, Lord, this healing day…. Teach us how to pray, Lord, your healing way.” I thought of loved ones who are ill and suffering, aware that my prayers were magnified many times by the power of this secret place. And then it was time to leave. We pressed our bodies back up and out through what felt like an even smaller opening than the one through which we entered.
“I don’t ever want to leave,” I said to our Tohono O’odham guide, who had appeared very suddenly like a trickster coyote and was perched on a rock as we emerged.
“You can come back again,” he said. “And again and again. Your spirit knows the way now.”
And so, as I write this reflection in my little studio in a different desert a thousand miles away, my mountain-goat spirit climbs Baboquivari and takes refuge in her luminous belly.
Mirabai Starr served as a pilgrim guide during the recent SDI Interfaith Pilgrimage to the American Southwest: Exploring the Spirit of the Desert. To see more images of Baboquivari Mountain and the SDI pilgrimage, view the slideshow on YouTube.