“Everyone leaves something behind in this desert,” the Shaman smiled. Full water bottle in my hand, bandana on my head, and a worn-out pair of Birkenstock sandals on my feet, I was out for a day of hiking with a strange group of new age-y people I barely knew. I’d left my infant daughter with my husband and young son for a lazy by-the-river day in our campsite for the smallish hiking expedition to the Shasta lava tubes known as Pluto Cave.
Thirty minutes in the high desert air–I could feel my temples warming in the waving bulb of electric mid-morning sun. There was not really a trail head where we’d parked by the road but a small metal sign with an arrow reading “Pluto Cave 1 mi.” goaded us to a clearing on the first bank of sage brush where a clipboard and a pen were tied to a makeshift table. We each scrawled our names onto the blank page. My name below Bob and Aluna Joy, Nina (Resnick) and Atilla Molnar, then Don and Mary Simon. I was the only single in a group of couples who all shared one and all in the Age of Aquarius, but I had decided that I was going to attend a solstice expedition to Machu Pichu, Peru in September and this adventure 3.0 miles into the belly of mother earth was supposed to simulate the majesty of the view from the top of the world? I felt like a novice for these kinds of adventures but I was in good hands with these emissaries of light so nothing could go wrong. When one of the group leaders broke away with the others to do some guided meditation in a circle of rocks, just Bob and me were left to the trail.
The steep meadow path unwound over the brush in the before-noon heat and only the sound of our footfalls and the soft breeze could be heard out there in the steppe. Then, we came round a bend of the trail where a forest of ancient sagebrush stood. Full blooms and twisted limbs animated with a frenzy of sound. The buzzing was louder than anything I had ever heard before–safe guarding the mouth of Pluto Cave was a massive cluster of wild flowering sage and it was home to millions and millions of wild desert bees.
From where I stood, the cave looked more like a hole in the side of an overpass than some mystical portal to the center of the earth? But the majesty of the sage bush forest and the army of high desert stingers made me shiver. I had been raised by bee-fearing folk from way back. My mom had long warned me of the allergens that run deep in our Washingtonian bloodline–and the accompanying horror stories were never far from mind. The 7 Up bottle-trapped bee who stung her on the mouth when she sipped her ‘occupied’ beverage to the knocked-down nest of winged stingers that fell onto her as a small child after a pelting war of river rocks. Bees were to be feared as far as I was told and if I was ever going to get into that cave I had to face my fear and break (gently) through the legion of bees keeping watch.
Bob was not afraid. Reading the horror on my face, he pulled gently on my shoulder and led me to the closest branches of the bee forest camp. He reached into his pack and pulled out a joint and lit it up. One drag in, there was calm among the buzzing, or at least my heart was not racing anymore. Bob pulled out a bundle of sage leaves and burning the ends with his lighter, circled around me smudging us both native-style. The sweet smell of the burning sage mingled with the wild plants, the calming sun, and the wide sky. We walked together under the first of the orchard tree-sized sage brush and sat on the ground by the stump.
“Let’s wait here and just be with the bees,” he said. My red hair teased my neck and shoulders in the breeze. Then the buzzing seemed to disappear? I heard nothing but the swell of the heat and the swarm of the bees turned to a conference of high desert hosts right before my eyes.
As if in slow motion, worker bees passed by our perch holding fast collected pollen clotted from the knees to the stingers, holding plant goo in their fuzzy limbs like shovels as they flew along. The intricacies of their eyes, their wings, and tiny faces were so soft and every buzzing minute was purposeful and filled with grace for the environment around us it made me want to cry.
These bees were tending the desert and its plants with their whole bodies, mindful of the trails through the air, the currents through the brush, and worked in symbiosis with the natural landscape that I was stomping carefully into. That is the day that I realized that I was born clumsy and human and with a knack for reinvention, I decided to leave behind my fear of bees.
And so I did.
The rest of this story is unimportant. Yes, we rejoined our group at the mouth of the cave, and the seven of us crept inside the 3 mile lava tube into the cold, dry earth. It was majestic and dark and cold as the grave. It was two hours before we made our way out into the open air again. When we reached the sage bush again, the bees had gone, taking my fear with them.