I’d always been fascinated with the Penitente Indians — Native Americans said to be indigenous to Mexico who converted to Christianity.
Isolated in the sparsely inhabited reaches of Northern New Mexico the Penitente developed their own austere form of Catholicism, noted for its ritual reenactment of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday. A procession of flagellants whipping and scourging their flesh, blood streaming down arms and torsos, accompany a young man chosen to carry the cross that year. The ritual is said to culminate in an actual crucifixion using sterilized steel nails. Thankfully the guest of honor is taken down from the cross before he actually dies.
When the mainstream church sought to interfere in their practices the Penitentes evolved into a secretive, mystical “Brotherhood.”
In the fall of 1968 I was circling around the Southwest, hitchhiking through Hopi and Navajo country, past false-front cowboy towns, through dusty barrios and along city streets of neon and concrete. Stone “Hoo Doo” people, embedded side by side in the rock walls of mesas like guardians carved in the pillars of Egyptian tombs, gazed down impassively as I went back and forth through Utah and Arizona.
I slept under freeways and bridges, in dry river beds beneath a star-strewn sky, and on park benches and picnic tables. Only occasionally was I taken in by friendly people looking to get high with a real hippie, or when I was really lucky — a lonely woman to lie with in a darkened bedroom.
I was a prototype for the legion of homeless wanderers who would follow in the years to come — wild-eyed madmen wrestling with personal demons on city streets and roadsides. It was one long, strenuous meditation, sometimes spent actually sitting in the full lotus on the sides of rivers or in mountains. I stayed for a short time in an old mining cabin beside a small creek winding through a meadow high in the Colorado Rockies where I awoke in the morning to little chipmunks perched at the foot of the bed seeking handouts. For a few weeks I worked pitching hay bales on a ranch.
Finally I ended up in Penitente country north of Taos, hitchhiking on a back road across an elongated plateau, with the range of Sangre de Cristo Mountains holding up the sky to one side. A series of short rides took me through tiny settlements of scattered adobe houses with old pickup trucks rusting under bare trees and dirty faced little kids staring wide eyed at the long haired bearded stranger going past. I was dressed in a tattered olive-green corduroy sports-coat and jeans, feet encased in old suede desert boots. It was already September and the wind had a sharp cold edge to it.
When I was dropped off late in the afternoon at a desolate crossroads just south of the Colorado border the gray sky was growing darker, the mountains disappearing in ominous clouds. The road was empty, devoid of traffic. Away from words and images to echo my feverish thoughts my mind too was finally empty and clear.
After a few hours without a single vehicle driving by I realized it was not only getting darker but much colder as well. Thin layers of icy snow started flying across the deserted roadway as an early blizzard blew in from the northwest. Far off in the distance a lone light flickered in a ranch house. For a brief instant my mind flew across the expanse of barren landscape and I was looking out through the eyes of a woman sitting inside by the fire.
The temperature dropped precipitously and low drifts of snow began to accumulate in the ditch by the roadside. Surprisingly I didn’t feel cold. In fact I wasn’t feeling anything except an overwhelming urge to fall peacefully asleep. The vision of a long dark tunnel opened up before me, with a glorious golden light at the end of it.
Just as I was getting ready to lie down in the snow by the side of the road, a baby blue and white ’55 Oldsmobile hardtop, exactly like one I’d once owned, pulled to a stop in front of me. For a moment I thought it was an hallucination but as I stumbled forward I saw three Indians, black hair and weathered faces under battered cowboy hats, staring expectantly at me. The door opened and they beckoned for me to get in the back seat.
As we rumbled off down the road I was handed a bottle of sweet red port to drink from, followed by a partially gnawed head of green cabbage to chomp. The port, a wine that I’d never tasted until then, warmed up my insides as it went down. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since — as is cabbage, which I prefer cooked, but tasted pretty good raw.
After a few pleasantries I discovered my saviors were Penitente Indians. They seemed pleased when I told them I’d always wanted to meet genuine Penitente. Once across the Colorado border we pulled into a big truck stop at a busy highway intersection. By then a cold rain was falling.
My companion in the back seat offered to buy me a drink at the small tavern nearby. As we sat at the bar drinking whiskey and beer he told me he’d always wanted to meet a genuine hippy. “You look so much like Jesus,” he crooned while gently stroking my long hair. He said he’d taken LSD a few times and that I could stay at their place nearby and take it with them. The thought occurred to me that maybe they wanted to fatten me up for the “Ritual” in the spring. Although I was flattered, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go there.
A psychedelic vision flashed before me of a smooth dirt floor inside ancient adobe walls, followed by a wave of paranoia as I remembered that the Indians of the Southwest had somehow determined that all hippies were homosexuals. The thought of taking LSD with a band of horny Indians who were also into bodily mortification was even less appealing than the cold highway outside.
I downed my drink and thanked them for their kindness but said I really had to be on my way. They looked on with bemused expressions as I backed nervously out the door and quickly hitched a ride on a big rig truck going west towards Alamosa and Durango.
I’ve since read that dying of hypothermia (low body temperature) is actually quite pleasant, like falling peacefully asleep.