Barrett Junction Cafe & Mercantile

The Valley of the Cottonwood

Reprinted with Caroline Schekler’s permission, this is one of many stories written by her late husband Donald Schekler. The Schekler’s settled in the San Diego Back Country to begin a new life. When Benjamin Schekler moved his family to San Diego, CA from Pennsylvania there was none of the paved roads, huge buildings or other modern amenities we have today. The port of San Diego was little more than a dust bowl. But, I will let his story tell you of that journey later.

Here is the first story in Mr. Schekler’s book for your enjoyment.

The Valley of the Cottonwood

The year is 1519. It is a day like all others, in the Valley of the Cottonwood, except that you are there. It is the month of August, and you find yourself standing on a rugged hill, the most westerly of three that rise from the valley floor. The hill is rocky and covered with sumac and jojoba brush. As you look below you, and towards the west, you will see a large Indian Rancheria. The mountains that enclose the valley are high, or perhaps one should say that the valley is deep, as the streambed is a scant seven hundred feet above sea level. Of the surrounding mountains the most spectacular is to the south, a mountain that rises up to the majestic height of over five thousand feet. God walks on its lofty crags. It is “Cuchuma,” the sacred shrine of the Indians. The valley is host for a slow moving stream, which is shaded by huge cottonwood trees, sycamores, and grapevine ladened willows. As you look in an easterly direction you will notice towering thunderheads which are reaching for the stratosphere. They are churning, black and ominous, forming a grey backdrop for the mountains that surround the valley floor.

A shadow moves slowly across the earth and you glance up to see a California condor; his white trimmed wings, black and resplendent, glistening in the early morning light. A trio of mallards, their wings pumping violently, fly up stream, a scant three or four feet above the water. They climb, circle, and with a brilliant flash of metallic green, they turn and sink from view. It is quiet except for the occasional cry of the bittern; a sad cry which seems to intensify the silence. A couple of deer break out of the south thicket, and with an apprehensive glance in the direction of the Indian camp, they move slowly down to the water’s edge to drink. The valley belongs to no particular era. It is timeless.

There are a dozen or more Indian women in the camp, but for a small bark skirt, as naked as the day they were born. Several of them are opening acorns with their teeth. After this tedious task is completed they will put the acorns in the stream to soak. This will remove the bitter taste of the tannin. When the product is cooked it will make panole or acorn mush. Some of the Indian women are broiling meat over an open fire. There is a fine haze of smoke hanging above the Rancheria and the scent of burning wood hangs heavy in the air. Over to your left, sitting in front of a brush hut is an old Indian, weather-beaten by years. He is chipping out a flint arrowhead. In years gone by he would have been out hunting at this late hour.

Nearby, a teenage girl, covered with smudge and perspiration, is making clay oils. She is turning the heavy urn around and around over a bed of hot coals. As she does this, she adds damp clay to the perimeter. It is oppressive work under the summer sun, but it is necessary for their survival. When it is completed, and if she has the time, she may stir up some dye and decorate it with a tribal design.

Suddenly she jumps up and runs to separate a couple of siblings who are engaged in what appears to be mortal combat. She uses considerably more force than would seem necessary. After they are separated the smaller of the two combatants looks over towards the older women. His chin is puckered and it is obvious that he would like to take his case to a higher court. He thinks better of it however. He has taken that route before and discovered it to be somewhat less than rewarding. It is a harsh life, living from day to day, and as a result they have developed into a special breed; a breed that has become well adapted to their rugged environment.

As time wears on and evening approaches, the surrounding mountains take on a blue cast which becomes darker as the sun sinks slowly towards the western skyline.  The canyons have now taken on a deep purple.  The cliffs and jagged rocks that on the sides of the mountains have turned into a soft pastel pink.  It is a beautiful scene, one which would take an artist of Maxfield Parrish’s expertise to portray.

The valley is a land teeming with wild life.  It is a land of primitive Indians and grapevine ladened forests.  It is the land where the waters of the Cottonwood flow.

The Indian camp has now come to life.  Some of the hungers are back from the hunt.  Others, not so lucky, or perhaps as skilled, may not return for days.  A condor slips off the south wall of the valley and glides effortlessly over his vast domain: his last forage before the evening shadows darken the valley floor.  Time is running out for the giant bird.  Time is running out for the Indian Rancheria.  For on this day, far to the south, an event is taking place that will have a cataclysmic effect on their bucolic way of life.  It is an event that will change the course of history.  Cortez has entered the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital of Mexico.

To be continued…

Keep an eye out for the next installment.

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