Medicine & Miracles in High Desert – Erica Elliott, MD
An intimate look at the mystical world of the Navajo people. In this compelling memoir, Erica Elliott, MD, details her time living with the Navajo as a teacher, sheepherder, and doctor and her profound experiences with their enchanting land, healing ceremonies, and rich traditions. She reveals her fearsome encounters with a mountain lion and a shape-shifting “skinwalker” as well as the miracles she witnessed.
She has a busy private medical practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is referred to as “the Health Detective.” She has successfully treated patients from across the country with difficult-to-diagnose health conditions. She served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Medicine & Miracles in the High Desert by Erica Elliot, MD © 2021 Bear & Company. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
Guide Southern Utah. Spring 1972
The last manmade structure shrank to a black dot in my rearview mirror as I drove down the cracked, potholed highway without a car in sight. The unmarked turnoff to the left was barely visible between juniper trees and sagebrush, the place where the pavement turned to dirt. I had already explored this region of southern Utah once before during my time off from teaching, but this particular turnoff had escaped my attention.
Although I spent most of my weekends taking the students in my class to their remote homes in and around Canyon de Chelly, this weekend I had decided to return to Utah to explore the backcountry.
After I left the paved highway behind, the next forty miles of deeply rutted tract led me into vast stretches of high desert wilderness. Red rock slabs, towers, pinnacles, and cliffs soared into the cobalt blue sky. The crisp air smelled pungent with the essence of piñon pine and cedar.
I could tell from the faintness of the ruts that this stretch of road had not been traveled for a long time. As I meandered along, daydreaming about my new life among the Navajo people, I saw something tan out of the corner of my eye. A coyote with a long bushy tail darted in front of my slow-moving Bronco.
Farther down the road, I suddenly remembered what one of the kids in my classroom had told me during our informal discussion about Navajo mythology. He said, “If Coyote crosses your path, turn back and do not continue your trip. If you keep traveling, something terrible will happen to you. You will get in an accident and get hurt or killed.”
I wondered if I should turn around and go home. But I decided that the Navajo cultural beliefs didn’t apply to me.
The rutted tract ended at a little spring. I kept driving a few more miles until I came to what looked like a sanctuary of rock formations, a perfect place to stop and explore.
After scrambling around the rocks, exploring caves and crevices, I came upon a little pool of water, a catchment basin for the infrequent rains–a natural bath in the middle of the desert. I slipped into the pool and pointed my face directly at the sun with eyes shut but still feeling the brightness streaming in.
When the sun went down, a chill quickly settled over the rocks. In my bare feet, I hopped from one slab to the next, keeping clear of the sharp spines of the cactus.
Having no flashlight, I wanted to be sure to find the perfect sleeping spot on a flat rock to spread out my pad and sleeping bag before it got dark. But it actually never got dark–the moon was full overhead, bright and electrifying.
I sat up in my sleeping bag and sang love songs to the moon until sleep overpowered me.
I dreamed that I was in one of the sheep and goat corrals belonging to the family of one of my students. We were in the corral looking for a sheep to butcher for a ceremony. There were a few goats, including a Billy goat that smelled rank with the strong scent of musk that goats have during sexual maturity. We moved through them, trying to catch one of the sheep. The smell of the Billy goat grew stronger and stronger.
The smell became so strong that it overpowered all my senses. When I felt my back on the hard rock, I realized that I was not in a corral, but in my sleeping bag and wide awake. Yet the smell of musk had followed me out of the dream and was still filling my nose. Before I could open my eyes, I heard a sniffing sound right next to me.
Without moving, I opened my eyes, and–Oh My God, I am being sniffed by a mountain lion, inches from my face!
His head was so close that I could see his black whiskers in the moonlight, the white fur around his mouth, and the tawny-colored hair on the rest of his face. I closed my eyes, frozen in fear, waiting for his claws to dig into my skin and tear me apart. Nothing happened.
I barely breathed while my heart pounded loudly in my chest. I stayed paralyzed for what felt like hours.
By the time I found the courage to open my eyes, it was daylight; the sun had already appeared on the horizon. Amazed that I was still alive, I looked around. There were no tracks visible on the sandstone rock. When I began stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, the hair on my forearms stood straight up. The distinct scent of musk wafted up my nose–the only remaining evidence of the lion’s presence.
I drove to the nearest town forty miles down the road and, at a gas station, I told the attendant of my experience. He said, “Ma’am, you’re one lucky gal to be alive. Them cats can rip you to shreds in no time. The reason that damn cat didn’t kill you is cause you were too scared to move.” The attendant said that if I had fought the mountain lion or tried to get away, I would for sure have been killed. “Mountain lions go after things that move.”
Mountain lions populated my dreams night after night for weeks. I awoke from these dreams with the feeling that the mountain lion was trying to communicate something to me that I didn’t fully understand.
A few weeks after my encounter with the lion, one of the Navajo teacher aides in the boarding school invited me to visit her grandmother, who lived alone in a hogan deep in the canyon.
The old Navajo woman took a few puffs from her tiny hand-carved pipe as my friend told the story of my encounter with the mountain lion. Toward the end of the story, a toothless smile lit up her ancient, deeply lined face. For the first time during the visit she looked right into my face and spoke directly to me, no longer diverting her eyes in deference. My friend translated her words.
The old woman said that the lion was my spirit guide. He came to me to give his courage, strength, and intense focus to help me face what lay ahead. She said I would encounter obstacles in my life, some big and life threatening, and, if I lived through them, I would have “a strong heart and powerful medicine to give to the people.”