All over the world, there exist sacred mountains, places believed to be the home of Gods or spirits. For hundreds of years, temples, shrines, churches and monasteries were built on these sites and always, these places have a special energy – they touch something deep in the human being.
Indigenous people, however, often leave these places untouched, believing in the sacredness of pristine, untouched nature. They know that there is no need to add anything. A mountain, river, cave or tree speaks for itself and is sacred by its suchness, just by what it is. St. Francis of Assisi knew it when he said that nature is his church. Shintoism in Japan celebrates the sacredness of nature and believes that nature is “spirited”.
People in our time are looking for this connection. They want to step out of the isolated individualism of modern life and reconnect with something bigger. They rediscover nature as the big healer, as a place of refuge.
In Phoenix, Arizona, there exist these healing places all over the city. Mountains of all forms and heights are scattered like islands in the big valley. One of them is Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The Tohone O’odham tribe once living in this area named it “Vianom Do’ag” (Iron Mountain). It was sacred for them.
I see this mountain from my backyard every day. Like a powerful woman or Buddha in Parinirvana, this mountain radiates calmness and unmovable strength. No wonder that the first settlers named the mountain “Sqaw Peak”. For many Native Americans, however, the name “Sqaw” was derogatory. It was renamed Piestewa Peak, remembering the first female native American woman killed in combat in 2003.
The Mountain Range of Piestewa Peak with the Saguaro Cactus surrounded by an Ironwood tree in the foreground. Viewed from our backyard.
Piestewa Peak is about 800 m high (2610 feet) and consists primarily of schist. Day and night, people climb the mountain, needing between 20 to 60 minutes for the about 2km long hike up to the top. During the night, the lights used by hikers look like little stars moving up and down the mountain.
Nearly every day since coming back to Arizona in December 2020, I climb the mountain for the sunrise. As I want to witness the slow change from night to dawn, I never use a headlamp.
View to the western side of Phoenix from the Piestewa Mountain trail
Full moon over Phoenix
Everything lies in a diffuse greyness, as the city lights of Phoenix never allow the area to be totally dark. This is the time of nocturnal animals. You can hear the hooting of the owls calling into the darkness.
Grown up owl
The sharpness of the silhouettes of the mountain against the arriving morning sky is always stunning.
Coyotes never show up on the mountain trail. During the hot seasons, however, one has to be aware of scorpions and rattlesnakes. Seven years ago in August, I heard a buzzing noise right beside the trail. When I switched on my headlamp, I saw a rattlesnake disappearing between the rocks.
Saguaro Cacti standing like guardians along the trail.
In many curves, the path winds up the mountain. It is not easy to walk. One has to concentrate and choose each step carefully. However, it is a great place to focus and harmonise body and mind. Very often, I practice tonglen (Tibetan practice of compassion) or just focus on breathing. Also, I make it my practice to not create a habitual path. There are uncountable variations of ways to walk the rugged, uneven area.
Usually, when I am two-thirds up the mountain, the sun announces its arrival by illuminating the eastern horizon. A stone bench allows people to rest.
View towards the east with Camelback Mountain in the background and a Palo Verde tree at the right side
People taking a rest near the top
I am a slow walker and do not like to push my body to its limits. Many people pass me on my way up. The steepest part is near the peak, where a series of stone steps lead up to the top.
Last part of the climb where I leave the trail and climb the rock to the right
I usually choose to climb an almost vertical rock wall with ideal footage to feel safe. This wild path leads up to my secret chapel, which I created about 2 years ago when my nephew passed away. Ever since then, whenever I am on Piestewa Peak and the wind allows me to, I light a candle and burn a stick of sandalwood incense for all those who are suffering.
Nearly on the top
Early morning on December 15, 2020 after I just came back from Europe, I climbed up the steep slopes of the mountain to a hidden area on the top.A powerful black and white ringed fury tail rushed down the rugged area when I arrived at the chapel and disappeared in a second between the rocks. It was a ringtail cat.
Ringtail cat (photo taken by Ken Koshio)
I decided to climb up to the top and saw on a nearby rocky point, a drum resting on the edge of the cliff. A guy with black, long hair standing beside it must have carried it up. I was puzzled. Who is this person? I assumed it was a Native American from the Navajo or Hopi tribe.
Slowly, the sky over the far eastern mountain range turned yellow -orange. It was shortly before sunrise. He started a sacred ritual of greeting the sun with the sound of a double flute. A steady tone supported a graceful melody, harmonising and preparing the air for what to come.
Camelback Mountain in the East
At sunrise, he switched to the drum and started to beat with a power and rhythm I never have seen before. His whole body became one with his drum. He accompanied the beat with a sacred song and it seemed that he was in communication with the sun, celebrating the new arrival of light. I was in awe. In my inner eye I saw a guy taming a wild bull, forcing it to follow his will. It seemed that the Roman ritual of Mithra came to life again.
At the end, he played the melody of “Amazing Grace” on a flute. After bowing in all four directions by clapping his hands, he finished with a Yoga pose.
Nearly every morning since this day, I hike up to Piestewa peak to be part of this ritual.