Located at the end of a steep dirt road on a ridge of the Tehachapi Mountains, Tomo-Kahni was for centuries the winter settlement of the Kawaiisu people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers famed for their basketry skills and high protein trade goods, including chia seeds and pine nuts.
Despite the coming of the Spanish and later the Americans, the tribe maintained their ancient seasonal traditions through the early 1900s, living in simple juniper bough huts, some of which which still survive in the form of stone circle footprints.
But Los Angeles’ insatiable thirst for water brought industry to the little town of Tehachapi, and the younger Kawaiisu began to migrate down to take high-paying jobs in the Monolith Portland Cement Company plant. The Owens Valley aqueduct was built from good Tehachapi limestone, and by the time it was finished, so was the old life up in the mountains.
Kawaiisu still live in the region, but have adopted modern ways. It was the tribal elders who worked with anthropologists and the State Parks Department to ensure that Tomo-Kahni was preserved as an interpretive site for future generations to explore.
Tomo-Kahni isn’t like other State Parks. You don’t pull up to a paved parking lot dotted with interpretive signs and rattlesnake warnings, and you won’t meet other hikers, their dogs or loud children on the trail. The only access to this sheltered spot is on the occasional tours hosted by trained guides who can interpret the fascinating artifacts that dot the hillsides leading up to the grand spirit cave at the mountain top.
We left Los Angeles early to join our group at the Tehachapi Museum, located just off the charming main drag in Kern County’s decommissioned Depression-era library. After a brief orientation and gear check, drivers were provided with directions to the semi-secret site, and our caravan took off down the highway. We passed the hulking Monolith plant, then swung up into Sand Canyon, with its hand-painted protest signs opposing wind farming. And soon, we were bouncing up a rough sandy road to the trailhead gate.
Our little group set out along the park’s unusual powdery red sand path, which in the wet season expands to many times its volume and releases old artifacts hidden deep within.
The treeless, scrubby hills had once been heavily forested with pine and oak, but the massive 7.7 earthquake of 1952 altered the water table, and Tomo-Kahni lost its life-giving open stream. While plants still grow, including some stands of reeds clearly sapping up the subterranean remnants of the old flow, the landscape is today much changed from that which sheltered the Kawaiisu.
Soon we came to a colorful lichen-dotted flat rock ledge, which our guides informed us had been the communal grinding station. Hundreds of deep bowls worn into the sandstone rock face provided a surface against which to mash nuts and acorns for cooking and storage, as well as a social space for the tribal women. The past was powerful as we peered into the natural bowls scraped from long use by the original Californians.
The Kawaiisu believe that a powerful spirit called Grizzly Bear ushered all of the spirits of the animals out of the underworld through a narrow gap in the rocks high atop Tomo-Kahni. As each spirit emerged, it chose an animal to inhabit–although some became locked within stone forms, which explains the rabbit and turtle-shaped boulders near the Medicine Cave.
Approaching Medicine Cave is an intimidating experience. High in the rocks sits a massive raven’s nest, its tender residents guarded by fierce black parents. As the path switches back, a visitor feels exposed upon the open hill, knowing that the holy place is just around the bend and out of sight. Gnarled, wind-hewn boulders suggest monstrous faces and hulking forms.
And then we arrive. Medicine Cave is a broad, shaded opening in the ancient stone, with deep overhangs giving way to the mystic fissure from which the Kawaiisu say all life emerged. It was cool in the shelter of the rock, and strange. On the walls are ageless pictographs: spirals, handprints, prey animals stalked by hunters and a strange splayed figure that might represent a pelt or sea mammal or the formless spirits waiting in the rock.
The sight of a thread-wrapped medicine bundle reminded us of the great power this sacred place still possesses for the people of the mountain. After a short break to rest, eat and chat with our fellow travelers, we quietly gathering our things, and started off back down the path.
There was one last site to see on the path back. Nettle Spring is a deep split between two rocks, lined with the spiky nettle bushes that were used for fiber and medicine. Tribal elders say this was a place where women retreated for ritual purposes. The rock here is heavily scored with vertical lines covered over with red pigment, but the meaning of these marks remains elusive.
We stopped in at Kohnen’s German bakery for hearty sandwiches, beer and old world pastry, to ease ourselves back into the now as gently as possible. Then it was off on another adventure… but that story will have to wait for another day.
See all of Chinta Cooper’s photos from our visit to Tomo-Khani and Tehachapi here.
And if you’d like to reserve a spot on one of these very special excursions into ancient California, more info is here.