In Absentia: Southwest Echoes in Film and Literature

Except for one more summer in Denver, I spent most of the next four years in upstate New York, where I attended Hobart College, and New Jersey, where I lived in the house I grew up in.  During this time, my sense of the Southwest, still largely formless, began to dwindle even more.  Nevertheless, that distant land still found ways to seep enticingly into my consciousness. 

At Hobart, a class in film introduced me to director John Huston’s gritty The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  I especially enjoyed the movie for its depictions of urban (according to the movie, Tampico), and wilderness Mexico, and for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya and his memorable performance as a comic, yet cold-blooded, bandito. 

Another course introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a book in which graduate student Castaneda narrates his apprenticeship with a Mexican sorcerer, Don Juan Matus, who prescribes peyote for enlightenment.  Castaneda’s “structural analysis” of Don Juan’s “teachings,” which consumes half the book, bored me.  But, given that I was now well into experimenting with mescaline and LSD, I devoured the passages in which Castaneda trips on peyote in the spacious, glowing desert of northern Mexico, a place that seemed much more conducive to visions than the cabbage fields and dense, dark woods of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Hobart’s location.[1]

[1] Critical studies of Castaneda have today convinced me that his tales of “Don Juan” are pure fiction.

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