On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Pi-pita, Bigfoot & Deadman's Hole

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More than sixty five years ago when I was kid about 12 years old, I lived in the remote mountainous country of east San Diego County—a little known place called Dulzura.

During that time of growing up, an unusual find by my brother and I started us on a saga about spirits, ghosts and tales of strange humanoid type creatures; creatures like the famous "Big Foot," sometimes termed "Sasquatch".

These mysterious stories about large hairy creatures seem to always favor isolated dense forests or, deep, dark brushy canyons with streams of water. Now that definition fit the north side of our local mountains to a tee. Often, the remote canyons were especially "deep, dark and brushy," and some with running springs.

So, ever since early childhood there were these persistent stories of a "Bigfoot" creature inhabiting the San Diego County Mountains. Some old-timers on horse back even swore they had seen this creature while riding deep within the remote mountains canyons. With that historical backdrop, here is how our unique, personal, saga began.

Doing what 12 year-old boys do in the backcountry; one day we were exploring the mountains on the north side of Tecate Peak. Tecate Peak is about 4,000 feet altitude and straddles the US and Mexican border. While exploring one of its deep dark canyons we came across what appeared to be some sort of primitive campsite. There were the remnants of a stone fire ring tucked up under an overhanging boulder. And scattered about in the dusty soil were the remains of charcoal, burnt wood and pieces of yellowed bones. The area was such that the ground underneath the overhanging rock remained dry during winter rains. We probed around in the loose the soil— and lo and behold, a surprise! We found a tightly sealed copper container, a little larger than a shoebox. It had no lid or way to open it. We immediately thought it was lost or hidden treasure of some sort. It was rather hefty and when we shook it; it rattled with a sound of sand and gravel, like it had gems or nuggets inside. The copper metal was dark from oxidation and had been skinned and dented. Aside from a couple of strange numbers and letters stamped near one corner, it had no markings.

Making our way through a mile or so of dense underbrush brush, we descended the mountain and carried the copper box back home for Dad to open. At first he was puzzled—and then he said, "I think what you have here is a cremation urn of someone's ashes! Where did you find it?" We explained as best we could, but he found that hard to believe. That prompted some curious stories of old time hermits and cemetery robbers, except that there weren't any white-man cemeteries in thirty-five miles and no known hermits on the mountain.

As it happened; at that time, Dad had been digging a hole on our property under a large boulder. He thought it might be the location of a lost treasure. The reason for his dig is, it had long been said that the property we owned along Highway 94, was at one time, a water-hole stop for the Fort Yuma Stage, locally heard of as the, Campo-San Diego Stage. Beginning in the 1870's, the stage traveled from San Diego on the old Campo Road (roughly parallel to Highway 94) through Spring Valley, Jamul and Dulzura and on to Campo. It headed back west the next day, on its return to San Diego.

Eventually it began going on to Jacumba and then to Yuma. Historical rumor had it that, a stage robbery had taken place here on our ranch, and after the skirmish, the loot was buried here somewhere, but it was never recovered. Being a pretty good prospector and treasure hunter, Dad came to believe the story. To as many old-timers as he could get to support his desire to believe, he re-told the story and inquired of the buried treasure tale.

For a week or so, after work, he had dug a deep hole underneath this huge boulder. He was motivated by the fact the soil was relatively soft compared to the surrounding ground, so in his mind, this could be the burial place of the robber's loot. Being fairly easy to dig with just a shovel, he kept digging down and down and in a couple of directions, to a depth of about six feet. Finally he gave up the chase and so began to fill the hole. Over the few days that he had been digging, he kept saying that he heard various curious and unexplained voices and other noises as he was working in the hole. He wasn't kidding—he was serious. And then, seemingly acting in jest, but also being of a superstitious nature, he named the ghostly voices as coming from Pi-pita, presumably an Indian name of his own making.

Before back-filling the hole, he decided that we should bury the cremation copper urn under that boulder, which we did. He called the hole, "Deadman's Hole," which seemed appropriate. But, looking back, he probably had some historical knowledge of the real "Deadman's Hole" located in northern San Diego County, or else his naming the hole as he did was a rather strange coincidence. After the hole was nearly filled we planted a pepper tree on the spot, next to the boulder.

From then on Dad began saying that those cremated remains in Deadman's Hole carried the spirit of Pi-pita. He told us boys how Pi-pita would begin to appear on moonlit nights and stand on top of the boulder before roaming the hills like Bigfoot. This became a lifelong story that took on its own life. Now, whether it was the moon shining through the moving shadows of the pepper tree, or whether it was really Pi-pita, to us kids, the images of moonlight and shadows on the large boulder became inseparably linked with Pi-pita. From then on, any and all strange or unexplainable events were attributed to Pi-pita, and there were not just a few. Some of those bizarre happenings are real hair-raising tales to be left for another story.

We grew up with a few country kids that lived up on Mother Grundy Mountain and Bratton Valley, a few miles northwest of our ranch, and they also spoke of old-timers telling of sightings of Bigfoot up there. Also the local Mission Indians that we knew well from the reservation confirmed the story of Bigfoot and told us that the tribes say he is most active in the Laguna Mountains. It was just common knowledge with a common thread about an uncommon creature.

So it was, that along with Pi-pita, stories of Bigfoot were a natural part of our conversations because we had heard about him/it roaming the mountains our whole life. The reports seem to indicate that Bigfoot was most often spotted in dense oak groves or dark canyons and, seldom if ever seen out in the open field. Obviously, in the case of Bigfoot, he was no apparition but a real live creature that stood upright like a man, and was as big as a bear! One old rancher claimed that while he was running cattle northeast of Palomar Mountain, near Henshaw Lake, he had shot at it with a rifle from a long distance.

Over the ensuing years, the story took on real credibility when I learned that something similar to Bigfoot had been reported on by the San Diego Union as far back as 1888. For more than one hundred years, and as recently as the past fifty years, tales of Bigfoot in San Diego County have been written about and reported on by others like, Virginia Louise (Swanson) who lived in the Laguna Mountains. In cooperation with the local Indian reservations, she pursued sightings Bigfoot into her late nineties.

In 1888, the San Diego Union reported that along the route of the historic Butterfield Stagecoach, between Warner Springs and Oak Grove, (Highway 79) there was a spring used for a watering hole and rest stop for the Butterfield Stage drivers and horses.

The deep clear waterhole is at the foot of a sharp canyon that carves its way up the mountain into a steep gorge. It gets darker and narrower and the walls get higher as it winds its way back into the thick dense brush and remote wilds. It becomes so dark that the trickling stream at the bottom seldom sees sun.

One spring day in 1858 the Butterfield Stage stopped at this water hole as it regularly did. The stage driver got down off the stage and went down to the water hole for a cool drink and to refresh his horses before resuming the trip. As he knelt down over the pool for a drink, he was horrified to see reflected in the water, a partly decomposed face of a dead man looking up at him. That impression was burnt into the memory of his psyche for the rest of his life. From then on the spring came to known as "Deadman's Hole." Even today, the location can be pinpointed on a topographical map.

In March of 1888 the San Diego Union reported the history of no less than three or four unsolved murders that had taken place in this same area. It is this string of unsolved murders that prompted their strange story of "Deadman's Hole."

The newspaper reported that: "Two hunters had killed a bizarre, half-human half-animal beast in an out-of-the-way place called Deadman's Hole, northeast of San Diego." The creature, it was said, was responsible for a string of gruesome murders.

According to the article: "Two hunters, Edward Dean and Charles Cox, of Julian, decided to explore the mysterious canyon above Deadman's Hole. After a struggling hard through the underbrush and over huge boulders they managed to reach a place about a mile up the canyon where they paused to rest."

To their astonishment they both spotted "an unwieldy animal. From the rear it resembled a bear, except that it walked upright!" According to the report, the men followed it into the shadows of the dark canyon and fired a shot in its direction. "The beast stopped and turned around...and they saw before them the countenance of a human!" Gorilla-like, it was covered with dark brown hair and the huge beast was more than six feet tall!

Then the Union gave this account of its death: "Cox, being an expert rifleman, took careful aim and fired. With a loud scream and cry like that of a human, the beast instantly fell in heap across a boulder that it was climbing." After a short time, the hunters discovered the creature's lair— a nearby cave. Striking a match for light, they discovered the bones and skulls of human victims strewn about, along with that of sheep and other animals. The stench was unbearable.

The article theorized that the unusual creature was the result of a cross between a man and some sort of carnivorous beast. The Union boldly declared that the mysterious deaths at Deadman's Hole were now solved. The strange monster was the culprit!

The report continued: "Edward Dean and Charles Cox had loaded the fearsome creature's body on to a wagon and taken it to San Diego, where it was to go on display the next day."

This sensational article caused a quite a stir in San Diego. Many people inquired where the creature would be displayed. It was reported that many called the newspaper or had gone to the police station to view the hairy, humanoid-like, creature. To their surprise, they were told with a smirky-grin, "It's April 1st —April fools Day!"

So, as it turned out, there never was a monster of Deadman's Hole except in the imagination of the San Diego Union's writers! Believe it or not—that much of the tale is true—it is a matter of historical record at the San Diego Union!

But, just because the San Diego Union made light of what some perceived to be Bigfoot, it does not mean that he doesn't exist. If the Union was using a humanoid-like monster as an April fools hoax in order to discount Bigfoot, it did not make him go away. Ever since 1888, (even during my childhood in the 1940's), there have been too many country people over too many years that have heard too many credible reports—and some have even seen Bigfoot!

So, like Pi-pita, I prefer to think that Bigfoot still roams the dark forested mountains and deep canyons of remote San Diego County. It could be that the two of them have even met. In modern times, Satellites have thoroughly mapped "Deadman's Hole" between Warner Springs and Oak Grove, also our own "Deadman's Hole" in remote Dulzura. Given enough time, someday they may even capture the hairy, humanoid image of Bigfoot. Then what will the San Diego Union report? Will they send out a posse with sophisticated metal detectors on a search and destroy mission? Will they seek to locate and dig up the copper urn, and then try a hoax to discredit the spirit of Pi-pita?

© Ed Keenan

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