Pursuing Illusions

We are tempted to spend much time and treasure following spiritual dead-ends



The summer of 1969, an itinerant Hatha Yoga instructor gave me a ride to Guadalajara, Mexico. Fred was in his seventies but amazingly agile at performing difficult yoga postures for awestruck audiences of retired seniors. We were traveling south on I-25 through New Mexico, a few miles west of the “Jornada del Muerto,” part of an old 1,700 mile trade route from Santa Fe to Mexico City.

Two large-bodied, pink-speckled lizards scrambled across the road. Fred dodged them both, swerving the truck. The momentum pressed me hard against the passenger door. “Wow, they look like prehistoric dragons. What are they?” I asked.

“Gila monsters, the only venomous lizards in this hemisphere. How doctors discovered their saliva can stabilize glucose in Diabetes 2, I’d like to know.”

Distressed by the oppressive heat, I tried turning on the A/C. But it blew hot air. “My A/C system needs recharging,” he said apologetically.

Three miles later, Fred announced like a tour guide, “This is close to where the world’s first nuclear explosion was tested in 1945 at the White Sands Missile Range. Trinity was the code name used by Oppenheimer, who headed the project.”

“Why Trinity?” I asked, fanning myself with his National Geographic magazine.

“As Oppenheimer watched it detonate with the brilliance of a thousand suns, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

“What did he mean by that, I wonder?”

“He was identifying with Shiva, the destroyer god of the Hindus Trinity. J.R. Oppenheimer, as head scientist, needed justification for the immense destructive force he had unleashed upon the world. He had just unleashed Hell’s Gate, and he took solace in hoping the destroyer god, not the devil, had acted through him.”

Fred’s explanation gave me pause, as I studied the barren landscape whizzing past: mostly desert shrubs with scarcely any shade. Heat waves shimmered off the black asphalt, distorting the far horizon.

“God, it’s hot! Is that a lake I see way up ahead?” I asked, wiping my shirt sleeve across my sweaty brow.

“Nope, you’re seeing a desert mirage. Before the Spanish came with their horses and wagons 500 years ago, the Apache natives had walked this trade route on foot and knew where the scarce water holes are. Then, early white settlers, traveling this trail without Apache guides, chased mirages and died of thirst. That’s how this 90-mile stretch got the name “Jornada del Muerto.” I like to translate it the journey of the dead.

How do you know all this?” I asked, kind of wishing I had never left home.

“First off, I love reading about American history in magazines like that one you’ve got in your hand. But as for the Hindus religion, that’s a long story, son.”

“Well, you’ve got me as a captive, but curious, audience. I can hardly wait.”

“Starting way back in my forties, I owned and operated a profitable gold mine that took me away from my sweet wife and kids for weeks at a time. I worked that mine in the Andes for 20 years. It was profitable but took much of my time and energy. My wife got to calling herself a miner’s widow with two fatherless boys.”

“For her, you were on the journey of the dead,” I said, gazing at his hooked-nose profile.

“It was heartbreaking, and I grew tired of the constant worry and stress. And for what? I’ve met miners with more treasure than King Solomon but who’d gotten fooled like me. I had a tiger by the tail and couldn’t let go. I had work crews to pay, feed, and shelter; valuable equipment to maintain; loans to pay off. My family lived in a luxurious home back east, and my two boys got the best education. But sadly they had no dad to play football with or see them make a touchdown. I get sick thinking about what we all lost, just so I could chase the mirage of immense wealth.”

“How’d you end up knowing about the Hindus Trinity and Hatha Yoga?” I asked before sipping a bottle of warm water with a fungus aftertaste. The sip reminded me of my disappointment in trying to swallow Hinduism, with its myriad gods and karmic reincarnation philosophy.

“Hang on a bit, I’m getting to the best part. Seems Mother Nature had a say in curing my mining obsession. I was set back after a torrential downpour unleashed a flash flood. I was stunned watching how ferocious an overflowing river can be. Nature humbled me to my knees, and that’s when I decided to quit mining for good.”

Was it hard to sell your gold mine?” I asked, wondering if that water poisoned me.

“Well, as you can imagine, that depended on a lot of things. But I put out feelers and right away got a couple of interested buyers. They did ‘due diligence’ and found my full disclosure factual: I was a legitimate operation. That’s a rarity in the mining business. Sellers will overstate future assays, or seed a mine to make it look good. Thankfully, I got my price after leveling mountains of legal paperwork.”

“You finally got to go back home to your wife and family?”

“Sadly, I was too late. My wife left me for another man, then got half my money. My two sons got married and had kids that they won’t let me see or speak to.”

“So, let me guess: You took a world cruise and ended up meditating in India?”

“Right you are, young man. I was thankful, too, that I’d escaped my own version of ‘Jornada del Muerto,’ chasing after the mirage of wealth that nearly killed me. I was pursuing the illusion that I’d be much happier with lots more gold. But it had become for me a ‘fool’s gold’ that would lead to spiritual death.”

“Now you give slide shows about your guru, Sai Baba, and demonstrate Hatha Yoga postures. I’m sorry, but isn’t Hinduism another worldly illusion you’ll have to shed?”

“Not sure what you mean, son?”

“Hinduism has no towering grandeur. It certainly has no Jesus Christ, offering water and shade for the desperate, weary wanderer like me. I wonder why you, and a brilliant scientist like Oppenheimer, would abandon Christianity for Hinduism.”

“Yeah, I guess Hinduism just appeals to us. Anyway, I hope your Christ takes into account that I give free transportation to penniless mendicants and truth-seekers, Hindu and Christian alike.”

“If I had tried to hitchhike this stretch of desert on foot, I might have died of heat, thirst, or banditos. That’s in Christ’s ledger.”

“Thanks for assuring me I won’t come back a Gila monster.”

“No one comes back as a Gila monster or a murderous Hitler. That’s Hindus nonsense.”

“On this we can agree,” he suggested, “that it all comes down to treasuring the noble-minded souls we chance to meet on our journey, who are more precious than fine gold. People like you, son.”

“Thanks, Fred. But enough talk. This heat is killing me. Head for that mirage up ahead.”

“Couldn’t have steered us better. My treat… an ice-cold soda and a bite to eat.”

He drove into a truck pit stop. Our conversation went silent for a while. I was speechless while contemplating the pursuit of illusion.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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