Chinese guardian lions are thought to have been around since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). These lions are generally found in pairs, representing yin (female) and yang (male).
They stand watch day and night, rain or shine as is their duty, but nobody expected them to show up in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Here, they sit through blistering temperatures for a good majority of the year for one purpose: to protect.
The male, which is said to protect the structure itself, has his right front paw on a ball representing the Earth, while the female, who protects the interior of the structure and those inside (or the living soul within), has her left paw on a cub.
These lions are generally found in front of temples, homes, and restaurants, warding off evil and protecting those within.
I have always been fascinated with these creatures, especially since visiting Japan where they are more prominent and revered than in the United States.
Needless to say, finding a pair in the middle of the Mojave was a welcome surprise.
I was recently returning home from San Diego, having decided to take a slightly longer detour through the Mojave. I had not seen anything but sand and scrub for a few hours. I was contemplating my thesis for my Elephant Journal apprenticeship, life and all the other things we think about when we’re alone with our thoughts. It was around this time that I noticed a marble statue.
I pulled my car off to the side of the road and walked about 500 feet to the statue of the male lion.
Around the statue were gifts of money, rocks, water—offerings to the lions themselves or something to help those in need. There was also a visitor’s logbook filled with messages of hope, many from people heading west for Marine Corps training, some looking for a new life, some reuniting with their families and friends, some just being appreciative of the statues and those stopping to visit them.
The feeling from these messages and the statue alone brought tears to my eyes.
I left my own piece in the visitor’s book and headed to look for the female lion, knowing that she had to be to the west.
After about a quarter mile, I spotted her and pulled off to the side of the road again. Luckily there was nobody for miles or they may have thought me a little crazy walking out into the 100 degree weather when I could be sitting in my air conditioned car.
The feeling I got from the female lion was something I have never felt before. I broke down in the middle of the desert and sobbed.
It should have felt awkward crying in front of a stone lion but it felt more like crying in the presence of a loved one as they comfort you.
Once I had pulled myself together a little bit, I noticed that the female lion was in a little worse shape than the male. It looked like she had been used as target practice, but there she stood, still proud even with her broken pieces on her pedestal, watching over the Mojave.
She also had more monetary offerings placed around her.
I stood with her for a while before I walked back to my car, gathering three coins of my own to place at her feet. I didn’t ask for anything except future guidance and help to get to a better place.
After leaving and continuing on my way, I knew this was the topic on which to write my thesis.
These lions made me reflect on a few important aspects of life and what we can do when we are faced with them. Here they are for your benefit as well:
Weathering the storm:
Life can beat us down pretty bad from time to time. When we take hits that leave their mark, we can either choose to crumble, leaving nothing but a pile of ash in the desert to be blown away, or we can pick up our broken pieces and remain on our pedestal, offering our comfort to those who are as broken as we are.
Look beyond the surface:
On the lonely stretch of road, there were many people that sped by, not giving even a glance to the desert guardians. Nobody stopped during the time I was there either.
If people want to see us, they will take the time out of their day to trudge through what seems like empty desert to sit with us. Often times, they will bring with them what little they have to help us through our struggle, most of the time expecting little or nothing in return.
We will be affected by those who stop by:
In the logbook, there were not many selfish wishes, graffiti, or other things you might expect to find in a logbook in the middle of the desert. Most of the messages were well wishes, the telling of stories, or thank you’s for taking the time to stop to visit the lions.
Of course, in the female lion’s case, she had been shot pretty bad, but there was an apology left in the book, saying that she was mistaken for a target and the shooter was incredibly sorry for doing so.
Most of the time, people only want us to succeed. They will take the time to wish us well and help us on our journeys and leave their own mark on us. What we choose to do with these marks is up to us.
Wherever we are, we’re not alone:
In the Mojave, with the nearest populated town being almost 50 miles away, it can get incredibly lonely.
The lions stand guard as a pair, they’re always with each other through the storms that come. Neither is lonely because the other is always close by.
In life, even when we feel truly alone, we don’t have to be. There is at least one family member or friend that will be with us no matter what life brings our way. They may live miles away, but we know that if we pick up the phone and call or go visit, things will be picked up right where they left off.
The long road:
At times, life can seem incredibly long and tedious, much like driving through the Mojave.
If we keep driving through, however, sometimes there are little surprises along the way that pick our spirits up and allow us to keep moving through, even if, at times, they seem like they are few and far between.
This was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I did not expect lions to have such an impact on me, but as I drove away, I felt that there was some change on the horizon.
I will be going back someday to these lonely guardians of the Mojave and I hope that if given the chance, others reading this will too. Hopefully they will have the same powerful impact on others that they did on me.
Footnote: For anybody interested, the lions are situated between Kelbaker Road (which can be reached from I-40 and Route 66) and the ghost town of Amboy, California.
Author: Mercedes Trujillo
Editor: Sarah Kolkka
Images: Author’s own & See-ming Lee/Flickr