solo vision quest
55 hour fast, alone in utah desert country. Photo Gallery here.
I was sitting on the red dirt atop a mesa in the middle of a deer trail, sobbing and telling the dead stag to, “Get up. Get up. Get up.” It was just lying there, clearly dead, so surely rotting into the earth that it was absurd for me to be there, hands in my lap, ears throbbing, asking of it the impossible. Its bulk was tremendous. Majesty cut down. How it died I didn’t know or understand. It looked as if he had just laid his body down, antlers scraping into the desert floor, and died right there.
“Get up.” Nothing. “God dammit, get up.” Nothing. I took a deep breath. Blinked my eyes. Vision cleared. I stopped crying. Confusion took over. No way. There was simply no way.
I stood up on weak legs, waving my arms for balance. I sucked in air through my teeth, cheeks feeling hollow. My stomach cramped and I cried out, hands clutching my lower abdomen. The pain passed. I walked forward.
Well, shit. That was no dead deer.
Jesus, I thought. I’ve just spent the last minute telling a fallen log to “Get up.”
I was forty hours into my vision quest, and things were getting weird.
Okay. So, I’m going to be straight up with you – I’ve really bitten into the spiritual here in Durango. Like swallowed the hook, the line, the sinker sort of thing. The guiding community is set up for it, there’s this undercurrent of deep energy flowing up through the earth and into our work. A part of being successful in the job is knowing and understanding oneself. Through that self-awareness I can identify my own patterns in relationship, better unpack a student’s motivations, and use these insights to shape my guiding style. It’s like using the Force, a Jedi for good, but the Force is just spending time with ourselves in an intentional way. Which is hard. I mean, for me it is. It’s painful. To sit with myself is painful. To be alone with myself is to open the door to all the hurt I’ve boxed up and put away in my hoarders attic. To be alone with myself is to pull the curtain back and expose all the gross deformities of my wounded child, twisted and bent. To be alone with myself is to consciously sit in the sewage of my own overactive mind, to tell the thoughts whirling around my head, this hurricane, to shut the hell up and be still so I can sit in silent repose. Namaste motherfucker.
I’m not very good at this. I don’t like to feel pain. I feel pain when I am still. So I don’t sit still often. I fill my days with activity. Exercise, mostly. It’s my main coping skill. Being alone is hard for me. I hate it, and actively avoid it. If I’m trying to fill an afternoon I’ll go to a coffee shop and soak up the energy. I don’t like eating alone. I want to talk. Wanna dance? Let’s dance! Watch a movie – great. The night has come again and I’m staring at the ceiling and feeling the temperature drop and I’m alone with my thoughts again, oh no, uh oh, they are creeping up from below, climbing rib cages, slithering up my throat, into my brain and now they’re there and I’ve got insomnia. I’m spinning out. I’m feeling terrible about the time I caused emotional hurt for someone I care deeply about. I’m remembering when I lied. I’m creating stories in my head about the future – fuck! Fuck! The future, OH MY GOD, the future.
I am a head case that clogs the mental pipes with thoughts, and clears them out with activity. But when I write ‘clears them out,’ I really mean ‘flushes,’ but not out of my body. Down deep. Beneath the solar plexus. They’re there, waiting to be dredged up. And like some beast of the darkness, a balrog waiting to rise in its fiery rage, stand the demons do, and I have to distract myself again.
So I suppose, at the heart, this is what my vision quest was about – to go into the wilderness without distraction, and see what it’s like to sit with myself.
And, let me tell you, it was weird.
I drove out to the Utah desert on a Thursday night in Crunk, my 14 passenger short bus. I didn’t have a map, or much of a plan, just a seven gallon water container and a backpack minimally packed with camping gear. This being my first vision quest I didn’t hold much in the way of expectations. I just knew that I wanted to get out into the desert, get naked, starve myself, and sit around and wait for something crazy to happen. In the small bits of research I conducted before the quest, these steps seemed the logical progression. Desert, nudity, fasting, visions. Bill Plotkin outlined it well enough in Soulcraft, and I’d spoken with a number of friends who had gone on either guided vision quests – where a seasoned quester & oftentimes licensed therapist creates ceremony and holds space for clients before and after they step into the wild, and offer a physical safety net in case an evacuation needs to happen – or solos, like what I was attempting.
I liked the idea of a solo because I wanted to go deep within the desert on my own terms. By that I mean I could start the quest when it felt right, I could camp exactly where it felt right, and I could stay out as long as necessary. What I lost in the solo was the opportunity for community before and after the quest, and for someone to help me process the emotional work, but oh well. I saved several hundred dollars taking the solo route, and for what it’s worth it was pretty neat, getting to go into the desert with a sixty pounds of water strapped to my chest and a mesa off in the distance that was screaming, “CAMP HERE! ON ME! ON TOP OF ME! HERE! HERE!”
So that’s what I did. I ate my last meal Thursday night, camped in the bus, and Friday morning woke up, collected my belongings, stepped outside and locked the doors. I pulled out a sage bundle from my backpack, lit the bundle’s end, on the dry green shoots, and let the smoke wash over me. Sage is a sacred smell, and a tool for smudging. I smudged my eyes, mouth, arms, legs, and heart. I blew out the sage. Closed my eyes. Opened them. And turned around slowly. It was truly beautiful here. I took the first spin to orient myself. The second was when the mesa began hollering. “Yoo-hoo, hellooooo! Over here!” Third spin was when the mesa became more insistent, and I knew that was where I’d set camp.
I began walking. At first everything felt great. But lugging around seven gallons of water takes its toll, and when I came to the base of the mesa, two miles into my quest hike, I was streaming sweat and exhausted. It had been twelve hours without food, and I was getting hungry.
Climbing to the campsite took a long time. There were frequent stops. Some cursing. A little pleading. And I got to the top, rewarded with a view.
Beauty in the valley below. A horizon stretching on and on. Life moving below. I could see, off in the distance, a white glint that was Crunk. It was comfort that, should I need to evacuate myself, I knew exactly where my ride out of the desert sat, waiting, wondering.
I set camp. Strung up an A-frame tarp as an emergency shelter. Dug out a fire pit and lined it with rocks. Harvested dead juniper trees and snapped branches. Collected dry juniper bark for kindling. Made a little area for my belongings, which consisted of a knife, saw, journal, pen, headlamp, camera, and sleeping gear. I brought no books, no music, very little which I could use to distract myself.
With camp made I stood, hands on my hips, took a deep breath, surveyed my little spartan home, and exhaled. Shit. I was bored. I looked at my watch. Double shit. I’d only been away from my bus for three hours. How long had I been fasting? Thirteen hours. Oh man.
I began pacing. To the valley overlook. Back to camp. To my tarp, back to the overlook. I was playing with the knife in my hand. I sat down, journaled, stood up, sat back down, started whittling a spoon, got a blister, stood up, took off all my clothes, walked over to the overlook, sat down, meditated for what seemed like thirty minutes, was only four minutes, got cold, stood up, put back on my clothes, made a fire, watched the fire die, made another fire, overfed it, dispersed the fire, watched it die, went to the overlook, watched the sunset, sat down, journaled again, stood up, made another fire, put a bottle on the fire for hot water, drank hot water, sighed, fidgeted, sighed, moved away from the fire, got cold, moved closer to the fire, got hot, laid down so that my feet were hot and head was cold, looked up at the sky, and saw the moon.
“Holy crap, spooky.” I said. And it was. A goblin moon. Full and yellow. It hung heavy and low in the sky, clouds woven around its base. As my eyes focused on the moon a face seemed to turn out of it, two eyes and a howling mouth, tortured. I looked away, disgusted by the face leering down at me, and after a few breaths looked back again. The face turned in the same way, slowly from the left, the full scope of its torment apparent.
“What do you want from me, moon?” I asked. Obviously this isn’t the question to ask moons. They don’t want anything from you. They just want to be seen for what they are. This moon didn’t reply, just kept on with its silent scream. I would look at the moon, mutter to it, look away, and check to see if it was still in pain. It was. Every time.
Down in the valley below I could see the occasional headlight of a lonesome car rolling through the nighttime desert. I grew paranoid, thinking that one of those cars would see my bus, stop, check out the scene, break in, and steal everything they could carry. I would stand on the rocks, the goblin moon offering shadows of the valley below, and watch these headlights roll across the horizon. My paranoia grew so strong I had to have a conversation with myself.
“Look, man, you’re spinning out. You just want to convince yourself that these cars are going to break into Crunk because really, you want an excuse to blow this desert quest and go eat at Denny’s! So chill out. You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
The pep talk didn’t help. More cars rumbled along the road as the night progressed. Maybe one every thirty minutes. I couldn’t take it anymore. I threw up my hands, shook fists at the screaming moon, and rolled out my sleeping bag as close to the fire as I could get without melting the bag. I figured the more I slept, the better. Sleep is therapy. Sleep is escape. I was wound up, stomach caving in on itself, considering eating toothpaste as I brushed my teeth. Could I say I fasted if I ate my tube of toothpaste? Doesn’t that turn your mouth black or something? Too many questions to answer. I spat out the toothpaste into the fire, watching the foam bubble and burn off in the blaze, and thought it was like my angst, then snorted at the comparison. Fasting is supposed to bring mental clarity and stimulation, and here I was comparing my inner demons to boiling toothpaste.
I stared at the moon for a long time before falling asleep. The face never changed.
When I woke the fire had died, the moon had slipped behind the mesa, and the day was taking over. Tendrils of pink curled out from the east, and the desert opened itself to the perfect light of dawn before the sun has crested the horizon. A day and a half without food and I was feeling good. Like, great. I popped up, uncovered coals in the fire, added some kindling, and blew the flame up. I harvested some pine needles and made myself pine needle tea, yum yum, journaled, meditated, worked some more on my spoon, and journaled again.
“Whew!” I said. “What a morning. It’s got to be getting close to, what, noon?” I looked up at the sky, saw a sheet of clouds covering up the sun, and looked at my watch instead. It was not even eight in the morning.
“Oh my God.”
That was when I decided to go for a walk. Just a short one, up the hill. Maybe from there I could see Shiprock, this jagged mountain fifty miles south in New Mexico. Just up the hill, that’s it. I didn’t know that I’d soon be crying, begging a dead tree to relive in antlered glory, a stag deer risen from the desert grave.
Here’s what happened: At the top of the hill I couldn’t see Shiprock so I decided to hike a bit further along the mesa’s upper plateau. I fell in with an animal path and took it for a long ways, staring off at the horizon because the clouds had broken and sunlight streamed down from above, the colors of yellow light and red desert making this orangish haunted haze. It was as if the insides of a pumpkin had painted the day’s light.
Walking for me has always held an opportunity for meditation. If I choose to move intentionally through nature I find myself in this zen, centered state where thoughts neither judgmental nor elaborative relate directly to the reality around me. I feel the breeze. I smell the sage. I taste desert grit on my tongue. I am here and only here, wanderer of immediacy, a present-focused being. I am master of none, body to everything, a planetary chakra to my own universe.
I was in the flow. I suppose the fasting played a large role in the experience – after forty hours without food I felt alive, in the sense that with each breath I felt the hollows of my cheeks, the undersides of my ribcages, a lightness unique and demanding. I’d been told to expect this feeling, along with the physical crashes afterwards, cycles which would begin to ebb and flow like the waves and tides of a growing ocean as the fast progressed.
Never before had I fallen into such a deep meditative state. I realized, slowly, that I was in a field of sage that stretched as far as the eye could see. I spun in a circle, arms out, fingers scraping sage spindles gnarling their ways upwards, closer to the sun. I laughed, eyes shut, and then opened them. There it was. On the horizon. Shiprock. I made for an overlook, white hoodoos at the mesa’s end, a canyon’s edge. I scrambled up and around these hoodoos, hopping over fifty foot crevices, laughing, working towards the hoodoo’s end where I could stand and scream with my arms out, triumphant. There was strange power at work here.
And whatever strange power was about, whatever was channeling up through the earth, through my feet, and up into the deep spaces behind my solar plexus, struck me dumb with sad wonder on my walk back to camp. There was a dead deer lying on the trail in front of me, a noble stag, cut down.
My vision. The clearing of my eyes. A dead tree.There was confusion and not much else. On that ridgeline I didn’t attempt to process what I’d experienced. It wasn’t until I’d arrived back at camp that I began turning over what had happened.
It turned into a strange inner conversation.
I just had my vision. Well, it was more of a moment, rather than a full-blown vision. What are you talking about? I mistook a dead log for a dead deer. Yeah, but that’s not all that hard to do. I bet your REAL vision will be coming up soon. I don’t know, that felt like a real vision to me. Yeah, maybe if you want to force it, sure. Tell everyone you saw a dead deer. But I’m saying that the real vision is just around the corner, if you keep your mind open to it.
I was conflicted – what had I seen? What did it mean? Who was I to create meaning from a long moment in the desert? God, my stomach hurt. I was feeling so tired. I sat down next to the fire pit, holding my stomach. It was hardly noon. How was I supposed to pass the time?
I felt empty. The ebb had come. I laid on my back in the dirt next to the dead fire and stared at a sky blanketed in gray cloud. I lifted an arm out to the side and felt how heavy it had become. I kept talking with myself, turning over the vision, unsure if I’d see anything else, feeling too weak to rise and walk over to the overlook.
I had slipped into a pattern common to me – replaying a moment so often that it shifts its shape and texture. I minimized the dead deer, and used it to create a foundation of expectation for the real vision to come. My ego rose up in its heavy handed manner, took over the locomotion driving cognition and pressed the pedal to the floor. Spinning out, spinning out, spinning out. I do this, I do this, I am so stuck in my head that I forget life below the neck. The demons, oh the demons, swarming over me. I’d managed to take the vision and feel ashamed about it. I wasn’t good enough to see a real vision, just have a moment with a downed juniper. I wasn’t good enough. I’m not good enough. I became the victim and accuser, torturer and tortured. Slave to the master of my own creation.
I fell asleep, full of self-hate. I didn’t dream.
I woke hours later. The day was slipping away. Clouds had parted and an afternoon sun was slanting through. Beams of light speared the valley below, lighting the rolling hills, adding depth to the canyons. I felt better. I was riding a rising tide. I had energy. I built the fire, made some pine needle tea. I noticed, walking around camp, how poor my balance had become. I tottered like my old grandmother. I squeezed at my midsection and felt a firm rebound around a shrunken stomach. Even with the energy I’d woken to I could feel a deeper weakness settling in. I looked at my watch and saw that I’d been fasting for almost two days. I whistled, and walked over to the overlook with a log of harvested juniper in one hand, knife in the other. I sat down and began to whittle a new spoon.
Making a spoon is easy, once you learn the process. The key is the process. The steps we take. The decisions we make around the shaping of the bowl, the width of the handle, the tapering of the mouth. To make a spoon you find a length of hard wood, about eight inches long and wide enough that you can’t wrap your fingers around its circumference. Stand the log up vertically. Take your knife and bisect the blade edge with the log’s middle. Take another log and beat against the dull edge of the knife so that the blade edge sinks into the wood along the log’s center line. This is called hammer chopping. Hammer chop until the knife splits the wood in half, and you have two equally sized half-cylinders of wood. The flat side of one of these pieces will be the top of your spoon, and the rounded side will serve as the foundation for your bowl. From there, decide which end of the spoon will be the handle and which will be the bowl. Grasp the bowl end of the spoon and begin shaving the handle. But don’t create your ‘final’ handle. It takes working in tandem, making a bit of the handle, a bit of the bowl, tapering the mouth, then going back and working the three again, and again, and again, until you are able to create a spoon out of a piece of wood. If you made the handle first and bowl second and taper third you would inevitably whittle off the previously perfect aspects of the spoon. Knives don’t know better. But we do. We have the power to control the knife.
Just like I have the power to control my mind. I don’t have to believe everything I think. My mind is a blade, slicing the joy away from moments. It shapes my experiences. It cuts me deep in fictional, fabricated thought. And so I create spoons of my reality, cutting them to sizes dictated by mood and moment.
That afternoon I whittled a beautiful spoon. The sun dropped behind the horizon and a brilliant sunset met the end of my day. I felt better about my quest. Like I’d gotten what I came for. And that fast approached the time I’d need to leave my mesa and return home, for my body was going through a change I didn’t find healthy. Another ebb was rolling in.
The night grew and I built a large fire. I watched cars go by and was relieved to not feel the same paranoia which drove me the night before. But exhaustion did drive me to sleep early. I was asleep even before the moon rose to turn its tortured face to me.
I woke in the middle of the night. One in the morning. The moon was huge above, lighting the valley in moonlight shadows. My stomach was cramping terribly. I woke clutching my stomach, and rolled in my sleeping bag until the pain passed. I stared at the moon and the moon stared back at me, twisted face looking down at this desert loner. Another wave of pain struck me, and I decided to evacuate. It outweighed the insecure part of me which yelled, “But wait! The expectation was a 90 hour fast! What will you tell others, that you wimped out?” Yes. I wimped out. Or maybe I listened to my body and was secure in the feeling that I’d gotten what I’d stepped into the desert for – intentional time with myself and a better understanding of how I fill time and space. Take your pick. I don’t give a shit either way.
I packed camp by moonlight. Took down my unused shelter, packed my bag, smashed embers into eraser-sized cubes, poured the remaining water out on the fire pit to be safe, dispersed the rocks lining the pit and then buried the pit, dispersed the harvested firewood, swept my camp for any signs of me being there, blessed the space with another round of sage smudge, thanked the campsite for my time there, thanked the mesa for allowing me to rest on its bulk, took a deep breath, and stepped down off the plateau.
Hiking through the desert at night by the moonlight was a spiritual experience. I felt the calm coming off the monochrome hills. Heard only the crunch of boots on shrub hard with night frost. I saw my breath blowing in front of me, watched my vision go in and out, a constant adjustment to the unique lighting. The water jug, now strapped to the back of my pack, clunked its plastic body against the fabric of my pack, rhythm to my step. I walked down the plateau, across the rolling hills, dropped a canyon, and climbed out to meet my bus. I felt totally at peace. Alive and grateful for the desert energy. Ready to return to normalcy. I was headed to Denny’s.
Nobody had broken into my bus. All was exactly as I’d found it. I rummaged in a cooler and pulled out a carton of chocolate milk. After 55 hours without food I don’t know if anything’s ever tasted so good.
I drove away from the desert and back to Durango. I laughed and cried and listened to music. I let the experience sink in before I attempted to process it. And now, two months later, this is what I’ve taken away. Deers, according to Ted Andrew’s fantastic Animal Speaks, are the totem for “gentleness and innocence – gentle luring to new adventures.”
I haven’t been gentle with my move to Durango. I’ve been characteristically hyperactive and semi-frantic in the transitions that came with my new life out west. I’ve ignored the gentle parts of myself, have let them shrivel to death in my desire to find some comfort, some security, in this new and confusing life. There is no innocence in ignorance. And so, for me, the dead deer was a calling to the part of myself that hates sitting still, with accepting the thoughts and feelings that come from being slow and intentional and gentle.
Will the vision quest offer me that avenue for change? I’m not sure. But it feels like I see that path for the first time, and that way, way off down that road there might be a family of deer, gently grazing off the roadside, waiting to be spooked by the heavy tread of a man walking along a fresh trail.