Fifteen years ago I climbed this hill, carrying only a bedroll, a sheet of plastic, some twine and a gallon jug of lemon-maple cayenne water to carry me through a three day fast. Today I am sitting on the rock that I slept on back in 1997, listening to spring awakening the mountains. Here a hawk, there a crow. Further down in a valley, an owl calls, a fox barks.
The wind comes, I hear it chasing along the ridge through bare branches, coming closer until it passes overhead like a wave. Last time I was here it was July, mountain summer sweet and green. I slept in the forest with no roof and no tent for the first time in my life. When the sky showed first light the air began to stir and the sound of birds began, like the wind is coming today, first faint from afar, then moving closer riding the edge of sunrise. Theoretically I knew about this everyday miracle: birds begin to sing when the sun rises. But on the mountain you could feel how the moment of sunrise changes with every degree or earth’s rotation, so the birdsong came sweeping up my mountain with the rising of the light. It was the most joyous awakening!
The purpose of a ‘vision quest’ is self-examination, seeking for one’s purpose or path. As I trudged up the trail today I felt all the weight of fifteen more years on my body, the successes and failures of the past decade and a half. There were moments in my hike when waves of disappointment and anger came: Why is this so hard? Am I really this out-of-shape? Where did fifteen years go, and what did it get me? Did I waste my life?
These questions were taking me in a gloomy direction, and I felt less capable and more miserable as I climbed. I was sure this had been easier last time. See how out of shape you are! Even though I know better than to indulge in negative self-talk, here it was again: further evidence of my disappointing performance in life.
I came to a place that might have been my camp. It was smaller, scrubbier than I remembered. These rocks were small and lumpy, not grand, like whales rising out of the earth. The trees were spindly and thin, not grand old oaks. I was sinking further into dissillusionment. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. I looked around and saw all the things that didn’t feel right. This couldn’t be the place.
Rising up, I climbed on. The trail seemed easier: fewer brambles and stumplets to trip on. I breathed deeper; feeling the thrust of my climbing, how the earth pushed back against each step. I noticed an old fence line was following the trail. Yes, that felt right: a fence had run behind my campsite of yore.
I rounded a bend and there was C, sitting on my rock. “That’s it!!” I cried, and scrambled up to survey the space. Yes, this was right. The fence, the view, the rise and dip of the surrounding land. Here I had put my bedroll. There: that’s where I first saw the bear. Here: here is where I stood my ground and declared my space. Here is where I stepped away from my fear. My friend grinned and I filled with joy.
The gift I received here in 1997 was a release from fear and doubt, and it came all at once in the first hours of my three-day quest. I made camp, cast my circle, said my prayers and took a nap the dappled shade. What woke me was the sound of someone smashing through the underbrush, and I thought: “what a clumsy hiker – learn to walk quietly in the woods!” When I stood I saw it was an enormous bear, circling around my camp, snuffling. I was terrified. I wanted to run, but knew this was a Bad Idea. When I remembered that I had almonds in my pack my heart sunk. Not only was this totally against the rules of the fast, but I didn’t believe I could survive without eating. Not even for three days. And now, I was going to be eaten as a result of my mistake, my lack of faith.
The bear wandered out of sight. Better, but not good. Now I didn’t know where it was. It could be on the way to eating another one of my fellow questers. I was afraid to shout out: so far the beast had not seen me. I prayed, furiously. I trembled and cried, silently. I wished with all my heart I hadn’t cheated by bringing that forbidden food.
When the bear reappeared it was behind my camp, just behind the fenceline, I had found my spirit, my courage. I stood tall, grounded my feet into the mother rock, and struck my walking stick against the rock. “This is MY space.” I declared, out loud.
The bear stood up on hind legs, front paws hanging, and peered at me with tiny eyes through his shaggy fur. When he saw me, the bear reeled back, eyes widened, bleeted, and RAN crashing through the brush. He was afraid of ME!! Afraid! I felt such a rush of giddiness and releif, I laughed, and danced for joy. Then I took my contraband food and ran down the trail, found an enormous hollow tree, and threw away my almonds, finally willing to face the terrors of fasting.
After that, the rest of my time on the mountain was bliss: I was a child in the Garden, one with the mountain, the stars, the earth. I sang, slept, meditated, wandered, wondered and marveled at the dappled realm, the mossy spring, the patient turtle, the fearless butterfly, the laughing raccoons, the sound of wind in leaves. It was a being-alive bliss. I belonged, belonged on and to the earth.
My lack of faith and my fears were my biggest obstacle. It is, disappointingly, still true today. The details have changed, but it is still my limited thinking that holds me back.
But all those years ago, I healed something big, and felt a sense of rightness, of belonging that has grown with me since. It has helped me become my better self, and find more joy in relationship with others.
I may not have even known what the questions were, when I quested here before. But still, if you are listening, the answers will come.