Julian looked me in the eyes but we did not speak. I knew he had no doubts that I would be able to do this. Another member of our group, a young man, had been talking for days about how he didn’t think he could handle three days in the wilderness. He was certain that he would panic and have to return to camp. I was shocked by his fear. He had always seemed overly confident in his abilities and slightly disdainful when people couldn’t keep up. I had never considered that I might give up and return back to camp. But I, unlike him, had learned how to appreciate my own company. It wasn’t the loneliness that worried me.
I met Julian’s stare and smiled. I didn’t say good-bye and I didn’t look back. I walked up the mountain feeling a mixture of calm and nerves. In my backpack was a small fleece blanket, a pair of rain pants and jacket, a small piece of rope, a carabiner, a journal, some incense and a lighter. That was it. No food, no water, no tent, no sleeping bag. My first task was to find a suitable location to spend three days in the mountains with no shelter.
Julian had told us how he had done his quest, years ago. The purpose was to rid one’s self of all distractions. No food, no water, little movement, little clothing, and no sleep. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to purge myself of all of these comforts. The two I was certain I would need help with was staying awake and staying warm. As I walked up the hill I whispered “Please help me stay warm. Please help me stay awake.”
About halfway up the slope of the mountain I found a spot. It was fairly flat and sunny, but with some shade from the trees. I found some rocks and made my circle. One rock facing east, one south, one west, and one north. The circle was large enough to lie down in if I curled up in the fetal position. Once I stepped into the circle, I would not leave until Julian called for us all three days later. I would spend two nights on that mountain, sitting in that circle. I stepped in, sat down, and looked out over the prairies, my view for the next three days. I tried to prepare for the battles that lay ahead: the battle with my stomach who would want food; the battle with my throat that would want water; the battle with my body that would want sleep; and the battle with my mind that would want to give up.
I watched the sun move across the sky. It started in the east. I lit incense when it moved to the south and when it set in the west. When I tired of sitting, I stood up and sang the songs that Julian had taught us. My favourite was the warrior woman song. I sang it over and over. One of the elders had told us that this solo was a sacred rite of passage. When we returned from the mountain a part of us would be left behind to allow a new part to emerge. Traditionally it had been a child that would go alone into the wilderness, and return to the community as an adult. We had talked about what rites of passage we celebrate, officially or not, in our culture. Many of them were not terribly sacred; getting drunk, losing one’s virginity, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school. For me this rite of passage was sacred. It was time for the part of me who was childlike and lived in fear to be replaced by the wise warrior woman. It was time for me to grow up.
When I stopped singing I sat down. I remembered what Julian had told us about how he handled the boredom; he sent a message of gratitude to every person he had ever met in his life. I started by thanking the mystery that is this universe, what they called Great Spirit or Creator. I thanked the people that were closest to me for all that they had done for me. As I did, tears streamed down my face. I felt so much love and appreciation. I sent messages of love to my grandmother who had died when I was a young woman and completely messed up. She had never seen me come out the other side, but I felt her presence at that moment. I thanked people who I had not seen in years. I thanked the people that had hurt me, for the truth was that I wouldn’t be the person I was without that suffering, and I was proud of who I was, who I was becoming.
Right before night fell I started to hear rustling in the trees and bushes around me. Julian had told me about pack rats in the mountains but I had never seen one until that night. They peered at me from behind the trees. They had a rat’s face, but a squirrel’s tail. They did not fear me at all. One of them ate the rope that was holding my backpack to a tree and stole my carabiner. I took a step outside of my circle to rescue my pack.
I had been wondering how the mystery of this world would help me to stay awake. Now I knew. Pack rats. As it got darker, they started to come towards me. I couldn’t believe it. They were trying to climb right up on me! I thought animals were supposed to be afraid of humans! I spent the next several hours on guard, waiting for them to come into my circle and then shooing them away. Bernard, a member of our group, had found a spot within hearing distance. Just as the pack rats started invading him space he heard me yelling frantically, “Shoo!!! Get away from me! Shoo!!!” He thought that was quite hilarious.
As the pack rats finally left me alone I looked up at the sky. There were millions of stars. They covered the sky with their brilliance. I was completely in awe and watched the moon and the stars slowly move across the sky for hours. I had never spent a night awake under the sky. It was magnificent. As I watched I marveled at the fact that the moon, what the elders called “Grandmother”, had a direct influence on the rhythm of my body; my moon cycle. I had never really thought about that before, the impact something so far away had on the part of my body responsible for conception, for creating new life. I had never felt so connected to something in my life as I did to the moon that night. She was my grandmother. She was watching over me, protecting me. Even though it was the middle of the night, and I had only my small fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I felt cozy under her gaze. I had heard later that they had been cold in the camp below, but I felt warm.
I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. My body was taking notice of the lack of food and water. Their absence impacted me in subtle ways. At times I felt a strange kind of peace that I imagined one might feel when death was very near. I lay down with my knees bent. I smelt the leaves from the wild strawberry plants. It gave me comfort. What I felt most profoundly, though, was how the earth supported the weight of my body. Julian had talked to us about the Gaia principle, that the earth is an actual organism; mother earth. I felt that, the earth was cradling me. She was there fore me, nurturing me, there was nothing to fear. I realized that even though people may have let me down, abandoned me, hurt me, the earth would always be there. If I felt alone I could always seek connection and comfort the soil, the trees, the moon and the stars, the living world around me I had always taken for granted.
That night as I was fighting off the pack rats who were determined to eat the very clothes I was wearing, I heard something crashing through the bush towards me. I froze. I was sure it was a bear. Traditionally part of the purpose of the vision quest was to meet one’s spirit guide, an animal. I had hoped that mine would not be a pack rat. Although I thought that having a bear for a spirit guide would be incredibly cool, I prayed that it was not a bear running straight for me. I looked up and out of the trees came a gigantic buck. He stopped only a few feet away. I held my breath. He lifted his head and antlers and I could see his breath. He was majestic. Right at that very moment a packrat, sensing my sudden lack of vigilance, took the opportunity to jump and landed right on top of my head. I fought a scream but it was too late. The buck leaped back into the forest and was gone. I savoured that moment when it felt like the buck and I were the only two beings in the entire world. It felt important somehow, and I wanted it to sink into my bones, my blood, become a part of me.
The next morning I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. I was impatient for Julian’s call. The second I heard him I packed up my things and walked back to camp, where a feast awaited us. The young man who was sure that he would not make it, had returned to camp the first night and kept watch over the fire that they kept burning the whole time we were in the wild. I returned from the mountain a woman. I may not have rid myself of all of my fears, but I had a powerful ally. My warrior woman had awakened. She is the one who helps me to fight for my dreams. Over the next years of my life I needed her fierce encouragement, for reaching out for my dreams has been both the scariest and the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.
Stay tuned for the next installment!
Aside: The solo is offered as part of the adult programming at ghostriverrediscovery.com out of Calgary, Alberta.