My mother said, “I just think it’s risky, dangerous and foolish!”
It was 6 pm and I was in the center of Death Valley, CA, talking to my mother 3,000 miles away in New England. I was standing on a low berm of earth and rock on the edge of a flat, tree-less, RV Campground. Generators hummed nearby and the wind was gusting hard, challenging me to maintain my balance. To the West there was the faint orange glow from sunset dissolving over the jagged, rocky ridge that ran the length of the Valley. It was a dramatic setting, and as my history of calls with my mother went over the years, this was playing out to be one of the most dramatic as well; I hadn’t heard her this upset since my father died, 16 years earlier.
I said, “I’m sad that I’ve upset you. It wasn’t my conscious intention. And, I’m sad I was so avoidant and then hasty in communicating with you. But, I assure you, everything is going to be OK.”
She said, “So, you’re still going to go through with it aren’t you?”
I paused. I heard the echo of concern and sadness in her voice. I heard the echo of something she’d said earlier in the call; that the last thing she wanted was to receive any bad news on her birthday, two days from then. And, I heard the echo of my own breathing. I’d long been a practitioner of various forms of breath-work and meditation, but more recently, since my time earlier in the day with Riun, that sound had become my deeper ground; a place I could instantly and consciously claim to center myself.
I said, “Yes, I am still going through with it. But, honestly, I don’t know how long it’ll be. My intuition tells me it might be three days, but who knows? I may receive my visions sooner and be done.”
We said good-bye a few minutes later and I looked up into the rich, dark night. Of all the things she said, I savored the words “risky, dangerous and foolish” the most. While not overly cocky about it, I do admit that my ego was mildly pleased; after months and months of not feeling as though I was a man who, as the author David Deida puts it, “ is living at his edge,” my mother’s words inspired a different perspective.
Still, the call had shaken me somewhat. I felt uplifted by the fact that my heart was genuinely open and receptive to her experience, but I began to ask myself, “Why had I created this whole drama with her anyway “What did I want without really knowing I wanted it?” Staring at the stars twinkling overhead, it didn’t take long for the answer to come shooting through me: “attention.” Right, I’d wanted my mother’s attention. Instead of asking for it consciously over the last few weeks in a nurturing dialogue about the vision quest, I was getting it the old-fashioned, unconscious way; by causing a little trouble. My awakening to this was good news, yet my awakening was also an alarm bell to where I still needed to mature and wonder about how I might let go of this old pattern.
Standing back on the berm of earth, I drew in three quick, deep breaths to shift the energy feeling of the moment, then headed for my car. Sitting in the front seat, I prepared a ‘last supper’ of smoked salmon with a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes and avocado. With the dome light on and the wind jostling my car side to side, I thought about my relationship with my mother. Even though I am 47 years old, for her, I will always be ‘the baby,’ the youngest of five. While I may loathe the moniker, and the ways I have unconsciously still acted like a baby over the years, I had to respect her experience and her feelings. Then I remembered what Riun had said about having compassion for the absolute vulnerability of the womb. It occurred to me it wasn’t just my experience in the womb; with my mother’s birthday looming in two days, it was hers as well.
After dinner, I spoke briefly with my wife Christina. We shared the highlights and epiphanies of our days and I thanked her for being such an amazing support. All along the way, she encouraged me to be solid in my intentions and she encouraged me to give the journey all the time it needed to bring the clarity I sought. I told her I loved her and how blessed I was to have her in my life, and then I huddled up in the back of my car. I had purposely left my tent in LA knowing I wasn’t going to use it during the vision quest; but I honestly hadn’t even considered where I would sleep the night before the vision quest. I knew I’d be testing the limits of my ability to handle discomfort during the vision quest, so I reasoned one night sleeping in the back of the Prius would be a perfect way to acclimate. And it was.
The next morning, I woke up well before sunrise, sore, cranky and rattled from a poor night’s sleep. Being positioned diagonally and largely unable to stretch out; sleeping in a sleeping bag that was over twenty years old and had definitely lost most of its down-filled power; and the fact that the wind had woken me every few hours by literally shaking my car, all took its toll.
After a quick trip to the bathroom, I stopped at the information kiosk on the edge of the main road circling the camp. Standing before the 4’ x 6’, plexi-glass-covered bulletin board, I ravenously absorbed every line of text on every posted sheet of paper. If nothing else, I am a man who does my best to respect authority and the laws governing all places. In this case, I wanted to make sure I was aware of all the rules of the park and campground. I’d driven the night before to a trailhead a few miles down the road, thinking I might leave my car there and hike into the desert for three days; until I read the sign that said, “No overnight camping.” The sign on the bulletin board in the campground delivered a similar, momentary, blow: “Do not leave vehicle unattended for more than 24 hours.”
To me, my journey to the vision quest was a living sculpture. Each step along the way- from the preparatory conversations with Theo and the Medicine Man, to my time with Riun, and then the call with my mother- was a bold thwack of mallet on chisel shaping the form of the journey. This latest bit of news was one of the boldest thwacks yet; for in one line, those words effectively fractured my ideal vision of sitting in one place for several days and nights, momentarily splintering my emotions and sinking my heart. I re-read the line to be sure I had it right. It didn’t mention what the consequences were, but I knew I wasn’t going to risk creating any more drama.
I turned and faced my car. The sun was well up and bright now, careening shards of glare off the RVs before me. Once again, I closed my eyes and centered myself in my breath. Despite the trails of diesel from nearby generators and cigarette smoke swirling downwind from a few of the locals enjoying their morning smoke, I inhaled deeply. I knew that over the next few days, my breath would essentially become my food and water; my breath would help me maintain strength and clarity of mind when my emotions wavered; and my breath would be my deepest and truest form of nourishment and self-love.
Within seconds, I realized this ‘setback’ was a matter of perception. It might dampen my ability to call this a ‘true vision quest,’ but it suddenly made the journey more creative, challenging and that much more my own. Standing on the loose gravel by the road’s edge, I closed my eyes again and imagined breathing in and up from the bottoms of my feet. I gave all my attention to expanding my awareness of where my nourishment could be coming from- the rocky desert floor, the layers of earth beneath me and even the roots of trees far off in the distance. The more fully and consciously I breathed in this way, the less affected I was by this ‘setback’ of ‘divine sculpting.’ The less affected I was by it, the more perfect it became. The more perfect it became, the more I was reminded that there was ‘my vision’ for this quest and there was also the bigger vision that was beyond my control. I assured myself I would be best served to go with the flow and embrace the distinction.
Back at my car, I finished organizing my backpack. I placed the Tibetan bells, dream catcher, wooden cross and essential oils in the outermost compartment. The main compartment held everything else- sleeping bag, hat, scarf, extra pair of wool socks, extra down jacket, long underwear, towel and a woolen blanket. Inside this compartment, I tucked my hand and body lotion, toothpaste, sunscreen, dental floss and night-guard into a black mesh sleeve. I turned off my phone and placed it under the front seat and closed and locked the car. I swung my pack onto my back and gazed upon the open desert before me. I wanted to take in where I was headed and mark the threshold of departure. Then, I heard a voice say,
“Good morning! Finding everything OK?”
I was facing southeast, absorbing the sunlight on my face and saying a little prayer. I was enjoying the Mystery of the moment, on the edge of a great new adventure. And abruptly, I was wondering how this new voice would be sculpting my journey in the days to come.
Before me was a man with graying hair beneath a green baseball cap, strong hands and a welcoming smile. He was seated in an electric golf cart holding a brown clipboard with white papers on it. The moment I took all this in, my brain registered him as the ‘authority;’ a kind version of authority, but authority nonetheless.
I said, “Yes, absolutely. All set.” We introduced one another and spoke for about five minutes. Roger, originally from Ottawa had been coming to Death Valley for ten years with his wife and he was now one of the hosts for the campground. He asked about my visit and I told him I was looking forward to making a lot of day hikes, which was essentially true. I thanked him for his time, stepped away from my car and started to head for the desert.
He said, “You got enough water? Make sure you have plenty of water.”
I gestured to my backpack, lifting it slightly and said, “Yup, all set.”