It was about 7:30 am. The sun was bright, the wind was one incessant gust and the two-lane road was empty. Dressed in black pants, black down jacket and my blue and white Converse sneakers, I moved slowly South along the road’s wide, packed-earth edge. I moved slowly due to the wind it is true. But also, for the first time in my life, I was fasting from both food and water; and with an unknown distance to walk before me, I was highly aware of conserving energy and letting the even flow of breath determine my pace.
To the East on my left, the road gently hugged the base of the ochre, reddish and brown foothills. To the West on my right, the expansive, open valley floor stretched for miles and sloped upwards quickly into jagged peaks nearing 10,000 feet high. The wild winds kicked up enormous clouds of the signature, salty earth in the valley’s center and I loved it all. I loved the vast, welcoming space, especially with barely any cars passing by. I loved that liberated feeling when an adventure is finally beginning; and I loved surrendering to the open road before me.
About two miles from the campground, I rose up a small hill and, right on cue, that feeling quickly dissolved. About ½ mile off in the distance, there were 8-10 cars filling the Golden Trail parking lot, my initial, hoped-for destination. Again, my heart sank in brief disappointment. Again, I breathed to center myself and get present to, as my wife Christina often says; “what really wants to happen next.” Again, my journey was being sculpted.
In this case, I began to sense an invisible force field preventing me from going any further South. It was truly palpable. I just stood in the road, unable to step forward. Uncertain what to do, I played it out in my head: If I did walk down to Golden Trail, I’d then have to navigate other hikers in terms of finding the solitude I sought. It might be a few miles into the desert from there, and given my commitment to ‘put in an appearance’ at my car each morning, I realized the further South I went, the further I’d have to walk back and forth each morning. This was exhausting to even consider, and I was drawn to just lie on the earth and pause. The Eastern side of the road had been plowed at some point, likely after flash floods had washed tons of sand-colored earth into the road; and for a moment, I imagined I was resting on a 3’ high snow bank and it was magically relaxing.
I lay there a few minutes, staring blankly at the bright blue sky. As relaxing as it was, I also had that all-too-familiar wondering ‘And, what about getting there already?’ Minutes passed breathing to let that go before the whooshing sound of trees in the distance grabbed my attention and I pulled myself up. I crossed the road and headed west toward the open valley floor. I trod over gorgeous, empty rivers of earth that had been sculpted by the rain, leaving the impression of Mother Nature’s wildness. And one-quarter mile further on, I walked amongst the trees, following my nose and repeatedly asking that wordless question, “Does this feel right?” It soon didn’t, and I walked away back toward the road; the wind rifling through those stumpy Cottonwoods was too loud and because most of them were close to dead or dying, it was not the vibration that felt most compatible with, as Riun had said the day before, “the infinitely absolute vulnerability of the womb.”
I headed back toward the spot where I’d initially paused on the road. The foothills to the East loomed both large and inviting, with so many entrances to choose from. I hiked up the wide and gentle incline toward the rounded, ochre and brown mounds, appraising their formidable size. I was amazed by the dynamic, undulant waves of how they cascaded upward. I saw myself rambling up to one of the higher plateaus to find my spot, when the wind began to gust harder, quickly chiseling away that vision. Clearly, I wasn’t interested in ‘fighting’ with my experience any more than I might already be doing unconsciously and it was another moment of shaping and being shaped by the journey. To the best of my ability I was allowing Spirit to guide me, to let the entirety of the experience sculpt me, not my ego. My ego had wanted the four days, four nights, top of the mountain, extreme shebang to prove something. My Spirit wanted nurturance, a safe place to expand in and hopefully something a little more protected from the wind.
When I reached the base of a deep, brownish-red foothill, the carved-out swath of rain and floods invited me further to my left. It curved side to side for fifty feet and brought me past two small, green desert holly bushes to a modest, nondescript draw. I stopped and looked around; it was an area no bigger than a one-car garage, albeit with rocky inclines in all directions. The wind gusts lessened slightly and much to my surprise, it felt perfect. I was surprised because the spot didn’t feel grand in any way; it felt so aesthetically insignificant as there were dozens of similarly shaped spaces all along this range of foothills. I was also surprised because I could just barely see the road some 300 yards to the West and I admit it was a challenge to believe that would be ok. As I tucked myself a little further back into the odd, bowl-like space, I felt far more discreet and waited. I wanted to hear how it felt when a car did go by and when it did, rather than upsetting me it inspired me to breathe in and out fully and audibly. It turns out my breathing had drowned out the engine. I was sold.
I set my backpack down next to a torso-sized boulder at the center and flattest part of the space. I pulled out the yellow towel and the light brown blanket from the main compartment, laid them on the widest part of a tapering channel of earth before me, and then plopped down on my back. I am embarrassed to admit that I was so excited and relieved to have finally claimed my spot that I didn’t even create a blessing to mark the moment. No bells, no prayers, no offerings; just me giving a moment to take a break from the wind and rest. Perhaps that was blessing enough.
It was deliciously warm lying in the sun, but I soon grew distracted. The ground beneath me was uneven with numerous small, palm-sized rocks jutting up through both the towel and the blanket. I wiggled to move onto my side, pulled a few of the rocks out, re-settled myself and looked around. The rocky terrain rose to a twenty-foot high plateau on both sides and behind me. I could see where the rain had made tiny pools in a slender, stepped valley behind my head and then I momentarily lost it. My thoughts became a pinball machine of sharp, sudden self-criticism; “There’s no way you can call this a vision quest! You aren’t on top of a hill; you can’t draw a flat circle around you for the slopes, and you won’t be sitting in one exact spot for 4 days straight now, will you?” Then, literally shaking my hands to shift my thinking, I remembered something else John the Medicine Man had said; “You’re going to be tested. It’s 24-7 to hold the focus. You must pray constantly.”
Now, I was raised Catholic and attended church regularly until I was 18. From then until now, I have sampled many other spiritual practices and moved in and out of periods of regular prayer, so I thought I knew a lot about ‘connecting with the Divine.’
Inspired by the echo of John’s words, I rose up from the blanket. I calmly grabbed the oak cross, dream catcher and Tibetan bells out of my bag and kneeled on the blanket. I held the cross in my left palm and the bells and dream catcher in the right hand. I closed my eyes and centered myself in the rise and fall of my breath. The wind was screeching across my down jacket and literally moving me around, challenging me in my wait for Spirit to move me. I must have waited 4-5 minutes and Spirit was clearly testing me, to make sure I was really ready and willing.
Then the floodgates smoothly burst free; I rang the bells, inspiring a cascade of spontaneous, toning “Oms” to divine the moment. When the last “Om” was complete, I surrendered to a flow of words with barely any pause for nearly 20 minutes. I called in God, Great Spirit and the Divine Life Force pulsing in every living thing; I called in all my benevolent ancestors; I called in my spirit guides; I called in the elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether; I called in the Ascended Masters, the Divine Deities and my Guardian Angels to protect me, to guide me and inspire me; I prayed for clear visions of what to do next in my life and for how to live in the highest and most loving service to all beings. I prayed with gratitude for my wife and all the love and riches my life is filled with. I prayed so I could breathe more powerfully into the present moment. But, mostly I prayed for healing with my experience of being in the womb and I prayed for healing with my mother and family of origin. I breathed in and out fully; praying the bigger womb of the Earth would hold me in it. And finally, after this feast of frenzied rambling, I went silent.
I listened to the wind and the sound of my breath. I listened to the blessed calmness of my thoughts. And I listened to the stillness of the space and felt complete.
I rang the bells three times.
I waited until the faintest echo could be heard.
I bowed slightly, setting the cross, bells and dream catcher by my bag.
Then, I shifted to sitting cross-legged and thought about my mother.
Perhaps, more accurately, I thought about forgiveness and my mother. In the wake of my prayer, I felt my heart was more open, self-less and clear than it had been in a long time. Staring blankly at the earth before me, I could see the prayer had created a field of forgiveness in my heart; forgiveness for the drama I’d created with her over the last few weeks, and forgiveness for my ego’s desire to push her away. I could let it go now.
This was such a welcome revelation; a big sigh flew from my chest and I rolled gently backwards. I turned to protect myself from the wind and came face to face with the torso-sized boulder, a rock comprised of dozens of other rocks. I breathed there for 10-15 minutes, just savoring the experience as best I could; until the shapes and textures and the violence that must have forced all those rocks to merge soon distracted me. I closed my eyes and my brain swiftly began to replay scenes from an odd assortment of films I’ve enjoyed over the years- The Bourne Trilogy, The Princess Bride, and, Blade Runner among them. Like a conveyor belt, chaotic scenes of fights and chases kept scrolling across the flat screen of my mind, creating an apparently soothing form of companionship.
I say ‘apparently,’ because I quickly came to see how human is my addiction to the past, to something known, to the ‘fight’ for life. By expanding my heart so much in the prayer, in the words of my mentor Gay Hendricks, I had “hit an Upper Limit.” I’d broken through an imaginary ceiling of being, such that my heart and Spirit felt alive, present and willing to expand, but my brain wanted to stay stuck, ‘safely’ in the past.
This awareness inspired me to breathe in fully and audibly again. The sudden rush of new life was not unlike pulling the plug on an obsolete appliance or removing a crusty old ‘pacifier.’ I kept breathing deeply and fully as I had all morning and the day before, centering myself back in the present. Still lying face to face with the rock, and not unlike some amphibian with no lungs or gills, I envisioned breathing in through all the pores and cells of my skin- even through all my clothes. My body started to feel expanded and gently juiced by the new current of possibility. I was ready for more.
I rose up again, grabbed the cross, the bells and the dream catcher and began a new round of spontaneous prayers. I felt captivated and energized, as though I’d found a new rhythm. And I rode the waves of that rhythm- praying, resting, going unconscious and coming back to prayer- for 5 more hours until the day turned to night.
Then, beneath a vast canopy of stars, a whole other rhythm was born.