The night began in meditation. Standing barefoot a few feet from the torso-sized boulder, I gazed at the sunset for close to thirty minutes. Following a protocol I learned several years ago, one derived from ancient Vedic and Egyptian texts, I was meditating with the sun as a form of worship. Far from making me blind, I was in heaven; breathing slow and full and gently spiraling my hips, I was savoring the final, most tranquil moments of the day.
True to my nature, I became so exalted by this warm and blissful state I conveniently let go of what was coming- the cold, cold night. I’d been checking the forecast for ten days prior to my arrival in Death Valley and I knew the temperatures were expected to dip into the mid-30s. This was not unlike knowing there was a huge wave out in the ocean coming toward me; I figured there was really no way to imagine the force and magnitude of that wave until I was in it, so I trusted I would deal with it when the time came. Now that the time was upon me, I realized I probably could have done better to prepare by replacing my almost useless, twenty-four year old sleeping bag. I didn’t even think of this, though, as I was genuinely inspired by the Medicine Man’s instruction that what I bring be ‘minimal, nothing but a blanket;’ so I balanced this awkwardly in my brain, making the concession that an old sleeping bag was probably not unlike a simple blanket.
Minutes after the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the temperature began its sharp descent. I started to feel the coming wave and scrambled excitedly to get ready for bed. I put on long underwear beneath my khaki pants, doubled up on my wool socks, put two down jackets over the hooded sweatshirt that covered my wool sweater and long underwear shirt, and added wool gloves and a wool hat before quickly jumping into my sleeping bag. Once nestled inside, I got a quick taste of what I was in for; the wind whipped ferocious gusts over and through me, quickly sending the first of many shivers up and down my entire body. Undeterred, I held my gaze fixed upon the sky, giggling audibly between shivers, waiting for the first stars to appear.
In those first several minutes, I felt like a kid in a movie theater about to see his favorite superhero. Given my vision quest’s intention to deepen in feeling with my heart and my creative self, it seemed fitting that Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, would be the first light I saw. Immediately after Venus appeared, my eyes began darting all over the sky, excited to catch the next arrivals. And as each new star appeared, I felt such a surprising sense of joy and excitement. My body registered the visceral ‘blip’ of each arrival I caught, as if each star was passing through a gelatinous membrane. I even started to playfully mimic the sound out loud as stars came into view; “blip, blip, blip.” And with each blip, there was also a tangible lifting sensation in my heart. The experience seemed to deftly touch on so many fields of inner experience; my delight at having that many more twinkling ‘companions’ to share the nighttime with; having that feeling when a new light of love or friendship starts shining in my life; and, more delicately, witnessing that expansive moment when a new baby is born and I am duly touched by its fragile emergence.
As exalted as my spirit felt, it wasn’t long before my eyes grew tired from all the movement. Having very little concrete knowledge of the constellations, things slowed down even more and I began assembling patterns and shapes straight above me, as if that portion of the sky was now my own private etch-a-sketch. Not unaware that I was just beginning the step-down process toward sleep, I might have lasted only 15 minutes at this, the sky becoming so full of stars it overwhelmed me. And then, most peculiarly, the sky went flat.
I kept blinking my eyes to be sure if what I thought I saw was really happening. Having not slept much or well the night before, and having essentially become a ‘breatharian,’ (one who survives by breath alone) I wasn’t sure if the sky flattening was pure delusion or simply an optical illusion. Whatever it was, I was fascinated; it was so different from what I’d ever experienced before. Intellectually, I knew I was looking into deep space, but I started to feel as though I was creating a solid barrier at the edge of my world; in effect, a womb. Within minutes of awakening to this place of comfort amidst the increasing cold, the relentless wind and the deepening darkness, the twinkling stars gently lulled me to sleep.
I’m guessing I woke up about an hour later and I was disoriented and mildly cranky. I was cranky because when I looked up and to my left, at what turned out to be Orion’s belt, I could tell not much time had passed because it hadn’t moved very far. I was disoriented because I’d lost awareness of my breath and had unknowingly fallen down the first steps of what would gradually become the dominant, chaotic current the rest of the night. I began to wrestle with the blanket beneath my sleeping bag. My toes, despite being covered by two layers of wool socks, were beginning to stiffen, so I wiggled them vigorously and wrapped the blanket around the lower end of the sleeping bag. From then on, I distracted myself from the cold and wind as best I could by watching the sky, occasionally catching a glimpse of a shooting star. Occasionally I followed the blinking lights of jets and imagined who was in them, my little life a reflected dream of their little lives. And, occasionally, I latched onto the path of a satellite (or maybe it was the space station), in the form of a silent and stealthy presence, magnetically arcing its way around the earth. I’d watch it until I couldn’t see it anymore and always think; “I wonder how long it’ll take for it to come back around again?” Then I’d be inspired to wait and stare at the same spot, but reliably forget, get bored or, if I was blessed to, fall asleep for perhaps another hour.
The waves of brief unsettled sleep and brief unsettled waking continued unevenly throughout the night. While awake, I tracked the movement of the stars, a tracking that ranged from sleep-deprived fascination to the unconscious annoyance of wishing they’d move faster already. Attempting to sleep, I would toss and turn, moving to my left side to avoid the wind from the North, then to my right side to avoid over-aggravating a left shoulder injury. Once I’d finally fallen under, I’d wake up sometimes with the blanket unfolded from my feet and have to unzip myself from the bag briefly to re-wrap the woolen covering, then hunker back down again. And there were times I woke up in the almost comical, most hysterically victimized version of myself, mumbling to the stars, “C’mon, c’mon! Would you fucking move already? It’s fucking freezing here!”
Yes, I was losing it. I was frustrated that I was not much closer to morning and the new warmth of day. I was frustrated often by the rocks beneath my back and butt, jutting up in all the ‘wrong’ places, compelling me to adjust my position or repeatedly reach beneath the towel and scrape them away; but more than all that, I think, I was frustrated that I wasn’t letting go into the prayer of my experience. I’d fallen into a state of such mindless suffering. So it was, in the most poignant and perfect way, that the first night of my vision quest had become the polar opposite experience to that which lit up my first day; gone was the rich, nourishing focus on my breath; gone was my heartfelt commitment and audible devotion to prayer; and gone was the sense of willingness to surrender gracefully to whatever Mother Nature had divined for me.
After the Big Dipper had risen in the Northeast and moved halfway across the sky to my right, I finally began to surrender. I finally began to breathe with some awareness again. And I finally let go into dreaming….
My mother was driving her BMW SUV. My oldest sister was in the passenger seat and I was in the back, alone. My mother was younger than she is now, but my sister and I were our current ages. It was a cloudy afternoon in late spring and we were driving on a bridge over the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts, not far from where we grew up. Actually, we weren’t just driving; we were barreling across this bridge. And this was no ordinary bridge: it was a one-lane, uncovered, tires-turning-on-open- boxed-metal-grooves-kind-of-bridge with no guardrails. The span was about 2/10ths of a mile across and as we sped toward the verdant, leafy bank of locust, oak and maple trees, we must have hit 60 miles an hour. The moment we did, as if it knew exactly what it was waiting for, a barrier in the form of a 4’ x 8’ plate of thick metal mesh shot up just at the end of the bridge.
My mother, hardly known in real life for anything resembling ‘reckless driving’ floored it. As we approached the metal gate, I quickly took stock of what awaited us on the other side. There was a flat landing area, roughly a 10’ drop off from the bridge. Unfortunately, it extended no further than 10’ beyond the bridge before the hill of trees rose up at very steep angle. We slammed through the gate, my mother hit the brakes, and we plunged toward the packed-earth landing. With the car airborne, she turned the wheel sharply to her left positioning us perpendicular to the bridge. Her movements were precise and perfectly timed, as if she’d done it every day of her adult life. No surprise to her, we landed like a cat; upright, on all fours, and ready to spring into action.
My mother threw the car into reverse and gunned it again. Instantly, we were rocketing backwards and parallel to the river beneath a canopy of overhanging trees. At some point on this harrowing stretch of hardened-earth road, my mother morphed into my father. As the dirt road gave way to pavement, he hooked the car sharply sideways to the right. Now, I had been looking side to side up to this point, but not behind me; and when he turned the car we went skidding across an ever-expanding intersection of streets that reminded me of an enormous, empty church parking lot.
Suddenly, through all that skidding, we'd been transported to the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, two hours East of Northfield. It was raining. There were gas stations at each corner of the intersection, one of them also sporting a Dunkin' Donuts. The streets were almost empty, and as we careened across the intersection, everything went into slow motion. I remember feeling grateful for all that space, the less likely we would back into anyone. I was also grateful that everything had slowed down so I could finally catch my breath.
Perfectly on cue, the moment I began to feel safe, everything moved back to normal speed. My father stretched his right hand further behind the front seat for greater leverage and he shot me a menacing, penetrating look. His eyes became a wild ocean of blue, and I braced myself. Completely uncharacteristic of the normally submissive and respectful person I had been in his presence while he was alive, I spontaneously yelled, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING??!!”
With his foot still on the brakes, he spun the wheel to the left, sending us lurching oddly to our right and into a grey Prius. We gouged our way through the entire left side of that car, and shattered all the windows of both cars. I remember ducking down and closing my eyes just as the glass came flying at me; then, everything went black.