I shot up from the earth, completely startled and confused. I panicked, looking around for my father and sister and the wrecked-up cars. All along I was thinking, “Where am I? How did I get into this sleeping bag? What the fuck am I doing here?”
Then I felt the brisk, sharp wind cut across my face.
I felt my sore ass itching to be freed of the bag.
And then I felt the wooden cross, lodged tightly in my right hand. With all the nighttime drama I’d created, I’d forgotten how committed I'd ben to holding it the entire night.
I set down the cross and quickly stowed the sleeping bag with full-bodied, shivering excitement. I grabbed the bells, cross and dream catcher and dove into a standing prayer. Looking upon the sun-lit mountains across the valley, I ran off at the mouth for several minutes. All I could do was give thanks; thanks for the fact of surviving the night and thanks for the daylight and the coming warmth; thanks for my family and all my friends; thanks for the stars and their companionship, and thanks for God’s presence, especially when I thought I’d lost it. I was reverent, but I was also cold and antsy, so within minutes I was done praying and ambling toward the road and the campground two miles North.
Walking was a little awkward at first, not only for the full, cold and harsh winds I had to keep leaning into. It was awkward adjusting; to gaining and keeping a rhythm of breath and motion. I had to really focus on pacing myself, keeping my thoughts centered and trusting that in those first few minutes I wasn’t going to pass out. Occasionally, as it had throughout the day before, my stomach would ripple long gurgles through my belly. Each time, a full breath instantaneously followed and the belly was quickly, divinely satiated. Those full, expansive breaths kept circulating my mental attention to and through the rest of my body, offering me the succinct experience of having just eaten and ‘feeling full.’
Within an hour I was back at the campground. Within moments after traversing the super-smooth, paved entryway, I was sitting in my car, brushing my teeth and waving to Roger, the campground host. And within moments after that, the scene turned Mayberry RFD-surreal as he drove his golf cart to the entry station I’d just passed, 200 yards to the South, and raised the American flag. In my mind, the flag was actually checkered, for I’d successfully crossed the finish line. I’d made it back and complied with the rule of "not leaving your vehicle unattended for more than 24 hours.” I’d taken care of business and it was time to get back to my spot.
I felt invigorated and empowered on the walk back, spontaneously deciding to go off-road for some of the journey. The strength in following that impulse and having the wind at my back sailed me to my spot with ease. Then, for the next 24 hours, I did everything I’d done the day before, with minor variations. I prayed, napped, got bored, and got excited and, I peed twice. Now, that experience was one of the more surprisingly enjoyable ones, not simply for the obvious relief implied. I enjoyed knowing that despite not eating or drinking anything, the more mysterious, inner and unseen parts of my body were still functioning. I also enjoyed the sense it made that each time I peed, there was less urine and the color of it became a deeper, warmer yellow.
The temperature through the day and night was a little warmer as well, though I still struggled greatly with the sleeping bag and nearly frozen toes. Fortunately, I struggled with the stars a little less and remembered to breathe more often. This sent me to sleep much more quickly when I did wake up, which seemed similarly as often as the first night. During the day, my prayers became deeper, richer and gradually involved more of my body than the day before. There was definitely the feeling in me that I had to up the ante; I had to let go of thinking it had to look the way it did the first day. If the first day was just about ‘getting through it,’ to some degree, I realized I had to build momentum and raise the bar of my intent. I intuitively felt the need to engage more of my whole self so I began moving, bobbing, shaking and spiraling my hips while in prayer. Then, on one particular occasion, my prayers got a little wild.
It began as simply and improvisational as they all had- holding on to the cross and dream catcher, quieting my mind for several minutes, then ringing the bells, and giving thanks to a myriad of deities, guides and Cardinal Directions. After ten minutes or so, the words cut out, giving way to toning and droning chants that had me entranced. This entrancement was inspired and it gave way to bigger movements in my body. These gave way to setting down the prayer tools and beginning to growl and roar. As it had in many movement and ecstatic dance classes over the last five years, the primal force at the core of my being was seeking its expression.
Before I knew it, I’d stripped off my clothes and was on my hands and knees atop the blanket. Facing east, my head a few feet from the torso-sized boulder, the sun was hot and prickly on my back. I was breathing deeper and more actively into my belly, stirring the cauldron of emotion there. I was tapping into the awareness of my inner emotional worlds. I was creating an active engagement with the currents and waves of elemental energies moving in the body, the same elemental waves and currents present in every living thing in the Universe.
Through all this conscious attention, the beast came through the Universe of me loud and clear. Unfortunately he didn’t stay long. Before I became self-conscious of his presence, though, and before I knew what the hell was happening fully, I was transported somewhere new. There were moments of scrumptious growling and an undulation of my body that was divinely surprising. There were moments where I could feel the invisible presence of a ‘tail,’ and I kept looking over both shoulders to savor the mystery of its ghostly presence and feel it’s navigating power. And, there were loud, sharp guttural snarls accompanied by full-bodied thrusts as if I was fucking the earth and the whipping winds with my entire being. That said, and as difficult as it may be to convince otherwise, it was not “sexual,” in the gross, human sense. It was more the universal, primal physical expression, briefly void of any human identity. It was deeply satisfying, yet, it ended quickly; I was ‘hitting my edge.’
In this case, it was proverbially “double-edged;” on one side, there was a fear of the unknown- after two days with no food and water and then the beast coming alive, I was concerned I might get hurt if I really gave over to it. The second part involved maintaining a sincere and authentic thread of balanced connection with that beastly intelligence. The ego of my athlete and performer personas wanted to take over and ‘act out’ the experience of growling and spiraling; to maintain a sense of control, as if it knew what to do and how to make it cool and powerful, based on the past. Then there was the beast within who was not interested in the mind, or proving or performing or re-treading safe and established patterns from the past. The beast was only interested in unleashing what was stuck and liberating its primal power to experience the fullest satisfaction in being alive. I felt enlivened to have this sudden and most nourishing expression come through, but I was also sad I didn’t let go with wilder abandon. Regardless, exhausted by the expenditure of all this mental and physical energy, I lay down, draped the towel over my body and fell asleep.
Upon waking, I slowly got dressed and continued my prayers, shifting the attention and focus. I let go of everything that had happened to that point and I began to ask for specific signs and visions in the outside world. I finally directed myself to the heart of what the vision quest was about; to see the animal that would become my spirit totem, my guide from that day forward. As with every other time I grew inspired, my brain found a way to pull up the reins. By the second day’s end, I was remembering what John the Medicine Man had said on the phone a few weeks before; “The energies are dormant now.”
By ‘the energies,’ I knew he was referring to the animals and the arrival of spring. For, in traditional vision quests, the initiate connects with the spirit of some kind of animal; and this becomes their totem spirit, their guide along the spiritual path forward. For all my praying and apparent willingness, I’d seen very little; two spiders, two unidentified birds far off and a flock of darting, swooping birds close up. While they may have been out there somewhere, I wasn’t seeing the lizards or coyotes I normally might. But, actually that isn’t entirely true.
On the walk out of camp that very first morning, I was shocked to see a coyote curled up just on the edge of the campground, buffering itself from the intense wind and cold. I felt such great empathy for this vulnerable creature and how hungry it looked. And I also felt a great sadness. It seemed to be waiting for the humans to drop a bit of food somewhere and it seemed willing to bear the harshest of circumstances to wait for the tiniest morsel. At the time, I was only present to my sadness and compassion for this creature. Now, looking back, I can see the coyote reflecting my own willingness to suffer for morsels of visions in this ‘dormant’ time.