“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” -HDT
The Human Quandary: What path do I see my life traveling along? Where, or How, can I best be of service to the planet and to all of its beings? Questions need answering…the desert calls. The Salas ranch provides a haven, though neither a house nor a barn provide protection. A tent will serve as shelter.
The truck bounces along a dirt road passing through barbed-wire fences that divide many square miles of rock, sage, sand, and an occasion cedar. The Sierra Ladrones rise in the south, the Dough mountains in the west, the Sandias and the Manzano Mts to the east. At the campsite…at the base of three mesas, with scrub cedar, juniper and boulders for shade, I quickly set up my tent, open my camp chair, and head for the hills.
Evening of the first day: Returning from a good hike along arroyos and up foothills, I keep track of the sun moving beyond the high red mesa. I stop and try to sense the earth’s rotation 1,000 mph, 465 meters per second, away from the sun. The mesa’s shadow creeps along the adjacent mountain. If you watch too closely or think about it too much, you’ll feel light-headed. Revolution takes longer, yes; yet the years spin away with dizzying alacrity.
Twenty one years ago, almost to the day, I began my seven-day vision quest in the Valley of the Gods, Utah. Twenty one years ago! What did I learn? What was I “told?” What was I given? A poem:
I have been a sailor out on the sea. Where is my next discovery?
Where will I go? What will I see?
Who is this woman born from infinity?
Who is this woman I’m now trying to be?
Teacher, I became a teacher along the way…using art, literature, and philosophical wordplay.
But that was then… Presently, the sun disappears behind the red mesa, going…going…gone. Looking east, across the plain, the shadows continue their inexorable path to the Sandia Mts, forty miles farther. Another hour perhaps before they, too, wait in shadow for our next-day sun. Gnats and mosquitos descend quickly as the wind dies down. Sunset breezes leave these foothills…floating eastward.
I wonder how I will pass the time since I am NOT supposed to sleep (according to Sioux tradition). I am supposed to keep myself awake as long as I possibly can, pushing myself, not giving way to human inclination: the need to sleep. Finally, when the human condition can no longer be resisted…the quester sleeps and dreams a dream, interpreting the images through metaphors and symbolism, guiding the dreamer’s quest into the future. My dream will guide my path for years to come, as did the one I had in Utah. Thoreau counselled, “Live the life you have dreamed.”
Crazy Horse went out into the wilderness on a vision quest several years earlier than Sioux tradition. He told no one he was going, knowing he was considered too young. Sioux believed the vision gave a man his power. Without it, he was nothing. With a vision, the dreamer was in touch with his sacred powers. After fasting and staying awake for two days, Crazy Horse collapsed and dreamed of a warrior on horseback riding out of a lake. His horse kept changing colors. A man appeared before him, a spirit guide, and told him to wear plain clothes, never wear a warrior headdress, to wear only one feather. Crazy Horse’s father later interpreted his dream: Crazy Horse was to look after the helpless, provide food for the hungry. He must lead the people and never take anything for himself…he must seek a life of simplicity (Crazy Horse and Custer, Stephen E. Ambrose).
The ethos of simplicity. Thoreau would have liked Crazy Horse and his father. “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Fasting and Solitude: I, too, am on a fast here in the desert, but think it should be called a “slow” as one slowly starves. The pangs of hunger hurt, but I’ve done this before. I am up to it! Noticing some juniper berries on the bush behind my tent, I think that it will be alright to nibble just a couple in the morning.
Night Skies: The shadow’s veil overtakes a train running a parallel course with the shadow’s edge…how perfectly the shadow and the train are framed. The evening light renders everything exquisitely magical. All is salmon-colored with dots of green shrub from here to the Sandia’s, a glorious glow with a whisper, “Thank you.”
Quickly now the light fades: I turn my camp chair toward the northern night. Starkly silent, the air dances in darkness and surrounds me. The Big Dipper stands out above the horizon in the deep, dark universe directly in front me. Soon several shooting stars add to the celebration. The Milky Way shimmers beyond. I feel blessed…filled with humility and gratitude…thank you…thank you…so humbling to be this human shown this magnificent night sky display. I sit in wonder for I don’t know how long, lost in the space of possibility.
Reality draws me back to earth. It is freezing, yet I need warmth! To the tent to wrap myself in three sleeping bags, one jacket, two sweatshirts and a T. What time is it? Many, many hours before daylight; the late September night grows long. I feel incredibly alone, yet I have no fear this time (after years upon years of solo camping). Tonight I hear but one coyote far, far away. The Valley of the Gods drifts through memory…its stark beauty but also the rattlesnakes, the hunger, the thirst for human companionship.
Sometime in the middle of the night: The cold is visceral. I am trembling. A high-domed tent is not a good choice for a solo sleep out…not enough body heat nor warm breath. Can’t sleep though my body screams for it! Tossing, turning…hoping for, but finding no visions…just weird not-dreams, disjointed faces and images, and acute hunger calling for food.
The evening and morning were the 2nd Day: The air has warmed from 40 to 60 degrees. Where to climb? Hunger limits my capacity for distance, plus I have this bum foot that refuses to keep quiet. Right now, the foot doesn’t enjoy the hikes of many, many miles. I go for height instead. After a steep and difficult climb, I reach the promontory facing south toward the pyramid shaped mesa and the Sierra Ladrones..the mountain silhouette stunning in its solitude.
Rolling boulders down the sides of high mesas, always a treat! So is the shade in which I sit way up high, looking out across the white, red, and black mesas. I can see my tent and the uninhabitable trailer where several families of mice long ago took up residence (hanta virus central).
Back at my camp site: The afternoon wind, colder and stronger than yesterday, whiplashes my tent, collapsing a third of it. I wrestle wildly with the wind to put my shelter back together again, finally finish, collapse in my chair and ask out loud, “Was that a sign? Should I leave?” I ask myself, Do I want to put up with a night worse than last’s? Again I call out loud, “Was that a sign?” Immediately, a redbird lands on the cedar just two feet above my head, clearly singing to me. She has my attention. We converse a bit: she whistles; I talk. Suddenly she flies to my truck and lands on top of it, singing loudly; she flits two feet above the truck and lands on it again. Three times she lands on the truck all the while chirping to me. Then she flies down the dirt road the same way I came in.
A sign, clearly; yet I am reluctant to leave. I haven’t had my dream. I need to stay! One and a half days? 36 hours? What kind of warrior wants to run from the weather, a simple challenge? My friends will laugh at me. Now I understand why Crazy Horse told no one where he was going. If he didn’t succeed…
The wind roars louder and colder through the canyons. Who is a warrior, I wonder? It used to be important to be considered such, “A warrior on the path of knowledge,” as Castaneda put it. Am I still? Fuck it! I have nothing to prove. I proved my mettle twenty-one years ago…seven days and nights alone in the desert! Besides, we who live in the 21st Century with climate change, endless war, ubiquitous advertising, global-sized corporations, hegemony, disease, and dissembling…Aren’t we all warriors of one ilk or another? It’s just that not all of us choose to be (have the luxury to be?) on the path of knowledge.
In the truck, on the way home, my own spirit guide reminds me that I have been both teaching and writing since the 4th grade. I have fought for the planet, for justice, and for peace. I know the way.
“What lies behind us and what lies ahead are tiny matters to what lives within us.”
Henry David Thoreau