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An older woman, small and squat, with stringy unkempt gray hair and a big smile on her face walked over to us and said hello. Her name was Diamond West, the leader of this winter fast. Now Jack’s remark outside the Starbucks suddenly clicked.
“I’m Diamond,” she said. “Die for short.” She grinned. The way she pronounced it was deliberate: die. “Thank you all for coming here to die.” She laughed raucously. We clearly needed to get used to her. A lean dog ran around her, without barking, playing with a Frisbee. This was Luna, part Australian Shepherd. She would be with us throughout the stay, even though dogs weren’t allowed in the National Park. Diamond had a very loose relationship with laws.
Faelan was the male guide, counterpart to Diamond. He was from the UK originally, but had spent many years abroad. I understood from small hints he dropped during the next few days that his current status in America was that of illegal alien. He had plans to move on to India after this quest. He was younger, maybe 35-40. Initially I had a hard time respecting him, but that changed as I got to know him better.
We set up tents, two campers per slot. It was a bitch getting tent pins into the hard ground. Some of the others were already there, the rest arrived during the next few hours. Two guides, two assistants, and 11 campers. The age range was huge. The oldest camper was a 69 year old bloke called Goyath, with tanned skin and his long white hair in a pony tail. The youngest a slim girl from LA, Janie, 24, with large sunglasses over her eyes.
I was strangely happy, not consciously feeling this but like floating, high on the desert light, the mountains in the distance, and the deeply masculine land under my feet. I knew this was my time and place in the universe, this day, this desert. This meeting had been set up long, long ago.
I followed my GPS into the wasteland, the ridges and canyons beginning to rise up out of the desert floor. This was my land. I was back. I knew this. My heart sang again when it saw the red rocks, the peaks in the distance, the dry earth.
In the middle of Death Valley is a flat, white plain called Badwater Basin, its lowest point below sea level. It’s salty, hence the name bad water. On the net I had read that the oldest rocks in the area were 1700 million years old. I had to find one and take it home. The highest point was on the west of the basin, 11,000 feet straight up, called Telescope Peak. I could see the snowcapped peak as I came from the east and passed something called the Funeral Mountains. Cheerful names. But for me it was fairy land, pure dreamtime. It hit me deep in the chest, again. I had felt it at the Grand Canyon, the mysterious call of the land and the rocks, and here it was in a 360-degree panoramic view. It was all so familiar, so baffling.
I parked at the temporary ranger station, housed in a trailer combination outside Furnace Creek. I needed to buy a park pass here and then find the camp ground. Some people were asking the rangers for directions. A tall lanky guy and two women. When I walked into the reception area they looked at me and the man asked me without any hesitation, “You here for the fast?”
How did he know? “Yes,” I said surprised. We shook hands. His name was Ed, from North Carolina. The two women were from Austria, Ulka and Iliana. He had given them a ride from Los Angeles. They had come a long way to be in the desert. We bought our passes and headed out. It was sunny and hot. Ed knew the way. I followed their car and five minutes later we pulled into the mostly empty camp ground where we found the tents and cars of the School of Lost Borders guides.
I was a little taken aback by the sparseness of the place. The word ‘camping site’ evoked trees, grass and running streams in my European mind. Here there was flat space with nothing but dirt and rock, divided up into numbered slots.
The organizers of the quest did not believe in holding peoples’ hands. We, the participants, were told very clearly that we were expected to be adults able to take care of ourselves. This concerned money, travel, the purchasing of food, bringing camping gear, and responsibility for our own medical conditions. I was thinking about this as I drove out of Vegas. It fitted well with the purpose of a vision quest. It was a maturing rite, one that in ancient times had been mandatory for all members of the tribe, male and female. There had been nothing in my teenage and young adult years that even came close to a formal passage into adulthood. It had all been hit-and-miss, and any attempts at guidance had been deflected as interference. It also fitted well with the challenge that the quest threw in our faces, the challenge to be alone, survive without food, stay in a desert landscape without a tent for shelter, and above all face ourselves under the sun and the stars.
That said, I had so little experience with camping that I was worried about the small stuff. Would it be cold? I didn’t know. As I was driving the sun was bright, the air was warm, for all I knew it was summer out here this February day. I needed to stop at a mall and supply myself with food for the 12 days, four of which would be spent fasting. This was guesswork on my part. I had no idea how much to buy. I needed to choose things that wouldn’t go bad outside the fridge. So I bought bags of crackers, peanut butter, baked beans in cans, flat bread, apples, salami, and four large plastic bottles with a gallon of mineral water each.
As I went through this process, feeling uncertain about it all, the struggle had begun. This was part of it. How do we live in this world? How do we manage? Why? What needs to be taken into account? What’s the baseline of safety? Where can I learn more?
The one part I felt no worry about was the group of people I’d be joining. After the weekly men’s group and the SWET weekends I knew that the right people would be there, and that I was the right person for them, too.
So I started matching dates with school breaks. There was going to be a Winter Fast at the end of February 2011. The dates coincided partially with the spring break which was only one week long. However, I remembered that every break was preceded by an exam week, mostly meant for college courses. It was a risk, but I counted on our third-year courses being free of separate exams. With that extra week the dates would fit exactly with the School of Lost Borders. It was a small miracle, a sign.
After checking with Tatiana, who again readily agreed that this was a wonderful opportunity I should make use of, I enlisted in the program. I had seen that other dates were in fact already full-booked, but the Winter Fast was fully six months into the future. At this point I had only a very vague idea what I had signed up for, but I trusted the process.
The meeting place was located at the Texas Springs Campground. At first I thought this was in Texas. I soon found out it was a camp ground near Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley, California. That meant once more a plane trip to Las Vegas, the Mecca of the desert, the city that had been our base for the Grand Canyon adventure in 2009. Death Valley was three hours west of Vegas.
February came. My plan concerning the exam week held. Nothing went wrong. I had paid for the Lost Borders program, I had a plane ticket and a rental car reservation. I had camping gear. I had a copy of The Trail To The Sacred Mountain, the vision fast handbook we were supposed to have read. I had read it, but it didn’t congeal, it was distant. It was well-written, that wasn’t the problem. My mind could not grasp what the thin book was about. It was too far outside my life experience.
And so I walked into the desert once more, to meet 15 strangers and the spirit of the land.
Tags: California, Death Valley, desert, lost borders, Native American rite, quest, sage, vision quest
From Ordained part II, America, the full chapter of the vision quest. In 33 installments.
A vision quest is an oddity in today’s buffet of spiritual offerings. The one thing that stands out is the absence of teachings. There is preparation, setting, purpose. But no belief is necessary or even helpful.
In this chapter, from the second volume of Ordained, I make an attempt at telling the story of the vision quest in such a way that you, reader, follow along on the quest. You feel the shift in yourself.
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The vision quest
My ordination into the priesthood was scheduled for May 2011. But something happened that last school year that caused me to become ordained way earlier. It happened, quite unexpectedly, in March, and the bishop was not involved at all.
When I was a boy learning to read in school we were each given a children’s book, a present from the school to take home and read during the summer. In the great non-random unfolding of the universe I received a small book about a Native American teenager who was sent on a vision quest to find his power animal. At that time Native Americans were called Indians. I can still see the color pictures in the book. The only other detail I remember is that the boy went up on a mountain top at night and came back with an eagle’s feather. Now, 40 years later, I was called up the mountain, too.
The idea of going on a vision quest was born in the fall of 2010. I was staffing at SWET and had spoken to men who had once taken part in what was called SWET 3, a mini vision quest lasting 24 hours without food, alone in the forest. The SWET organizers had no plans to repeat that event. My time at theological school was limited and since it looked like I wouldn’t be staying in America I fished around one day, searching for a vision quest opportunity.
Almost immediately I came across the website of the School of Lost Borders. An evocative name, I thought. The photos on the site were electrical, calling me with their Southwestern wildness. Feverishly I started reading about the programs the school offered.
‘Deep in your heart you know whether or not you want to experience a vision fast. Already you feel the ancient stirring within you. The time has come. You must go into the wilderness, to seek vision, understanding and strength for yourself and for your people.’ (Steven Foster)
I got panicky when I read this. Because I did indeed know at that moment that I wanted to go into the wilderness. But I was facing a full academic year with only short breaks. The vision quest as described on the web page was a 12-day program. How was I ever going to fit it in?
Saturday was a fair day, at least here in Milano. I hoped it would have cleared up in Denmark as well. In the end my plane was delayed for an hour or two, but it did fly. I spent the hours wandering the terminal. That is quite an experience in Italy, because of the emphasis on fashion, clothes, and good looks. In the airport they had enormous back-lit photos on the walls of models with very long legs. Wherever I looked there was alluring beauty on display. That was fine for a while, but soon I found a seat somewhere where the advertising wasn’t slamming my brain. It was getting to my mind and emotions and I was uncomfortable with it.
But why? What’s wrong with looking at extraordinary touched-up female beauty? I had a realization of sorts, sitting in the Malpensa terminal, that I myself had one reaction but that other and more powerful reactions were affecting me. Those were not mine. It was one thing for me to sit there and study these half-naked women, but I wasn’t the only one in that space. There were hundreds of other people, men and women, who had no choice but to look at these displays as well and who had all sorts of internal responses. I was uncomfortable, because I was picking up energies, feelings, urges, fantasies or whatever from the ether surrounding me, and these were oppressive, dark, fearful, or angry. Was this what Swedenborg in reality meant when he wrote that we are all surrounded by good and evil spirits?
I recognized that there was a tension between taking something literally and finding a dynamic way of understanding it. Swedenborg was reporting on his own experiences, experiences that had been repeating themselves for many years and that were consistent. So his reports literally talked about literal spirits, living in a literal spiritual world, literally around us. How could I understand and use this view, or opinion, a little more dynamically without sounding crazy even in my own mind?
This tension of literalness would come up many times in many different settings as I got deeper into Swedenborgian circles. But at this point I didn’t even know there were Swedenborgian circles. I thought I was just studying some old books.
(end of chapter. Read the full book: Ordained, part I, Denmark.)
I ordered a room service dinner, not having any wish to go out once more, and tried to read some pages in the Arcana Coelestia. That took a lot of focus and I wasn’t really up to it. It was baffling that world views could be so different. A conclusion that I often arrived at was that my own world view must be inferior or lacking depth or something. That I was blind in some way. That was a very common spiritual teaching, and at that time I accepted it as is. The Near-Death experience people described a universe where travel between the stars and the dimensions was possible, where universal knowledge existed and was stored in libraries in crystal cities, where reincarnation was a conscious choice, and where we had some kind of a mission in life and this was maybe even a self-chosen mission.
My cell phone rang and I saw it was Albert. He was kind, it was Friday evening and he had no obligation to concern himself with SolidDevelopment business.
“Hey Stephen, how did it go?”
I gave him a brief version, a very brief one.
“OK, I’m phoning about the weather,” he said. “Do you have TV there? Here in Denmark there’s been a snow storm and right now the airport is closed. How’s the weather in Italy?”
“It’s cold, but no snow, and no storm. The airport here should be fine,” I said. But that hardly mattered, since I needed to get to Copenhagen.
“I see on the news that they’re trying to move snow and ice from the motorways and runways. It’s coming down I tell you. The snow is flying horizontally, it’s extreme. You better check tomorrow morning if you’ve got a flight or not.”
He also told me unofficially that I should just take taxis, especially when the weather was like this. The company paid for that all the way. He used the phrase ‘the situation here is DSB-like.’ DSB is the Danish rail company, and what he meant was that every time there was the slightest irregularity in the weather the trains would stop going. This was so common that it had entered the language. The organizers of the DSB trains were taken by complete surprise when it snowed in the winter. Every year.
(to be continued)