I am sitting cross-legged before an odd altar – a hawks feather, animal bones, a meteorite, a power stick and a wooden Buddha. I’m dirty, sore, sunburned, and very hungry. I have been fasting for 3 days on the top of this lonely mountain. Sitting quietly at 12,500 feet in arguably the remotest part of Colorado. No trail took me to where I am now. It is just an hour before my solar return- the moment the sun returns to the same exact location in the sky as the moment of my birth. Not just any solar return. This is will complete my 40th trip around the sun. Before I cross that threshold, let’s discuss how this all began.
Three months ago, I enjoyed a retreat with my dear dharma friends Peter and Eveline in there hermitage in northern Bali. Often, the three of us would find ourselves in shared conversation after meals or during breaks. At one point, Peter shared his experience of a vision quest in his 40’s, pointing to some of the incredible insights that he received during his time on the side of mountain in Cyprus. The seed was planted.
In ancient cultures throughout the world, Quests were used as doorways to enter spiritual realms. A Quest could take the form of a retreat into nature, a Vision Quest, or a pilgrimage. These extraordinary journeys often revealed sacred visions, personal direction and life purpose to those who pursued them. Western culture has no modern equivalent- so I decided to craft my own quest to seek the ream of mystery and spirit beyond the senses.
Originally I considered a 7-day and 7-night quest, but when an opportunity arose to join a men’s retreat in the days leading up to my birthday, I settled on 4 days and 3 nights, as an extension of the group retreat. I will write separately about the men’s retreat- but for now, know that I departed from that group of men virile, inspired, and open-hearted.
I drive away from the retreat center, send a final text to my sister informing her of my plans shortly before I lose signal. I park my car at 2 in the afternoon at the trailhead. I gather my belongings. It feels odd to fill a backpack for 4 days without a morsel of food. Everything ready, I sign in at the trailhead register. Only 12 entries over the past 2 years. I will be alone, no doubt about it.
I walk excitedly towards the place I had pinpointed in advance, researching between topographic and google maps. I expected about 5 miles of walking and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I walk for a while, my new boots feeling good on the ground. My mind racing from an encounter with a beautiful woman just hours earlier… I hear Chris, my retreat leader, in my head saying – the first tool in uncovering your purpose is to eliminate distractions! Slowly the physicality of the uphill hike with a heavy pack takes over and I return to my breath and the beauty of the surroundings: wildflowers, running streams, snow-laden peaks.
I decide to sit down – I watch a large moose across the meadow, unnoticed for a while. Eventually she catches my eye and jots into the distance. She pauses, looks up, as if to show me something. I follow her gaze upwards. I spy two beautiful rock outcroppings on top of a distant mountain. Something clicks. That is where I must go. Vision quests are all about paying attention to signs – not necessarily planning every detail but trusting your inner compass can be guided by the natural world.
I check my map. A 12,600 foot peak, no trail, and steep terrain leading to its summit. I make a plan, step off the trail and start walking. No coincidence that the men’s retreat was called Ascending the Sacred Mountain. I pass a pile of bones from a recent kill. Another sign. I stow the sacrum, pelvis and a leg bone in my pack. I keep walking ahead…Its getting late, exhaustion is setting in. I can no longer see the top, I’m somewhat lost and disoriented in a forest of deadfall. Should I just stay here? A voice in my head propels me upward. As sunset nears, the trees thin, a herd of elk greet my arrival above tree line. Alpenglow shines in all directions as my destination is reached.
I set my pack down. Its late, I’m exhausted and I decide to just lie down. Reaching for my water, I realize it is all gone. One small but important detail before I fully settle down. I vaguely remember a patch of snow as I first glanced at this peak – I set out in search, luckily discovering it a few hundred feet downhill. Filling my bottles with the snowmelt, I make my way back up, and fall blissfully asleep in the silent dark.
Drop, drop, drop… rain falls, accelerating in intensity. I should have known better – the weather can change up here in a moments notice. I scramble to erect my rain tarp amidst the gusty winds – with an odd combination of stakes, rocks and trekking poles it will work for the night.
In the morning I proceed to officially create my Sacred Circle, a detailed process that I will refer you to the books I used to support my process. It involves setting up a series of rocks and sticks in the cardinal directions, ritually opening and closing the circle, invoking the spirits of the cardinal directions and a few other details. Maybe now is a good place for a disclaimer: If anyone is generally interested in this kind of process, its highly recommended to do your first quest supported by others, not to just strike off alone like I did… Two great resources that supported my Vision Quest are the following books:
Both can help you understand more of the details and guide you to sources that offer supported Vision Quests…
Now the rest of the time up there started to get interesting- as I reflect on those days – there existed an overlapping mix of subtlety, exquisite detail, and magic. I can continue to write about the details of the outer journey – as in when my sleeping bag was caught by a wind gust and launched over 60 feet in the air, nearly getting stuck on a rock, well out of reach…. but these were minor compared to the inner details that were unfolding.
I examined my life. I looked at my fears and attachments. I offered gratitude, I called for a vision.
I stretched, I meditated, I journaled, I slept, I waited out rain storms.
My friend Peter, mentioned earlier, had suddenly passed away 10 days earlier in a traffic accident in Bali. His inspiration and presence were with me often– he being one of the few people I know who would have also done something as crazy as this. I felt close to him and as if I was supporting his passage with my own process – in addition to offering this quest to all beings, I specifically offered it to Peter.
The second day the hunger really started to set in, and I felt as if I was hallucinating that afternoon. I was called out of my circle for a short period to explore the rock formation around me. I observed the exquisite details of the ancient lichen surviving on stone, I collected what appeared to be a fragment of a meteorite, I stumbled in the awe and beauty of the majesty that was around me, in me, through me. Seeking something from the sky for my altar, I as if by magic a large feather floats from the sky and lands at my feet.
I find myself on a delicate rock outcropping, a few exposed 4th class moves to a seat sitting high over a precipice. I sit on this ledge for hours. It seems the totally of my first 40 years were coming to meet me right then and there. The pains, the joys, the loves, the heart breaks, all of my relationships, all of my missteps, all of my successes, all of my guides and allies and enemies. Right there on that rock. By any imaginable standard I would have appeared mad- sunburned and dirty, screaming and shaking my fists and stick into the air, then laughing hysterically, then crying with gratitude to all and everything. Over, and over and over… darkness approached and I made my way back to my circle. Two coyotes, as if waiting for me to leave, ascended the rocks and howled into the evening sky.
The third day I didn’t leave my circle, sitting, sitting, lying, stretching, counting the hours until my solar return meditation.
And now I’m back to the beginning. Its 3:43 on July 23rd, and I complete my 40th year. I meditate another hour to appreciate the power of the hiatus. Did the vision come? Was it too obvious or too subtle to see? Time will tell. A few days later I am still processing insights and moments of reflection from those days.
I planned to spend that final evening in an all-night vigil of sorts – I remember Peter telling me about the Death Lodge practice on the last night of his quest. Where the aspirant builds a circle of stones too narrow to lie down within, and commits to remaining awake until dawn and not moving outside the circle. One spends the night envisioning ones own death and inviting in all of one’s fears and all of ones relationships into that space.
After my solar return meditation, there was a clear feeling that it was time to go. I underestimated the physical exertion of climbing to high altitude and fasting for 3 days. My death lodge will have to wait. I packed up my things and prepared to head back down the trail-less mountainside.
Before leaving, I glanced around in all directions, thanking this mountain and its spirits for hosting me, and inviting me into its womb. What had I offered in return? My mind went to the most prized item in my possession. My yak tooth mala (beads) that I purchased in Nepal 10 years ago and that have accompanied me everywhere since… I slip them off my wrist, offer them to the mountain, turn around and start walking.
An hour after leaving the summit, a dark and ferocious storm rolled in. I had to take cover from hail for a while – at one point I looked back up to see the rock I camped next to being struck directly by several bolts of lightening. I am glad I trusted my intuition.
Absolutely depleted, as darkness envelops the landscape, I put one foot in front of the other until I return to the trailhead and my car.