Part III: The Wild Man of the Desert

John Wolfstone
Apr 21, 2015 · 13 min read

by John Wolfstone

The series is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign, LOVE SCHOOL — examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute.

Read Part I: This Is How She Broke Me
Read Part II: The Paradox of Love

***

PART 3.

THE DREAMINESS of San Francisco is intoxicating. It’s easy to forget that it’s still a big, mean city — a place where a 24 year old broken kid like myself has to quickly learn to sink or swim.

Through the very fact that I was still living in San Francisco in the summer of 2013, nearly 3 years after my arrival, indicated that somehow, I was making it. Having scraped my way out of the heartbreak that was my arrival, I was now living a “successful” life — at least in the eyes of society.

I was a young professional working a salary job at a non-profit digital media studio. I lived in a beautiful house on Bernal Hill, complete with backyard, garden, garage and view. I, like most in the Bay Area, wore my various side projects as medallions. One weekend I’d be hosting an Immersive Art Party at my old collective, to the next be leading a group of young adults on a Wilderness Yoga Retreat. My busy-ness became my pride, and any rare nights off were spent in the company of a successive string of lovers.

My life seemed complete — yet I was not.

Deep in the recesses of my perfect life there brewed a discontent. I rarely if ever thought about Samantha anymore, but whenever I journaled, I always seemed to reference her, or more specifically, the moment we broke.

Outwardly I pretended that Humboldt, Samantha, and the once broken me never had existed, but inwardly, that moment was the axis upon which my life spun.

The veneer of my now successful life was convincing — even to me — but underneath the surface I was still shattered.

As my discontent grew, I began to look with new eyes at the world that had consumed me. I saw my older peers, a few metrics ahead of me in this socially ordained path, representing a most certain future — and I felt empty. Suddenly, the thought of being 35, still working 50 hours a week behind a desk only to spend my earnings paying $2000 in rent, attending endless happy hours and eccentrically chic art parties with the occasional week vacation…seemed fucking ludicrous.

I knew I had to go.

So I left.

On August 3rd, 2013, the day after quitting my salary job (to the dismay of my parents), I packed up my Honda Accord, donated the rest of my meaningless crap, and drove East, leaving behind my entire California world. It had been a tremendous 7 years in Cali — but as soon as I crossed over the Nevada state line — it was all behind me.

***

I WAS LOST. Not in a geographic sense but an existential one. In San Francisco, I had finally realized that my heart would never be whole through living the quintessential American life. I had crept over the walls of society’s demands and peered into that ethereal abyss that is SUCCESS — and all I felt was — fuck that.

So I began to vagabond. I lived adventure to adventure, unsure of what I sought. First a bicycle trip on the continental divide from Colorado to Montana, then up to Alaska to live with my best friend, James, at the edge of archetypal wilderness.

By this time, I had been on the road for two months and sleeping every night under the stars. Constant immersion in nature had worked the city out of my bones, and what was left in that void was an incredible longing for my place in the world. Without enforced social conditions and fewer encounters with other people, my psyche, aghast in the contrast of wild nature, began to tear at me, asking again and again: why am I here- for what purpose did I come to existence?

Earlier that summer, while still in my San Francisco hey-day, I had read about vision quest in the book Soul Craft by famed eco-psychologist, Bill Plotkin.

At the time, the idea of going out in the woods alone for four days with only shelter (no human distractions such as a guitar, books or journal) and not eating food, seemed idiotic, or at the least a waste of time.

But now, awash in the vast aloneness of a nature that my 26 years in society had all but disconnected and domesticated me from, vision quest began to loom in my mind.

From what I had read, the purpose of a vision quest was, away from human distraction and alone in nature, to cry out to God, Nature, the Universe –whatever- for a vision; a vision of what I can best describe as one’s true place in the ecological web of the universe.

Obviously, a vision quest was the perfect quick fix for someone as existentially lost as me.

James and I were soon to leave Alaska with plans to journey south, but without particular details as to our route, or when or where we’d finally arrive. So I figured that suggesting a vision quest would be an easy sell. James however, despite his familiarity with my madly inspired schemes, was particularly resistant to this one, which he deemed my maddest yet.

“What are you going to do for four days starving yourself in the canyons?”

“I don’t know, just sit, I guess. Maybe talk to God.”

Laughter — “Dude, you’re always so fucking dramatic, I don’t think 4 days of starvation is a requisite to speak with God”

“I don’t know man, maybe that’s not it. I just know that I need to do this. I’m searching for something, and I think a deeper connection to nature will get me there.”

Once I have chosen an idea, I rarely back down. James, as my best friend and soul-brother, eventually agreed to drive me to the canyons of Southern Utah, which we deemed would be the optimal location for a vision quest.

On the way south, deep in the Yukon territory, we picked up a woman hitchhiker, a curiously beautiful young woman with satin cream colored hair, trying to get back to her home in the northern town of Whitehorse. When she heard we were on an adventure through Canada, she told us, in a hushed tone as if she divulging a secret legend of her people, about a forgotten far-off Pacific Island, which she described as the “Galapagos of the North.”

“What’s the Island’s name?”

With a shimmer to her breath, she breathed: “Haida Gwaii.”

“Haida what?”

A few days later, James and I were ditching his car in the port of Prince Rupert, and aboard a once a week ferry to an island 72 hours earlier we didn’t know existed.

We arrived without plan, and proceeded to walk into town. We met a couple with their dogs (we also had James’ pup Soloman with us) who proceeded, upon hearing our story, to invite us over for breakfast. The next days were filled with the random kindness of this congenial island, who made us Canadian Thanksgiving feasts, gave us entire houses to stay in, and held bonfires in our honor.

On October 20, we celebrated my 27th birthday on a hidden beach on Haida Gwaii’s west coast, playing in lonely sands underneath the canopies of thousand year old trees. At one point I ventured off alone and spent hours building a beach altar of found artifacts, only to finish and walk away, knowing the whole piece, my art, would be washed away in the rising tides.

I realized then that this 27th year would be a ceremony in letting go.

A week after we arrived, we left Haida Gwaii, boarded another ferry (with car this time) through British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and immediately headed south.

Soon we were crossing the American border, with a bit of stress, given that James, attached to his gardening bounty, had hid numerous joints in the shaft of his bicycle seat which was strapped to his roof. We passed the border at about 1am, the almost asleep agent seemed to have little energy to slow our travel.

From there we drove straight to the Escalante Desert of Southern Utah.

***

I HAD BEEN TO ESCALANTE a year earlier on a backpacking trip. This time, as we entered the red rock country of Navajo sandstone, my heart expanded with inspiration at the immense power of that desert. This was quickly followed by contraction as I realized the insanity of the journey I was about to embark.

Escalante is one of the most barren patches of the American West; the stars are the brightest in all of the United States, and amidst its hollows, one can feel mighty lonely.

The town of Escalante is already in the middle of no-where Southern Utah, and from town, we drove 60 miles south on the only road into the wilderness, stopped only by the mighty Lake Powell, an abomination of a 60’s dam project of the Colorado River. (See Edward Abbey for more on the Southwest’s water politics).

The day we arrived we did some short reconnaissance hikes to find at least a suitable entry point, and then made camp. James cooked my last meal, and we went to sleep, trying not to think of what the morrow would bring.

The next morning, we rose at daybreak, and after packing my light bag, I hugged James good-bye and ventured solo into unmarked canyons. As I walked, I tried my best to hold back both excitement and fear, instead listening deeply for any signs from the desert as to which direction I should go.

First, I scared a bird out of its ground nest, and instinctively I followed the path it flew into a side canyon. The canyon eventually ended in the stream bed of another larger canyon and I was faced with a choice of right or left.

With no immediate signal, I stopped and laid my back against a large stone outcrop, admiring the beauty of this barren land. I must have dozed off, for when I awoke, a lizard, clinging to my right boot, scurried off towards the right with a “chh’chh — chh’chh — chhh” sound which boomed loud amidst the otherwise silent landscape of rock, sand and meager sagebrush.

I followed the lizard right and after a few canyon twists, I found a small canyon off-shoot to the left, which after about 30 meters ended in a horseshoe cavernous overhang with a beautiful sandbar underneath. I walked to the sandbar, admiring the natural protection of such a spot. I dropped my backpack and turned around to peer out of the side-slot and gasped upon what I saw.

Upon the far end of the side canyon, near its entrance, was a dark sandstone wall, with markings stretching 30 feet across it. The wall had been hidden from view by various bushes as I entered the canyon, but now, upon sighting, I ran up to it.

There, adorned across the dark maroon canvass were hundreds of carved images.

I had heard these canyons contained some ancient petroglyphs. When I was in Escalante a year earlier, I had wasted half a day trying to find some noted in my guidebook, only to not believe in such legends. Now without direction, other than my interpreted signs from the desert, I had somehow stumbled into a beautiful unmarked canyon, hiding this ancient Anasazi relief, which was in pristine condition and larger and more intricate than any I had seen in pictures at the visitor center.

Amidst the alien-like images of horned men and mythical beasts was a face with wild hair and piercing eyes, staring back at me from over 1000 years of desert solitaire.

Of course this was where I was to do my vision quest. So, as described in the book I read, I ceremonially made a circle of stones around me and set up camp there.

I’ll spare you the boring details, because I think the biggest challenge one faces (even more than the fear of wild beasts, which were present at times) was boredom. But, let me just suggest that if you ever think your life is slipping by and time is moving at breakneck speed — just sit, in the wilderness, in one spot, and do nothing usual for four days, and you will soon discover how friggin’ slow the sun actually traces across the sky — that is, when you pay attention.

I spent much of my days staring at those petroglyphs and especially that wild face. His eyes would captivate me for hours, haunting me, as if they wanted to tell me something, perhaps a secret locked up in the past thousand years of his watching.

I wondered when the last time a pair of eyes met his. I wondered what wonders he had seen from his stone perch. I wondered what people had carved his face, perhaps in likeness of their own. I wondered where his people were now, or if they only remained as distant ghosts, locked in the stones of time as he.

I also began to wonder about my ancestors.

***

PART OF THE STORY I have not told yet, was that a few days after this vision quest, I had a one way ticket to Israel.

I am Jewish, or at least I have a Jewish mother. And this means that like all American Jews, I was eligible for a free trip to Israel before the end of my 27th year. I had always seen this opportunity as merely a means for a free plane flight halfway around the world, from which point I could venture elsewhere.

However, as I prepared to leave San Francisco, growing more aware of the longing to really know myself, the idea of Israel, and more specifically the land of my ancestors, began to seem very interesting, especially given my tumultuous Jewish past.

Growing up Jewish in small-town Colorado is not a peachy affair. After my Bar Mitzvah, or as I like to call it, my Jewish coming out, I was publicly known in Middle School as the Jewish kid, which held within its identity all sorts of bullshit stereotypes, which teenagers were eager to hurl at me.

This anti-Semitism escalated in high school, with a swastika being keyed into my car. That sucked, but like learning about the holocaust in 4th grade, I chose the only path a vulnerable kid knows how to deal with tough stuff — denial.

Shame is the agent of assimilation, and by my 20’s, my shame at being Jewish grew so great that I began to flat out deny my Jewish Identity, to the point of lying if I was questioned.

The Nazi’s had won, and the melting pot of America had finished the job the stoves in Auschwitz couldn’t.

Thus it was with great trepidation that I was considering going to Israel. Even though I still hated my Jewish self, somehow the idea of ancestors beckoned me. And there, in that hidden Escalante canyon, alone for miles, I now stared into the eyes of man whose ancestors had also been forgotten.

***

IT WAS THE FOURTH DAY and the sun, straight overhead, seemed to wring the last slivers of life from my fatigued body. Beads of perspiration streamed down my face, and I was too tired, or too delusional, to think about hiking the 1 mile trek to small desert pools to pump more water. So I stared.

I stared deeper and deeper into that wild man’s stone eyes. For days I had been contemplating this journey to Israel with the questions — do my ancestors matter? Will knowing them somehow lead me to know what is my purpose?

And then, as if suddenly possessed by the thousands of years of displaced and disgraced Jews, this stone man’s eyes began to burn with a fury, blazing so bright that I fell back from my cross-legged posture of meditative gazing.

The sudden jolt of energy from those eyes (not to mention the 100 degree heat and lack of food for days, and now water) had caused me to briefly pass out.

I awoke confused — then remembered where I was and what had just transpired. I stood up and stared back into those eyes. Their fire had gone cold and were once again mere lines carved in stone. However, the stone wild man’s mouth, which for days had been locked in an expressionless straight white line, now seemed to curve up slightly at the ends, as if he were subduing a great smile.

I began to laugh, both at the absurdity of interpreting movement from a stone face, and at the immense meaning which I extracted from it.

I was going to Israel, of this path I was now certain.

***

THE NEXT MORNING I hiked out of that canyon and met James with a silent nod. After an impossibly sumptuous breakfast (which I ate way too fast), we drove further East and home to Colorado.

In a letter I wrote to a friend upon my return, dated from November 3rd, I describe the quest as such:

“The little I wish to retell of this experience is that after four days of not eating, nor seeing another human, nor doing anything but just being there in the desolate void of both psyche and nature, one is tripped out in a state of both profound loneliness and belonging, humbled to the mysterious and awesome power of forces that usually otherwise go unnoticed. My ancestors are part of this mystery. And it’s to them which I now go.”

The next day I boarded a plane to Israel. Beyond the free 2 week trip, I had no plans, especially none to return. I was to find my ancestors and in doing so, hoped to also find the answers to my deep longing for purpose.

And it was there, in the Holy Land, amidst a community of people trying also to reconnect their tattered ancestral threads, not by reading ancient texts, but through healing ancient traumas into a new culture of peace, that I was once returned again to this idea, Tamera.

Read Part 4: Leaving the Western World


This series is written in support of the Kickstarter campaign, LOVE SCHOOL — examining new models of love in community for the 21st century. Please watch the pitch and contribute! Campaign ends August 12th, 2019.

John Wolfstone

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Storyteller. Filmaker. Artist.

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