It can’t be 21:00 yet when my fire goes out. A sad excuse for a bonfire it was. Night quickly crowds in. Icy beads of dew form upon the rocks, glistening; the stars rise. I unroll my emergency blanket and lie down by the embers, but it is useless. The cold from the earth seeps through to my bones.
I have left my sleeping bag and other gear snug under a tarp at my base camp, unreachable in the dark. I march in circles — endless circles — to keep warm. I stop when I can and huddle beneath my blanket, but the moment my eyes close the cold wakes me back up, and I start marching again.
I am not lost in the woods, nor am I suffering through survival training. No, no. This is the last night of my vision quest — a four day, four night solo fast.
In nearly every spiritual tradition, we can find evidence of prophets, hermits, and regular people going alone into Nature — without sustenance — to seek Spirit, or something like it. Jesus and Siddhartha are only the most famous examples. Anthropologists coined the term “vision quest” to describe the Native American rite of passage; however, the broader practice has roots in many, many cultures and belongs to none. I could not have comfortably participated had this not been the case.
Traditionally, on the fourth night of a vision quest one might hope, beg or cry for a vision. I, however, am merely hoping not to freeze. After four days without food, I do not enjoy an elevated state of consciousness as I had expected. I only feel weak and cold.
The stars swim before my eyes, forming briefly, I am certain, the shape of a dragonfly. Every few laps of my self-made enclosure, I stop to gaze eastward across the lake. It can’t be midnight when I start to imagine soft rays of light above the mountains, eager heralds of dawn.
I think it was reading Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” that did it. As Kafka entered the forest and met himself in nature, my imagination followed, and my body yearned to do the same.
I wouldn’t say Murakami’s words planted the seed — the seed was planted long before — but they undoubtedly watered it. Suddenly, I found myself Googling “vision quest Vermont” and scrolling through the search results, pining after — what? A vacation? I was certainly tired of work. A vision? Nothing so lofty. Cleansing? Definitely not. I could think of nothing more challenging than going four days and nights without food. Insight? Clarity? Purpose? Something like that.
I have, in early adulthood, reclaimed my childhood inclination towards the magical, the ethereal, the spiritual and the fantastical. I found the idea of meeting myself in nature — the philosophical underpinning of the modern-day vision fast — deeply compelling. I sought that which demanded solitude, devotion and tenacity. What that was, I wasn’t quite sure.
I’m still not sure.
And so at dawn on September 18, 2014, I rose from a night of wide-eyed restlessness and set out for Putney, Vermont — a two-hour drive south. I listened to pop music and VPR on rotation to drown out my mind’s chattering. Predictions on the Scottish election accompanied me out of my daily life and into the liminal space of my 10-day program.
That first day, I and the five other participants — all female — sat in a circle of lawn chairs, dutifully taking notes on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” It comes down to three steps…
Step One: The Call to Adventure.
The hero (that’s heroine to us) follows, is swept up by, or answers the call.
Unlike the other women in the circle, I had no clear sense of what I hoped to achieve — none at all. I simply knew I must follow my instincts. I felt confident — arrogant, even — in the pursuit of my quest.
Step Two: Entering the Realm of Primal Forces.
My idyllic expectations (vague though they were) of my solo time quickly collided with reality. I did not frolic in the lake, but dashed in and out instead, shivering beneath the weak September sun for an hour afterwards. Wholly unglamorous sightings of ducks and dragonflies supplanted my dreams of close encounters with deer and wolves.
Days, I discovered, are unbelievably long when there is nothing to do. I went to bed before the sun, exhausted by the nothingness and ready to move on to the next day.
I was hungry. Always.
In the dark, dry leaves falling to the ground sounded like the scampering of a hundred tiny feet. Sightless and marooned in my sleeping bag, I fancied all the creatures of the forest sidling closer to spy on me in my sleep.
I was not scared, but neither was I free and resplendent in my solitude. Weary and alone, I learned to talk to trees to pass the time.
Step Three: The Return.
The hero(ine)’s return. Glorious at times, perilous at others. Now she goes back to her people and shares the gifts that she has obtained. I had anticipated, presumptuously, a return of quiet triumph in the discovery of that which I sought.
Instead, I have to confront a far more puzzling quandary: How do we return — how do we go back — when we have nothing to show for our journey?
At last, the darkness lifts from the ordeal of my final night, and I return to my gear and walk away — laboriously, stopping often to catch my breath.
I carry a walking stick which I have — in my ample free time — decorated with stones and colored yarn symbolic of particular experiences. Rocks.
Metaphorically speaking, however, my hands are empty. I feel like I have — somehow — failed. So much time, so much effort to come so far, and for what?
I don’t know what I have learned.
They say a vision quest lasts a year. With nearly four months’ perspective, I now begin to understand the meaning of this statement. Since my “return,” I have been subconsciously processing those indeterminate experiences, trying to answer that question: How do we return when we have nothing to show for our journey?
I went on a vision quest, and all I really brought back were these stupid rocks?
Now, I begin to find an answer:
No — I went on a vision quest and I brought back nothing. Maybe that is the point.