André looked at me and said, “What are you taking with you?”
“Sleeping bag, underpad, tarp and ropes in case it rains, my ceremonial materials, and some water.”
“No you’re not.”
“Huh? Not what?”
I gaped at him, stunned. Four days without water??
This was to be my third Vision Quest: four days and nights of solitude in a wild place, looking within myself, asking the universe and the spirits of the natural world for guidance and insight about the direction of my life. This ceremony has been done in various ways for thousands of years by cultures around the world, and I had been taught and guided by wise and competent elders. I was confident that I would be able to explore my questions without being distracted by physical hardship. Until I met André.
I had decided to do this Quest alone, but I casually told a friend, Christiane, of my plan. A few days later, she called me – there was someone she wanted me to meet, a medicine man named André.
The three of us talked about the Vision Quest. I told them the date I would leave.
The day of separation came. As the sun came up, I went down to the sweatlodge and prepared the fire. As the rocks heated toward glowing red, I sat facing the fire and pondered the next few days. It felt good to be alone.
I heard a call. I looked up, surprised, to see Christiane and André coming down the hill. Christiane greeted me, then moved away. André sat beside me on the log. I began to talk about something inconsequential. He stared at me, expressionless, until I stopped, and said, “There’s something you need to do.”
It was a perfect setup. I had not asked him to guide me on this Vision Quest. He was now letting me know, in a way that I could not refuse, that he was there to do just that.
I returned to my house and brought back a pouch of tobacco. I asked him formally, according to the protocols I had been taught, to guide me on my Quest.
He accepted the tobacco, and with it my request. Then he told me I was to go without water.
I was frightened. I had fasted easily for four days on my previous Vision Quests, but had never gone without water. In my Wilderness First Aid training, one advanced instructor had said that tissue damage begins after 24 hours without water. I decided that “tissue damage” was not something I cared to experience. So of course I would take water. Now André was telling me “No.”
I had a choice to make. I could refuse his guidance and go alone, or I could face one of my biggest fears, of suffering and dying helplessly and pointlessly. My hours and days alone in wilderness, my ancient survival skills training, my previous fasts – none of that prepared me for this. This was unknown territory.
I would be alone. There would be no one to ask for assistance, and it would be a long walk to get help. My only contact with the human world would be a stick that I would put upright in the ground every morning to indicate to André that I was okay.
Somewhere within, I knew that I needed to face this fear, now. André waited silently while I came to my decision. I do not doubt, now, that he was praying for me to find the highest course.
A few minutes later, we dumped out the 6 gallons of water I had carefully put aside.
That decision, that act, changed the whole Quest.
After the sweatlodge ceremony, André drove, then walked with me to an old barbed-wire fence about ten minutes from my circle. My threshold. He turned away in silence, and my time of solitude began. I crossed the fence, noticing for the first time the bear hair caught in the wire, and walked to my destination.
The rest of that day was spent settling in: preparing a sleeping spot, rigging the tarp under a big cedar tree, completing the ring of stones that marked my circle, and getting to know the area physically and spiritually.
Seeing the bear’s trail crossing my circle, I honored the spirit of Bear and asked this one to allow me to be in its home peacefully for the next four nights. As darkness fell, I went to bed.
When I awoke next morning, I had no feeling of being on a sacred Quest: no anticipation, no sense of connection, no purpose. I felt like I was on a bad camping trip – I’d forgotten my tent, food, water, matches, books – everything except the barest necessities of preventing myself from dying of hypothermia.
In my mind I could barely hold the thought of why I was there. My heart, my body, and my spirit were not aligned with that thought. I had made a big mistake.
All I could think of to do was say, as I had done nearly every morning for years, “Thanks for the day” – a small ceremony of gratitude for the gift of one more day of life. When I spoke those words, I felt no gratitude, just numbness and an undercurrent of despair. I heard the words in my head, but that was all.
Then, suddenly, as I finished speaking that simple sentence, everything was transformed. I felt no hunger or thirst, no fatigue or discomfort. I saw the beauty and meaning in everything around me and in my own life. I was fully present to the experience of the Quest.
For the next four days I surrendered.
I had chosen my circle area near a pond, making it big enough that the edge of the circle cut the pond. On the second morning, after a light rain, I went down to a small willow that stood with its feet in the pond. The tip of one of its long lance-shaped leaves curled up slightly, and held there a single drop of sparkling clear water. I stood for a long time with that drop of water, admiring it, loving it, immersing myself in the consciousness of how vital water is to all life. I knew that I would not touch that drop, but I imagined its brilliant coolness caressing my tongue.
Sometime during the third day, I learned to draw the essence of water into my body from the pond.
There were other lessons and gifts offered to me as well. One of them was a new ceremony for the sweatlodge – a gift for my people. Other experiences from that time are not to be written, only spoken, and then carefully. Some are not to be told.
When André appeared to bring me out after my fourth night alone, I had no sensation or symptoms of dehydration.
I came back renewed. I brought with me new gratitude, gifts, understandings, power, and a sense of the possibilities of my life and my path, all made possible by accepting the challenge to step up, to face the unknown.
Christiane and André, migwetch – thank you.
March 21, 2021; originally published June 22, 2017