I left Panamint Springs early heading east into the heart of Death Valley. The air was cold, below freezing. A range of snow-topped mountains lined the far side of the valley. I felt strangely embraced by Death Valley, embraced by a life affirming connection, despite the name.
I headed into Death Valley for a 12-day retreat. Four of them would be a solo vision quest fast — water, sleeping bag and whatever I carried inside my head.
Eight or nine years ago I canoed alone into Algonquin Park, a wilderness park some hours north-east of Toronto. I went in after Labor Day. I felt at home during the day. The weather perfect, the lakes, rivers and campsites deserted. Only at night, after night fall, I felt completely exposed and vulnerable.
I feared whatever drooled just beyond the light of my campfire. The same terror propelled me, as a boy, several feet across my bedroom floor into bed at night to avoid him snatching at my ankles and he had me taking the basement stairs three at a time to avoid being sucked back into the long corridor of darkness and dread behind me. My kids have similar irrational fears now. Irrational, but real to them. They won’t go downstairs at night without me. I’ve learnt as an adult to navigate that one. But how many irrational fears lurk in my awareness. Irrational perhaps, hidden, but infecting and deflecting my thoughts and actions. My boyhood fears subsided but deep down I knew they still coloured my perception of life affecting everything. I wanted to face them. Head-on. That’s why I went into Algonquin alone.
Well, face them I did. Not particularly well as it happened. I came out alive, of course. But I did not, as the hero with a thousand faces does in each and every myth, face that cruel ogre with a swamp full of bones, and live to tell the tale, let alone bring a boon back to my village.
So this time going into Death Valley, I again wanted to face that fear. This time during the solo four day fast I would have a base camp a mile or two away. That link I thought might settle the fear. One thing though, I knew the north woods. I understood it. I felt at home there, at least during the day. Death Valley was new. It’s true, no large wild animals lived there. But Death Valley did have rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, and tarantulas. So I bought a camp cot so I’d be off the ground. And a really nasty long-lasting insect barrier spray. I did not want to find any of those things in my sleeping bag or crawling over my face at night.
Our group of ten and four guides met at Furnace Creek, so called because at 130 degrees it boasts being the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. In summer. This was mid-winter and cold. We drove twenty miles up the highway and then drove thirty minutes in four-wheel drive vehicles down an untracked wash to camp. In a word, remote. Mountains surrounded us. But the ones to the east held my attention. High, regal, and calling my name.
For the next couple of days the guides helped each of us form an intention to take into our vision quest, an intention with an edge. Sharp, honed, and honest. Then we had a day to hike off from base camp to find our spot to camp solo.
I walked east up the wash towards those mountains. I found a spot. But just beyond it, visible from my campsite, a heaving mass of grey-white rock oozed from the mountain side. I cringed and backed away in terror. I felt this cleft exude evil. I could feel the great devouring evil spirits of Death Valley would bleed out here at night. Right there. I slinked away, back down the wash around a long arm of hillside until I felt safely distant. I’d be hidden from those evil spirits that I knew escaped each evening from that portal of ruin.
Behind that hillside I found a cove of rock, the ground a soft silt. I felt safe, protected. I would camp here for four days. Alone. I went back to basecamp and in two loads carried my four one-gallon jugs of water to my campsite. My rations for the four-day fast.
That night the guides prepared a feast and we went to bed. Then at first light in a beautiful ceremony of separation we each headed to our solo campsite. I had discovered that in Death Valley in winter anything that might harm you hibernates. So I slept on the ground looking at the stars. Which I did a lot of since night fall came a 6:30 pm and first light came around 6:15 am. I didn’t sleep much for some reason. I watched the front edge of the Big Dipper swing in its aligned arc around the North Star. I learned during the first night the direction the handle pointed that soon promised the sun’s return. They were long nights.
On the first morning the pull of the mountains to the east gripped me. I had to explore. The distances deceived. Things looked close because of the dry air. I walked and walked. For miles. Until I stood finally right beneath a circular wall of mountains towering above me. I found there a small red heart-shaped rock. I had found a grey heart-shaped rock in camp. I exchanged them there in a ceremony of replacing the old, the grey, the worn out, with the new charged energy of courage and life. I yelled up at the mountains, my echoes reverberated back, surrounding me.
I had come to the Sacred Mountains. Not just metaphorically. I stood beneath them now surrounded, and felt their deep cleansing infusing power. I felt an unmistakable connection, a powerful union of whatever I was with everything around me. I felt charged with an irrepressible life energy that knew no fear because I experienced my being as deeper, more whole, more silent than any agitating fear I could conjure.
On my return from that hike hours later walking down the wide wash I noticed ahead the discharge of grey rock seeping from the mountain.. But now rather than cringe and retreat, I turned and walked up to the slim and mire. I stood before it. At the top of that pestilent mass twenty-five feet above me, a head looked down. In that afternoon light it looked like a huge cobra’s head staring down at me. I saluted him now, honoured whoever he was, bowed to him, aware of a separate and sentient presence. But now I felt connected to my own presence, and nothing could shake it.
Standing before that wall of grey oozing rock and feeling safe may seem a paltry breakthrough. For me it harkened a new connection to spirit. To Spirit — to my self held in the arms of my Self, in the safety of Truth and Being. A mystic connection infused my awareness.
I returned to camp. Some huge irrational separation from Being had gone. I felt whole and invincible. I had worshipped at the feet of the Sacred Mountain and my fear had been washed clean.
Each day of the fast I settled deeper. My mind slowed, then stopped. By the end I was in “the big empty”. The mental chronometer wound down. I had read once of the Hopi. They had no words for past, present or future. Or for time. They had two tenses, for things that already existed and one for things coming into being. I understood that idea. It resonated with the slow and open awareness of my connection with the grand vault of space and mountains around me.
This was my second reason for coming to Death Valley. I wanted to be held in the heart of the land. I found instead of sitting down to watch the sunset as close to the horizon as possible, you know, efficiently, I sat down at around 4 pm. Not much else going on. No jagging sense of other things I had to do. No list of more productive callings. This was it. Here. Now. Empty. Full. Content.
The experience brought to mind part of poem by Charles Simic. “Silence is that vast cosmic church in which we always stand alone. Silence is the only language God speaks.”
I’ve been back in LA some weeks now, yet I still feel that big empty silence inside. My attention still rests there, the silence within the silence, even here, in West LA, the belly of the beast, as far as superficial callings go. Yet that silence allows resonance with every tiny impulse of this big, glorious Mystery that surrounds and engulfs us. And in that resonance I think we find the foundation of the experience of beauty.
The School of Lost Borders organized the retreat. They have run these 12-day retreats for over thirty years, no advertising, all word of mouth, always full with a waiting list. We had mainly men in our group, but usually more women attend.