Here is a story that continues to replenish my soul year after year.
It’s pitch black night outside in Riner, Virginia. The sound of crickets is strong enough to break through the walls and be heard inside. I’m sitting across from Cross Elkroot, a man in his thirties with long black hair braided in the back with a fedora crowning his head, and he is telling me what to expect. He is telling me we will enter the lodge well before daybreak and we will sing some songs and say some prayers and be done sweating before the sun rises. Then I will be taken to a preordained spot in these western-most mountains and my assigned area, which will be six foot by six foot, will be staked out. Four choke-cherry branches will be stabbed into the ground at each corner and one thousand prayer ties, which I was asked to string together over the last three weeks, will create a fence around me and protect me from harm. A fifth choke-cherry branch will be used as a gate. I am to leave the area only to go to the bathroom. I will not have any food or water. I will stay in the six by six foot area for as long as is necessary. I wonder how long this will be.
I’ve known Cross for many years, but I have never asked him to “put me out on the mountain” until now. I am listening to every word he is saying and pouring every ounce of my attention into his words. I don’t feel that what I’m about to do is a matter of life and death, but I do feel it will become a profound event in my relatively short life.
I ask Cross if I can speak to him outside. There are three other people here and I want to reveal something that I feel is very personal. Cross agrees and we step out into the pool of dim yellow porch light.
“Cross, I got myself a job and have been working for a friend for a couple years now and he has always paid me on time. But about a month ago he was unable to pay me. When I asked for my check, he simply said, I cannot pay you right now.
“I let it go for a week, but at the end of that week he still couldn’t pay me. By the third week Wells Fargo was threatening to foreclose on my mortgage and I was in danger of losing my home.
“I told him I needed to be paid and he said, ‘That’s not my problem.’ I don’t know what to do here Cross.”
“I know,” says Cross. “I am aware of what’s going on with you and I promise by the end of this ceremony you will know exactly what to do.”
I look at Cross in the haze of the porch light and I see his eyes are somehow focused on a spot between him and me. I wonder about this. Can he not look at me in the same way a groom cannot look at the bride before the wedding ceremony? Is he so deep in the spirit of this ceremony that he cannot focus outside of it? I’m not sure, but I am absolutely positive about one thing. I believe what he is saying. His conviction is strong. Cross does not lie. He has more integrity than most of the people I’ve ever known.
It’s time to get whatever rest I can now before the ceremony begins and here at this spiritual retreat center nestled in the plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’ll sleep outside on the porch of the Zendo. All the night creatures that make sound are busy doing their jobs and at first I feel I may not get much rest, but the lull comes and fills me with the closing of the day and the eyes and the consciousness and suddenly it’s time to get up and start a new day.
Up at 4:00 a.m. looks just like up in the middle of the night. But I have enough adrenaline coursing thru my veins, I don’t have to yawn. In the distance I hear drumming. Today there’s no coffee, no breakfast. We’re not breaking a fast, we’re beginning one.
The April pre-dawn morning in this mountainous region of Virginia is cold. The wind has a bite to it. Outside the lodge down the hill from the Zendo on the brink of a hillside, the fire is burning deep in a hole dug specifically to prevent the wind from blowing it out. I feel the warmth of the fire on the backs of my legs as I kneel to enter the lodge.
Three people will go on vision quest this morning. We are all present for the ceremony. The ceremony goes well and each of us is taken to our assigned areas. I have the distinct feeling that the fast is going to affect me. That I will soon be hungry and wishing I had food. But once placed and seated in my 6′ X 6′ area, I am surprised to learn that it is not food that I crave. It is water.
My spot is in a meadow surrounded on three sides by a creek which flows in a horseshoe shape around the outside edge of the clearing. I can hear it burbling over the rocks. A sequence of thoughts occurs to me. We take in all that we sense. Sounds come in our ears. Tastes come into our mouths. When we see a tree, the tree is not outside of us, it is inside of us. Our optical nerve and a series of cones and rods are producing the concept of a tree at the backs of our eyes and then traveling to our brains where we register the tree inside of us. So although it is not entering my mouth at this moment, the sound of the water is entering my ears. Therefore water is coming into my body. This may be the most far fetched thing you’ve ever heard, but it satisfied my thirst and I no longer craved water.
Now sitting here on this grassy meadow, I see the sun rising in the east. The day has begun. I am holding the bowl of my sacred pipe against my chest and aiming the stem out in front of me. This is how I will sit for as long as I am here. I wonder again how long I will be here.
I look over at the sun, barely clearing the horizon. I have nothing to do. I have nowhere to be. I have no one to answer to. There are no responsibilities. I cannot write. I cannot draw. I cannot make things. I cannot visit with any human beings. So I sit…
… the sun has barely moved. I wonder how long it will take for the sun to get directly over head. How long will it take to be noon? It looks like it is going to take a very long time; and indeed it does take a very, very long time.
It seems that three days have passed since the sun rose and finally made it to the zenith of the sky. Now that it is probably noon, there is still nothing to do. I look to the west and I wonder how long it will take before the sun goes down. What seems like six days later, the sun finally sets.
There is still nothing to do, but it is dark now. The symphony of the night creatures begins and I listen. This will be my evening’s entertainment. But it is so natural that I am not really entertained. I sit and wonder how long it will be before midnight will come. I don’t have a watch. I see a lot of stars. Eventually, I fall out of consciousness.
I wake up at some point in the morning and I open my gate so I can walk ten feet away to pee. Then I come back and I sit with my pipe against my chest and the stem aimed out. The sun is barely clearing the horizon. I have nothing to do. You see where this is going. Time is showing me just how eternally long it takes when you cannot measure it. I vow to stay awake as long as possible tonight. I feel intuitively that if I deprive myself of sleep I will enter a state of trance and actually see some visions. But without a way to tell time, I do not know how late I am staying up and once again at some sort of biologically, predestined time, I lose consciousness.
I wake up and I have a sense that everything is clearer now. The greens of the trees are greener than yesterday. The blue of the sky is bluer. The pale green-gray of the lichens is even more vibrant today. I sit up and stare into the woods, my sacred pipe aimed and at the ready. I hear the cardinals… and then I see them. I hear a heron and then I see it land in a tree near me. I keep staring into those woods looking sharply, trying to see everything that is there all at once. I do this for many hours. I have nothing else to do.
I look up at the sky. I look down at the sky. I am sitting with my feet dangling off the edge of a cliff. The sky below has something swimming in it. Suddenly I hear the whoosh of wings to my upper right. I look up into the sky to my right and there, in the middle of the sky is a stone ring with turrets, like the top of a castle, 12 feet in circumference, spinning in the air. The whooshing sound was from the wings of an eagle who is flying toward the stone ring. A golden eagle lands on one of the turrets and the ring stops spinning. The eagle is looking down at me.
I look back down into the sky and the tiny, distant swimming creature is getting closer. I see now that it is a baby polar bear swimming up toward me. He swims right between my knees and he is so cute. I reach to pet him, but he opens his mouth and his teeth are super-sharp, so I withdraw my hand, only to discover he is just yawning. I pet his furry head and take a deep breath. I hear a faint voice far below… “obby ime to…”
The voice gets nearer. “Bobby ime t’go…” I hear my name. I look into the sky to see who’s talking to me, but I cannot see them. They are getting closer because the voice is getting louder. “Bobby, time to go.” I look to my left and right and up and down, but I cannot find the owner of this voice. I am feeling very puzzled. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and I watch the scene in front of me, the blue intensity of the two skies, one above and one below, the baby polar bear, the stone ring and the eagle slowly tear away and become smoke until the colors are completely replaced by greens of the trees that are really here and the pale green-grays of the lichens and the sound of the creek returns and it is Cross who is touching my shoulder and he is telling me that it is time to go.
“Are you sure?” I ask, “because I don’t think I am done.” But he assures me I am done and it is time to go. I stand. I march straight to a spot on the creek in front of me some fifteen yards away as if being pulled by the sound of water and I look into the tributary. The water is clear, but the bottom is covered with mud. All the stones are coated with brown, but I reach straight into the water, the whole time feeling that I am just obeying impulse, not willing nor intending any of this and I wrap my fingers around a small stone and lift it from the creek bed. I rinse the mud off in the water and I am surprised to find the stone is translucent. This, I say to myself (in my mind) is my vision stone.
We all head back to the retreat center and our favorite meal is being prepared for us by our respective ogligles (pron: oh-GLEE-glays). They are the people who assist us in our quest. They eat for us and drink for us and pray for us the entire time we are out there on the mountain. They have asked us ahead of time what our favorite recipe is and now we enjoy a feast of everyone’s favorite foods.
When I return home the following day, I remember my conversation with Cross. “…I promise by the end of this ceremony you will know exactly what to do.”
I don’t know where the answer came from. I don’t remember being presented with the answer at any given point in the ceremony, yet it was indeed quite clear. What my friend said to me, “That’s not my problem” was true. It was not his problem, it was mine. I am the one who chose to work for someone who could not pay me. I’m the one who would have to remedy the situation. And so I met with my friend and told him I quit. Although he was not happy with that summation, I was 100% confident that it was the exact right thing to do.
That was eighteen years ago. I still love my friend and I think he has forgiven me for abandoning him. And I think often about that baby polar bear, the golden eagle, the stone ring, the cliff, the two skies and how the two realities overlapped and dissolved into one another when the blue skies turned back into the trees of the forest. And with me, I have my vision stone which reminds me of my friend the creek who gave me water thru my ears.
The things we thirst and hunger for in this life may be satisfied in ways we do not expect. We live for surprise anyway, so I think this is a very, very good thing.