The Vision Quest

IMG_4817Many tribes in the North American indigenous world believe that individuals have to go on a journey of discovery. When an individual is ready, they send that person out into the wilderness for days. With little food and water, the individual has to scavenge for survival. Other tribes don’t believe at all in letting the individual have food on this quest. The goal is that the experience will produce some revelation about the individual. Gods speak, the earth moves. Some tribes believe that one has to leave a part of themselves behind to gain another part. Fragile childhood behind to gain the rights and roles of adulthood in the tribe. So that when they return to the tribe, they are able to describe this intensely personal experience to the tribe. That vision then becomes how the tribe understands and relates to the individual. This experience, this vision, becomes the defining moment for that individual.

When planning this trip, I wanted to go to Joshua Tree, I wanted to go here because last year the drive through the town of Twentynine Palms and seeing those bent trees set my imagination on fire. I stayed with a friend in Palm Springs, on the other side of the mountain, and when we entered the park on the Western entrance, there were no Joshua Trees. I wanted that experience, but alas, it was not meant to be with a short time frame of nine days to drive across the country and back. In planning for this, I wanted to go to the park, to feel the earth, to see these magnificent trees. The closer and closer the date came to leaving, the more quasi-spiritual the park became in my heart. Having only experienced the outside walls, I felt that there was something more here that I needed to have. Joshua Tree, is also the significant end of the first leg of this trip. With the timing around the anniversary of my life falling apart, I felt that this was going to be something more, something special. I made plans for this park to have special significance as well.

The first morning after arriving in Twentynine Palms was already blistering hot. The host’s house was not far away, but the problem was the heat. Pockets of hot air come billowing ¬†from all sides. The ground radiates heat from below. The sun seems to almost bake you. In Tennessee, we have humidity that makes life miserable in August, but somehow this is worse. The reason that I thought camping would be sustainable, was that there was to be strong winds. While there were winds, this only teased cool air at the face and arms.

My original plan was to drop Scout off and then head for the Split Rock Trail and Mount Ryan that the ranger had discussed the night before. I knew that the park would be packed with people, and the earlier that I got up the mountain, the better. The problem was that the dog boarder that I found would only take Scout after 9:30. The lady that I am staying in her yard, came out and we talked about how the desert life is, what kinds of ecology there would be in Joshua Tree, and her life here in Twentynine Palms. She is nice, but it was time to get the show on the road.

Traveling down Amboy Highway, the desert goes up and down, before finally turning at the first red light to the left. Turning right would take you to the military base. Going up a few streets, Adobe turns into Highway 62. The town of Twentynine Palms is a shell of its former self, the walls of the city are lined with both reminisce of the past, and nods to the artistic community that subsides here. Soon the town subsides between rolling hills until the arrival at Joshua Tree. The formal town starts miles back, but the first red light is the way that you now that you have arrived into town. Subsequently, that is also the left turn onto Park Boulevard. Climbing the mountain, the heat of Twentynine Palms starts to subside. The radical change in elevation means that there are quite a few more homes here than in Twentynine Palms as well.

After dropping Scout off, I returned the climb up the mountain. I knew that the park map was a little sketchy. Earlier, both myself and the landlady tried to find Split Rock Trail for about fifteen minutes without avail. Pulling into the gate, I found a ranger and he instructed me that I would go past Jumbo Rocks and there would be a campsite, Split Rock would be on the left. Armed with this knowledge, I continued up the hill, trying to find the mythical trailhead.

Almost immediately, the landscape changed from rugged mountains, to almost a savannah plain of Joshua Trees. For most visitors and locals, I guess that this is a common sight, but to me it was breathtaking. While I had on U2’s Joshua Tree, the openness of being on top of the mountain, I could feel the reverb drenched album coming to life. I could see the mountains that Bono had said that he was climbing, I could feel the guitar bounce off of the walls of the mountains. This felt open, this felt whole, it was a moment that was. I was probably worse than the average tourist, seeing each individual Joshua Tree bent, the unique designs brought something out in me. While it was not the best, I was starting to write a song in my head about these trees. I was becoming more. Lost in the moment. God did it feel good.

After stopping what seems like a million times, I finally made it to Jumbo Rocks, where the geology of the park shifts. The lush green savanna of the Eastern side slowly climbs until the volcanic remnants start to become the major feature surrounding you. The rocks, were full of families, making memories of climbing them. To see the park littered with people came with mixed emotions, I wanted this to be a personal journey but at the same time, I too was looking for that moment to remember.

I drove for about thirty minutes, by this point, the signs on the map were starting to disappear and I was heading towards the Western end of the park. I knew that I had passed it. I turned around, only to find that still, no sign of this mythical Split Rock, or picnic area that was supposed to be located near. I gave up and decided that I would do Skull Trail.

I was one of about fifty, who decided that this was the trail for them as well. One of the more interesting aspects of this trail is that there are not really any trail markers, there are only rocks, that you climb. It is clear which ones you can not, those with the narrow footholds, the narrow passages through. The rocks were part of the volcanic activity in the region and they feel gritty, the various components are on display and rough to the touch. I climbed for thirty minutes or so, took some interesting pictures and climbed back out.

All the while, I was open to the experience. I have no idea what this means, but I was seeing a feather ahead of me. I took my hair down for a few moments to let the wind rustle through for a picture, when I felt this stirring. I don’t know what it means, but the feather was something that just leapt into my mind. I saw it attached to a wing of a hawk or a turkey vulture perhaps, long brown, designed for flight. The tip white, while the bristle ends ruffled to catch air. Designed to buoy the animal in flight.

Perplexed with what this mean, I continued on to the car. I decided that there was no way that I was going to find this trail, so instead, what I should do is to go to the next trail and just walk it. I wanted to experience the park and let it be damned what happened. I knew where Mount Ryan was and I was going to go to that by the end of the day. I had time, walk a few hours on the trails, the information that I got from the ranger said that most of these trails were less than four hours long for the average person, so I was plenty good on time.

I stopped at Jumbo Rocks and found Skull Trail on the right hand side of the road. This was marked in the same information, stating that it was a 1.5 mile loop to see the diverse ecology of the park. Great, my first thought was that I would see more Joshua Trees. Unfortunately that is not the case, the trail is more about the volcanic rocks and the desert ecology that is not Joshua Trees. The trail is close to the road and at times has a few narrow passages (while thiese wouldn’t be bad for a normal person, I was decked out in my camera bag, complete with Tripod and water on the other side, so needless to say that I was wider than normal). I walked the trail until there was a three way split in the trail. Ahead was Skull Trail Look, to the right was the parking lot, and to the left was Split Rock. Oh, finally I found the unicorn in the park. I took the trail to Split Rock, which winded down hill towards the formation known as the face. From a distance, this reminded me more of an elephant than a face. I made it to the bottom and found the face in the rock. While it was interesting, I decided that this trail didn’t really offer me much more. I turned around and headed back to the car.

The entire time, I kept thinking about how this landscape must have looked to the first settlers. The Mormons were the first to come to this area. Searching for a better life. After the settlers, came the prospectors. Those looking for the next gold rush came through Joshua Tree, but failing to find any real gold, moved on. Next were the cattle headers and then finally the towns in the area were settled. Thinking about cattle in the park, this was imaginable. How could anyone think that cattle in this rugged of an area would have been sustainable?

By the time I reached the car, I could feel the effects of the sun on my body. While I’ve spent the better part of two weeks outside, the intensity of the sun on the areas of the back of my neck, shoulders and on spots of my arms were starting to cause issue. I could feel the familiar sting of too much sun. Yet, I had other places to go.

Pulling into a full parking lot of Ryan Mountain, I felt my stomach drop for that personal experience. Ryan Mountain is one of the trails in the park that goes straight up the mountain. The park ranger at Twentynine Palms recommended this because there was the best vantage points of the park, and the geology of the park would be on full display. What I understood was that this was a 1.6 mile trail. What I didn’t understand is that this was a trail that sneaked up the mountain, around different levels, approximately 1000 feet in elevation gained before the summit. In less than 1.5 miles, that is quite a change.

I laced up my shoes and started the trail. The gentle curve of the earth meant the change in elevation was not as bad, as say Ramsey Cascades in the Smokies (approximately every foot forward is a foot in vertical gain). The problem is the footpath is only as wide for one to one and a half people. Many times, those coming down the mountain would have to wait as those going up were traveling. Yet, as many cars as there was in the parking lot, it didn’t seem like there were half as many people on the trail. By halfway up, I was hitting my stride. The constant movement forward, knowing that the summit was close, kept me going. I kept measurements on my elevation gain by the mountain in the distance, whose peak was covered in snow (I don’t know the name of the mountain, but it was quite surrealistic to feel the 100 plus degree heat and see snow on the mountain near you). After climbing what seemed like forever, I finally made it to the top. The breeze lifted spirits. The sweat soaked clothes that clung to the body started to dry. Spirits were lifted, as others that made it to the summit let out a small cry of joy for reaching the top. Celebrations in personal forms were had by all that go there.

I opened the camera and decided to test out the wifi system. Previously, I have struggled to take pictures of myself, because it is hard to do everything on your own. If you are behind the camera, you have to set it up and then hit the timer, race to where you are supposed to be, act natural, then wait for the familiar click. Few times have I been successful in doing this. But the 6D has a built in wifi system that enables the operator to use a smartphone to connect and see in real time what the image is going to look like, change the focus to a specific spot in the image, and take the picture. Finally, a useful technology. After setting this up, I went to the rock, and framed everything. I was looking at the phone and realized that there was a crow, about 6 feet away from me, riding the waves of air like a hawk. Clicking the phone, I took the image of the bird. Feather. Something felt that I was to have this moment. My mind was racing, did this mean anything? Was this just a moment between two creatures that just was, or something more? The crow’s feathers were darker than the one that was in my head, but still I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was more than just a chance encounter.

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Being at the top of the mountain, I was filled with a calming peace that I was not expecting. For weeks, I was dreading this moment, knowing that this was the start of a chaotic point in my lie. I have carried that for what seems to be a lifetime. Yet, sitting up there, looking at the distant mountain, the cars that were smaller than toys, this was a surreal feeling of calm and assurance. Blame this on my lack of vocabulary to describe the feeling, but it was transcendent. I knew that there was a magic in the rock that I had never felt before. Breathing, the earth was alive under me and pulling the magnetic components of my soul northward, to stability.

Climbing down the mountain was quicker than going up. The trail seemed to be half the length as going up, but the problem was the quick drop offs and the sand that was the trail. The hiking boots worked the best when there were rocks to catch myself. On the sand, with weight that was shifting, this was a very uncertain venture. Watching the rocks in the distance go from being below you, to then towering above you fills you with a humble experience. I knew that today was special, but I couldn’t understand or formulate what it was about the day that was so unique.

By the time that I got in the car, I was feeling it. My feet had the brunt of sharp rocks, hard hits, and some close falls (a day later they are still sore). I knew that my plans for trying to catch the sunset was not going to happen. I decided the smart thing to do was to take another day and try to recuperate in the evening, take a late morning, to afternoon relaxation, then drive out to Covington Flats area, where Scout could go, and hike up the old growth Joshua Trees. Then, the next day head to LA to meet a friend.

I drove down the mountain and went to the visitor center, where I received my park ranger badge (my 21st of the year to be exact). The person that swore me in, was actually someone from a previous life. Many years ago, I might have been staying in park housing illegally with my partner at the time. We had two dogs and neither of them were supposed to be in the housing unit. The first house that we were at was a shared unit of seasonals that revolved around four or five different people. One of those seasonals had made their way from the Smokies to Joshua Tree. It was coincidence that this person was the one that swore me in this time. We reminisced about the Smokies and caught up for a moment. Small world, even smaller for those that work in the parks.

One thing that I feel bad for, is at the moment there are not the opportunities for those that are interested in this line of work to move forward. The person told me that they had spent the better part of the last three years looking for a permanent job, but unfortunately those are being cut significantly. Who else do we have to run the parks? Let them be staffed by seasonal people, who are willing to move across the country for little better than minimum wage, keep them for six months, then tell them to leave and find another job? What kind of loyalty does that create? Ugh, the work is hard enough dealing with millions of people, let alone those that are dumb enough to try to do something like feed elk, boulder climb, or bring animals near bears. Shouldn’t they deserve more than just six months and say best of luck?

Leaving the park, I got Scout and we headed back to camp for the night. It was still before six, and the sun was nowhere close to setting. By the time we arrived back at the tent, the temperature was close to 103. While I know that I was miserable, you could see the look of contempt on Scout’s face. In the yard, there was a hose that I used to douse him off. I could tell this helped, but he was not exactly thrilled to be soaked in water. There are times he is like a cat, this was one. He pouted for the better part of the evening, but at least he still had breath to do this with. I attempted to rest, lying in bed with the sun on my back was not comfortable at all. I felt miserable. While in Tennessee we say that we could stand it if there wasn’t as much humidity, this is not the case, the oven baking heat from the sun is worse without the humidity. No breeze to attempt to cool you only makes this worse.

By early evening, the sun went down and I emerged out of the tent. I was recharged enough to capture a few milky way shots here in the parking lot and attempted to write. Nothing was coming. I hate those nights, where there is a mixture of loneliness and frustration. I reached out to a few friends but it is that point in the journey where I am on an island, forgotten by the mainland. I know that this is not their fault, I planned this, I have to live with the consequences. But that doesn’t help make the loneliness go away.

By morning, I was recharged. The sun came through the tent earlier than was expected. I left the cover off the tent, trying to let some of the cool desert night air come through. It also meant that the six am sunrise let the light hit me. I awoke with Scout between my legs on the air mattress. I smiled, I knew that he was miserable too and the cushion of the mattress made him feel more at home. I couldn’t blame him, in fact I might have given him encouragement by asking him to come join me on the pillow. I got up and moved the tent cover around so that the sun would not be in our eyes. While this helped, it did not alleviate the problem of being awake. The morning had started regardless of if I wanted to admit it or not.

Something was different about today, when I awoke, I was singing words to a song that I felt I had sang before. These words and melody were of that Appalachian folk experience, but yet they were nothing that I have heard. This song was unique to me being right here. Lacking a guitar, I can’t tell you what key or even how the words all went. It came in a dream and faded quickly. I recorded what I could to try to preserve this song. Rarely have I woken up out of sleep to a song that was basically ready made. Something was happening, the seismic shifts of my soul was stirring.

I got up and sat in the car, trying to desperately finish Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I red close to half the book this morning. I’m constantly amazed by his prose and his way of telling the story. While there are times that he rambles, after looking at the word counts of some of these posts, you might say that I do that too. I can feel the issues that he is discussing.The industrialized tourism, the chronic problem of parks not being wild, instead they are cash revenues for small towns, and the idea that you have to have wilderness to save culture/civilization. Where else do you have a solitude, refuge from the modern if not for the wilderness?

The problem was, today was starting to become hotter than the day before, Scout tried to cling on to any of the shade that was left available. Under the car was not an option, so he did the next best thing, of parking himself beside me until the shade disappeared in the noontime sun. Even I was starting to feel the heat and might have taken a few moments to doze off from Abbey and rest. By two, I started stirring, I had asked if it was alright to take a quick shower before going today. The last one I had was before Las Vegas and I could feel the nastiness on myself. After removing about three layers of dirt from my body, I returned outside. The cool of the shower meant that I felt as if I returned to a normal temperature. Going outside was like walking into a nuclear reactor. You could feel the earth rejecting the heat and broadcasting upwards. I realized then, that the well water shower, even as cold as it was, what been affected by this heat. The cold water that comes through the pipes back home was another fifteen to twenty degrees cooler than this water. The heat consumes all.

Finally, about three in the afternoon, Scout and I made our pilgrimage into the park. The plan was to drive east to west, then come around to Covington Trail and walk the old growth. I had approximated that by leaving at 3, we could drive and have enough time to catch an 8 pm sunset. Making our way through the park for the second time, I felt that sense of wonder returning. How were these Joshua Tree’s made? Why did they bend in all these directions? After passing the trail sign for the mythical Split Rock, I started venturing into new territory. Cottonwood is the West entrance and is approximately 60 miles away from the East Entrance of the park. The entire park changes as you make it from Split Rock. The volcanic rocks that were only mere inklings on the horizon, become the centerpiece. The drop down to the bottom of the mountain means that you can see the changes in elevation affect new and different plant forms. Cacti start to dominate the landscape that was once Joshua Trees. This feels more remote. The mountains are more or less piles of bolder and remnants of what once was boulders. The air is warmer, but there is a breeze as you climb down the mountain. Several times, it felt that I was in another place. I know that the Mohave and the Colorado Deserts are approximately in this area, but I’m curious if that split is right there on display with the cacti versus Joshua Trees. After making it through the park, I turned up I-10 towards Palm Springs to start the second leg of the loop. I found myself drawn to singing songs that were once so important to me last year. The Wild Reeds, Everything Looks Better in Hindsight was a top pick for the moment. The haunting refrain, the angelic voices that then howl in pain. I felt that this fit the moment, yet it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I tried Where I’m going. This was better, even I don’t know where I’m going. But there was something different in the moment of singing the song. I felt that I had more agency. That I knew that where I was going and a real destination, instead of the vague call that I’m just leaving. I felt whole again. The creativity was returning. I can feel the emotional banks recharging as the road turned into Yucca valley, then Joshua Tree.

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In the distance, the sun was starting to set between mountain peaks. I wanted to try to catch the Joshua Tree at the moment of sunset. That was the big reason for going to Covington, yet I was only in the town of Joshua Tree, another 30 minutes to the Covington Trails. I turned up Park Boulevard, and kept going northward, turning down Alta Loma, I could see the sun was about to set in the next few minutes. There was no way that I was going to make it to my destination and find that spot for pictures and my plan.

For the past few weeks, I had this plan that I was going to go on a vision quest of sorts here in the park. That I was going to try to have a transcendent moment that was going to redefine and reshape who I am. I was also going to make a small sacrifice to the desert. I was going to cut off part of my hair and bury it in the desert. Not all of it, but rather a good portion of the pony tail as a way to honor the proverbial gods of the desert and to link myself here.

Watching the sun setting, I knew that there was no way to do all of this in one night. I made it to a grove of Joshua Trees and started taking pictures. This might have been private property, but I didn’t care. I was in a spot that I wanted to be in. The Joshua Trees broken and bent in many different directions were beautiful against the mountain side. I could feel them re-charging me. I don’t understand it, I am drawn to the se trees somehow. I feel that they are a part of me, unique in each way that I can see. Spines that are almost hair like, the blossom that reminds you of a pine cone.

Walking around the area, I found a fallen Joshua Tree, and stood there marveling at it. Half decomposed, the tree was on the ground and was starting to turn back to desert. The lifeless grey of the sand that it was melting into was enough to make me pause. The texture of the wood was there, but somehow the middle was gone. I had been at this site for thirty minutes, and for some reason there was a magnetic pull towards this spot. I took some pictures of the fallen Joshua Tree and others in the setting sunlight. I felt that this was something more. That the fallen Joshua Tree was giving life to these new trees all around it. That this was a deeper metaphor for my life. Being overcome with the emotion that this was right, I retrieved my scissors and cut my hair. I buried it in the desert in the unmarked grave of between two Joshua Trees. I have their pictures, but this will not help. After cutting my hair, it was almost like a light switch being turned on, there was a new life in me.

One of the stories that I have carried and thought a lot about over the past year is the story of the two monks. In the Middle Ages, christian monks had various denominations and the stricter the order was the more that there was a need for an apprenticeship to guide the younger ones through the pitfalls of being a monk. One day these two monks were walking, the master and the apprentice, through the woods to the monastery in the next town over. When, they come across a woman who needs help. She begs both of the monks to help her across the river, that her family was there and she had no way to get across. The apprentice knew that it was forbidden to touch another human being and was about to tell the woman that she was out of luck, when the master reached down and picked her up. He quietly carried her across the river, while the apprentice followed almost dumbfounded in knowing that the master was doing wrong. Across the river safely, the woman thanked the two and went on her way. The master bowed and kept on the path that they were originally one. After hours, the apprentice, full of questions, ready to scold the master, finally broke his silence. “Why did you pick that woman up?” He almost yelled. The master turned to the apprentice, “My son, you are correct I did wrong. But which one of us is more in the wrong, I only carried her across the river, you have been carrying her for miles?”

I think about that story a lot over the past year. I’ve been carrying this other person inside of me for a long time. It was funny, after cutting my hair, I felt, almost an instant relief. There was this feeling that I buried not a part of hair, but a part of my life that I don’t want any more. I put that person down. My question that I’ve struggled with, is that person my ex partner, or that older version of myself? The person who was weak, who understood that they were afraid of everything around them, a person who struggled to understand? I feel that I put down something at the moment, but I’m not sure which one. Either way, it was a relief to just be. I probably did a hack job with the cut, but there was something so powerful about being able to physically cut a bond that I did this. It was my decision, my agency that caused this to happen. For so long it seemed as if I was not the one that was making decisions, that the universe was happening around me. This was my decision and it felt so empowering to have that one little moment. Thank you gods of the desert, for you have a place in me, and I have a permanent place in you.

I came to the desert looking for relief, looking for a type of salvation. I wanted to have that vision, that deeper meaning of who I am to emerge. While I had those moments, I don’t know if I have that redefining moment of who I am yet. I struggle so much with an outward identity. I know who I am, but does anyone else (or can they know another for that matter. Down the existential rabbit hole with that question…)? If anything, I feel more assured in my self. I know that this is contrite, but maybe the feather represented the hair, the free flow, letting the wind take you there, that sometimes has to be cut, to make new growths happen. I don’t know. Meaning and signs in the desert happen all the time. Mirages and lights at night confuse distance and reality. Maybe this was a mirage that I saw… or maybe it was something more…

 

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