Stuck in a tent with unrelenting rain for forty-eight hours, all I wanted was for the rain to stop so I could escape from the small and confined space. Rivulets of water had streamed down the outside walls, pooled along the ground tarp, and bled dark bronze around the tent floor. I wondered how long before that damp seeped into every fold and recess of my sleeping bag and, eventually, me.
An experienced vision quester, I knew May weather in the Modoc National Forest in Northern California could be unpredictable. Once it had even snowed a few inches. But it was the first time I’d been trapped in a two-person (more like one person and a duffle bag) tent for so long. My back and hips hurt. My patience wore thin.
Before the quest I had imagined, as I always did, how the days might go. I would meander over the chaparral, then sit in quiet solitude and watch the sky change color, listen to bird calls. I had even announced these plans in the circle council a few days earlier: “My intention is to be present with nature, watch closely, and be open to the teachings that the land offers.”
I had quested in the Modoc many times, but this time I felt the presence of the Moatokni maklak ancestors, the Modoc people who had inhabited the land for thousands of years before Euro-American fur trappers came to the area in the early 1800’s. The Modoc, the Pit River or Achomawi, and the Northern Paiute tribes still occupy the area today.
I discovered vision questing in 1996 when my sister gave me The Book of the Vision Quest, by Steven Foster and Meredith Little. Vision Questing is an ancient pan-cultural initiation rite of passage that awakens one’s personal vision and purpose. It is an act of courage and determination that involves solitude, fasting, and prayer. Jesus went into the desert for forty days. The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and found spiritual enlightenment. Muhammad went into the cave on the mountain and was given the Koran. And I, a middle-aged, middle-class, ordinary white woman, go out on vision quests and find myself in the wilderness.
Most of us who participate in questing today have been called to the ceremony from somewhere deep in our DNA, beckoned by ancient and enduring memories of our connection to Mother Earth. We long to be held by Her. We long to re:member ourselves back to Her.
When I first read Steven and Meredith’s book, I didn’t imagine going on a quest myself, but the seed was planted in my mind. Several years later, I came across a flyer on a bulletin board in a bookstore, “Wilderness Rites Women’s Vision Quests.” Without hesitation I wrote down the phone number and made the call.
I was pleased to discover that Anne Stine, vision quest guide and founder of Wilderness Rites, had learned the ceremony from Steven Foster and Meredith Little. I had thought vision questing was primarily a Native American practice, but I learned from Anne that Steven and Meredith had researched Indigenous peoples from all around the world and discovered common themes in their rite-of-passage ceremonies. This spoke to me, and I was hungry to learn more. I bought another book Meredith wrote after Steven died, The School of Lost Borders: A Love Story.
In her book, she writes, “In the early 1970’s, the time was ripe for bringing earth-based wisdom back into our culture.” She went on to tell the stories of the native people who helped them along the way. Sun Bear, an Ojibwa elder and prominent voice in the Native American Movement, took them under his wing. Hyemeyohsts Storm, of Cheyenne, Sioux, Irish-American, and German descent, heard about Steven and Meredith’s work and told them, “What you’re doing is important. You sit down here, and I’m going to teach you things you need to know.”
Grandpa Raymond Stone, a Paiute elder, gave them permission to use the land around Big Pine, California, and taught them about the Indigenous ways of perceiving the world, “like no one else,” Meredith wrote, “Grandpa Raymond was the real thing. He had been taught by his father, who had been taught by his father, a lineage of ‘Indian Doctors’ who were guided by spirit. Grandpa Raymond told us, ‘You do good work. You need to do that work for your people.’”
I had read about fly-by-night guides who used pageantry and hype to pull people in but lacked the depth and understanding it takes to “be guided by spirit,” as Meredith had described it. Anne Stine’s thirty years of experience guiding quests, along with how she had learned the ceremony from those who had learned it directly from native elders, resonated with me. I felt like she, too, was the real thing. I wanted to be a part of something that felt legitimate and had so many components to it from all over the world.
I went on my first vision quest when I turned fifty, a rite of passage into mid-life. I wanted to mark the half-century point with an adventure, thought I would try it once, see if I could fast for four days alone in the wilderness. At the time, I had no idea that vision questing would become an annual event in my life, a sacred ceremony that connected me to the land and wove me into nature’s web. My time in the wilderness circled me back, again and again, to the events of my life — to sort through them, find deeper meaning, and make peace with my past. And that desire for insight brought me once again back to the Modoc.
The next morning, after having been confined in my tent for three days, I woke up to a light wind ruffling the nylon and an intense desire for fresh air. Outside, it had stopped raining. I tried to unzip my sleeping bag, but the nylon fabric wadded in the zipper. “Damn it,” I said, yanking at the metal pull. With some finagling up, down, and up again, it finally gave way.
I crawled out of the opening, stood up, and stretched tall. I breathed in wet earth and juniper air and blessed quiet. Spring in the Modoc was bright and sunny, alive with wildflowers and new growth. A meadowlark on the ridge above me erupted in a melodious trill. Shards of light radiated from the pewter sky like the fingers of God in a religious painting, signaling hope for a sunny day. Liberation at last. I was free from the four orange walls of that tent.
I surveyed my camp for damage from the two-day downpour. I was pleased that the tarp I’d tied in the lower boughs of the juniper had held well. My camp chair and gear bag were damp from slanted rain, but not soaked.
The moss on the rocks had turned a deep, verdant green. Where I had trudged carelessly before, I now chose my footfalls to avoid the velvet mat, aware of how fresh and alive everything appeared after the rain.
I set out on a walkabout, which was something I always did on quests to quiet my busy mind and restless body. I would search for signs of life: animal tracks, an owl feather, maybe an arrowhead. It was part of my vision quest ceremony — looking for signs and symbols from nature and using them as mirrors for what was happening inside myself.
Meandering along a dirt road that ran north and south through the chaparral, I crested a small hill and stopped. Ahead, something thin and curved lay inert on the graveled shoulder. I stepped closer.
When my son Bill was little, we read his favorite book Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Night after night, we studied the names of all the reptiles and the color photographs. I was as intrigued as Bill by the descriptions and characteristics of each snake, frog, newt, and salamander.
That’s how I recognized the brown and black hexagon pattern on the creature lying in the road. It was a baby gopher snake that appeared to be dead. I touched it with my finger. It felt cold, but not stiff with no sign of injury.
Lying in my tent the night before, halfway between sleep and consciousness, I had heard a voice say: “Let go and trust.” I blinked awake and wondered if it had been an actual person speaking, or a voice in a dream. Was it the voice of the ancestors? Had fasting caused auditory hallucinations? Or maybe I was going crazy from being trapped by the rain, but then I remembered it was important to pay attention to subtle messages, especially on a quest.
In Death Valley, I had followed the urge to strip naked, which turned into a spontaneous body-shame healing ritual. In the Inyo Mountains, I responded to the call of the black rock ridge and sat under the lone pine tree for hours reconnecting with my childhood love of art. And here I was, on quest ten. Let go and trust.
What I wanted in that moment, looking at the dead gopher snake, was to pick it up and take it with me. But for what purpose? Let go and trust. I scooped up the snake and held it in my hand. The limp body smelled of sage mixed slightly with skunk. I slid it into a plastic bag and slipped the bundle into my pocket.
A few moments later, I stopped again. This time, it was a dead thumb-sized frog. The translucent blue-green skin was marked with black camouflage spots, and the back legs were splayed out in a diamond shape. Once again, there was no sign of injury, simply a dead frog.
I fished the bag from my pocket and placed the little amphibian in with the snake.
Further down the road was another dead frog, almost a twin to the first one, the same blue-green skin, the same black spots. I picked it up and eased it into the bag along with the others.
How odd that I had come looking for signs of life, but now had three dead creatures in my pocket. What did it mean? Let go and trust. It didn’t matter what it meant. My intention was to be present with nature, watch closely, and be open. I was being taught.
“Okay guys,” I said, my voice bouncing back to me from the open chaparral. “We’re going to have a death party.”
Back at my campsite under the juniper tree, I took out the dead snake and frogs and arranged their wet bodies on a moss-covered lava rock. I placed the snake in the middle, the frogs on either side. Their colors were so vibrant in the overcast skylight they looked as if they could slither or hop away at any moment.
I got down on my belly and looked closely at their lifeless eyes, studied their physical structure. Imagine being in a body that can move over rocks, grass, and water without any legs, scaled skin gliding you forward, smelling the air with your tongue. Or fringed, webbed feet bigger than your head that can propel you through water like a torpedo. On land your belly stays in touch with the earth, so close you feel it as part of yourself. You go where your instincts take you without self-consciousness, your only mission to survive.
I thought about the creek across from our house where I’d learned to find solace in nature and joy in small wild things. I caught tadpoles and frogs, picked blackberries, and stayed cool in that ravine on long hot summer afternoons. I once caught a garter snake and kept it in my room in a terrarium with dirt and foliage. To keep it alive, I fed it worms. One day she gave birth to a dozen live babies that slithered in random chaos around the glass walls trying to get out. Neighborhood kids knocked at the door and asked to see the baby snakes.
I was the only kid on the block who had ever owned baby snakes. I wanted to keep them, but my brother convinced me they would die in the over-crowded terrarium. A few days later I let them all go; but not before I held a few and felt their ribbon bodies tickle across my hands and bare legs.
I was surprised by this memory and this person I had been so long ago. While my girlfriends would have nothing to do with snakes or frogs and found them slimy and creepy, I had always loved them and enjoyed the curious feel of their cool, smooth bodies.
Small things die every day, and most people don’t notice or care. Looking at the snake and frogs now, lying on their stony tomb like an illustration from a nature journal, I realized they represented some things in me that had died when I was small, too. My innocence lay inert. My vulnerability splayed out limp. My trust, cold and still.
The year I turned ten was rough. My mother, a devout Catholic who raised us to be the same, finally divorced my alcoholic father and was living life as a single woman. The church excommunicated her, punished her for trying to liberate herself from the trauma and heartache that comes from living with an alcoholic. My sisters, who were eight years older and had been like two extra moms to me, got married in a double wedding ceremony and moved out of the house. My brother, fourteen years old, sunk into a deep depression and disappeared into his bedroom lair. One day we were a family, albeit a dysfunctional one that centered around my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s codependency, and the next day I was alone. I found my respite at the creek.
My vision questing was my way of returning to that girl I had been, the one who loved the land and felt wonder and joy in nature. Feeling her again inside me, I plunged into the moment, slathered mud on my face, dangled mossy strings in my hair, shook a rattle, and danced in circles around the dead.
When I was all danced out, I went to my knees and cried for that lonely little girl who was left to find companionship in cold-blooded creatures. Today’s funeral was for the baby frogs and snake, but that wasn’t all. It was also a celebration of the resourcefulness and innate wisdom of my younger self, qualities that had always led me to nature for comfort.
Later that afternoon the sun came out and dried the rain puddles. Flickers whistled sharp calls from the silhouetted branches of a nearby snag. I changed into shorts and flip flops and soaked in the warmth. The frogs changed too, to a deeper oceanic teal as they shrunk and shriveled from the heat. The snake’s eyes filmed over and collapsed in.
I picked them up and carried them a few hundred yards away to a rocky outcropping where I’d spotted a shallow cave. I arranged the reptiles on the dirt floor of the cave, facing one another in a triad. I said a prayer of gratitude for the insights the little ones had sparked in me.
I stood up, brushed the dirt from my knees, and walked back through the grassy meadow with the image of the three creatures still alive in my consciousness. They would be good food for a coyote or a cougar, or beetles and ants. They would go back to the earth.
A movement in the brush stopped me. I looked but didn’t see anything. I took another step, and a dark shape caught my attention. There in the brush was a three-foot long, very much alive snake. The chain-like pattern along its back was a giant replica of the baby snake I’d just left in the cave. The midsection, though, was as big around as my wrist.
The snake slithered away, as startled perhaps as I was. I scanned the tail. No rattle. It was a gopher snake.
“Well, hello there,” I said.
The snake stopped. It turned toward me. Grass swished under its body as it slid forward, its forked tongue whipping through the air.
I did not move, barely breathed.
The creature continued toward my exposed feet. It stopped in front of my bare toes, tongue slashing out and back, out and back.
A cold chill spread over my skin. Gopher snakes have small sharp teeth, and even though they are not venomous, their bite can be painful.
Let go and trust. I stayed still.
With one last whip, the forked tongue slashed out and brushed against my big toe. Then the snake turned and undulated over the ground and disappeared.
I had been kissed by a snake. It was a shamanic blessing.
The feeling of that shamanic blessing stayed with me all the way back to my questing site. Back in the tent, I lay on my sleeping bag, and relived my one day of freedom: the search for life, the discovery of death, a memory of being a young mother with my son, a child holding snakes before setting them free, the solace of nature, the funeral, the snake licking at my bare toe.
I had never anticipated torrential rains and being holed up in my tent to the point of near hallucination for three days. But that’s how vision questing is. That’s part of the magic. You get what you get, then you find the meaning in it all. Let go and trust.
About the Author:
Glenda Goodrich “GG” is an artist and writer working on a collection of nonfiction essays that capture her experiences vision questing in the wilderness. Her practice in the ceremonies of isolation, fasting and prayer over the last 20 years have deepened her relationship to herself and wild places, and her writing reveals the healing power of the natural world. GG lives in Salem, Oregon and spends her time hiking, gardening, creating art in her studio, and teaching her grandchildren and great grandchildren about loving the earth.