St. George, Utah. My mother and I eat in nervous quiet at Arby’s. I know this will be my last meal in civilization for a while. Soon, I will go live in the desert. I don’t know what to expect, but try to focus on savoring the Arby’s Sauce instead of thinking.
The van pulls into the parking lot. I hug my mother, put on a brave face. The staff tells me that, for safety reasons and program policy, they have to blindfold me. This is the first moment it starts to sink in that this is real. I have signed over the next 30 or more days to the wilderness. We drive for an hour. My body is sweating, heart pounding. I want to cry. I remind myself that I agreed to go through the program.
At base camp, they take the blindfold off. I smell sage. It is night and the stars are more numerous than even the West Texas sky. I think about the Charlie Robison song about the man in prison, how they “sometimes let him look up at the East Texas sky / which sparkle like the lights of Loving County.” I can’t help but feel trapped.
Inside, the woman tells me I have to hand over all of my possessions. They will provide me with everything: clothes, shoes, pack, and sleeping bag. Everything.
And we have to do a strip search.
A strip search. It’s for your safety, as well as the rest of your group and our staff.
I want to break down crying. But I keep reminding myself that this was my decision. Well, kind of.
Lubbock, Texas: My mother and I are in the police station as she pays my “ticket” for shoplifting while on a school academic trip.
My mom looks like she’s going to kill me, I thought. She slams the car door, turns to me and says: “You are going away. I’ve already researched some programs in Utah. Wilderness Programs. Something has to be done. If you don’t do this, you can’t go away to college next year. I won’t let you.
My mind is racing. How did I get here? Why did I even take that sweater? Why have I done any of this?
My forearm is still bleeding from my nails the night before. I couldn’t use anything else.
It seems I’m always looking for a way out. As if someone else kept taking over my body.
Utah: base camp
So, could you place your clothes in the corner? Okay, I’m going to have to ask you to bend over and…
I want to die, I thought. But I comply with their requests. They are doing their job. I deserve this, somehow, don’t I?
After the examinations, I am back in the van, blindfolded. We drive for miles in dark silence. I focus on the bumps in the dirt road, fantasize about the van rolling off the cliff.
I don’t know how I’m going to handle this.
Today was my first full day. It was hard. We hiked all afternoon and I was okay at first, but toward the end, I lost it. My stomach was hurting; I was weak and couldn’t breathe. I honestly thought I wasn’t going to make it. I kept thinking I just want to go home. I’m so filthy! Covered in dirt and sweat. I’m sad. I’m just really, really sad. On the hike, I was in a delusional state. I kept saying over and over again Philippians 4:13.
I wonder how my family would react if they knew that I just want to go home. Maybe I will talk to someone about it. If I’m going to face my problems, I might as well face them. I’m going home.
This place makes it impossible to leave, even though I am an adult. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like death. I wish I had never chosen to come here, makes me sick to think about how much money this is costing. I feel horrible. I just want to lie in a bed for days and sleep. My body can’t handle this. My mind can’t…I hate this.
The next morning, the staff tells me I can leave if I want. I am, after all, in the adult program. But they won’t help me leave.
What do you mean you won’t help me leave?!
Well, it’s three days hike to any civilization, and seeing as you’ve just arrived and have yet to learn the necessary skills to survive in the wild, build a fire from raw materials, set traps, dress a wound, identify edible plants, well, I don’t see how you’ll make it out alive.
I thought to myself: he’s doing some kind of reverse psychology on me. I know my rights. I can leave, and they HAVE to help me. I am NOT staying here any longer.
The rest of my tribe looks on. Some of my seasoned contemporaries sigh and place their heads in their hands near the fire-pit. They’ve seen this scene before. They know how it ends. Some stir their oatmeal and lentils, looking nervous about what is about to happen.
Fine. I’m leaving.
Blackwolf looks disappointed, but says
All right, but that means that Spirit Knife is going to have to follow you. For your safety. And this means the rest of the group will have to stay at this camp until a backup staff member can meet us. We won’t be able to hike to our next location until nighttime.
I gather my things, tears brimming my eyes. I feel a slight pang of guilt, but I push it aside. They will comply. They have to.
I set off. I don’t know where I’m going, but I guess they have to see that I’m serious. Maybe then we can sit down and sort things out, be reasonable, send a van to pick me up.
I keep walking. I look back. Spirit Knife is still following me. But she doesn’t say anything. I watch my boots. I keep my eyes on my boots until I get to a small mountain. Shit. I could go around it, but that would take longer, walking. I’m so frustrated! Why haven’t they seen that I am serious, that I want to leave? God. I guess I’m going to have to climb this damn mountain.
I start scaling its side. My hands have to pull at the dirt. Spirit Knife is still behind me, climbing. Fuck. What am I doing? How did I get here? With each step, my calves burn. The pain shoots up and down my arms and legs. Beads of sweat nestle into the eye-sockets. The desert blurs. Black dots dance in my vision.
I haven’t refilled my water bag and there’s a 15-pound pack on my back containing my food and sleeping bag. The seat-belt straps around my shoulders cut into the skin. The pain grabs at my lower back.
Fuck. What am I doing here? God. Just let me go home. I won’t drink, I won’t smoke, I won’t cut, I won’t swear, I won’t…I won’t…. I hate you Shannon! Why are you doing this? Why are you? I hate you. I hate you.
My body recoils with pain, as though to respond to my mind. I can see the summit. I can’t breathe.
I pull my body over to the top, trying to pull air into my lungs, full of bees. I sit down. The distance spirals in and out of my eyes. There’s nothing. Nothing but wild for miles. Days worth of miles. I can’t do this. I can’t do this on my own. Why am I running away? Why am I…
I look again out into the expanse. I feel so small. What am I doing on this mountain? I am running away. God, why am I running away?
I push my palms into my eye-sockets. Sob. Why have I abandoned myself? Why am I doing this to myself?
Spirit Knife walks up behind me, places her hand on my back.
Are you ready to go back?
I look up at her and, between gasps of air and tears, ask
Why are you being nice to me? I just made you walk three miles and climb up a mountain because I’m being a stupid, stubborn fool.
Sometimes, the hardest person to love is our self. Are you ready to go back?
Utah Diary, Day 23:
I can see a difference in myself. I can feel it, too. I try and reflect on this at night when I’m in my sleeping bag, looking at the stars. I can feel a love for myself I’ve never felt before, and a respect for myself. It’s as though someone introduced me to this amazing woman, strong. And then I catch my breath. She’s me. Why have I tried so hard for so long to hide her light?
I got my earth name tonight. Sunset Sky. Blackwolf named me and gave me
a powaka. How did he know, how could he know, my favorite sight in the
world? Did God tell him in a dream? My name. My name.
Vision Quest—well, I am on my vision quest. I feel lonely. It’s been 32 or so hours alone in the desert. Perhaps I need this isolation right now. It’s funny how many different thoughts go through my head when I have so much time to think. Yet I feel content. Maybe it’s the fact that I am able to feel, to feel such appreciation and gratitude for everything! I feel I am so much a part of this earth, so connected with the land. I can’t describe the bliss. I am going to miss being here. It’s amazing…did I actually want to leave when I first got here? Why was I so afraid to meet myself? I am never going to be the same after this.
I know I can do anything. I have already done it.
Vision Quest day 2:
I saw it. I won’t say what I saw. You’re not supposed to. But may I always remember this moment. This one. Which is already the moment after the next and next. Growing stone. To the moment of my death, I will be holding this in my hands.