What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 2

Eeep. So this was a little later than “tomorrow”. But better late than never.

So I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the big OMGSPIRITUALEXPERIENCE I had when I was out on the wilderness therapy (WT) retreat. One of the tools used in WT is the “solo”, which is basically the really short, really watered-down version of what non-indigenous people assume to be a “vision quest”, though the WT people I was with were well aware of the cultural issues, etc. Anyway, a solo happens late in a WT experience (which generally will take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on the program). It’s long enough for the individual person to have had a lot of experience not only with practical wilderness skills and teambuilding, but also to reflect on the problems encountered both in the backcountry, and in the setting that person left behind. The solo itself is where the person gets left in a particular spot for a matter of a few hours to a few days to have that time to hirself for reflection. After, there’s a period of time for reintegration back into the WT group, followed by transition back to the life left behind.

My solo was only a few hours, appropriate for a four-day retreat. We hiked up West Hardy Ridge, going about three and a half miles one way, with roughly 2,000 feet elevation, at a pace of about 3mph average. It’s rough, rocky terrain, especially higher up on the ridge, so it wasn’t easy going. In fact, it’s the toughest hike I’ve done to date; we didn’t stop for breaks, and my pack was about a fifth of my body weight since I took a lot of water to account for the 90+ degree heat.

Honestly, there were a few times where I seriously considered just sitting down on the trail and not going any further. I’m in good physical condition, but the many factors wearing at me combined to create a really tough challenge. I have a tendency to get frustrated when things go beyond a certain level of difficulty. But I did recognize that I was getting frustrated, and I was able to take a step back and observe myself in that frustration–and I was able to tell myself that it would pass, and that I had a goal worth going for. So I worked through the frustration, while acknowledging that I felt it, something nearly unprecedented for me (and also an important step in my Elk work).

We made it to the top of the ridge, and we were then escorted to our individual spots. I ended up getting a really choice one, a rock slide overlooking the Columbia River, surrounded by small conifers and underbrush. Granted, the rocks were all small, to the point where I really had nowhere comfortable to sit, and I had to secure my gear to keep it from sliding down the ridge. But other than that? Excellent place.

I took a little time to settle in, getting some water and food, and letting myself rest. Then I took in my surroundings in brief, just to get some orientation for where I was. My clearing was about fifteen feet wide, and the slide itself was roughly fifty feet long from the top of the ridge to where the brush began again.

Then I started thinking about how I should spend my time there. Should I do work with Bear, who had been wanting my time and attention? I’d brought my drum, after all, since it’s not heavy at all and hooks onto my pack nicely. Should I meditate? Should I try talking to the Land? I tried for the lattermost option, opening myself up and expecting a dialogue. Instead, the Land simply kept telling me to look at the plants. So I did. Though I didn’t know most of them, I took the time to study them in detail, how they grew together in layers from the ground up, and how I was surprised by how many deciduous trees there were mixed in there. Then I looked at the stones around me, and the fallen logs. And then I noted the animals, who are normally the ones I notice first.

First came the flies–not biting flies, thankfully, but sort of housefly-types. At first I shooed them away when they landed on my skin, and they persisted. But then I saw that what they wanted was my sweat–there wasn’t any water nearby, so moisture must have come at a premium on that hot day. So, exercising patience again, I let them land on me and drink their fill, even though it tickled, and there was part of me conditioned to feel revulsion at having “dirty” flies touching me. But once they were done, they left me alone for the rest of the time.

Much of my company was flies, a few spiders and other arthropods. However, I ended up with an awesome spot for birdwatching. I startled a scrub jay who was about to come in for a landing on a tree next to me, but then thought better of it after seeing me. There were some swallows (not sure of the exact species) flying overhead, and of course I heard the occasional raven. Later on, a quartet of turkey vultures came flying overhead, harried by a peregrine falcon (the falcons nest nearby on Beacon Rock). And then at one point I heard the “keeeeeer” of a bald eagle, and was fortunate to stand up quickly enough see a mature adult cruising parallel with the river, fifty feet away at the most!

What I realized in all this is that I saw so many things I would have missed if I hadn’t sat down to be patient. I have a tendency to be an impatient person, hence my common frustration. Being out in the woods like that, settling down quietly for a space of hours, showed me one of the many rewards of patience. In fact, this was a really good trip for Elk work in that vein. I had ample opportunities to experience the natural challenges associated with being in the wilderness and to face my own behavior patterns that came up as a result. And I came away with some good lessons.

I also actually got to do my first sort of “official” shamanic work on behalf of others. I know the human-based portion of my shamanic work has largely focused on myself and making myself a better vessel for this sort of thing, but I’m starting (finally!) to get to the point where I can do work for other people. It wasn’t anything too elaborate; one of the instructors for the course asked me to drum as part of the preparatory ceremony before we started out on our hike. (Ecopsychology doesn’t equal animism, but ecopsychologists do strongly draw on animistic practices in a secular context, such as the role of ritual.) So I very briefly explained the importance of my drum and what I was about to do, and told people that I would be calling on Horse, Deer and Elk, and that they were welcome to ask any/all of them for their guidance and protection on our “journey”, such as it was. And then I drummed while one of the instructors smudged all the participants with sage picked in eastern Oregon before we got going.

I’ve done some work since then, but I’m not ready to talk about it just yet. Needless to say, things seem to be evolving more as I’m coming back to my practice more actively. But my wilderness therapy excursion was a definite turning point.

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