The Powerfully Paradoxical Results of a Vision Quest
I did not set out to fast for 102 hours when I began my journey into the Badlands of North Dakota in pursuit of following a dream I had this past August. The result, paradoxically, was both confusingly enlightening and terrifyingly exhilarating.
Before I set out, I intentionally worked to keep my expectations (of what might happen and what insights I might gain) low. My goal was simply to open my mind, heart, and spirit and receive whatever might come.
The first three days were filled with long hikes in the northern unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, journaling, writing poetry, and reading Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche — which, through either synchronicity or Amazon’s creepily powerful algorithms, found its way into my life at precisely the right time.
Surprisingly, the fasting was far easier than I imagined. This was especially true because I had never fasted for more than 24 hours — and even then that was only because I had a hard night of drinking during a port of call while in the navy 30 years ago and I didn’t eat anything the next day because I wouldn’t have been able to keep it down anyways.
The real adventure began on Day 4. I paid my seven dollar entry fee and pitched a rudimentary camp at the Juniper Campground in the park. The time was 1pm and I had been fasting for 76 hours at this point.
I hiked first to the Cannonball Mystery site and placed my hand on the massive round rock. As I did so, a car drove down the nearby road and I instinctively pulled it away from the rock for fear of being seen “communing” with a rock.
As soon as I did, a voice from somewhere inside me said “Be a rock.” With the car still in sight, I placed my hand back on it and then surprised myself by kissing the rock. At some level, I understood if I was to truly honor my dreams and find my soul’s purpose I will need to “be a rock” in order to withstand society’s skepticism and cynicism.
Next, I made my way to the Little Missouri River Hiking trail and eventually to Buckhorn Trail — one of the park’s easiest and least scenic trails. As I hiked, I came across a bug and distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Sometimes a bug is just a bug.“ I ascribed absolutely no spiritual significance to the creature.
I pressed on and eventually came upon a small stone in the middle of my path. Since I had just collected four small stones from the Cannonball Mystery site for a Medicine Wheel I planned to construct and enter into after sunset, this seemed significant. I picked it up and, as I did so, I remembered my earlier “Be a rock” encounter and consciously set an intention to be courageous for the next stages of my journey.
At that exact moment, a jackrabbit sprang from the prairie grass to my left and darted away. This struck as poignant because except for the bug I just mentioned, and a single majestic buffalo I spotted lazily standing in the distance of the shallow waters of the Little Missouri River, this was only the third living creature I had seen in the past two hours. Rabbits are notoriously fearful animals, and it’s message seemed clear: whatever happens in the future, “Don’t run away.” This also reinforced the earlier message to “be a rock.”
Ten minutes later I came to a pair of Juniper trees. I had recently read that in some Native American cultures two trees in close proximity to one another can be a portal to another world. Metaphorically speaking, this appealed to me. So, as I approached the trees, I extended my arms in order to touch both trees at the same time. I then uttered a Lakota phrase that I had just learned the week before — Mitakuye Oyasin — which means “we are all related.”
I had also read (I believe in Plotkin’s book) that it is OK to ask the natural world for signs. Seeing dozens of fresh juniper berries on the ground, I then asked the trees to drop one for me. I waited a minute but nothing happened. “That’s OK,” I said. (I didn’t have high expectations that the trees would honor my request but I was hopeful because I did have a tree speak a single word to me in August of 2018 and, more recently, I had a powerful tree-related experience in The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Northern MInnesota — which I will write about later.)
I thanked the tree anyways and went to kiss it. At the very spot where I went to place my lips there was a fresh berry lodged in a strip of bark that had gently peeled away from the tree. It was as though the tree had placed it there for me before I had ever arrived — which I believe it had. I ate the berry (which, while edible, is it not tasty.) (I guess at this point my fast “technically” ended but I didn’t count the berry — I consider it more akin to “spiritual nourishment.”)
I gave the tree a mighty hug and proceeded to walk through the portal. As I did, I was conscious that I was entering a new world in a spiritual sense. (The physical world, of course, remained exactly the same).
Just twenty yards later, I stumbled across my second bug — and only the fourth living creature I had seen to this point. The bug stopped moving and as I got closer it flipped over and played dead like a possum. I can only surmise this is a survival tactic. I then thought to myself, “Hey Bug, I just saw you moving. I know you’re not dead … you little shit.” (I really did call it “a little shit” in my mind but, honestly, this was a term of endearment.) I went to touch the bug and, as I did, it flipped right side over and scampered away.
I stood there dumbstruck — this seemed even more profound than my previous messages from the rock and the rabbit. The bug — and the universe — were screaming to me, “Don’t play dead.” I had undertaken this journey, in part, to “die to my old self” and here in the form of a little bug was a loud reminder of the price I would have to pay. I took a moment to let this message sink into my heart — I can no longer pretend to “play dead.” (This is in spite of the fact that I don’t claim to yet be “spiritually awake.”)
The day was now growing shorter and I slowly made my way back to camp. I busied myself gathering kindling and wood to construct my modest Medicine Wheel. I then waited for the sun to set and at precisely 6:40pm on October 28, I took my last drink of water (until sunrise) and began the ritual of burning my ego, my cowardice, and my belief in what Plotkin refers to as the “Magical Other” — the mistaken belief that another person can make you whole.
Each ritual “burning” took more than an hour as I “released” a lot of things, memories, habits, beliefs, and assumptions. Each ritual was profound and emotional in its own right — and I will someday write about each one — but this was only the appetizer to the evening’s main course — the Medicine Wheel.
Without being overly dramatic, the Medicine Wheel was a complete bust. First, I really had no idea what I was doing. Second, forty years of long distance running have left me freakishly inflexible and sitting crossed legged for the next nine hours in a small confined space with temperatures now dropping below freezing proved an unbearable mental and physical challenge.
With a little sense of disappointment (I guess this is the upside to setting off on half-baked vision quests — you aren’t wedded too tightly to them), I settled upon an alternative path. I would hike nine miles out to Oxbow Overlook at the far western edge of Roosevelt National Park and then hike the nine miles back.
It was true that I was wimping out on the discomfort of the Medicine Wheel and this seemed to run contrary to the “cowardliness” that I had just burned (which, for the record, was less about physical courage — although I don’t claim to be physically brave — and more about the countless times I have stayed silent on matters of personal, racial, and environmental injustice). Still, I reasoned an 18 mile hike in the dark, without water, and after what was now approaching 85 hours of fasting was somewhat courageous.
Furthermore, it felt respectful to let go of the Medicine Wheel idea. This is a sacred practice in Native American cultures and I had no right attempting to do one — especially since I had no idea of what the hell I was doing.
With no fanfare and free of my ego, cowardice, and my belief in “Magical Others,” I set off.
A mile into the hike, a poem called “Call Forth Your Soul” sprung into my mind almost fully formed. Inspired, a few miles later, I turned to the stars and beseeched them for guidance in finding my soul’s true desire and a vision for my path forward. Knowing I was alone in the park, I yelled my requests into the clear night sky in the general direction of the Orion Belt Constellation which rested high in the western sky.
With my request complete, I turned back down the road and was surprised to see three buffalo 40 yards up ahead to my right. I thought to myself, “How did I not see them earlier?” Then I stopped — cognizant of the danger signs littered throughout the park reminding visitors not to get too close to the buffalo because they can be dangerous. With no action on my behalf however the buffalo then thundered off straight in the direction of the North Star — which was clearly visible in the night sky resting in its relative position to the two stars on the outer edge of the Big Dipper.
I remember thinking to myself at the time, “The buffalo charging off in the direction of the North Star seems significant but I don’t know why.” In other words, I attached no significance to the event at that moment but I had the feeling its relevance would be revealed in time.
With the buffalo now safely ensconced in the prairie I pressed on. At this point, my legs, shoulders, and body grew weary. I found relief in admiring the stars above.
Now, whether it was physical exhaustion, the fasting, or a legitimate mystical experience I can’t say, but soon the stars began dancing and descending in my direction. At one point, they grew so close they mingled with the branches of a tree and made it appear as the stars were dancing with the trees. (This memory was captured in this poem, Prairie Dance, which I wrote the following day).
All of this occurred on the south side of the road and when I turned to continue west down the road I was stunned to find an entire herd of buffalo 50 yards ahead of me. In the moonlight, I again wondered (only this time more vociferously), “How the fuck did I not see a herd of buffalo?!” Unlike the dancing stars, there was no question these buffalo were a cold, hard reality.
I stopped. To my left, 30 feet ahead was a tree. I reasoned that if I could safely cover that short distance without startling the buffalo I could give myself a much needed and well deserved break before pressing on to my turn-a-round point — which I figured was just a mile or so ahead.
I reached the tree without incident and plopped my sorry ass down. It felt great. I even contemplated catching a wink of sleep while the buffalo made their way back into the prairie.
Only they never did leave. To my surprise, the buffalo slowly moved in my general direction. Unconcerned, I watched with curiosity until part of the herd moved down the road and past me. Soon, 20 buffalo stretched from left to my right — a distance spanning about 25 yards. More concerning, they moved closer in my general direction and, for the first time all evening, I felt a tinge of concern for my safety.
Over the course of a minute or two they moved even closer. When they were 10 yards from me genuine fear took hold. Luckily, they stopped. Then, in concert, the two buffalo on the far ends of the concave curve snorted loudly. I was petrified. My mind reeled. If they charged me — which, at this point, seemed like a distinct possibility — I felt my only course of action would be to wildly swing my body around the tree and attempt to use it as a shield from slaughter.
Fortunately, neither the buffalo nor I moved. I was now wide awake. My only movement consisted of my eyeballs darting back-and-forth as I tried to discern if any of the massive creatures were thinking of charging me. Besides mentally practicing my escape routine, my only memory of this time was thoughts about my family. Absurdly, I found myself thinking, “How the hell are my wife and kids going to explain my death to their friends?” I envisioned the conversation going something like this, “Jack/your dad died how?”
The standoff continued for an untold number of minutes. At one point between trying to breathe and stay calm and as well as trying to “commune” my peaceful intentions to the buffalo — I envisioned a future Onion article (the parody newspaper) using my plight for future headline fodder: “Middle-aged White Man Gored By Buffalo While On Vision Quest — World Yawns.” I felt like an idiot. What the fuck was I doing out in western North Dakota at 2a.m., by myself, in sub-freezing temperatures, on an ill-concocted vision quest?
Eventually 14 buffalo sauntered off to the west. A few stayed on the road but most went into the prairie. At this point, I thought it might only be a few more minutes before I could continue my journey. However, six buffalo still remained directly in front of me. They were not moving. It was as though the buffalo were the executioners and I was the one pinned to the tree waiting to be shot. The only thing missing was a blindfold and a cigarette.
This stand-off continued for another fifteen minutes or so and, eventually, I began to get cold and my feet grew numb. I knew I would need to do something soon. Fortunately, the buffalo on my far left moved ever so slightly and I seized upon the opportunity to slowly, subtly, and ever so stealthy slip my spine up the base of the tree until I was in a standing position.
Once vertical — and I can’t say why — I didn’t hesitate. I executed the pivot I had been practicing in my mind and swiftly swung my body around to the other side of the tree. My rapid movement and the resulting noise startled the buffalo and, to my delight, instead of charging me they gently moved down the road.
Still, the buffalo blocked my path ahead and, instinctively, I knew my journey was over. My goal of reaching Oxbow Overlook wasn’t going to happen. So then facing the buffalo and without breaking eye contact, I then walked backwards down the direction in which I had come.
When I was a safe distance away, I finally turned my back away from the herd. At that precise moment, a chorus of wild coyote howls emanated from the direction of my intended destination. “Holy shit,” I thought, “the buffalo were protecting me!”
While I believe this to be true, as I reflect more deeply on my encounter, the buffalo might have also been protecting me from myself. They might have been saying that my “journey” was over for now. Perhaps, I am meant to go back home and deal with some unresolved issues. Maybe I am not entitled to find my soul’s desire — my path and my “North Star” — until I do more work. I might also need to learn more about — and find a deeper respect — for Native American wisdom.
At this stage, I really don’t know but I’m committed to the process.
So, to answer the question, I posed in my first post — What Does It Feel Like to Follow’s One’s Dreams? At this point all I can say is that it is simple but not easy; and, paradoxically, it is terrifyingly exhilarating and confusingly enlightening. The answers we seek may be right before our eyes in the natural world. It has also been said that the journey begins with a single step, perhaps all we need to do is step away from your computer screens and go for a walk. Again, simple but not easy.
Jack Uldrich is the author of Business As Unusual; A Futurist’s Unorthodox, Unconventional and Uncomfortable Guide to Doing Business. He is currently co-authoring a new book, “Generation RE: The Guiding Spirits of the Coming Renaissance.” which will be published in 2021.