Vision Quest


vision quest is when you go out into the woods for a period of time, like a day or two, maybe up to a week if you’re serious, and try to commune with nature. You don’t bring anything with you other than a tarp or small covering for shelter. Not even food. The point is to try and get into a meditative state and maybe open up the door to your inner subconscious and learn some deeper truths about who you are as a human being. Really hone in on those psychedelic survival skills. Dad did one with a friend and found it to be an enlightening experience, so a year later he decided that Nicole and I should do one too. I was about twelve years old. The idea of staying alone in the woods at night by myself wasn’t very appealing to the twelve-year-old me, but I’d recently read the book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen and thought maybe I could gain some badass survival skills if I pulled it off. The main character in that story, a kid about my age, becomes stranded alone in the woods with only a hatchet. I wasn’t allowed to have a hatchet on Dad’s vision quest, so I knew if I made it through the night I would actually be cooler than the kid in the book. Plus, by this point in my life I was already used to Dad’s antics, so I figured it would probably work out fine in the end.

Nicole and I on a hike with Dad

Dad was a pretty spiritual guy. Not in the traditional sense, by any means, but he did feel a strong connection to nature and I think he thought there were some profound forces at play out there in the world. He had some pretty uncanny stories to prove it. Like the time he and a girlfriend were mountain biking in Glacier Park. They were deep on a trail, miles from the nearest campground, when all of a sudden this dog - like a Labrador or something - appeared out of the woods and started running along with them. They had a good time riding along with this dog for a few miles, weaving through the dense tree-lined bike path. Dad was up ahead by a hundred yards or so when the dog suddenly turned on his girlfriend and started aggressively barking at her. She stopped where she was and called out to my Dad, saying “The dog’s trying to attack me!” Dad turned around and rode back to her, and as soon as he got back, the dog stopped barking and ran up ahead of both of them. A mountain lion appeared on the track where Dad had been standing moments earlier. The dog attacked the mountain lion and eventually ran the lion off. He said the dog ran with them for another mile or so and then disappeared back into the woods, never to be seen by them again. Dad said that mountain lion had probably been stalking them for several miles and if that dog hadn’t shown up, they would have most certainly been dinner. Their lives had been saved by a multi-dimensional, time-traveling ghost dog. Encounters like that are what made Dad think there might be something deeper going on between humans and nature. Which is why he wanted to take Nicole and me on a vision quest to see it for ourselves.

First things first, Dad wanted us to go through a Native American ritual to help us determine our spirit animals. Animal medicine was an important part of the vision quest. The gist is - we all have certain animal spirits with qualities that align or interact with our own personalities, and through a special ceremony we can discover what that animal is and use that information to gain insight into who we are. On a vision quest, you want to meditate alone in the woods, and try to interact with your spirit animal to obtain advice about life. Like an after-school special in the spirit realm. As a twelve-year-old, that sounded like the coolest shit in the world to me. Still does, actually.

Spirit animal cards laid out

Dad, Nicole and I hiked out to some rocks behind the cabin and began the ritual. We did some meditations and chants to get ourselves into the proper headspace. Then it was time to select our spirit animals. Dad had a deck of cards with a different animal on each card and some of the traits of that spirit animal. I remember being so nervous that I would get something lame, like a beetle. No kid wants beetle medicine. Or skunk medicine. If you get skunk medicine you basically have to give up on spirituality and go full atheist. He laid all the cards out, face down, in a big square like a game of memory match. The intent was that after some meditation and chanting, you’d slowly hover your hand over each card, and when it felt right, you selected your spirit animal. Dad went first. He meditated for a moment, and then made his selection. An elk. The animal was so fitting for him that I instantly became a believer. Dad truly loved elk, and now we knew why; he and elk were connected on the spiritual plane. With Dad making such a perfect selection, we knew that this was now serious business. Nicole went next and drew an owl. Another bulls-eye. She’s now a college professor and I’m pretty sure owls are always wearing those graduation hats. Finally it was my turn to draw. I closed my eyes and nervously hovered my hand over the cards. I felt so anxious about picking a good animal.

“Not beetle,” I kept saying in my head.

Finally, I clasped my shaking fingers around a card and drew it. Coyote. Relief swept over me. Coyotes were cool! In Native American folklore, the coyote was considered the trickster. Sly and fastidious. I felt happy with my pick and still consider myself a part of the coyote medicine. Native Americans had a nickname for the coyote; the joker. It was hard not to think about that before I’d get up on stage during my brief stint as a stand-up comedian later in life.

One of the nice things about drawing out spirit animals (and whether or not Dad knew this would be a side effect will remain unknown), is that whenever Dad, Nicole, or I encountered each others actual spirit animals in the wild, we couldn’t help but think about that person. It’s like all spirit animals are part of an elaborate cell phone that we could use to say hi or check in on each other without physically having to be there with them. Whenever I see a coyote in the wild, I can just assume that Dad or Nicole are using some of their spiritual energy to check in on me with what’s always around us, nature.  When dad passed away, our spirit animals became what felt like our last means of communication with him. Nicole and I felt as if any sightings of our animals were a message from him, letting us know that he was still around, watching over us.

About a month after he died, Nicole and I were driving into Buffalo. We were coming back to spread his ashes that weekend. We knew it was going to be one of the most emotionally difficult weekends of our lives. As we pulled into Buffalo at about two in the morning, after a long drive from Denver, we turned to drive up a large hill in the center of town, where my grandparent’s house sits. Our small black Prius was the only car on the road. Once we’d turned off of Main Street, there were no more street lamps to light our path. The town was eerily dark that night. Just as we crested the top of the hill, our headlights illuminated something sitting right in the middle of the road. As we got closer, we realized it was an owl. Standing in the middle of a city street. Not very common behavior for an owl. It peered at us for a moment, did that groovy, owl head-bob thing, then calmly flew off into some trees. Nicole and I couldn’t speak. We simply sat in the idling car with our mouths agape for a solid minute. We just started shaking our heads. Dad, giving us a warm welcome for what was going to be a difficult weekend for us. We got his message. Everything was going to be all right.

Owl in the road

It was the day before the vision quest. Now that our spirit animals had been selected, we were ready to venture out into the woods for our respective voyages. Dad’s friend Terry had driven from northern Montana to join us. Terry is one of the most zen people you’ll ever meet. When you talk to him, it feels like a quarter of his mind is in the present, communicating with you, and the other three quarters are off in the universe, wading through the rivers of consciousness. It’s impossible not to feel calm and collected when you’re in his presence. An ideal addition to our trip. The plan was for us to stay by ourselves for one full night in the forest. We would leave from the cabin first thing in the morning and all hike about three miles into the woods. Once there was enough distance between us and civilization, we’d start making our individual camps about a mile apart from each other. My camp would be the first in line, then a mile later Nicole’s, then Dad’s, and then Terry’s. All one mile apart from each other. Once we were dropped at our camps, it was on us to set up our shelter and meditation circle. Part of a vision quest involves setting up a circle of rocks to be your meditation circle, a place protected by your spirit animal to which you can retreat if you start to feel scared. Making that circle would be my top priority.

We woke up early on the day of the quest. Gram made us all a large breakfast, knowing that it was the only good meal we’d be having for the rest of the day. Dad pumped us all up for the task ahead, telling us how much we were going to enjoy the trip, and maybe for me specifically, that nothing bad was going to happen. Then our foursome headed out from the cabin and straight into the woods. We followed the creek for a while, then turned due north toward Willy’s Park. Along the way, we passed one of our favorite natural monuments in the area, Coyote Rock. Obviously a good place for me, being Coyote Medicine. One year, Dad had built a rock cairn there in the shape of a coyote howling up at the moon. If the rocks got knocked over, he’d hike up to Coyote Rock and rebuild it. One time, he and Nicole were hanging out at Coyote Rock when an actual coyote came running across the field right toward them. Apparently, the coyote didn’t appreciate Dad’s depiction of it in his rock cairn, so it came by to be a live model.

Three howling coyote cairns Dad built atop Coyote Rock

We hiked past Coyote Rock and then past Willy’s Park. I’d never before gone past Willy’s Park on this trail. Finally, we made it to the first stop, my camp spot. It was a small clearing in the forest surrounded by a few twiggy bushes. About twenty yards away from the clearing, the creek was lazily flowing around a bend. The sky was slightly cloudy but there was enough sunlight shining into the clearing that it wasn’t too cold. Dad helped me map out where I should put my shelter and build my meditation circle. He told me if anything went wrong, Nicole was just a mile up the trail, so if I called out she might be able to hear me. I think that was meant to put me at ease, but in fact, it did not. With that, the three of them turned and continued up the trail. I looked back at my camp spot; it did feel peaceful there. But the reality that I would be in this spot alone in the woods for the next twenty-four hours, a mile from the nearest person and nowhere near civilization, was starting to sink in. I decided to get to work on my meditation circle.

I searched around the campsite for a bit and found a small pile of rocks that I could use to make the circle. Once I ran out of rocks from the pile, I went down to the creek and pulled more from there. I set up my shelter by laying my tarp over the top of some low hanging branches. The feeling of absolute solitude was sinking in, and it was terrifying. Every sound of a tree creaking or rustle from a squirrel had me immediately thinking that a mountain lion was hiding just beyond my line of sight and would pounce on me at any moment. Hopefully there was a ghost dog nearby. My fear of a mountain lion devolved into an even more irrational fear that an escaped convict might be loose in the woods and would stumble upon my camp and kill or kidnap me. I decided I needed a weapon, so I searched around the camp for the sharpest stick I could find. I don’t think in either aforementioned dire situation - encountering a mountain lion or serial killer - a sharp stick would do much good, but it was all I had, so I gripped it as tightly as I could and sat in my mediation circle, hoping my coyote medicine would be enough to save me. I was starting to feel like Dad’s hopes for my vision quest had been misguided. And worse, that the Hatchet kid was cooler than me after all.

I was alone out there for four hours when the weather started to take a turn. The wind kicked up and created sinister whispers through the branches of nearby trees and bushes. The clouds had turned from lighthearted fluff into an ominous gray mass. I moved from my mediation circle to my shelter and hunkered down, still grasping my stick like it was a crucifix and I was surrounded by vampires. The wind caused trees to creak and sway, which only amplified my anxiety. Then, the first raindrops began tapping against the tarp. Lightly, at first, like popcorn popping, but quickly they grew into an aggressive round of applause. What I had hoped would level off as a light forest sprinkle had quickly turned into a full-blown rainstorm. My shelter did little to help me and I was instantly soaked through. After about an hour of nonstop rain, with no end in sight, all hope was lost. I didn’t want to admit defeat, but at this point I could only focus on getting back to the warmth of the dry cabin. I packed up my camp and threw my sopping wet backpack over my shoulder. I began to leave, and suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember which way we had come in, nor did I know which way the other three had gone after they had dropped me at my camp. I knew that if you are lost in the woods, the best thing to do is stay where you are, so I threw my pack down, huddled underneath a tree and began calling for help. The rain muffled my calls, and I knew that nobody could hear me. Now I was fully terrified. My mind went to all the worst case scenarios. Maybe the others had been attacked by a demonic bear or deranged woodsman and I was the only one left alive out there. What was Dad doing right now? Would he be meditating in his shelter? What about Nicole? Was she safe wherever her camp was? Part of me knew Terry was probably calmly staring directly into the rainstorm, communicating telepathically with the spirits of the earth or some shit. He was unflappable.

A branch snapped near me and caused me to jump. The serial killer had arrived and this was the end for me. I looked over and Nicole came jogging out from behind the trees. She had her backpack over her head for cover (Dad said we wouldn’t need jackets for the quest. He was famously underprepared for everything).

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” she yelled.

A wave of relief that we were getting out of there crashed over me and I grabbed my pack. I asked where Dad was. She said he was still out there. When he didn’t come for her, she knew he would be staying out there all night, despite the downpour. You have to admire his dedication, but for Nicole and me, seeing out the rest of our vision quest was just not in the cards, tarot or otherwise. Nicole led us back to the trail and we hiked three miles back to the cabin. The rain didn’t let up once on the walk home.

Gram was waiting for us when we walked in. She had bowls of hot soup locked and loaded, and we happily inhaled them. She told us that when she saw the rain clouds move in, she knew we’d be back. We had been out there for a grand total of about seven hours. We looked out the window as the rain kept pounding against the glass, but still no sign of Dad. He really was going to stay out there all night. I couldn’t believe that he and Terry had the focus to pull that off. I was proud of him, that he would not be denied by a minor setback like a little bad weather. I vowed to myself that I would try to have that same mentality on our next expedition. Still, Nicole and I were going to spend the evening playing card games and reading by the fire, which sounded lovely. The cabin is particularly cozy during a rainstorm. I was quite happy to be sleeping in the bunk room that night.

The next morning, we woke up, had breakfast and continued to lounge around. It was a perfectly sunny, beautiful day. Some might even say it was a great day for a vision quest. Around noon, we were hanging out on the back porch when Dad and Terry emerged from the woods on the other side of the pond. Dad had a huge smile on his face, and even Terry looked slightly amused. A triumphant return from their rain-soaked vision quests. We ran to greet them and they were in high spirits. The rainstorm must have forced them to go especially deep into introspection while being stranded out there. Dad was mildly disappointed that Nicole and I hadn’t weathered the storm ourselves, but he understood, maybe even acknowledged, that we weren’t ready for something like that. At least not in bad weather. He decided that a round of Frisbee golf was in order to commemorate the day, and I couldn’t have agreed more.

Dad Nicole and me playing a round of disc golf

The vision quest perfectly encapsulates Dad. He wanted us to be in tune with nature, and came up with schemes to get us out in the woods. He also never really had a back-up plan for any of his adventures, so when things went wrong, we just had to wing it. Conventional wisdom probably says it’s not a good idea to take your twelve-year-old son out into the woods and leave him by himself overnight. But Dad had a weird confidence in Nicole and me, and in himself as well, so he knew we’d get out of any sticky situations. When I had been hiking out to my camp spot that day, I had high hopes that I was about to get in touch with some deeper truths about myself. While that didn’t necessarily happen, looking back now, I’m just grateful that Dad gave us that experience. The whole trip fell apart and that’s what makes it so great. After all, we learn the most about ourselves when things go wrong. Dad certainly believed that, anyway.

about my dad