We meet in the parking lot of a grocery store in Ashland, Oregon on Sunday morning.
It is the 17th of July, a date I’ve celebrated as long as I can remember. The day I was born.
I have driven 5 hours south to meet a group of strangers in anticipation of a different kind of birth. I am here, exactly 42 years after entering the world, to finally become a man.
Nervous hellos. Final checks. Cars and trucks packed with camping equipment, rations, and gallon bottles of water. We snake up into the hills in convoy.
Shops and signs and other vehicles gradually fall away until the tarmac becomes a dusty track. Huge pines tower above us, almost blocking out the clear blue sky. A dozen or so turkey vultures scatter from something dead as we wind our way up into the wilderness.
Out of my left window I glimpse a far off mountain through a break in the trees and feel a surge of recognition, like seeing an old friend.
When I return from here, I wonder, will I be altered forever?
We pull in to base camp.
‘Welcome to your home for the next seven days’ says Robert, our guide and mentor on the inner and outer journeys that lie ahead.
We scatter to pitch tents and I am drawn to find a view of the mountain. There’s still snow on the peak. It looks like the Paramount logo shimmering in the distance.
The small group, 50/50 men and women, gathers in a circle. My fellow adventurers. We each have half an hour to introduce ourselves and explain why we are here. To share what it is we hope this experience will bring.
I talk of wanting to let go. Of completing a mourning process. Of seeking clarity of purpose and where next to call home. Of thinking for some time how our culture lacks deep rituals that mark the transition to manhood, and how easy it is without them to get lost somewhere between boy and man. And of how, maybe twenty years late, I am here to finally step across.
The next day begins with sage smudging and a Blessing of the Seven Directions. Robert instructs us in basic survival techniques. The wildlife here is more likely to sting you than eat you, but there are bears in the woods and a pack of coyotesâ€Š—â€Šchattering, yelping, barkingâ€Š—â€Šthat visits us in the night.
He teaches us the Native traditions that underlie the transformational process we will undertake. The rituals we might use to cleanse and purge and open ourselves to Spirit. The effects we might expect to feel, see, hear as we dive deep. His wisdom is calming. Time melts away as he shares tales of those who have gone before us.
We each form an intent and shout or whisper it to the valleyâ€Š—â€Šmine declares that I am a man (the word still awkward in my mouth) of integrity, a bridge between worlds.
Then he sends us out individually to find a site where we will shed even the thin layer of our tents and live alone in the wilderness for three days and three nights. We will subsist on nothing but a gallon of water a day, and a small sachet of soluble electrolytes.
‘How you choose your vision quest location tends to reflect your life’, he tells us.
Some choose quickly and relatively close to camp. I range widely, exploring all other points of the compass before hiking North across a ridge and searching until I find an even clearer view of my mountain.
Robert wakes us all at 6am.
He has created a stone circle that holds a staff in the centre. This is the threshold. He blesses it and invites us to step in one by one. A final smudge. Whispered incantations. A ceremonial brushing of feathers and he sends us on our way.
From this point forward we will not see or speak to anyone else until we return in 3 days.
When I arrive at my solo spot, I thank the nature that surrounds it. I ask the trees and rocks and creatures to watch over me kindly. They have the capacity to hold or hurt me, to bend the days ahead toward insight or injury. The sun is high and hot. I begin drinking water and setting up camp.
I build my shelter using rope and a tarp and spend a long time figuring out how to do it so I can see the mountain while lying down. When it’s completed I’ve traded a flat sleeping area for a breathtaking view but I feel proud of how I chased this location, didn’t give up until I had found it and made it the way it had to be. I know I’ve found the perfect setting for my vision quest. At last, this is really happening.
Louis CK joked in his presentation speech at the Oscars that the winner of the Short Documentary category would be driving theirs home in a Honda Civic. I make documentaries for a living and no longer even own a car.
I’ve watched friends get rich in other fields and often wondered why I chose to pursue a career so financially underappreciated by society. But deep down I know why. If I’m honest I never wanted a job. After a few attempts I realised I never wanted to clock in and clock out, to give all my days to someone else, or feel the Sunday evening dread as another week in an office loomed. I wanted to live an interesting life, experiencing as much of the world as I could, finding people and stories that I felt needed to be heard, and not making creative or life choices motivated by money.
I’ve more or less achieved this, but recently I’ve been asking filmmaking hard questions and wondering if a nine to five (or nine to nine) is what it takes to feel like a fully paid up member of the human race. I’ve become angry with my vocation, pushing it away and trying to turn my back on it.
A conversation with a friend a year ago left an impression. “I’ve tried to be many other things” she said simply, “but I have finally accepted that I’m a filmmaker”. Part of me is here to make similar peace, or find out how else I’m meant to spend the next 10 years of my life.
I’ve cheated on the quest in one small way. I’ve smuggled a book out here with me. Something told me this was the right time to read An Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. I open the cover and see that it begins with a quote from Shakespeare:
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
I dive in.
The early light wakes me and I watch it shift behind the horizon. The black blues of night turn a deep orange that lightens gradually through yellows until the sun rises, drowning everything golden and lifting the mist from the trees. At night the process will reverse, bright blue turning to pink until the darker hues chase that away too.
I feel hungover. A dull ache throbs behind my eyes. But to my surprise I’m not hungry. I gulp down water. More water.
I have only one real obligation each dayâ€Š—â€Što visit a designated buddy site in the morning and leave a sign that I’m ok. My buddy will then visit in the afternoon, see I’m alive and leave a sign that I’ll pick up the next morning. Each time we visit we add more decoration to the circleâ€Š—â€Štwigs, pine cones, stones. On the second day my buddy leaves me a simple sketch: two wildflowers and a bee on watercolour paper. Receiving this beautiful gift through our primitive mail system makes me indescribably happy.
On my way back from the buddy circle I realise I am moving more slowly than normal. I reach a clearing and pause to catch my breath on a tree stump.
My mind turns to fear. All the things that have held me back ultimately lead there. I suddenly decide to take off my shyness like an old coat I no longer need and leave it behind.
I ceremoniously remove it, and set it down carefully before walking on.
I make guesses about the time from the sun’s position. Much of the day is spent in a dance between sun/shade/flies. When the bugs get too much I realise it’s time to move.
Then, sitting on a rock facing the mountain, I decide to simply talk it all out.
The nearest human is over a mile away, and most of those I need to communicate with are many thousands farther than that.
No matter. I offer sincere apologies to past partners and lovers. I seek amends for broken friendships. I pay respects to those who passed too soon, and tell them how deeply they are missed.
I know these conversations can’t be substitutions for the real thing, but dredging out everything unsaid leaves me lighter, emptier. Their charge is removed. I feel the way slowly clearing for something new.
It continues into the second night with a ‘Death Lodge Ceremony’ in which I prepare for my own death. I close my eyes and welcome friends and family who manifest silently in order to offer final goodbyes. I have no idea how long it takes, but I dialogue aloud with each and every one. I thank them for their kindness, their love, the ways they have enriched my life. The moon is full and high in the night sky by the time I finish.
The book dives deeper into the paradox of freeing yourself from your imagined Self. We are not the constant chatter, the voice in the head. We are not the collection of experiences. We are the witness to these things, the awareness that lies behind it all. The ‘you’ that has always been thereâ€Š—â€Šas a two year old, a twelve year old, a twenty two year old, a forty two year old. The you beyond labels and names, beyond even gender.
It invites a shift from mind to heart. To a constant lifelong process of opening and keeping open that mysterious organ, of letting go and “allowing yourself to experience every note the heart can play…Everything will be ok as soon as you are ok with with everything. And that is the only time everything will be ok”.
The final night we have been instructed to build our own stone ‘Purpose Circle’ and sit awake in it until first light.
After gathering the rocks I smudge my circle with the last of the wild sage Robert gave us, light a candle, and wait for the moon to rise through the trees.
I try really hard but I just can’t stop from slipping into sleep. I fall in and out of lucid dreams. I realise that my vision won’t come dancing holographically in front of these tired eyes.
Suddenly they open and it’s the fourth morning.
Below the valley is carpeted in a blanket of white. I am literally above the clouds.
Photo taken by Robert Wagner at base camp on the fourth morning of the Vision Quest
As the sun rises I slowly pack up what I think I can carry on my shaky legs and see a sentence I wrote last night in my journal:
“Come on God, let’s win an Oscar together.”
I turn to head back to base camp. I am filled with a blissful sense of peace and accomplishment. “It could be like this every day” forms as a thought bubble that floats haphazardly across my awareness.
I pick my way back through the trees, down across the dried open area where the day before I’d found a small bird’s nest lying on the ground. It was fragile, perfectly intact and no longer in use.
I’d bent down and marvelled at the intricate ways grass and twigs were woven together into a perfect circle, each blade carefully assembled by a little bird diligently building a place to raise their family. Finding this beautiful tiny home in my path felt like a sign that now is the time, and Oregon is the place, to create a nest of my own.
I reach the track that leads back to base camp. As I get closer the theme tune from The Great Escape appears unexpectedly on my lips. I begin whistling.
I am elated to have not only survived but embraced and loved this whole experience. I didn’t get eaten. I didn’t get injured.
Then about two hundred metres out the whistle falters.
I pause and try again.
All of a sudden I find myself leaning on my staff as a huge wave of emotion rises through me.
Out of nowhere tears start to stream down my face and I feel a sob explode from deep in my chest. Something in my heart cracks open and I can’t hold it back.
I am spent from all the letting go. The shedding of many skins has left me raw. I haven’t eaten in 84 hours. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by knowing that a few steps away a new future awaits. That when I step through the threshold again I will at last be on a path to true manhood. It is at once recognition, relief, and a final mourning for the overdue passing of youth.
I drop my backpack and step into the circle. My shoulders are shaking with emotion. I smell the burning sage as Robert blesses me, thanking Spirit for returning me safely. My eyes are closed. The tears keep coming.
He hugs me hard as I step out, “Welcome back, brother”.
The others are all back too. They clap and cheer my successful return. I feel their warmth. I’ve been thinking of each of them and I’m eager to hear their stories.
I smile and take a deep breath.
“Ok” I say, “What’s for breakfast?”
An hour later I’ve eaten fruit, some cereal, a big chunk of chocolate. The emergency energy bar in my bag with which I’d dialogued and bargained so extensively on the quest is now at last in my shrunken stomach.
As I walk back to my spot to collect the remainder of my gear I turn on my phone to let a few people know I’m alive. I’d wished I’d had it many times to take photos but being separated from technology for a few days has allowed me to drop into a different movement of time, and I have very mixed emotions as I watch my inbox updating.
I have 247 unread emails. I scroll through them quickly, looking for anything important. One catches my eye and I double take:
Subject: Congratulations on the Emmy nomination!
I open up Facebook. I’ve been tagged in a post. I click the link and scroll way down until I find confirmation. It’s true. Our film Tashi and the Monk is nominated in the Outstanding Short Documentary category of the Emmys.
I smile again.
I guess that settles it. I really am a filmmaker.
Robert says it takes a year for the vision to manifest fully. On the last morning together he invites each of us to write a letter to ourselves a year from now. We seal them in envelopes that he will mail to us in 12 months. I won’t share exactly what mine said, but if all goes to plan much will have happened by July 17th next year. I sign it ‘Your best friend’.
So, have I really become a man?
It was in the pockets of quiet beneath those giant trees whose rings showed over a 100 winters and summers that I got still at last.
I reflected on how the same intelligence or vision the seed holds for the towering pine is in us too. We grow and evolve and spiral upwards through an ever expanding now. We learn from those around us. Atmospheric conditions play a part. But it is a remembering of what we somehow intuitively already know that dances with the discoveries of the world outside ourselves. An acceptance of a process much older and wiser than we can possibly fathom.
These trees do not doubt their tree-ness, they simply are trees. I am a man. And if I act from the core of my being, I know those will be the actions of a good man.
My voice is not suddenly deeper. Like a birthday, I don’t suddenly feel a year older. But something has shifted. I stand taller. Eyes brighter. The weight of doubt or ambiguity is lifted. I feel decisive, purposeful. I know a door to different place is opened, and even though it may take years to fully fill my new (hu)man suit and truly learn to act with courage and heart, the process in underway.
Just before we part and head back down the roads that will lead to our old/new lives, Robert offers one final piece of advice.
“Whenever you hug someone” he says “don’t be the first to break the hug. And watch what happens to the energy”.
Like all of his teachings this past week, it is a perfect mix of light and serious.
Dust rises as the convoy of cars and trucks pulls out together. There are no visible signs on the landscape, but a lot has been left behind in this wild and beautiful place.
Tired, dirty and smiling, we all come down the mountain much lighter than we arrived last week.