In the early 1970s two volunteers at a California suicide hot-line call-in center, Steven Foster and Meredith Little, started talking together about what changes in society might give back the will to live to the callers they were speaking to. They were especially concerned about the many young people who wanted to end their lives. As Meredith and Steven got to know each other--and to fall in love--they began to envision a process in which young people could be initiated ceremonially and meaningfully into adulthood.
That was forty years ago. Since then Meredith and Steven (who died in 2003) have guided thousands of people in wilderness rites of passage programs and trained hundreds of guides. The organization they founded, the School of Lost Borders, continues to honor the original impetus for this work by offering a vision quest for youth every year. July 14-24, I was honored to co-guide this year's Youth Quest with Will Scott, a remarkably wise, wilderness-savvy young man of 32. Twelve amazing, courageous, and deep young people, four women and eight men, ranging in age from 17 to 23 undertook the journey into adulthood. All of them returned from their three-day solos with stories so stunning, surprising, and powerful they brought us guides and the parents who had come to witness their telling to tears. Here, with names and some details changed to protect the privacy of the questers, are just four of them.
Ariel: Ever since she was a little girl Ariel had prided herself on being tough, on being "one of the boys." Her uncle, an Army vet, had drilled her on intellectual and physical endurance, and she respected him and his methods, even though he had sexually abused her at one time. She did not trust women, whom she regarded as superficial and likely to betray. She was angry at her mother. Her goal for the quest was to seek the feminine in God and in herself.
On the first day of the solo, one of the other questers, bored and looking for diversion, came to her solo spot to visit. She was unable to tell him to leave, though she grieved the invasion of her privacy. Later that day she found a dead tree whose shape reminded her of the female body. With wildflowers, pine cones, sage, and other natural objects she had gathered, she remade the tree. She placed an animal vertebra on the spine, inserted a piece of quartz into the vagina, adorned the tree with flowers. In so doing she beautified the feminine in and for herself and for what she held sacred. On the second day, she awoke feeling more at peace with herself and all her surroundings than she had in years. As she was relishing this blessed, unfamiliar feeling, another of the young men questers came to visit her. Later that day the first one returned. Still she still felt powerless to tell them to leave her alone.
Ariel arrived back in base camp angry, disappointed, and withdrawn. The following evening, after half the group had told their stories, she stomped off on her own. She walked until she came to a place where rocks of many colors made a natural mandala on the earth. There all her anger steamed out. She threw stones, screamed, yelled, wept. She threw herself on the Earth and rolled around until she was covered in dust. Exhausted, spent, she took another look at the mandala and saw that now it offered an invitation. She felt called to form a circle of red heart-shaped rocks around it. All the rocks she could find were tiny, but she located and added them one at a time, patiently, meticulously. The next day she told her story to the whole group without blame or judgment, taking responsibility for not having protected her own boundaries, knowing the lesson she'd had was profound, and recognizing that, despite what had happened, she had actively and creatively remade the feminine that had so long eluded her.
Leo: Leo had just graduated college as a philosophy major. He was very comfortable in the wilderness, but he was a deep thinker as well, and he had been preoccupied with death for as long as he could remember. Over and over he would ask himself what death was like, what eternity meant. He tried to imagine how he would manage if something happened to a member of his family, with whom he was very close. He had avoided falling in love for fear that he would lose his beloved.
On the first day of the solo he played a song on his guitar for a tree. On the second day he took off all his clothes and lay on a rock in the sun. He felt the sun gently touch his body. When he breathed in, he inhaled the warmth of the sun, and when he exhaled he breathed out sunlight to the world. He sang a song for the sun. On the third day he had a conversation with a fly. The fly reminded him of how he had once seen a dead fish covered so thickly with flies that they looked like a swarming, moving skin on the creature. He realized that the flies were not covering him on that particular morning in the Inyo Mountains. The flies told him, "You are alive now." And as is the way of visions, of moments of truth, that message hit him deeply. He was alive now. Life was his to claim, to celebrate, to exult in. That night he dreamed that a woman he'd known at the university, someone he thought of as "the life of the party", wanted to leap into his arms. He was on roller blades and feared that her exuberant move would topple him, but he permitted her to leap and, though he caught her awkwardly, he did not fall down. He was catching the inner female of himself, the anima, who wanted to be embraced by him, and this particular inner female of himself was just was the kind of being whom a serious, somber young man needed: someone spontaneous and expressive and bold--"the life of the party." On the fourth morning, Leo watched the sun come up and played a song to the sunrise. He returned knowing that he was alive, that life was full of invitations, and that he was going to accept them.
Trebbe has been leading vision quests, workshops, and ceremonies worldwide since 1994. She is the founder of Radical Joy for Hard Times, a non-profit organization devoted to finding and making beauty in wounded places, and the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover. A passionate explorer of outer as well as inner frontiers, Trebbe has camped alone in the Arctic, traveled in the Sahara Desert, and worked as a model, street-sweeper, and award-winning multimedia producer. She lives in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. www.radicaljoyforhardtimes.org and www.visionarrow.com