I woke up to a chunk of ice soaking through my tent and melting against my forehead. It was snowing in the desert, and I was completely alone.
I went on Vision Quest at the end of my senior year of high school. At Marin Academy, this quest, derived from Native American traditions, is a non-required rite of passage. The gist is this: After a few months’ preparation with fellow students and leaders (most commonly teachers and alumni), everyone goes, as one group, into the desert. You spend two nights together. Then, on the third morning, every student ventures out into the desert for three days by him- or herself. You take what you want—so long as you can carry it yourself, you can bring it. Many students choose to fast for those three days, though I did not. There is a safety system, which pairs you up with a partner who has chosen a camping spot relatively close to yours. You leave rock piles for the other to check, either in the morning or afternoon, to show that you are still alive. Other than that, though, those three days are yours to spend as you will, to think about what you want. There is no curriculum, no guide, no teacher.
It is just the sand and the wind and the sun—and you.
This wasn’t my first solo camping trip, but it was the first that I felt prepared to take. If college graduation is the entrance into the “real world,” high school graduation is the exodus from all that we know to be real: home, family, friends. When you make such a transition, when you remove yourself from an environment that you know, whether you love it or hate it, you inevitably lose some of the things that have made you, you. VQ for me was the closest I could get to throwing a figurative pair of absolute value signs around my soul. What was I like when I was the only thing inside my head? What was I like when I didn’t have relationships to maintain, or deadlines to meet, or emails to read, or communication in which to engage? More importantly, what did I want to be like when I didn’t have all those things to take care of? I thought VQ might show me the answers, and so into the desert I went.
I wrote roughly 40 single-spaced pages in a journal, about anything and everything at all, and was a little ashamed that I didn’t fill more. I read the entirety of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in two days. I loved it so much that I started it over again, even though I had Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner with me, too. I walked around my camp and tried to find the best places to sit and read and write. I sang to myself as I cooked hot chocolate and ramen, and danced around my campsite to keep myself warm. Every night, I watched the sun go down between the mountains, and howled with the other Questers—our one form of explicit contact—as it sank. I zipped the tent shut and closed my eyes as the first stars began to twinkle. I made a pebble cactus, sun, and lizard for my rock-pile buddy, and always signed them with a heart and my first initial. I took pictures on my camera whenever the moment seemed too beautiful to be real. I took a lot of pictures.
But more than simply doing things I liked to do, I tried to look for the little things, those that I so often let pass me by as I was walking along my street to school. I tried to focus on that which was in front of me. I tried just to gaze at the far-off lake, its lightness or darkness determined by the sky, sometimes cloudless, sometimes gray. I tried to look at the soft leaves of the sage brush, at the slope of sandy ground upon which I sat, to fill in their stories and imagine how I fit in. What had walked here before I had? What else had seen this view? Ironically, while the snow on the second day blanketed the entire area in white, this revealed the land to me even further. Coyote paw prints were sprinkled around my tent, and my tracks looked out-of-place and cumbersome next to the tiny prints of rabbits and birds that had stopped by the site before I had woken.
Looking back on it, the emphasis that I placed on the aloneness of this experience feels almost strange to me. I went into the desert to find those absolute value signs, to see what I was like when I was truly by myself, but the idea that I would somehow exist in a vacuum on Vision Quest seems awfully short-sighted to me now. I was alone, yes, but I was never lonely, or even by myself. Life is too omnipresent and full to let us be alone. In my self-absorbed, or rather, species-absorbed mind, I was the only person in the desert, and that made me alone. But even in the desert, which we normally consider to be arid and lifeless, there was so much life that surrounded me. From the ants I brushed off my water bottles to the plants that sheltered me from the worst of the wind, I couldn’t have been alone if I had tried. I didn’t discover the essence of my soul, but I caught a glimpse of myself, of my place, in nature. And how I allowed myself to relate to life—what my identity in the context of other organisms was—turned out to be a lot more important to me than knowing who I, “alone,” was.
Two years later and 2,900 miles away, I don’t think about the desert daily. I think about Spectator, and classes, and jobs. It’s easy to feel alone. But sometimes, when I hear leaves whispering to tree trunks in the night, I still feel that reminder that life is everywhere—that I am never alone. On moonlit nights, I can even still hear my classmates’ howls if I listen closely enough.