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Episode 7 - My time with the West Indians and the American Indians
Hello again. It's been a while since the last episode of these travels - nearly four months. The bulk of that time was spent on Jost Van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands. In the last part of the previous episode, I described my arrival in, and first impressions of, Jost Van Dyke, and posted several photos of its tropical beauty. If you haven't already, you might want to read that first (here) before you read on.
Jost Van Dyke is one of the most beautiful, tranquil and comfortable places on Earth. It sports a warm, accommodating climate all year round, gorgeous white sandy beaches, crystal-clear aquamarine water, quiet, one-lane sandy roads, and a stress-free, English-speaking way of life. In short, it's Paradise, with a capital P.
I was there three months. I was, according to many emails I received, the envy of my friends and family back home. "Oh, you're so lucky!" "I wish I had the opportunity to spend a couple of months in the Caribbean." Etc, etc. The day before I left Jost Van Dyke for the last time, I overheard an American tourist saying to his friend, "Man, I love this place! I'd give anything to be able to live here - it's Paradise." I shook my head slowly and kept walking. I thought back over the past three months. Paradise is a state of mind, I thought to myself. The only trouble with coming to Paradise is that you have to take yourself with you.
I thought back to my arrival in Jost Van Dyke. I had found the paradise I was looking for. The perfect place to settle down and get into my writing. It had everything that I wanted, and I knew, deep down in my bones, that I was in the right place. My decision to come here hadn't been some hasty, ill-considered whim; it had felt right from the moment I thought of it, driving across Tibet in January with Greg. It was my path, my journey, and I had to follow it. Which puzzles me, because in hindsight it doesn't feel like it worked out. I feels like I didn't get what I came for. To put it another way, I feels like I failed.
This puzzled me, because I've always believed that if you faithfully follow that your inner voice, without trying to filter it through your brain, you can only be happy. I may have to rethink that one.
The essence of my sense of failure comes from the fact that I didn't succeed in writing my novel, or even making any useful headway into it. And that was my prime reason for my going to the Caribbean in the first place. It's not that I didn't write - I wrote plenty. No end of emails, a couple of web page updates, a journal, even a magazine article. I actually started my book. I wrote half the plot outline, some character précis, the prologue and half of Chapter One.
Then came that fateful day. I rebooted my palmtop computer - a routine maintenance procedure - and when it restarted it prompted me with an odd message: "Your computer contains user data. Press [Y] to lose all data, or [N] to retain all data." Okay, fair enough, I thought, and carefully pressed N. Next came the heartbreaking message, "Welcome to your New Hewlett Packard Palmtop Computer! Press [ENTER] to see a demonstration of your new unit's features!" I felt my heart dissolve into my lower intestine. Sure enough, all memory was erased - something that can only happen to a handheld computer or organiser. Much swearing was heard emanating from my guesthouse room that evening.
After I calmed down, the possibility occurred to me that I may have accidentally pressed Y at the crucial moment, instead of N. But after a little experimentation I managed to reproduce the unusual initial message, and this time definitely pressed N, but with identical results.
Like all good computer nerds, I had been backing up my data. But lately I had been a bit lax in my backup regimen. None of my writing except the plot outline was backed up, nor was a month's worth of journal, and several other minor bits and pieces. My emails, web pages, and address book were all intact though, resident or backed up on the Net.
I set about the task of reconstructing my computer - the most useful piece of equipment that I was carrying. Downloading, installing and configuring all the software I'd been using, retrieving and restoring my backed-up personal data, and performing a comprehensive backup of the lot took me the next two days. Then I set things up so that all my data would automatically be backed up onto Tessa's computer every time I went online. Closing the stable door well and truly after the digital horse had bolted, I suppose, but I'd lost faith in the integrity of my unit, and I didn't want it to happen again (it did, by the way, two days later, but has been flawless since).
Needless to say, the wind had been well and truly taken out of my sails. I found it difficult to start writing again. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I would have eventually junked the lot anyway - it certainly wasn't good enough to be published without a complete rewrite. With my novel stubbornly refusing to budge from my skull, I made a half-hearted attempt to start a second book that I'd been toying with for a couple of months, but the momentum was gone.
I allowed myself to be distracted by other influences. A few weeks earlier I had met a lovely girl from St Thomas, an hour's ferry trip across the water in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her name was Elisa (click here and here), and it wasn't long before we found ourselves developing a special relationship. I eventually ended up spending almost 50% of my time with her, usually over on St Thomas. My novel was relegated to the back-burner.
For those of you that have already seen the photos of my new hair (here), that was one of the many legacies of my relationship with Elisa. She told me one day that she'd like to see what I looked like with blonde hair, and did I mind? Why not? I thought, and off we went to the local drug store. We chose the most platinum-blonde colour possible, as Elisa wanted us to have matching hair (colour, at least). Sadly, my recalcitrant hair had its own ideas. Even after three treatments, we couldn't get it past the "golden" shading. Elisa wasn't pleased with the results, which left me feeling a bit like a failed experiment. She was the one that suggested it in the first place! Ah well. Sometimes now, when I sleep on it funny, I wake up looking like Tintin - that blonde shock of hair sticking straight up at the front.
The days on Jost Van Dyke, when I wasn't over with Elisa, eventually became a little aimless. The novel-writing just wouldn't come out. I didn't want to force it, knowing full well that writing isn't like that. So I tried, often in vain, to fill my days with other activities. My communications with friends and family at home took on larger significance. It seemed that I was checking my email at Tessa's house every day, and finding more and more reasons to surf the Net. I would go for walks, to the top of the island or across to White Bay for a swim. Sadly, somewhere along the line, I developed a mysterious niggling shoulder injury that prevented me from distance swimming and my daily workout with the basketball hoop, so my fitness started slipping away.
It seems that Paradise is only Paradise if you have something to do.
I didn't leave because I felt deep down that whatever process I was in the middle of had to be completed. I knew I was learning something about myself (and about writing), but I didn't know exactly what. Most of all, I didn't want to control the process. Whatever it was had to naturally run its course.
I was still writing, of course, just not writing my novel. I was writing a journal, dozens of emails, my Ramblings for the web site, and anything else that popped into my head. At one stage, I got the idea that backpacking around the world with a palmtop computer was a sufficiently unusual thing to do that surely there must be some magazine out there that would be interested in publishing an article about it. I figured that Handheld PC Magazine, an American publication, would be my best bet, so I got their editor's email address off their web site (http://www.hpcmag.com) and sent him a letter proposing an article. To my delight he thought that this was a splendid idea, so I spent a couple of days whipping one up. He continued to think it was a splendid idea, even after he'd read it(!), and assured me that it would be published in the next issue, in October. He asked me to suggest some photos that he could use to illustrate the article, so I created a page on my web site where I listed some of the better photos that Greg and I had taken during the trip so far (here). I also prepared a page of technical how-to notes for the readers of the magazine, in case they wanted to learn how to do some of the more unusual stuff that I've been doing with my palmtop (here).
And then my sister Jaki came to visit me!
Jaki had been attending the wedding of a friend of hers in the States, and had a week to kill before her presence was required back at her job in Sydney. She decided to visit her big bruvva before returning to the corporate grind (click here).
Having Jaki with me (she stayed in my little room at Christine's with me) was wonderful. Apart from making me homesick, she reminded me what a great place it was that I'd chosen to holiday in. All she wanted to do was lie on the beach, soak up the sun and read a book. I realised that I'd been almost taking it for granted. Watching her unwind reminded me what big city life can do to a person. Sadly (not just for me but for all the single guys on the island) she left after only a week.
I can't say that after only three months on the island that I knew Jost Van Dyke intimately - in fact, I had been actively resisting getting caught up in the affairs of the locals. But, buried under the gorgeous "Tropical Paradise" veneer, there were several layers to island life that I perceived, but which most tourists would never get to see. And they're not particularly pleasant layers. There was an underlying sickness to the place that made me depressed and uncomfortable. At first I thought it was just my imagination, but the sense of malaise grew every day I was there.
The most obvious example was the thinly concealed contempt that many of the locals felt towards the tourists. Jost Van Dyke, off the beaten track though it is, still remains one of the jewels of the Caribbean, and attracts dozens of tourists daily, mostly rich Americans off charter yachts. They come seeking a glimpse of "Island Life," and splash around large quantities of cash. The only interaction they tend to have with the native islanders is when they are being driven somewhere in a taxi or served a drink in a bar. They largely treat the islanders as props in a postcard panorama.
The loudness, crassness and insensitivity of rich Americans in tourist environments is world-famous. The "Oh-my-God-that's-so-adorable!" syndrome. Many islanders resent or envy the tourists, but are forced to embrace them, for without them (or without their money, more precisely) the island's economy would collapse. Taxi-drivers, waiters, salespeople - the only avenue of communication by which the locals can relate to the tourists is one of subservience, and this breeds resentment, occasionally bordering on hostility. I found that to be white is to be treated as a wealthy American on a two-week holiday. Often, walking down the road, I would pass a local coming the other way. I would greet him or her with a Hi and a friendly wave, only to be watched sullenly or ignored entirely. There were many exceptions, of course, most notably the ever-smiling Ivan (of Ivan's Stress-Free bar - so stress-free that he's usually not even there).
It must be depressing living in Paradise. You would be constantly reminded, by the never-ending influx of tourists, that you live in one of the finest places in the world. That might sound idyllic, but if you're a Caribbean native, and you're not happy with your life (as appeared to me to be mostly the case), well, you're fucked. This is clearly as good as it gets, or why would the rest of the world be constantly coming here? What are you going to do? Go and live in Pittsburgh or Los Angeles and, when you get sick of it, go on vacations to the Caribbean?
And if you're an islander, it doesn't pay to be a woman. There's a sad chauvinism on the islands that seems almost Victorian. The men are brought up in an atmosphere of machismo. To be tall and strong and have a big boat (and to wear heavy gold medallions on chains around your neck) is considered manly and successful. Woe betide the short guy. Women are treated largely as accessories, or ignored completely. I saw so many island women stuck in dysfunctional or abusive marriages, but they had no alternatives. They had nowhere to go, and no means to get there. Many of them were barely literate.
But the thing that irritated me the most in the Virgin Islands was the universal mania for enforcing rules. Any rule, no matter how big or small, was adhered to with a zeal that made the Chinese government look like a hippie commune. I would have thought that the Caribbean would be a laid-back kind of a place, that their attitude would be that rules were made to be broken. But no! On St Thomas, it's almost a felony to walk around barefoot. On a Caribbean island! I couldn't go on a ferry, into K-Mart or even into a video store without something on my feet. I talked my way past the security guard in K-Mart one time, only to have six different people come up to me in the ten minutes I was in there telling me that I needed footwear (my trick - I told them I was there to buy shoes). One time, as my ferry was docking in Tortola, I stepped off the boat before the crew gave us permission, and walked inside to the immigration line. The boat-hand followed me in and told me to reboard the boat until the all-clear had been given to disembark. Elisa was used to it and told me not to fight the system.
One time their contempt of tourists, their male pride and their rule-enforcement all ganged up on me at once.
I was walking back from checking my email at Tessa's one day. I'd been on the island maybe two months by this stage. I heard a "Hey! Come!" I looked up and noticed several local guys working on a boat on a trailer by the side of the road. One of them, a short, young guy with a larger-than-usual gold chain around his neck, was looking at me expectantly. I vaguely recalled having seen him working in the Customs office. Figuring he couldn't possibly have been talking to me, I kept walking.
"Hey! Come!" Louder this time.
Having nothing better to do, but feeling a little peeved at being accosted in such a manner, I walked over. "What?"
"What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here?" he repeated impatiently. "What do you do?" he added, by way of explanation.
I was just about ready to tell him to go fuck himself, but I replied, "I'm a writer."
"What are you writing?"
"What do you care?"
"What are you writing?" he demanded again.
"A novel." Some of his friends had started to pay attention to our little interchange.
"What's the novel about?"
"Why do you want to know?"
He tried a different subject. "Where are you staying?"
"You know where I'm staying." Everybody knew where I was staying. "Over by Christine." (Over by Christine is West Indian for At Christine's.)
"How long have you been here?"
"Tell me why you want to know."
"You have to answer my questions."
"I don't have to answer anything." I was getting angry now. Little arsehole.
"If you don't want to answer my questions here, we can go down to my office and you can answer them there."
"You can go to hell. I'm not going to your office."
"Okay fine." Just like that.
I stormed off, surprised that he'd given in so easily, and went up to my room.
Ten minutes later I came out again to buy some bread. The crew were still at work, thirty metres up the road. Dean, the island's mischievous troublemaker walked over to me.
"Mun, dat's guys angry you tole him to go to hell," he said with a big grin.
"Well he deserved it. He's an arsehole," I replied, still a little cranky.
I went in to get my bread, and as soon as I turned my back, I heard Dean shouting, "Hey, Mishak, he just say you was an arsehole!" Ohhhh man!
Young Mishak stormed over. "Did you call me an arsehole?" he demanded.
"No." I said flatly. Now what are you going to do, twerp?
He said nothing. Dean was grinning in the background.
I went on the offensive. "I just want to know why you're asking me all these questions."
"I work in the Immigration office."
"So you have to answer my questions."
"I'll answer your questions if you ask me nicely."
"I did ask you nicely!"
"No you didn't. You said 'Hey! Come!' If you'd said, 'Excuse me sir, if you have a moment, I'd like to ask you a few questions...'"
"Pah!" He'd already started walking away. I went back to my room and made myself a sandwich.
Half an hour later I was summonsed down to the Immigration office and told to bring my passport. There, a middle-aged lady examined my passport, then, when she was satisfied that my visa was in order, enquired as to why I had been rude to an immigration official. I explained that he had been rude first, and related to her the story above. She seemed to readily believe me, and, anticlimactically, she thanked me and I was free to go.
I told a couple of locals about this interchange, and learned that Mishak had a reputation for lording it over the tourists that depended on his opinion to get a visa. Typical small-man power complex. When I mentioned it to Tessa, she suggested that I inform the BVI Tourist Board. They would want to know about the poor first impression that many tourists would obviously be getting of the British Virgin Islands. So I did, the next time I was on Tortola - filled out a nice, juicy complaint form. Mishak, may your gold medallion become razor-sharp and slice off your dick, you power-hungry little egomaniac.
And the days went on....
Unfortunately, sometime around the middle of July, Elisa and I both came to the realisation that no matter how much we cared for each other, we were fundamentally unsuited. This was a great disappointment to me, as it seemed for a time there that we may have had a wonderful future together.
Love is a funny thing.
The demise of my relationship with Elisa, coupled with my constant inability to create any decent headway into my book, conspired to make me feel like it was time to move on. The only problem was that I had no particular new direction that appealed. My air ticket took me down through South America, but somehow that didn't feel right - at least not yet. Whenever I thought about it, a little part of me retreated from the idea. But where else was there? When I thought about that question with the right perspective, I realised that the entire world was open to me, but that knowledge didn't actually make my decision any easier.
I called Greg. For reasons that I can't quite recall, he suggested that I have a look at Tom Brown Jr's Tracker School in New Jersey. It was apparently a school that taught Native American survival skills and philosophy. I thought that sounded interesting. Greg said he'd been there himself, three years earlier, and it had changed the way he looked at the world. Greg's opinion is one that I respect highly, so I checked out the school's web site (http://www.trackerschool.com). Their course schedule seemed to fit nicely into my timeframe for leaving the Caribbean, with a week-long Standard Course, their prerequisite for all other courses, starting in just ten days' time.
New Jersey seemed to me an unlikely place for a Native American school (the term "Indian" is considered Politically Incorrect these days, as is "black," "coloured" and "Negro," by the way. "Filthy nigger scum" is right out). Whenever I thought of New Jersey, I thought of industrial wasteland. However, Greg said that western New Jersey was quite rural, so I thought, Why the hell not? I wasn't so interested in learning survival skills, but the Native American philosophies sounded fascinating and powerful. And you never know, the wilderness skills might just come in handy some day.
I gave them a call, attempting to secure a position in the approaching class, but was met with an answering machine. I had no reliable contact number, so I decided to email them instead. For the next few days, up until the day of my departure, I called them every day and checked my email for replies. Not a peep. So I took a chance. Without a class booking or even any true idea of what the school was all about, I booked a ticket to New York, leaving in two days hence. It would sort itself out, I trusted. It usually did.
The day before leaving Jost Van Dyke, I was spending a final nostalgic afternoon at Ivan's Stress-Free Bar (and paying my three-month-old tab), when I ran into my old Australian charter yacht buddies, Darren and Annie. They were enjoying a week off and suggested that when I was in Tortola the following day I should spend my final night with them on their yacht, moored in Road Harbour. This was an offer too good to confuse, and I told them I'd see them the following evening.
I was awakened on my final morning by a knock on my door. It was Christine, come to remind me that checkout time was 11am. I was dumbfounded. She hadn't had any tenant but me for the past six weeks.
"Christine, I've been here three months now. What would happen if I went over by an hour? Would you make me pay for another month?"
"The rule is the rule," she said flatly and walked off.
Well, I thought, that's a nice start to my final day. I must recommend this place to my friends.
After breakfast, I went downstairs to settle my food tab. Christine and I worked out that I owed her $46, so I fished a fifty out of my wallet.
"Where's the rest?" she said.
"The final month's rent. You owe me $700."
Uh-oh. "Christine, I paid you already. I've been paying you in advance."
And so began a dreary argument about what did or didn't happen according to her memory over the past three months.
"How many times have I paid you, Christine?" I asked at one stage, as if I was asking a four-year-old to remember where she'd put my car keys.
"Three," she said.
"Right! And how many months have I been here?"
"Three." A little more cautiously this time.
"Okay, so what's the problem?"
A moment's silence. "You didn't pay me for last month," she insisted, dogmatically.
Out came the calendar and the pen, and we spent the next ten minutes circling payment days and blocking out months of residency. Finally, something must have clicked deep within the cabbage she was using for a brain, for she said, "Okay, I got it now."
"Marvellous," I cried, and walked off to get my luggage.
Ten minutes later I came back downstairs and said goodbye as I walked off to catch the morning ferry to Tortola. She barely looked up, and I felt a bit saddened that I had to leave with such a bad taste in my mouth.
I got off the ferry and walked out onto the road to hitchhike into Road Town, where I had some errands to run and where I'd be meeting Darren and Annie at five. Within a few seconds a car had stopped beside me and I was surprised to see it was a police car. Cool, I thought, I didn't realise the police were so friendly around here.
"Is your name Mark?"
"Er, yes," I said wondering how he possibly could have known that.
"You were staying on Jost Van Dyke?"
"Please come with me. We've had a report from a woman called Christine that you left without paying."
I was flabbergasted. "Well, she's mistaken!"
"If you don't come with me I will have to arrest you."
That fucking bitch! I thought to myself. That stupid, moronic, ignorant, fucking, fucking bitch! I'm being arrested because she can't do her fucking arithmetic!
I thought about my situation. I was surely fucked. I envisaged missed flights, sitting in a jail cell for a couple of days while the mess was sorted out, and most of all, wringing that stupid fat bitch's neck. I wondered what sort of procedures passed for justice around here. She was a local, black - the same as the police, and I was some sort of vagabond tourist. Whose word were they going to believe? No doubt about it - I was fucked.
We arrived at the police station, and after a while the head cop wandered out to see what was going on. I could tell he was the boss man because his shirt was tucked in. Apparently Christine had decided that I hadn't been paying in advance but in arrears, and therefore I had missed my final payment that morning. I got an opportunity to tell the policeman my side of the story, and I tried to come across as reasonable and hardly-done-by as possible. And it seemed that he even cautiously believed me. At one point I asked him why, if I was indeed attempting to avoid paying Christine the money that I owed her, would I stroll out to the ferry in broad daylight and actually say goodbye to her? If I was attempting to defraud her, surely I would just vanish one day when she wasn't around. He replied that he thought that was a very good point indeed.
Christine was called. Her story had changed a little. Yes, I had in fact been paying her in advance, but I had apparently asked her a month ago if I could delay the final month's payment and pay her at the end of the month. I told the policeman that this was a total fiction, and added a couple more red-hot needles to my mental Christine voodoo doll.
The police asked us both about receipts. Christine and I both told them that there weren't any. I lied to them by adding that Christine had asked me in the beginning to pay cash in order to avoid paying tax. Anything to put the boot in. Fucking cow. Then I heard the police arguing on the phone with Christine about the fact that they couldn't take it any further because of the lack of any receipts or other paperwork. They told her they couldn't hold me without any evidence, and I knew I was free.
But not before they sat me down and took a four page statement, detailing all my movements since I arrived in the BVIs three months before. Finally it was done. Two hours after I had been initially taken into custody, I was back on the street again hitchhiking into Road Town.
My errands successfully completed, I wandered over to the marina at around five to hook up with Darren and Annie. It would have been impossible to distinguish theirs from the fleet of similar boats had it not been for the bright-green Boxing Kangaroo flag that I knew they always flew from their mast (click here). I must say, it was nice to be able to sit back over a couple of beers and have a conversation with people that spoke my language. The sun went down, and with it an excellent, home-cooked lasagne and several more beers (click here). A perfect final evening to my Caribbean holiday, I reflected, and it even managed to soothe the irritation I felt at this morning's indignities. By the time eleven o'clock rolled around, I realised that I was drunker than I'd been since I left Australia, nine months before, and staggered off to bed. As soon as I closed my eyes, the world turned upside-down, and so a quick visit to the head was in order before a good night's sleep was to be had.
The next morning I prised open my eyelids at six and, without waking my hosts, caught a taxi to the airport and a plane to New York, via Miami. Back to the real world.
Sitting on the plane, I reflected on my arrival in the Caribbean, and recalled that I'd made a list of goals that I hoped to achieve before I left. I'd even written them into the last episode of this web site. I pulled it out and had a look. The plan was that after three months I'd be:
I'd also intended to toughen up the soles of my pale, namby-pamby feet, and that, my friends, was my greatest success!
There are a couple of photos that I took while in the Caribbean that are not mentioned above, but which deserve a quick explanation. There are described below:
The island of Manhattan was a shock to the system after three months on the island of Jost Van Dyke, but I was surprised at how the constant, furious commotion of the city just seemed to wash right over me. It didn't depress me and it didn't disgust me, but nor did it interest me. The day I arrived, the Tracker School finally answered the phone, and before you could say "Fax me your details" I was in. As simple as that. The only problem was that I had four days to kill before the course started, and I wasn't really in the mood for New York City. As I wandered around Times Square, bored and unimpressed, I couldn't understand what the hundreds of wide-eyed tourists were interested in. I saw a couple of movies (Eyes Wide Shut and The Blair Witch Project - both very interesting), I checked my email, I read a book, and I flirted half-heartedly with the cafeteria chick in the Youth Hostel. Eventually the boredom got too great, and I had to get out. What is it that they say? When you're tired of New York City, you're tired of life? Something like that. Whoever said that had never sat on a rock at Tengboche Monastery and watched the moon rise over Everest. I caught the bus to Easton, Pennsylvania (the nearest town to the Tracker School, famous for its Crayola factory, don't you know) and checked into a motel for a couple of nights.
On Sunday afternoon, at the designated time, I fronted up at Easton bus station, ready for the school's pick-up service. There were a couple of guys milling around with backpacks, but it was hard to tell if they were fellow Tracker students, or just getting ready for a big bus trip somewhere. But one of them ventured, "Tracker School?" and suddenly we were all in conversation: name-swapping, "Where y'all from?" and so forth. Soon we were all sitting in the back of the school's van, driving out through the surprisingly gorgeous New Jersey countryside. I asked the driver, an instructor called Tom (not the Tom), how many students they were expecting this week, figuring it had to be at least twenty. "Oh, about seventy-five," came the reply. We all looked at each other, most of us utterly stunned. "Yeah, you guys are lucky," he went on, "the class next week is full. They're expecting about a hundred and twenty." I thought I didn't have any expectations, but I guess I did, for I have to admit I was feeling a bit disappointed. How personal could a class of seventy-five be?
We arrived at the school, and the first thing I noticed was a spanking-new green-grey Hummer sitting in the driveway (for the uninitiated, a Hummer is an enormous four-wheel-drive, originally made for the US armed forces. It's a beast - a Hummer is to a Landcruiser what a Landcruiser is to a Toyota Corolla). Greg had told me about Tom's Hummer, his "one concession to the American empire of consumerism and toys for the boys." It seemed clear that he had traded the one Greg saw three years ago for a new one, but the old black one appeared in the driveway a few days later. Two Hummers?!?
Around the back of the barn, construction of Tent City was already in progress (click here). Our gear checklist had told us all to bring tents, not to mention sleeping bags, but I had neither (my sleeping bag got mailed home from London). As we got out of the van, I asked the friendliest of the guys from the bus station, an ex-military guy from L.A. called Gerald, if he wouldn't mind sharing his tent for a week. I was actually surprised when he said he'd be glad to - I doubt if I would have been so generous with my personal space. We set up the tent together, then spent the next few hours watching the others arrive and scoping out our home for the next week. Tom hadn't lied - there were indeed about seventy or eighty people all told by the end of the afternoon. Most were in the 20-40 age group (I was surprised, I thought they'd be older), and apart from a German woman, I was the only person there who wasn't American or Canadian. There were probably about twenty women in the group, and, not surprisingly, I caught myself automatically scanning for potentials. I thought about this a bit. A school on Native American survival skills and philosophy is no doubt a wonderful place to meet like-minded individuals, male and female, but I got the feeling that such extracurricular fraternisation would be mildly inappropriate in such an environment. I wasn't really interested anyway - even if I was lucky enough to meet someone special, I knew from experience how difficult and ultimately disappointing long-distance relationships usually were. I've had quite enough of those.
At seven o'clock we were all seated expectantly in the barn (our makeshift classroom for the week - click here) waiting for the orientation speech. In walked a trim, well-groomed, middle-aged man, who, without introduction or preamble, launched into a description of the week ahead. I sat there thinking, Wait a minute, who's this? Is this him? Is this Tom Brown Jr? I knew nothing of the guy, not even what he looked like. I didn't even know whether he was a Native American, or a - what? - white honky. After about ten minutes, the guy started talking about "my school" and "my team," and I deduced that I was indeed listening to The Man Himself.
And he was not what I expected (even though, again, I had no expectations). He was abrupt, arrogant and a little condescending. Well-built, with greying hair and a moustache, he looked and sounded like a military drill instructor. In fact, he even described himself as such, although I got the feeling that he was pre-empting any opinions that we may be about to form of him. He immediately launched into a well-rehearsed monologue defending himself and his school from the standard criticisms that we may or may not have been about to make: He doesn't train neo-Nazi, gun-wielding, camouflage-dressing "survivalist-types." A "survivalist," in his paradigm, is an environmentally conscious dweller-within-nature. And yes, the class size may seem excessive, but he felt he could guarantee that we would feel we were getting enough personal instruction throughout the week, "or our money back." And maybe the barn was a primitive environment for a week-long training course, but before we thought about complaining, it was much more difficult for the instructors, and besides, all the other courses after this Standard Course were held out in the woods, so we ought to enjoy the luxury of the barn while it lasted.
I just sat there thinking, Who is this guy? I tried to reserve judgement, but he was coming on pretty strong. I was there for the gentle, Native American philosophy, and he didn't immediately strike me as the philosopher-type.
That evening we learned from him that the days ahead would begin with breakfast at seven. Classes would start an hour later, with an hour-long break for lunch and dinner, and finish up every day around eleven. The course, we learned, was essentially to be an information-dump. The instructors would describe, and occasionally demonstrate, in the classroom, the many skills that we were to learn, but there would be little time for us to get hands-on practice of what we'd learned. Lunch and dinner breaks could be used, but the time to hone our new skills was essentially after we got home. There was simply "too much to get through in one short week." I could see his point, but I also knew, as a professional instructor, that many questions usually arise after one attempts a skill that has been described in an academic environment.
He told us that, of all the thirty-three courses that were taught at the Tracker School, this, the Standard Course, the prerequisite for all the others, was the only one that he didn't enjoy teaching. "In fact," he said, "I despise it." He said he hated teaching in a dry, non-hands-on way, but that was the only way to get such a large amount of information across in such a short time. I thought that it probably went a little deeper than that. It seemed to me that when he looked at the seventy-five of us, he knew full well that most of us would never have the appreciation or respect of the natural world that he did, that we were there for the raw survival skills, and could care less about the meanings and the philosophies behind them. I also suspected that he was right.
We were introduced to the seven instructors that would be helping Tom with the week's learnings. They seemed a lovely bunch of people, warm, soft and personable, in marked contrast to Our Man Tom. Again the defensive posture: We weren't to think that because some of the classes were to be taught by some of these other instructors that our education would in any way suffer. We certainly weren't to think of Tom as some kind of irreplaceable guru. These other instructors were "the best of the best," and could teach just as well as Tom himself. I suspected that the main reason that we would be having other instructors was that Tom was not particularly interested in these Standard classes. I got the impression that what he really enjoyed were the courses in Advanced Tracking, Full Survival, or the popular "Scout" classes. Nevertheless, he promised us that he would be personally instructing "50-60%" of the week's classes.
Needless to say, I went from having no expectations about the guy or the course to having unusually high expectations, not to mention some strong opinions. In his own words, he was going to make us "awesome." I didn't realise people still used that word with a straight face. But if anyone else was having misgivings or was put off by the man's manner, it wasn't discernable to me. I reminded myself that I didn't really care about the personalities of Tom or his instructors - I was there for the knowledge. I went to sleep that night (on and under blankets borrowed from the school) eagerly anticipating the forthcoming lessons.
The week started well. On our first day we learned about fire. The old cliché about making fire by rubbing two sticks together was about to become a reality. We were all taught how to create a bow drill, one of the most common and reliable methods of starting fire without matches (or flint) (click here), and then sent out to make one ourselves (click here). With experience, it seemed to me that a working bow drill set could be constructed using nothing but a knife in about an hour (apart from the cord needed for the bow). It took me at least two, and I felt a tremendous sense of achievement when my tinder bundle burst into flame on about the fourth attempt, shortly after dinner (click here). I got Fire!
There's a wonderful Far Side comic strip where a kinda dumb-looking kid puts his hand up in class and says, "Excuse me Miss, may I leave the room? My brain is full." At about ten o'clock that night, sitting in the classroom trying to assimilate the nuances of the True Track versus the Overall Track, I knew exactly how that kid felt. It seemed like Saturday would never arrive.
And it took a while. The week went by, and we learnt an amazing array of material. I have listed the topics we covered below. Topics marked with a (*) are ones in which the instructors gave us an opportunity to practice our classroom knowledge in a hands-on manner.
Philosophy and Awareness:
Thursday saw the teaching of the shelter-building skills. We learned that the most straightforward of all primitive shelters is the debris hut, essentially a one-man, body-sized cavity constructed of branches, with an unbelievable amount of debris (leaves, pine-needles, twigs, etc) thrown on top for insulation and waterproofing. Apparently, one can sleep naked in such a shelter in temperatures ranging down to -30°C and still remain warm (or at least not die of exposure). I was cautiously impressed. We all traipsed out to a small, prepared clearing in the woods near the barn, and proceeded to build one (click here, and here for the interior). It took the seventy-five of us maybe fifteen minutes. In a wilderness situation they told us it would take each of us at least a couple of hours, after lots of practice. We then learned that if anyone wanted to try out the one we just made - sleep in it for either of the two remaining nights of the course - then a lottery would be held after dinner. I decided I'd like to give it a go, and had a strange premonition that I would indeed be the one sleeping in it that night. Of the twelve people (only twelve!) who entered the lottery, I came second, entitling me to sleep in the shelter on the second and final night. But the girl who won, Kerrie, didn't feel like going first, so we swapped. My premonition had indeed panned out - I was in! (click here)
And so at midnight I went out to the hut, armed with a headtorch and a water-bottle, stripped naked, got inside and lay down on the straw floor. I used part of a hay bale for a pillow, and another part of the hay bale to block the entrance. The previous night, in the tent with Gerald, covered by a woollen blanket, I had been quite cold, so I was a little concerned about the veracity of the claims of warmth made by the instructors. Still, I felt plenty warm as I lay there in the dusty, coffin-sized chamber, and I soon fell asleep.
I awoke around four feeling chilly. Hmmm, I thought, now what do I do? I was surprised. I couldn't understand how the cold could have penetrated all that insulation. As I lay there wondering if I could sleep feeling as chilly as I did, cold air wafted across my shoulder. Now where's that coming from?!? I looked towards the door and noticed a gap of a couple of inches between the hay-bale door and the door-frame. Aha! I blocked it with my clothes, and slept comfortably for the rest of the night. The hero's welcome as I walked back into camp the next morning somehow failed to materialise.
Another highlight of the week was the meal on Friday evening. We had been essentially living on stew for the bulk of the week - and a fine stew it was too. All natural, naturally, healthy and easy to digest. But Friday was special. We had spent most of the afternoon learning about, and then subsequently gathering, the various edible wild plants that inhabited the area around the school, under the guidance of an ageless woman that I'm certain was a rabbit in a previous life. The meal that resulted that evening was like nothing I'd ever tasted. The coup de grace was the salad. I've never been a great salad eater, but the salad that was on offer that night was unique in my experience. You could almost feel it doing you good.
I don't believe that any student that week managed to join the famous "28 Club," an elite group of 28 students who, during the week of their Standard Courses, managed to stalk and touch a wild deer. Lying concealed near a deer run with an arm across the trail, waiting for the deer to pass within touching distance was also allowed. And yes, if anyone from our group did qualify, it would then become the "29 Club." Noone did.
Sometimes, during the week, I felt a bit like the odd one out, and it had nothing to do with being the only Australian. It was, of course, impossible for me to tell, but it seemed that there were very few people there who, like me, were primarily interested in the philosophical and spiritual aspects of Tom's wisdom. Maybe I just wasn't looking deep enough, but it seemed that most people were primarily interested in the survival skills, and that the philosophical meanings behind them were of little importance. I imagined that, for my fellow students, the survival training provided a means to learn a cool new set of fun and useful skills, which would, as a bonus, help protect them when society collapsed in a few years time. Having said that, I realised that my own priorities were equally lopsided. I would have been quite content if philosophy was taught all week, without any reference at all to "living within nature." But that would have been missing the point just as completely as my survivalist counterparts. The essence of Tom's spirituality was that it was precisely the living in harmony with nature that was so important. It eventually seeped into my skull that you couldn't have one without the other. Trying to comprehend Tom's spirituality without going bush would be like learning to drive from a book.
I was also a little perturbed by what appeared to be a tendency for many of the students to regard Tom Brown Jr as some kind of minor deity, or at least an eminently followable guru. For me, spirituality is a very personal experience. What works for one man may not necessarily work for the next. I was quite able to see the universality of Tom's teachings, but, me being the person that I am, not all of it is going to work for me - at least, not yet. Whatever spirituality I learned there during that week had to coexist with my existing spiritual framework, developed over the last 34 years and not to be wantonly discarded. In the spirit of Tom's and Grandfather's Coyote Teaching methodologies, I had to work it out for myself, rather than take anyone's word as gospel.
At one point in the week, Tom told us that he knew how we all felt - he knew that each of us considered ourselves to be society's black sheep, or searchers. His words certainly rang true for me, and as I looked around the room, I could see that most other people felt the same way. At that moment I felt a wonderful sense of unspoken camaraderie with my fellow students. Whatever their reasons for being here, I thought, they were here, and so was I, and that was pretty cool.
The people I developed the closest relationships with were Wendy, Mark, Gerald, Ewan, Kerrie and the irrepressible Debbie. If any of you guys are reading this, then Hi. Stay in touch, please.
There was never a dull moment during the week, but by about Thursday morning there were a couple of things that were starting to bother me. The first was that we'd not seen hide nor hair of our illustrious leader since breakfast Monday. I recalled his promise to teach 50-60% of the classes, and I felt disappointed that this promise had not been fulfilled. I was actually quite enjoying the rest of the instructors, and if I'd been told at the beginning of the week that we would never see Tom at all, and that he was really only a figurehead, I wouldn't have minded one bit. But with his own words he had created an expectation in me and then failed to live up to it, and I was annoyed. He finally resurfaced on Thursday evening, apologising curtly about "two unforeseen emergencies." I wasn't buying it. I'd been teaching courses myself for over two years, and had never missed even a single day. Emergencies there may have been, but I know from experience that if you really consider it important to present a class, then you do. Simple as that. I can understand him not being particularly interested in teaching in the Standard Course, and I'm starting to think that everyone concerned would be happier if he bowed out of the Standard Course altogether, and left it to the other, far more friendly and approachable staff instructors.
The other thing that was beginning to bother me was the lack of any classes on philosophy or spirituality. I figured that by Thursday we would have at least touched on the topics. It was in the curriculum, after all. The survival and tracking stuff was fine - eye-opening and well-presented - but they weren't high on my list of priorities. When Friday dinner rolled around, seemingly bringing with it an unofficial end to the course, I was truly disappointed. But then, to my delight, the entire Friday evening and Saturday morning sessions were dedicated to philosophy and awareness, and presented exclusively by Tom himself. On Friday evening, after listening to him present one of the most powerful and moving speeches I'd ever heard, all was forgiven. I felt I'd got my money's worth solely from that evening. Whatever the man's personal quirks, if he could talk like that, I admired and respected him - no question.
Tom Brown Jr (click here) is, by any measure of the word, a truly remarkable man. He started out as a relatively normal kid growing up in New Jersey, until the day that he met an old Apache called Stalking Wolf. Stalking Wolf, or Grandfather as Tom came to know him, was an extraordinary individual from a race of extraordinary individuals. He'd spent 60 of his 81 years roaming the earth, collecting and distilling the accumulated wisdom, natural skills and spiritual ways of all the cultures - indigenous and otherwise - of North and South America. Grandfather had, if you choose (as I do) to believe in such things, a permanent and fundamental connection to a plane of existence beyond the physical - the realm of the spirit, if you like. He saw in the young, seven-year-old Tom Brown Jr a natural gift for the land, and proceeded to school him, over the next eleven years up until Grandfather's death, in the truths and skills that he had acquired during his life. Tom learned a deep affinity and respect for the earth and her natural rhythms. He learned the sciences of tracking, stalking and survival, as well as a connection to the higher levels of existence. He witnessed events of a spiritual nature that most people would reject as preposterous, but which an open-minded individual would likely regard with wonder and even envy.
Finding little place in modern society for someone such as himself, Tom left New Jersey at eighteen and began ten years of wandering the country. Along the way he developed a great reputation, and a small amount of fame, as a tracker extraordinaire. He would be called in to find missing persons, or track criminals for the police. The results he returned were astonishing and verging on the superhuman. At the age of twenty-seven, he was given a Vision by the spirit world. He was to return to New Jersey and found a school to teach his love and respect of the natural world to as many people as wanted to learn. This was not something that he particularly wanted to do, but he realised the grim future ahead of mankind if nothing was done to alter the destructive course of modern society. His school, his books and his crusades are all part of his non-aggressive fight to save the dying Mother Earth.
Everyone in the school, everyone except me, that is, seemed to have heard of Tom's unusual abilities. On the purely physical plane, Tom could (and often did) walk naked into the mountains of Montana in the middle of winter (or Death Valley in the middle of summer, or anywhere else for that matter) and not only survive, but thrive comfortably. His feats of survival were only surpassed by his talents as a tracker. This is a fellow that could look at a gravel driveway, a heavily-travelled lawn or a leafy forest floor and identify a dozen animals that had crossed there in the previous week or two. He could tell you each animal's size, sex, activity - even its frame of mind with a simple examination of the ground. He could tell you the day, the hour and often even the minute that the animal passed.
If any of us were to claim that we'd qualified for the "28 Club," Tom would have taken that person out to the alleged area and simply examined the tracks there to verify the truth of the claim.
After we'd all learned the basics of track identification in the classroom, he took us out on Friday morning along a heavily-travelled path and pointed out several tracks that he noticed along the way. He chose "easy" ones that we would supposedly have no trouble seeing as well. He would get down on all fours and indicate a print with a pointed Popsicle stick. "Small rabbit, travelling slowly, yesterday afternoon," he would pronounce, and we would take turns getting down and examining the featureless dirt in front of us. "Ah yes," I would say, sagely stroking my chin. "Pregnant female cottontail, if I'm not mistaken," wondering if the person in front of me had moved the Popsicle stick six inches to the left for a bit of a stir.
It was uncanny. None of us had any means of determining if he was right, of course, but noone disputed any of it, not even me. If an alien spaceship landed in front of me tomorrow and a reptilian creature descended from the hatch, I would be similarly unable to discern its emotional state from its facial features. Yet I'm sure that the alien's wife, untrained in xenobiology as she undoubtedly would be, would have no trouble with exactly the same task. It's all a matter of training and experience.
In the words of Cool Hand Luke's prison boss, "You've got to get your mind right!"
I felt frustrated and a little bit foolish, bending down and staring at the invisible tracks before me. The sceptic in me wished that I could see concrete proof of the man's abilities, merely so that my brain would know that it was possible and stop trying to tell me that it wasn't. A simple demonstration would have been sufficient. Choose a student at random and get them to wander aimlessly across the back yard behind the barn. Then bring Tom out, show him the start of the track and get him to retrace the person's steps and determine the person's gender and approximate size. I have no doubt that this would have been the simplest of tasks for Tom. I'm sure that many of the instructors would even have been able to do it. And it would have made all the difference to me. Knowing something is possible, actually seeing it done, is a great boost along the road to believing that you can do it yourself. But Tom resents such demonstrations. He says they make him feel like a performing seal. Fair enough, I suppose, but it would be a great help to many of his students, I suspect.
After I'd learned a bit about Tom's history and spirituality, I tried to reassess the man. I found myself feeling a little sorry for him. I'm unsure as to the cause of his arrogant and unapproachable class persona. It certainly wasn't the persona I would have expected from someone so enlightened. It could have been a deliberate charade, designed to bring out certain reactions in the student body, or it could have been a genuine reflection of the man's situation. I can't even begin to guess at the turmoil and conflicts that he must have held within him. It was clear to me that he really didn't enjoy teaching - at least not the Standard Course. I felt that I detected a measure of resentment in him that his Vision had commanded him to do something he really didn't want to do. It seemed to me that he'd be far happier completely removed from the grubby and toxic Western society, living out in nature with his family. But, in his own words, to deny your Vision is to die.
If you find that you'd like more information about the man or his school, then I can recommend some of his books. Firstly, the story of his childhood life with Grandfather: The Tracker (by Tom Brown Jr - of course). The story of his spiritual experiences leading up to the formation of the Tracker School is chronicled in his book, The Vision. He has written many other books, including several volumes on survival skills, but I haven't read them, so I can't comment on them one way or the other. Check out his web site (http://www.trackerschool.com) for more information on either his books or his courses.
During my week at the Tracker School, when people found out that I was on an extended world trip, they would ask me where I was going next. I had to reply that I didn't know, that I was kinda wingin' it, and that "something would come up." The course ended on Saturday, and by Friday this was starting to sound a little outrageous to them. "What? You don't know what you're doing tomorrow? That's bizarre." But what else could I say? That was the way it was.
And then, at around midnight on Friday night, just when I was thinking that I'd better start making a plan or two, Mark, one of the guys I'd gotten to know quite well during the week (click here), told me that he was to be spending the following week or so driving up to New England, and did I want to join him? Isn't Life funny? Why was I even worried? When was I going to learn to have faith?
The next day, Saturday, after all goodbyes were completed, I loaded my backpack into Mark's Toyota 4Runner, sitting it in the back on top of the pile of everything he owned, and we drove off to see what society would look like after a week in the haven of the Tracker School. Sadly, it looked perfectly normal.
That afternoon we drove across four states - New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island - before finally checking into a hotel in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. Ah, to return to civilisation! Hot showers, soft beds, television, telephones, Visa Cards - what had we been thinking, mucking about with bow drills and debris huts?
The next day we drove out to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one of the prettier parts of the eastern United States that I'd seen. We camped in Mark's North Face tent in the local State Park, and spent the next afternoon on the beach (click here). It was a pleasant enough beach, but compared to the clear, turquoise waters and gorgeous white sand of White Bay and the other beaches I'd seen in the Caribbean, this was a dirty, cheerless and sorry place to be.
That evening we drove up through Boston, cleverly catching it during rush hour, across New Hampshire and into Maine (our seventh state in just over two days). We spent the night in a cheap motel in Portland before finally reaching our true destination the next day: The coast of Maine.
Maine must easily be the most beautiful part of the United States east of Montana. It reminded me a great deal of Tasmania - the same unspoilt scenery, the same quaint, rustic charm, wonderfully restored wooden houses, a resistance to urban developments, and a refreshing lack of America's ubiquitous strip-malls. Even the local industry made an attempt to squeeze itself into historical buildings, or at least build new ones that blended with the existing landscape. The coastal towns and fishing villages were straight out of a picture book.
Mark was aiming for one fishing village in particular - Camden. As soon as I saw it, I knew I could spend some time there (click here). Mark and I rented a campsite in the local State Park for a couple of nights (click here) and went to have a look at the town and its surrounds. We hiked in the park (click here), drove up to the lookout (click here), ate in the local deli - basically did the tourist thing. We would have gone out of one of the old tall-masted sailing ships for a tour around the bay (click here) if it had not been for unusual fog that blanketed the ocean the entire time we were there.
Mark and I shared more than just a name. Coincidentally, we were both 6'3", both computer and Internet experts disenchanted with the shallowness of technology, both travelling around in search of a new direction in our lives, and neither of us could go longer than a couple of days without logging on to the Net to check our email. We both even owned a Cannondale mountain bike. He was a very easy travelling companion, and intelligent and insightful enough about life to teach me more than I expected.
On the Saturday he was off on a three-week Outward Bound sailing and hiking trip starting in Rockland, fifteen miles to the south of Camden, so on Friday evening, after a night in Bangor (home of Paul Bunyan, the huge lumberjack guy with the ox and the axe - click here), we said goodbye, and I was left alone once again.
For the past couple of years I've been noticing myself paying more and more attention to stories of spiritual persons and gurus wandering off on their own for long periods of time in search of enlightenment. Interestingly, I noticed, forty days was usually the length of time they disappeared for. A notable example was Jesus, who went walkabout in the desert east of Jerusalem for forty days in the months leading up to his death. I'm not sure what's so special about that particular length of time, but who am I to argue with tradition? It seems that the silence and asceticism does far more than allow time for reflection and contemplation of one's navel. I heard that after about ten days the brain finally shuts down for lack of nourishment, and one enters a state of consciousness that is mostly a product of the soul or spirit. Fascinating stuff for me, a poor city schmuck who hasn't even learned to meditate successfully.
I discovered, during my week at Tom's school, that this spiritual searching has also been practiced by the Native Americans for hundreds of years. They called this endeavour the Vision Quest. It is revered as a means by which, if you are lucky (or perhaps merely dedicated), the spirit world may choose to communicate with you and provide you with a Vision - an unambiguous meaning and purpose for your life on this plane this time around. Apparently Tom Brown Jr found his own purpose - to teach the as many people as possible to love, respect and understand the natural world (the Earth Mother) - during a Vision Quest. Grandfather too found his in a similar fashion (to spend his life travelling the world and learning as many of the ancient truths as possible). When I got to the Tracker School, I talked to many people - surprisingly many, in fact - that had actually been on Vision Quests. Most had done mini versions of "just" four days. I learned that whether four days or forty, a Vision Quest is spent totally without food. Remembering the story of the young Australian who got lost in the Himalayas in winter and was on the verge of death from starvation when they found him after forty-two days, I wondered how anyone could wilfully starve themselves for forty days. I had no illusions that I would be capable of such a feat. And yet I was drawn to this notion of fasting and shutting down of all external stimuli. Sometime during the course, after quizzing as many people as possible about the logistics of such a quest, I resolved to do one myself, a four-day one, at the first opportunity. It was hardly a surprising decision; it seems to me that my whole round-the-world trip so far has been some sort of vision quest - a search for a direction for the next few years of my life. Good old existential angst. In modern parlance, it might be termed a mid-life crisis.
I found out a little more about the logistics of such a quest and decided that I could do one myself, without preparation assistance from a guide that is often recommended for newcomers. I decided that once Mark departed for his Outward Bound expedition and left me alone in Camden, I would walk up into the bush and see if I was up to the challenge.
To be honest, I wasn't really expecting a vision. Experience has taught me that my overactive left brain tends to drown any spiritual experiences that I might have in a treacle of heavy logic. I've spent the greater part of my life practicing the Western scientific principles of experimentation, logic, scepticism and proof (I was a computer programmer, for God's sake!), and it has always been difficult for me to accept things on faith, as seems to be required for journeys of this kind. It's not that I don't believe in such things - I want to believe, I'm prepared to believe, but I'm one of those people that needs to see something with my own eyes first, and have no other suitable explanation, before I will actually go so far as to believe something. I've been trying to train myself out of that need for the last few years, but it's a long, slow process.
I did, however, fully expect that on the quest I would learn something about myself, and maybe reflect on my life long enough to resolve some of the questions that were kicking around in my head. I figured I might even get time to learn how to meditate properly.
On Saturday, August the 28th, I left all my belongings in a guest house in Camden and walked up into the Camden Hills State Park armed with:
In particular, I ensured that I took:
Furthermore, the spot selected was supposed to be three metres (10 feet) or less in diameter and I was not to leave its confines during the entire stay. It was not to have a view. That's the way it is with Vision Quests, apparently.
Having no idea what shape I would be in after four days, I decided I would inform the park ranger of what I was doing (logistically, not spiritually), so that someone could come looking for me if I failed to reappear after my allotted time.
"Hi. I'm going up into the woods for a few days, and I thought I'd better let you know."
"Certainly," he smiled, "there's a camping spot up at Bald Mountain."
"Well, I won't be actually camping, and I want to be by myself, so I won't be staying at Bald Mountain."
He looked at me sceptically. "Well...."
"No tent, no fire," I added, assuming that would make it okay.
"I'll have to call and ask the Park Manager," he replied. "How long?"
A couple of minutes later he returned. "Sorry, he says it's not permitted."
"Not permitted?" I considered my options. I knew full well, and I suspect he did too, that he had no way of stopping me. Day hikes are allowed, and nobody checks to make sure that you come out in the evening. Even if they suspected that you were still in there, they'd never find you unless you happened to be camping across a trail. I thought a little more. No, actually, they probably wouldn't find you unless you set up a tent in the back of their truck. I thought about reminding him of that, but it seemed - well - mildly antagonistic.
"I'm only telling you so that you can come look for me if something goes wrong. If you won't let me do it here, I'll have to find somewhere else, and noone will look for me in the event of an emergency anywhere else."
This fellow wasn't stupid. He knew exactly what I was talking about, and he also knew that he had no way of stopping me if I disregarded his boss's regulation. He shrugged, and said apologetically, "I know, but it's not permitted."
"Okay, well I guess I'll find somewhere else then. Thanks."
I turned and walked right up into the park. He didn't try to stop me, knowing that he couldn't prohibit me from doing what I was doing, which was simply walking into his park. I walked up the path contemplating their ill-considered, inconsistent and vaguely dangerous park rules.
At a spot in the park that I considered suitably remote, I stepped off the trail and walked up the hill until I was well out of earshot of the trail. I found a small space between some trees and put down my pack, then stripped off and sat down unceremoniously on the dry leaves.
The spot I had chosen was not circular. It was a rectangle about four metres wide (12') by one metre (3') across. It was set on a gentle slope in the middle of a benign American wood. Baby oak trees were growing all around. There was little undergrowth. I took a sip of water and settled down, full of anticipation.
After half an hour I was bored, antsy and fidgety. It was only just starting to sink in how difficult this was going to be. After two more hours it had well and truly sunk in, and I was starting to get scared. "Four days!" I kept saying to myself. "Four fucking days!" It seemed an eternity.
Something wasn't right. I'd sat by myself doing nothing for a couple of hours many times before. In fact, whenever I did, it was a joy. To stop my life, to step out of the daily grind, to have the luxury of doing nothing for a small period of time - it was a pleasure. I thought of all the times I'd gone camping, or when I'd go bicycle touring by myself. Somehow they weren't like this. I couldn't put my finger on it, but this instance was scaring me. It wasn't the lack of food, nor was it the lack of company. I figured it out soon enough - it was the idea of having nothing to do. The idea of the Vision Quest is that you sit still and do nothing. "Fuck," I kept saying to myself, "how am I going to make it through four days of this?" My brain, that useful and efficient tool that I'd spent so many years cultivating, started skirting around the edges of panic.
"No, there's no problem," I would assure myself. "I can always walk out of here whenever I want to." And so began the great argument that continued on and off in my head for the entire time I was there. Walking out early was not really an option. How could I do that to myself? I didn't see how I could justify it. I imagined someone asking me why I walked out early. "Well, er, um, you see, I got bored." It was the best answer I would be able to come up with, and it sucked. It was pathetic, in fact.
But I could not figure out why I was reacting so negatively to the experience. I wasn't as if I was in any discomfort. Even though I was naked, I was pleasantly warm, I wasn't hungry (yet), and I had plenty of water. "It's only for four days," I reasoned. "Four days out of your entire life - surely you can spend that much time on something this important?" The reasoning went on. "It's all just a state of mind. You can look at this anyway you want. You can focus on the restrictions and limitations if you want to, and see this as some sort of ordeal to be endured, or you can choose to see this as a great freedom, a challenge, an experiment, an opportunity to learn about yourself." That sort of thinking would calm me down for a bit, but the panic would always return.
The bottom line was that I'd only been there a few hours, during the warmth of the day, and whatever happened, I had to last at least one night. To leave sooner would be the ultimate chicken-shit act of cowardice.
I thought about one of the "rules" of the Vision Quest - you are not supposed to lie down, nor are you supposed to sleep. The idea is that in the stupor of sleep-deprivation, the mind loses its grip on the world, and the world of the spirit has a greater chance of being heard. Waking dreams, foggy thoughts, hallucinations, even (hopefully) visions were possible in such a state. But staying awake for 96 hours? "Yeah right!" I thought. "That can't be possible." I thought about the longest that I'd gone without sleep in the past - 42 hours, 45 hours - something like that. I recalled the overwhelming fatigue that I had felt on those occasions. In fact the only way I'd been able to stay awake even then was through constantly having something to do. Working, partying, there was always something interesting enough to keep me away from my bed. But here, all I'd have to keep me conscious were my own idle thoughts and the silence of the woods. I knew I wouldn't make it, and somehow convinced myself that it was therefore acceptable to lie down and consciously embrace sleep, at least for the first night.
I had one thing on my side, however, when it came to staying awake. Ever since I stepped off the trail I had been plagued by insects. All throughout the day I seemed to be sitting in a miniature swarm of them. My favourites were the little fly-like beasties that loved to hover motionless just in front of my face. They seemed to be trying to decide which of my eyes would make the best nesting place for the winter. Every so often they would dart into my eye (usually my right, for some reason), and I'd spend the next few minutes picking pieces of bug out of my eye. When they lost interest in that sport, they'd get their jollies seeing how close they could come to my ears without ever actually venturing in. An intermittent buzz when you're trying to meditate is a trifle distracting, to say the least. At dusk they mercifully disappeared, only to be replaced my mosquitoes. I was well aware that I was supposed to be attempting to be One with all things, and that all life is sacred, but whoever dreamt up that philosophy wasn't sitting in a nest of mosquitoes. In my book, mosquitoes aren't sacred living entities, they're little fuckers who like nothing better than to suck my blood and make me itch the rest of the night. Frankly, it was war - me or them. Luckily, they were the most docile, stupid and slow mosquitoes I'd ever seen, and you could almost pluck them out of your skin and squish them between your fingers. I'm sure the insects were part of a conspiracy, but a good conspiracy, designed to hasten my entrance into temporary insanity and prevent me sleeping.
But I was having no part of it. At around seven, I got out the blanket and wrapped it around my body and over my head. No more cold, no more bugs! Perfect! Sometime around ten I found an old log for a pillow, folded the blanket around and underneath me, lay down, and went off to sleep.
Sleep was light and patchy that night, and, disappointingly, my dreams were mundane and unremarkable. I awoke at dawn.
The next day several things improved. The insects had all vanished, remarkably, and my panic from the previous day had somehow evaporated. I had made it through a night! I felt proud of that, standing there naked within my invisible fence. The thought that there were still three more nights to go was daunting, but a sizable fraction of my ordeal (I still considered it an ordeal) was over. I settled back to watch another day go by.
That day I saw my friend the squirrel for a second time, and the little chipmunk that lived off to my right was still making his acorn-collecting runs every half-hour or so. A woodpecker started hammering away at a nearby tree for a while, and I watched in fascination, having never seen such a thing. Unsurprisingly he looked nothing like his Hanna-Barbera namesake. A tiny mouse occasionally caught my eye as he scurried from one tiny piece of shelter to the next. I remembered Tom's claim to be able to track a mouse across a gravel driveway, and, considering the size of the tiny critter, found that increasingly difficult to believe. I was willing to bet that he could really do it, but it was a magic that would forever remain beyond my comprehension, I guessed. The only other wildlife I observed was a couple of beautiful caterpillars, a bird or two, and the odd butterfly. I made a mental connection that I'd never made before: If you were an alien from another planet and had not yet worked out how to visually distinguish the animals of earth from the insects, I could tell you a way based solely on behaviour. All animals in the wild, it seems, are wary, stealthy and naturally prone to running and hiding. Insects, on the other hand, are intrusive and insistent, and display a total disregard for their own safety. The most obvious contrasts were the chipmunk and the hover-flies. The slightest move would send the chipmunk sprinting for the nearest tree-stump, while the flies could only be dissuaded from their ear- and eye-questing by death.
And the day dragged on. When my legs would fall asleep from sitting cross-legged, I would stand up for an hour or so, rocking gently back and forth, or rotating slowly around on the spot. When my back got sore from standing so long, I would sit down again. After what seemed like a week, I looked at the position of the sun and guessed that it was about 10 o'clock. The mental fidgeting returned. My mind was restless and nervous. My brain felt it was trying to scramble up a sheer wall but couldn't find a purchase anywhere. Surely there was something I could do. The whole idea had begun to seem pointless. Twenty-four hours had gone by and I still felt exactly the same. I knew that I couldn't possibly expect any results yet, but I had already convinced myself that I wouldn't be getting any vision this time around. I was sure I wasn't doing this Vision Quest thing properly, and I couldn't see the point in going on. But the thought of quitting disgusted me. I still had experienced no discomfort, and had no good reason to stop, yet every part of me was aching to get the hell out.
I thought of all my friends and family, all the people I love, going about their daily business in various parts of the world. Living, loving, working, laughing, crying, watching TV - and here was I, sitting naked in a forest somewhere, alone and going nowhere. The pointlessness of it all made me sob, until I stifled such nauseating feelings of self-pity.
My self-discipline was pathetic, I decided. Here I was, out in the beautiful woods by myself, and my only thoughts were of returning. Why was it, I wondered, that I only seemed capable of doing things that were easy? I looked back over my life. I couldn't think of a single occasion where I persisted in doing something that I didn't want to do, if I had the choice not to. I've always found that if I don't want to do a thing, then I simply don't do it. To some people that's a strength, but to me, it's a weakness. Self-discipline is something I've never understood, let alone mastered.
But in truth, there was nothing to return to. Doing something out in society was just as pointless, it seemed to me, as doing nothing in here. A couple more hours went by.
That second day quickly developed into the longest day of my life. Sometime around noon I realised what I was going through. It was withdrawal, plain and simple. I felt like a drug addict in a rehab centre. At least, that's what I thought it would feel like. My heart went out to all the people that have ever tried to quit smoking (or any other addictive behaviour). I could finally feel what it must be like for them. That fidgety need to light up that cigarette, the yearning for the unthinking bliss of the drunken state. This was my feeling now. Once I realised that, it was a simple matter to work out what it was that I was addicted to: Doing. All my life I've been doing something - living, working, communicating, planning, organising, playing, loving, criticising, creating, doodling. Maybe not as much as some, or perhaps more than most - I have no way of knowing - but I couldn't recall a moment of ever stopping all action and all mental and sensory input. To put it simply, I'd never been a human being, but always a human doing.
This was a marvellous revelation to me. It gave me a focus for what was wrong with my experience, why I was feeling so negative and scared. It didn't actually make the feeling go away, but it helped me to understand it. I realised that even if my Vision Quest ended prematurely, I now had an insight as to a new, important ingredient to add to my life - just being. How ever much I'd been doing it in the past, it wasn't enough. This experience of withdrawal was proof of that.
I looked ahead to the next couple of days. This time tomorrow I'd be past the half-way point, and that was an encouraging thought. I resolved that I would try and stay awake the whole night that night. I figured I would probably be able to make it to dawn without too much trouble. After that, well, I'd take it as it happened. I knew that once dawn came I'd find some way to convince myself that it was okay to sleep now, but one night awake would be a good start.
At around five o'clock, as soon as the sun went below the hill, the day got instantly chilly. I realised that I was in for a cold night. I got the blanket out a couple of hours earlier than I had the previous day, and it wasn't long before I was cold even with the blanket. So I did the unthinkable, pussy that I am. I opened my backpack and put my clothes on. That made a difference, and I was warm again. At about eight o'clock, the soreness and stiffness in my back became unsustainable - standing or sitting made no difference. I decided to lie down to rest it. I wasn't sleepy, so I had no worries about drifting off to sleep. I figured that after a couple of hours resting my back I could stand up again and spend the rest of the night rotating in my little circle. Feeling a little chilly, I tucked the blanket close around me and felt at peace.
And then it began to rain.
"Oh fuck, fuck, fuckitty-fuck!" I thought, and immediately started wondering if I'd be able to find the trail back to the road in the dark. I figured that I probably couldn't, especially without a moon to see by or navigate by, and pulled the blanket closer around myself, feeling miserable and sorry for myself.
The rain continued, not particularly heavily, and I marvelled at the wonders of wool. My blanket was virtually soaked, but I was still only a little chilled, not bitterly cold as I knew I would have been had I not had the blanket. My memory filled with stories of people who had died in warmer temperatures than this, merely because they got wet. Remembering a piece of wisdom from the Tracker School - that wet cotton is one of the coldest and therefore deadliest fabrics there is - I took off my cotton shirt and put it in my backpack before it got wet. I prayed that it would not start pouring.
At maybe ten or eleven, I decided that the easiest way to endure the rain and the cold was to fall asleep. Time would pass quickly, and when the day came I could dry off and warm up.
I awoke a couple of times throughout the night to turn over, and noticed that the rain had stopped around midnight. The moon came out, and before I knew it, it was dawn. I stood up, shivering, and wondered how many hours I would have to wait until the sun warmed up the day. I hung the blanket up to dry at about nine, and stood shivering in the meagre warmth of the sun.
After a time it became apparent that that day was not going to be like the previous days. It was windy, and large clouds often blotted out the sun. When the sun showed itself, it seemed cool and pale and did little to heat either me or the forest. I was still cold at about eleven when I decided, to hell with it, packed my blanket into my pack and walked off in search of the trail.
So much for four days.
I never found my original trail, but instead found one that seemed to go more in the direction that I was headed, and within twenty minutes I was back on the main road and walking back into town. As I walked I considered my Vision Quest. First and foremost, I decided, I had failed. Undeniably, I hadn't fulfilled my original intent of spending four days alone in the woods. I'd only just made 48 hours, chased out by a little cold weather. I had not completed what I set out to do, and had, naturally enough, received no vision. However, 48 hours without food or company or movement was a first for me, and I felt a small pride in making it as far as I had. Without a doubt I had learned things about myself, and I'd even managed to learn things about the woods, the weather, and the local plants and animals.
Interestingly, I had not been hungry the whole time I was in there, and that surprised me most of all. I had drunk about four litres (one gallon) of water, again less than I expected.
I resolved that this would not be my last attempt at the Vision Quest. I admitted to myself that I really did need someone to explain to me the rituals and practices of the quester, not to mention the spiritual significance of the quest itself, and I determined that the next one I did would be guided. A guide could offer advice on how to endure the discomforts, and making a commitment to another person would also help ensure that I stuck it out for the duration.
And the first thing I did on arriving back in civilisation? I checked my email, of course.
So what's next?
Well, on September the 8th I have a flight booked down to Lima in Peru. I have some loose plan of trekking in the Andes. Maybe I'll do the Inca Trail, or Machu Picchu, or wander over into Bolivia - who knows? I'm kind of looking forward to getting back on the road again. On October the 9th, I fly back to New York for two weeks to attend the Tracker School's Philosophy I and Philosophy II workshops. After the mandatory Standard Course, these are the school's most popular courses, and they've been booked out for months. However, there are certain benefits to living on the other side of the world - the school decided to find a place for me and - wait for it - for Greg! That's right - the long-awaited return of the missing travelling companion. He's flying in especially for the course, and if we're lucky, he'll have a couple of weeks left over after the course to travel with me again before we return to Sydney together sometime in early November.
So once again this web site will truly be "Greg and Mark's World Trip."
September 6th, 1999.
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