Shamanic Vacation: Postcards

... always keep in mind that a path is only a path. If you feel that you must now follow it, you need not stay with it under any circumstances. 
- Don Juan

After a weekend of ceremonies in Ventura, we finally made it down to Long Beach to pick up the rented RV.  Three weeks of meandering our way to Denver lay before us.  The plan was to head East from LA for two days in Joshua Tree, then on to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and the Rockies.  But, plans are subject to change ...

Joshua Tree Retreat Center
Joshua Tree

I'd been wanting to spend time at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center - a mystical place in the high California Desert, east of Palm Springs.  The buildings were designed by Frank Loyd Wright and his son back in the 40's to blend with the desert environment.  Despite their age, they still provide an inspirational shelter for large and small groups of visitors to the Center.  There are several energy vortexes identified on the property, but no one I talked to was able to tell me what they are or how they are identified.  Lili claimed that she could feel one, but wouldn't explain what she felt.  It's in the middle of a desert so you have to be OK with hot sun, dust, cactus and sage brush to enjoy it fully.  The people who run the place are wonderful and we had the place pretty much to ourselves for a couple of days

Bhakti Fest
I had an idea about spending a biblical 40 days in the desert in solitude and meditation, but a voice inside me knew it wasn't meant to be.  I noticed flyers around the Joshua Tree Retreat Center advertising "Bhakti Fest OMmersion" - a spiritual festival.  We had only planned to spend a couple of days in Joshua Tree before moving onto the Grand Canyon.  But, as stated previously, plans are subject to change.  The festival came to us and we couldn't refuse.  So, four days of kirtan, yoga and chanting in a small outdoor venue stretched our stay to over a week.  Friends from LA drove out to join us.  It was really quite nice.  It would have been a mistake to miss it.

Kirtan is a style of spiritual chanting of hymns or mantras that is repeated by back-up singers and often the audience. It's a beautiful, if repetitious, musical style of prayer that originated in India.  The venue took on a bit of a rock-style flavor with the addition electric instruments and colored stage lighting, but the tone was of a much higher vibration.  It is a celebration of spirit.

One of my favorite performers was Wah!, a female performer who claims to be channeling the goddess.  She seemed to have a little more diva energy than the other performers (she's channeling the goddess, after all), but her music creates a portal to other realms.  My delight with her performance might have been influenced by Lili having brought several dried mushrooms for me to chew on just as it began.  I laid back and entered a celestial realm on the night of the full moon.

There was lots of yoga and ethnic veggie food, too.  Unlike the rock concerts of my earlier days, this event left me feeling healthy and light.  The small crowd was warm and loving.

Joshua Tree National Park

Another Year Wiser

I'd planned to spend my birthday in Havasupai Canyon - a beautiful oasis I'd visited on my raft trip through the Grand Canyon during college.  But, again, plans are subject to change.  Havasupai was still closed for the winter by the Indian tribe that runs it - temps were still below freezing at night.  Too bad ... I remember it as an amazing oasis of emerald green water falls that empty into the brown, sand-ladened Colorado River.  

So, still in Joshua Tree and filled with the spirit of the festival, we took the RV into the National Park for the night.  We woke up at 3 AM - the time of my birth (as nearly as Mom remembers), drove to a vantage point and brewed a sacramental tea.  It was cold and windy outside, so we stayed in for a short ceremony before going back to sleep.

Later, we drove to another area of the Park called Baker Dam where a small lake was created for cattle ranching use.  We brewed and drank more tea before heading out for a spontaneous hike in the wilderness.

I was seeking solitude for some deep meditation.  It wasn't easy to find.  There weren't a lot of people, but it seemed that the few who were there were blindly following us.  I found a solitary rock to sit and, within only a few minutes, someone came to sit on the rock next to me.  Then came the kids who apparently saw that this was the place to be. We decided to head out into more challenging terrain.  Off the trail, through the brush and up the side of a steep rocky ravine.  Can you believe it??  Someone followed us -- and someone followed them!  So up and over the top we continued -- very steep, very rocky -- no one was going to follow -- I was determined to find my birthday hermitage.

It was a peaceful afternoon.  Lili performed shamanic dances for me while large birds circled overhead.  I sat in meditation on a rock, watched and absorbed the desert environment.

As it got later, Lili asked me how to get back and I replied something to the effect that "it's all down hill from here".   I led us through what I thought would be a short cut - it looked like easy-going - down through a ravine.  But, half-way down, the ravine was blocked by a slide of large boulders.  I was able to scramble over them, but Lili had to navigate over, under, and between them with her short legs.  As we continued, the boulders got larger and larger and things became dangerous.  But, faced with the option of scrambling back up the ravine, we continued onward over larger and larger boulders -- and eventually to safety.

"It should be right around this hill", I assured her.    But, it was one of those very rare times when I was wrong as around the hill, there was another hill - and around that one, another hill.  In the desert, they all looked the same.  It was getting dark and the howl of coyotes in the distance - seemingly inviting us to their version of a birthday dinner - added to the intensity of the drama.   "No way ..." I sighed to myself as we rounded hill after hill.  I didn't want to admit that we were lost.  We didn't have warm clothing or flashlights.  The stage was set for us to play the role of stupid tourists lost in the desert and never found.

Lili says that at that point she asked her spirit guides to help me just as I turned to try another way.  I noticed some wheel tracks that made a U-turn on a trail going in another direction and reasoned that the wheels came from a road.   We followed the wheel tracks for a mile or two before finally reaching a parking lot.  Yet, it wasn't the lot where we'd left the RV.  There was only a single car parked there and we noticed a solitary figure hiking down another trail towards it.  It turned out to be a park ranger named Josh (as if for Joshua Tree) out hiking on his day-off.  A nice guy, though perhaps a little weary of those in the role of stupid tourists, he gave us a ride back to the RV as the sun set over the hills.

Sam's Family Spa, Palm Springs

Finally, already a week behind schedule following the festival and b-day, we headed down to the outskirts of Palm Springs to an RV resort where we enjoyed natural hot springs and full hookups for 2 days before heading East to Arizona.

The Sedona Vortex

View from Airport at Sunset
Montezuma's Castle
I have a fond memory of flying a Mooney into Sedona a few years ago en route to crossing the Grand Canyon.  The small airport sits on top of a mesa that overlooks the town.  Landing there feels a bit like what it must be like to land on an aircraft carrier.

The Sedona landscape is expansive.  The area is a dried ancient sea bed with monumental red rock pinnacles, once islands, spiraling high into the sky.

This time, the town seemed "touristy" with a fleet of pink jeeps running tourists everywhere we looked.   We were still looking for solitude.  An odd guy at a crystal shop who claimed to be a tour guide told us about a place out of town where we could park the RV.  He offered to meet us there and show us the power vortexes, places of UFO sightings and such. We found the place on our own, but wanted to be alone and didn't take him up on his offer.  The following day, Lili received a text message from him inquiring if we were interested in "swinging".  It was time to move on.

The Lost Dutchman

Superstition Mountains
Heading South through Phoenix, we made our way to the Superstition Mountains.  This is Apache territory and the site of the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine.  The mountains are very beautiful in a way  very different from the Sierra and Cascades of California, Oregon and Washington.

Natural Stone Walkway
We started out for another spontaneous hike early in the morning with just a water bottle and a few pieces of fruit to sustain us.  I didn't expect that we'd go very far.  But, the trail got more and more interesting the farther we went.  It also got steeper and steeper.  About a third of the way up, Lili gave up and said she'd wait for me to return.  I think the memory of the Joshua Tree hike was still too fresh in her mind.  I left her at an incredible natural stone walkway - it was much steeper than the picture to the right indicates.  Soon, I was scaling straight up the side of  the mountain as I clung to boulders and scrub branches.

Take a step back and say "cheese"
There were a few others on top when I finally reached it.  One fellow was legally blind.  I don't know how he did it, but it wasn't his first time up there.  He displayed amazing awareness as he walked along the edge of a shear rock cliff several hundred feet high to the chagrin of his buddies.  He even pointed me in directions where he thought I might like to go.  Others were poking around various rock formations and caves - the lure of a gold mine is irresistible.  As far as I know, the mine remains to be found.   However, the 360 degree view made the effort worthwhile.

Peyote Way

About 28 miles down a wash-boarded dirt road in Southeastern Arizona lies a 160-acre homesteaded parcel of  desert covered with sage brush and mesquite.  From the road, there's little to distinguish the property from the 100's of square miles of desert land that surrounds it other than a large sign of hand-made tiles that seems to make a statement about the legal standing of what lies beyond.  If one looks closely, it also advertises "Spirit Walks by appointment".  What lies beyond is something both unique and sublime in my experience.

Patrick and Laura, new friends from BhaktiFest, arrived ahead of us.  They were on their spirit walk as we drove in after dark.  We'd begun a 24-hour fast required for our spirit walk so no dinner that night.  We crawled straight into bed in anticipation of our own walk the following day, Easter Sunday.

We were greeted separately in the morning by Annie and Matt, who operate the Peyote Way Church of God, a "non-sectarian, multicultural, experiential Peyotist organization," and got our first look at the place.   Matt showed us around - the guest house, the pottery workshop, the greenhouses where the peyote is grown, and the 4 sites on the property where the spirit walks take place.  There were stories ... and stories and more stories -- all interesting and fun, but I've agreed to not repeat them here (I'm sure Matt will tell you if you go there).  I gained an appreciation for the medicine after seeing the care required for propagating the small cactus.  Matt explained that it takes 7 - 8 years for a plant to reach maturity and that each dose required the tops ("buttons") of 14 or 15 plants.

Lili and I selected separate sites for our walks - each is meant to be a personal experience.  Lili selected the site nearest the guest house in an open field - I chose to go up the hill further out back surrounded by mesquite-covered hills.   We all met in the kitchen around 4 PM.  By then, we'd fasted for about 25 hours and were anxious to begin.  There were papers to sign -- joining the church was a legal requirement -- and I relinquished the keys to the RV as a pledge that I wouldn't be driving off in the middle of the night.  Annie placed 2 jars of "tea" each brewed from 21 grams of dried peyote on the table - green in color with some odd-looking things floating in it.  She mentioned several times how bad it tastes and how we would have to drink it slowly or risk getting sick.  She made it sound so awful that I wondered why anyone would do this.  Why was I doing this??   We then took both jars of tea down to Lili's site where I made sure she was setup around her campfire pit before I left her to her own experience.  We agreed that I would return after moon rise -- sometime after 1:30 AM .

Son Tristan,  Rev. Anne, Lili, & Rabbi Matthew

Then I took my jar of tea to the site I'd selected.   Matt had set up the fire pits with small piles of wood - there was a single lawn chair under a canopy near the fire pit and a bottle of water.  I was ready to go, but I hesitated as Annie's description of the taste and nausea replayed in my head.  I delayed things to run to the top of a hill and gaze at the sun as it set over distant desert hills.  Then I returned to my site, lit the fire and sat in my chair contemplating my jar of tea.

Sign at Entrance to Property
I opened the jar and cautiously sniffed its contents.  It didn't smell too bad.  I tasted it.  "It's not as bad as Anne made it sound." Slowly, I sipped more and more and leaned back to enjoy the fire as darkness set in.  Finally, I was enjoying the solitude I'd been searching for.

I emphasize (again) that such journeys are done carefully and with clear intentions.  Many believe there is spirit contained in plant medicines such as peyote, which has been used for centuries by Native American cultures in religious ceremonies.  Regardless of whether the mechanism is spiritual or pharmacological, they seem to quiet the egoic rational mind to allow for openings into more subtle realms of consciousness and experience.  Similar states can be attained without medicine through various forms of meditation.  Yet, in my experience, the medicines accelerate the learning process by showing the mind where to find the openings.  

I glided gently into the subtle realm of peyote.  The senses were elevated and the mind expanded as I gazed into the fire beneath the big star-filled sky.  I struggled to not anticipate what the night might bring.  It's a vibration - a state - a refuge.  I spent time journaling on my laptop and writing a letter.  I felt family ties.  At one point I felt restless and  I walked in the dark down to check up on Lili.  An assumed guardianship created a need to make sure she was OK.  I didn't want to disturb her, so I just peaked through the brush to watch her poking at her fire with a stick before I returned to my spot.  

It was a subtle ride - peacefully traversing the void between the physical realm and higher consciousness, pressing up against the membrane from either side.  I meditated, wrote and searched for answers.  It seems that they're close.  I'm learning to navigate the void.  What are the clues that will lead me home?  What can I bring back with me?   My mind seeks to comprehend the Mystery while it bathes in the illusion.  There seems an urgency to bring the images of consciousness into the realm of space and time. 

A big moon rose in the early morning hours, but I waited some time before going down to join Lili.  I startled her when I finally joined her.  She had been sick for much of the time, but she handled it well.  She sees the spirits that I don't see - gentle, silvery beings, according to her - much like the Indian paintings.  "Look for them in the empty spaces," she advised.   We tended the fire until after sunrise.    

Lili's Spirit Walk Site

New Mexico

Very Large Array Telescope, NM

We headed South and East into New Mexico - Silver City and Sante Fe.  We were behind schedule so we weren't staying too long in any one place.  Near Socorro, I noticed a sign for the VLA (Very Large Array) Telescope and exited the freeway impulsively to investigate.  The facility was forty miles away, and at less than 10 mile to the gallon in the RV, one considers such side trips carefully.  Here Lili delighted me as she declared herself to also be a geek -- "I love this stuff," she said.  

So we continued to a high plateau (nearly 7,000 feet elevation) - a seemingly perfect site for the installation.  The array consists of 27 antennas - each about 80 feet in diameter.  They are on railroad-style tracks to allow for varying the configuration of the array with a span of up to 22 miles.  The massive array acts as a single large radio telescope for exploring deep space.

We weren't able to visit the control rooms, but we were able to get up close to an antenna and view some of the results of their work in the visitor's center.  The facility was obviously expensive to build - budgets are more restricted now than when it was built in the late 1970's.  It was impressive.  It seemed a bit of a "white elephant" though I expect good research can still be performed there.  


Elk Herd in San Isabel National Forest
Arkansas River near Salida
Campfire Ceremony at Mueller State Park
Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs

Red Rock Amphitheater near Denver
View from the Stage

Shamanic Vacation (Extended Version)

Indian Hot Springs
Three weeks sounded like a long trip when we planned it, but it was over too soon.  We had already extended the rental for a couple of more days of camping west of Colorado Springs and were by then staying for several days at Idaho Springs in the Rockies west of Denver.  Soaking in natural hot springs might have been a nice conclusion for such a journey.  The spa offered pools of natural hot water in underground caves - it doesn't get much better than that.

But, it just made us all the more reluctant to return home.  So, ... the plans changed again.  I booked another RV in LA and we flew in from Denver.  We had so many bags that we couldn't get it all on the plane in one load - so we made two - in fact, there are still bags left in a garage in Denver.
Pismo Beach

Shortly, we found ourselves back in the familiar RV lot south of LA.  We loaded up and headed up to Ojai where we stayed with friends on a large estate for several days.  We've considered moving there and wanted to get to know the area and the people.  Then up the coast to the Bay Area for a ceremony and to take care of things at home.  Then down again to Asilomar before heading East to Lake Isabella in the southern most region of the Sierra and on into Death Valley.   

Lake Isabella
Death Valley

I'd been thinking about spending a biblical 40 days alone in the desert.  There was probably a rite of passage component to the idea around a desire to dig deeper.  So, as we entered Death Valley, I imagined what it would be like to do it there.  But, on the barren soil, in the heat, wind and dust, the image seemed a lot less romantic.  I was already struggling to think of what we might do there.  I'd seen Scotty's Castle and the signs that tell us we're below sea level years ago and Lili wasn't interested.  We powered through the Park in not much more than 40 minutes.

$5.69 /gal at Stove Pipe Wells! 
Now, as I write this, the 40-days-in-the-desert thing seems again like a good idea.  Perhaps, you'll read about it here someday - it should be good stuff as I chronicle each of the 40 days. :-)

Leaving Las Vegas

I used to go to Las Vegas a couple times a year for the big tech conferences.  I'd enjoy the free bourbon and craps all night long while I rationalized that I was working.  I wasn't a big player, but fish come in all sizes.  I had my platinum player cards and credit lines at a few of the casinos.  Show a little leg and they'll let you think you're a very important guy - comp'd meals, comp'd show tickets, comp'd or cheap rooms and, of course, lot's of  free bourbon.  If you play their game, they will play yours.  I enjoyed it, gamed it and never got too hurt.

I was looking forward to returning.  On this trip, however, the energy seemed dark and archaic.  We saw a great avant garde circus act at Caesar's, but I found no fun wandering through the grand facades amongst the seemingly unconscious, mostly inebriated, swarms of people.  It felt like a destination amusement park, manifested on the dark side of human consciousness, pandering to tarnished and uninspired illusions of value.  Did LV change?  Oh no, it must be me!

Again, it's just a perspective.  It's a little hard to write about it without seeming judgmental or obvious.  It's an interesting study of the recessed regions of the human psyche.  The artificial environment illuminates the darker facets of human nature that are mostly hidden within the mainstream bounds of Western culture.  It provides a place for otherwise healthy people to go to blow off steam or for those needing a cheap dose of grandeur.  It enforces few restrictions and offers lots of opportunities to indulge the shadow of human nature within the context of gaming and tired hedonism.  So, while it serves the purpose of allowing people to stretch their boundaries, IMHO, what goes in Vegas, stays in Vegas should be our mantra as well as theirs.


In all, it was about 6 weeks of doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do.  Plans changed frequently and it felt great to have the degrees of freedom that allowed us to flow with the changing landscape.  Now ...

I just can't wait to get on the road again!

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