My Vision Fast

Almost an exact year has passed from the conclusion of my Vision Fast training done in Big Pine, California, with the School of Lost Borders.

And it’s time to tell the story.

Ok but first, what is a “Vision Fast”? Most commonly known as Vision Quest, so help yourselves to wikipedia it’s a rite of passage originary of Native American cultures, which consists in spending time in isolation and communion with the nature, wondering over a question, looking for answers, or to celebrate a transition in life.

When anthropologists learned about such traditions, they called them “Quests”. The term is associated – a touch romantically – to the European Age of Chivalry, and it’s a little controversial whether it should be used in relation to American traditions. Anyway, our guides preferred to say “Vision Fast”, and so do I.

It’s a process normally considered closed after a full year (a complete cycle), so now that the moment is approaching, I felt I wanted to wrap it up. This post will be a diary of my thoughts and my experience of those unique days in the desert, and a homage to the amazing guides (Ruth, Larry: I bow to you) and the people who shared the adventure with me.

So! My trip started with a short visit to Los Angeles, a few of its most iconic places,

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and some local attractions

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Santa Monica’s Pier, in the distance

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a few of which were not without their very specific dangers, anyway.

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We also went for a quick visit to Las Vegas, and that is a journey that cannot be described in just a couple of lines.

A place of strong paradoxes, and yet it was a really good introduction to the spiritual journey I was about to take. As it would turn out, one of the main teachings from the experience would be how to combine the opposites in my life, and so it was only fitting to start off from such a rough, larger-than-life place.

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What happens to Vegas, stays in Vegas… thanks goodness. You really get to see some weird stuff there.

I tried the thrill of losing at playing Black Jack at the Bellagio, and then losing some more also at the MGM Grand.

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A few hundred dollars lighter Still a bit shaken by the one-night Vegas experience, we headed back to California via the legendary Route 66.

I have to say that the whole region is really monumental. There are simply so many cultural and natural landmarks, that in a few days we could barely scratch the surface. We managed a super fast visit to the Joshua Tree national park

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Yes! From which, the epic album from the U2. When the U2 were still an epic band.

where we got to learn that the Tarantulas were, ehr, in full mating season and so it was particularly easy to meet them. This piece of information would come useful later in my journey. All they need is love.

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We were at the end of our little tour, and the time of the training was approaching. We met the rest of our group, and made it all the way up to Big Pine, California. The place to my naive European eyes was as “Wild West” as it gets:

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I mean cowboy hats, saloons, drugstores and all. Still, I didn’t have much time to be a tourist, as the training had started, and it was intense. We were camping in a very beautiful natural area which was astounding, really.

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And well, wild nature already presented challenges of different kinds. The local shops offered a variety of tools to survive the wilderness – some of them a bit worrying, in truth.

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I felt much better knowing that it was grizzly approved.

California proudly displays a bear on its flag, but we didn’t meet any. Raccoons, yes. They met us, actually. Repeatedly. Our bags were regularly inspected and all of our food was taken again and again, if we were not careful enough to pack it (and lock it up) each night. With their little expert hands, these nice buddies were able to unzip bags and tents and open packages, without (almost, with the exception of one tent) damaging anything. That was something. Well… help yourselves, little friends! After all, we were guests at your place.
(Still — way more sensible than the US customs, anyway – who opened my backpack and lost my sleeping bag, on the way back. Thanks you too, guys, for teaching me non-attachment).

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Nature left its stamp on me. Literally.

We worked on our intentions and refining our personal questions. Why did we want to go and face the Desert for our ceremony? What was the question we wanted to ask?

Part of the preparation consisted also in deepening our understanding of natural Rites of Passage and the tradition of the Four Shields of the Human Nature. It was during one of my solitary walks that I met a messenger, flying very high, who called me out loud. He wanted me to reach him to the far side of the hill, into his wild place.  “Not today“, was my answer (I was just too lazy focused on my questions), but I knew the moment was about to come.

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And then, when the preparation was complete, off we went.

We headed into the Eureka Valley, a north-west extension of the Death Valley. It’s one of the most inhospitable places in the world. And, it is a desert. For me it was the first time in such an extreme environment. I mean, I knew “desert” was to be, like, deserted and empty. And flat. But to know is one thing. To actually be there, is entirely something else.

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I mean, boy, the place was vast. And empty. And desolate.

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It was – desert. There was simply nobody to be seen for miles and miles away. We were not in Kansas anymore.

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In the desert, no one can hear you scream.

And it wasn’t only sand and bushes. There were also rocks. Razor-sharp rocks, shaped by centuries of merciless winds. To lean or sit on them to have some rest was a challenge. Slipping or falling on them could mean real trouble. Such rocks and sand would eat alive your gear, shoes, tarp, anything. One needed to be careful about the stuff that was necessary for our very comfort (“survival” still feels a bit of an overstatement: we were never really in life danger).

All this was just another reminder that Nature must be understood and respected. Very different from the idyllic landscapes associated with our spoiled idea of “nature” sometimes (green slopes, puffy sheep and unicorns gentle waters flowing by). Out there, nature can kill you. And given a chance, it will.

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Lovely rocks! I will just lay under here to take a nap in the shade… No, nope. It hurts like hell.

Anyway, we set up base camp. It was important to know that our guides (and life, and moral support) were in the area. We were going out to test our individual limits, and to be in the sole company of ourselves, but a layer of safety was to be kept at all times. Then, each of us scattered around to find the place that we would be calling “home” for the following four days and nights. There were 11 participants to the course. Plus the 3 members of the team, that made 14 people. There was literally nobody else in the area, besides us. That is a feeling previously unknown to me. We were out there, alone.

One last night spent at the camp with the rest of the group, and off we went. Four days and four nights alone, in the desert. That was my call.

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This is a picture of my place. Cozy, eh? I chose it on purpose. It was southwards – since I come from the south. And it was a bit shielded from the wind (great plus), but had NO repair from the sunlight (great minus). Feel free to come for some “sun tea”.

Great. Ready, go.

Getting my stuff organised was a very important part of the experience. Metaphorically – but not only. In fact, sorting out my everyday business was a very good exercise for discipline and spirit. I had to put my attention every day to fundamental matters, like: not getting horribly wounded or killed by fall or accident (check); not getting sunburn or a heat stroke during the days with 35° C and NOT A DAMN SHADE in several miles radius (check); not suffering from hypothermia in the night, and freeze myself to death (3-4° C, plus strong winds) (check); not getting dehydrated and hallucinate fatally (check); and finally not getting stung, biten, poisoned or eaten alive by plants or wildlife (well, almost check). All in all it was a great practice to prioritise issues and to take care – even, to love – myself.

I was able to refine attention, focus and discipline, and after the most urgent matters were solved, I could aim these qualities at all other sorts of issues in my life. I wrote some 20, 30 pages of very clear notes and reflections about life, the universe and everything.  I was really lucid and inspired. And of course, the answer is still 42.

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My day and night resting place. The sand was soft, and all I had to do was to pretend… well, that I was on a beach. Except, there was no water. Like, at all.

I also have to admit: I cheated (a little). The invitation was to go to the Desert with 1) no shelter, 2) no company and 3) no distractions.

At the same time, each of us was invited to design our own personal ceremony in any way that seemed the best for us. And for me, the best way involved having a book to read (you can spot it in the picture above). Hey, how to cheat – or when to affirm self determination – is also an important learning process. I took “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman to have with me. Not only it’s a great story, it was also very fitting to the time and place. I had a bit of a routine: I would do a bit of reading, then reflect, maybe sleep a while, go for a little walk, write a few notes… then again. From dawn till dusk. Also, it’s not like there was much else to do, since I was right in the middle of, you know, a solitary desert.

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And this was my altar, where I stored a few precious things and had my ceremonies. Plus, the red bandana was easy to spot from a distance. Very useful since I got lost ALL THE TIME.

That was exactly the point. Once the bad news were taken care of, I could fully concentrate on the good news. I could dedicate four full days to myself (how often does it happen?), and that’s a lot of time. I was in perfect health, good physical shape, and great my usual mental conditions. I was free – and I mean, really free. I could walk, pray, reflect, meditate, talk, sing, exercise, sleep when I wanted, read, write, explore the surroundings, enjoy the connection with nature and get lost, sometimes really lost, in its beauty.

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Each sunset looked like this. And it was free of charge.
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This one is courtesy of Nicole :) Fire in the sky!

Each sunset and sunrise was just an incredible, awesome spectacle, and it was just all over me. As was the incredibly clear night sky. Every day, and every night. And all I had to do to enjoy it, was to look up.

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Sunrise was probably even more spectacular.

Going for walks was of course one of the most popular hobbies around. I walked for miles, especially the first days.

The problem was, all I could see was – well, more desert. In every direction. I could walk for two hours and not notice the slightest change in the landscape. It was also very easy to get lost (as I soon discovered). When you get lost in the desert, the procedure is simple: 1) panic, 2) stop panicking, 3) try to find the way back, 4) repeat until necessary. That’s why it’s always a good idea to pack a full water bottle, even before going for a short walk. Water helped to feel safe.

When (almost a year later) I read “The Martian” by Andy Weir, it’s strange to say but I could really relate to the story of the protagonist. It did feel like being on another (hostile) planet. And I did everything I wanted, just because I could.

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My own version of “Life on Mars” was set in a landscape like this. In your face, Neil Armstrong!

During my walks, I could occasionally encounter other traces of human presence. The place was used for ceremonies, maybe once a year. I don’t think many other people would choose it as a camping site, but who knows?

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This was probably somebody else’s safety circle?

And such findings gave me opportunity to reflect on time, legacy, nature, civilisation and history… and everything that flowed naturally from it. After a while the place didn’t feel “dead” anymore. It was part of nature. Millions of years before, it was the bottom of an ocean. And what if it was just waiting for life to come back?

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Another of my strange findings in the area. The place was also full of fossils, from when it was the bottom of the sea.

Oh, and wildlife? In case someone is wondering, I didn’t meet any. Well, apart from some land squirrels, lizards, insects and the occasional birds (ah, on the last day two crows came to me, surely sent on by Odin!), no superior life form came out to meet me.

I was prepared to bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, giant scorpions… nothing. Coyotes were there (and I know because… well, they were coming every night to “check” my natural toilet, where I was finding their traces in the morning) but no particular encounter was registered. Except this:

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Heeeeello there! My friendly neighborhood Spider-Mate! Guys, it was BIGGER THAN MY OPEN HAND.

Yes, a big tarantula that was probably looking for its relevant other (after all, it was mating season for them, remember?) and came for two consecutive days to visit me at my place. I have to say, it was a nice distraction, and an important encounter that gave a lot of meaning to my experience. I took my time to get more familiar with that messenger, as soon as I was able to quickly overcome the initial feeling of fear (and uh, disgust, I guess?). I am pretty sure he / she / it was having similar feelings towards me.

Why a spider? Why not some more awesome, cool animal? But then I realised. Spiders are elegant and graceful. They lay their plans very carefully, and then wait. They are the networkers by definition. (Plus, Spider Man is amazing, right? Except the last movies).

So, I knew that was the meaning of the visit. A spider was sent to become my guiding animal spirit, in the next part of my life.

Anyway, my hairy friend came to visit me for two days in a row, and then nothing. Gone. Yes, it kept me a bit worried (will it come during the night? What if it slips into my sleeping bag? Is it poisonous? How much?) but soon that feeling dissolved, too. Letting worries go and trusting myself completely to the nature around me was an important part of my experience. I managed to do it, and it worked quite fine.

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Day 1, beginning.

Even if I was in fact completely alone, vanity didn’t completely leave me, anyway. I made sure to keep a selfie diary of myself day-by-day and well, after one year, the result is quite… interesting.

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Day 2, going for a walk. Notice the burned skin sexy suntan.

I loved bandanas. Not only they help to give that unique very stylish Desert Renegade look, they are also very useful to limit the water you disperse by breathing, and if you don’t want to eat dust all the time.

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Day 3. Nobody is there to judge me, so I just as well dress up as I want. Hat from Serengeti, bandana made in USA, and off I go.

Also, my night and day outfits couldn’t be more different: the temperature ranged from + 32/35 ° C during the day, to the freezing + 2/5 ° C at night, with cold winds. During the hot days I was in fact sunbathing all the time. I thought “well, I just as well enjoy it, right”?

But a good bit of preparation was due before nightfall, or I would chatter my teeth at night.

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Day 4, at the sunrise. Yes, nights were cold.

Four days of fasting. Did I mention that fasting (as in, not eating at all) was an integral part of the experience? I thought it was obvious from the title, anyway. Well, it was not that hard, after all. I had already done it for 24 or 36 hours, so I knew my reactions and I knew that for the most part, the challenge is mental and spiritual, not so much physical.

The first day went about really fast. (Ahah, I was fasting fast! Did you get the joke?)

The hard part was after the second day. But then I realised, how much time do I spend each day, just around food? Buying, preparing, eating, and… well, getting rid of it. All those problems, boom, gone. Lots of extra time for me.

Sure, I was hungry, but I wasn’t starving.  I had to stop myself from thinking about food, and that was the most challenging. I didn’t even feel particularly weak. There are hidden resources that unlock only after a prolonged period of fasting, probably after 48 hours. It was very interesting to experience that as a part of my descent into my own self. Water was available, but not abundant: it had to be transported, stored, etc. Not easy. In the desert, it’s the most precious resource, and you learn to appreciate it really fast.

I had a gallon canister, and that’s about 3,8 litres, per day: not really much for a hot + dry + windy weather. I decided to ration it and I became very conscious of each drop spilled (for example, to brush my teeth. In many cases I was really grateful for the invention of wet wipes). Nevertheless, I gave offerings to the bushes and plants that made my place a bit nicer. I felt it was the least I could do.

So, starvation was not so much of a problem, but dehydration was. Towards the end I was having very strong cramps due to the lack of minerals, and even simple physical actions like stepping over rocks or standing up were becoming harder and harder. Lesson learnt: next time, probably I will bring some electrolyte packs. I have been told it’s not considered cheating.

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Day 4, towards the end. Please feel my real desert badass look.

And then it was over! Four days came and went, and though I cannot say that it was “easy”, I made it safely and nicely to the other side!

Walking back from my spot, with all the camp gear and equipment on my shoulders and with strong cramps after four days of fasting, was really hard. I remember I was feeling exhausted and I moved foot after foot out of pure strenght of will. But to make it back to base camp, and to let go a wild, liberatory scream, was literally like being born again. 

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A lovely photo with part of our group there. I love you all, guys!

Going back to camp and to “civilised life”… wasn’t easy either. I would lie if I said that I wasn’t happy to find again some of the comforts (like, unlimited toilet paper, soap and FOOD obviously). I had tears in my eyes when I tasted my first post-desert burger. But the experience out there was really powerful and marked a deep change in me. And I would do it again (actually, I know that I will).

What did I learn? It’s too much to describe – and some of it, too personal. For now I will just say that I made a few important discoveries on my past and present, I met my ancestors, had a lovely talk with my grandma (who died about a year before), and spent time with so many friends and family who came to visit me during the solitude of the fast. I made ceremonies every day, and a few promises to myself (some of which, I am even keeping). I explored my addictions and my limits, and decided which parts of me I want to change, and which I don’t – all with a sense of deep love and acceptance. I had a few talks about it (with myself), and decided that my very prolonged adolescence was finally over. And I proposed to the girl I loved who – almost exactly one year later – has become my wife. And here it’s only fair to dedicate a few words to the amazing woman that shared that adventure (and will share so many more!) with me. Thanks Bara, I love you!

It all happened in such a glorious and graceful way – should I say “natural”? – that I was really happy to celebrate the hell out of it!

And then, the end. We shared our stories with the rest of the group. We cried, laughed, shared hugs as we allowed each other to be seen and heard entirely. And then, when the time was over, we were ready to pack again, and leave. There is no lingering at the thresholds, as I know. So we all parted ways. Immensely richer, and stronger, from what happened and we had all witnessed.

Wow.

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Big Pine, California. October 2014. I was there, and back.
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