An Elder Vision Quest

Editor's note: Helen Kolff has taught high school sociology, been a family planning educator with Planned Parenthood, helped organize the Beyond War peace movement in Seattle, planned conferences, written a book on wildflowers of the Peruvian Andes, organized Northwest Earth Institute courses, and taught Nonviolent Communication. Currently, she is an active member of her Unitarian Fellowship and the Port Townsend EcoVillage. Serving as a guide for adult wilderness quests with Rite of Passage Journeys, hiking in the wilderness with her husband and friends, watercolor painting, and being a grandmother are a few of her passions in life.

Ritual is a way of shifting the energy of an archetype. — A Wilderness Guide

That is exactly what happened for me when I experienced a wilderness vision quest for adults run by Rite of Passage Journeys in September 2008. I had heard about this opportunity from a good friend who was planning to go. The idea of going on a wilderness vision quest had attracted me for decades, ever since I encountered a group doing a guided vision quest in a remote canyon in Southern Utah and read parts of Bill Plotkin's book, Soulcraft.

A scenes from the cold night of
Ellen's initiation ceremony

I spent the week before the quest in intensive preparation by tying prayer bundles, going on a long solo walk, writing my intention statement, and gathering the many needed supplies.

There were 9 participants — 4 men and 5 women — ranging in age from 25 to 60. I was surprised that I was the oldest person there. The three experienced guides led us through various community-building exercises — assignments to deepen our experience including poetry, rituals such as mask making, and an “ecumenical” sweat lodge. I am an experienced back-packer and had gone on several solo trips. What was different about this experience was that it happened in the context of community and was greatly enriched by the ritual space created by the guides. We spent three days preparing for our solo time, three days fasting alone in a wilderness spot, and three days integrating our experience into our lives. I found the whole quest to be physically challenging and deeply meaningful in a way that is hard to put into words.

I had wanted to go on the quest because I had just turned 60, had finished up a major volunteer commitment, and was searching for a way to give back in an authentic and exciting way. I was looking for direction that the quest might give me. During a solo nature walk, we were asked to formulate and memorize an “I am” statement — our ideal vision of ourselves. Here was my statement: “I am a woman of wisdom who has learned to listen to the stillness and to share her gratitude.”

I kept a journal throughout the nine days of the quest. Here are some (slightly revised) excerpts:

I spent the whole morning searching for my solo siteÖ I found a site that is right on a tiny stream that flows through Devilís Club. It is very shady but there are ancient trees, a nearby deer trail, a nurse log, a view, and itís just the right distance away — about a 30-minute walk from base campÖ I spent a long time finding the center of my site, establishing the four directions by compass and forming a circle around me by tying all 6 strings of 25 prayer ties around me. Itís a bigger area than I imagined. I spent hours putting up my tarp and getting it taut and as perfect as I could. It was trickier than I expected.

ÖI survived the night. It was cold and dark and a bit scary. I thought I heard an animal walking up the creek, but my headlamp is so weak I couldnít see very far. I donít think there really was an animal. I think it was my fear and imagination that created it. ÖA chickaree Douglas squirrel just scampered across the altar Iíve set up and test-nibbled the white pumice stone in the north and the green medicine bundle on the center pole symbolizing the earth. He didnít eat anything and ran off in about 5 seconds. What does this mean? Does this mean I need to pay special attention to the north, the place of elderhood, cold, winter, and death? Do I need to accept my role as an elder, a mentor, and a woman of wisdom? What am I called to teach and to whom? Rite of passage journeys for adults? That sounds very exciting!Ö A deer just walked by going from south to north and didnít even notice that I was here. What does that mean?

Where am I on Joseph Campbellís diagram of the Heroís Journey? I am between north and east. Why do I resist being an elder? I donít feel old. I doubt whether I have anything to teach. I donít want to die. Iím grateful that I still feel so strong and healthy at age 60. Oneís health can suddenly disappear or decline overnight as it just has for two of my peers. There are many ways to teach other than giving lectures to reluctant or resistant listeners. There is the asking of questions and deep listening. There is teaching by example, rather than with words. The learners need to want to be learning, be open and eager and receptive to what is being taught.

ÖYesterday, one of the guides was describing the interview between Bill Plotkin and Thomas Berry. Plotkin’s first question was “What is the difference between being an elder and being an older person?” That is an excellent question. To me, an elder is wise. Wisdom means listening when itís time to listen and speaking your truth with authority when itís time to speak and knowing the difference. It means remaining open to new perspectives, giving back to society, accepting what is, accepting aging and death, and loving oneself and the earth.

ÖWe spent the whole day on Saturday telling the stories of our quests. ÖI described the time in my site; my fears and weakness and nausea; my companions, the plants and animals; how cold and shady it was, etc. ÖI declared that I believe it is time for me to step into being an elder, a mentor, a wise woman. Part of me resists that — this culture and my nuclear family worships youth and physical fitness. I also declared that I wanted to become a wilderness guide. (Even though it seemed a bit presumptuous, it also seemed exciting.) I also described my ecstasy in seeing the sun rise. I was yelling to convey my joy and gratitude. At times I was in tears; at times I was laughing and shouting.

ÖAfter dinner, as the nearly full moon was rising, we assembled for our final campfire with our prayer ties and wearing special ceremonial clothing. I wore my late son Adamís tie-dyed T-shirt over my pile top. “Dame Nature” (one of the guides dressed up in green with branches coming out of her head) went around and tapped each one in turn with a mushroom in a silly way to nominate us as a Shambhala Warrior — those legendary fearless and gentle warriors whose goal is to create an enlightened society of wise and compassionate human beings. The whole ceremony was done in an irreverent but reverent way, making jokes and being serious simultaneously.

I was the last to be nominated and accepted as a Shambhala Warrior. I was then also asked to sit in a special chair, was wrapped in a ceremonial blanket, and told (to my amazement) that I was being celebrated as an elder, becoming part of the group of elders. One of the guides asked each of my fellow questers to come up, get down on one knee, hold my hand and the special polished white heart-shaped stone, and tell me what they appreciated about me as an elder. It was a very moving and powerful ceremony. I was then presented with the special white stone to keep as a symbol of my rite of passage. I felt in awe of the whole process, very honored, very special. I became an elder in that ceremony! ...I realized that I had wanted to become an elder, and I had openly stated that was my intention. My fellow questers and guides had affirmed me as an elder and witnessed the special ceremony of my initiation. So now I was an elder. There is no going back. There is no changing my mind. I am now an elder, a woman of wisdom. I celebrate my new role, my newly claimed self! I know this is just the beginning of learning what it means to be an elder, to fully claim that place. I am full of gratitude. I have found my path.

Since my quest experience, I have taken the year-long “Art of Ritual Leadership” course with Rite of Passage Journeys, apprenticed and served with that organization as a wilderness guide for three Adult Wilderness Quest groups, served as a mentor for the Coming of Age program for youth at my Unitarian Fellowship, and been a member of a Council of Elders for an individual through his own rite of passage into adulthood. I am appreciating more and more a statement made by one of our guides during my wilderness quest: “A ritual helps incorporate what youíve learned into your bones.”