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American Forests Magazine

October, 1983

By: Bill Rooney,

Inward Bound: Profile Of The Wilderness Vision Quest

It all came together a top Spy Rock, a bald knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. The 14 of us sat in a circle in that idyllic spot, where the view at any angle is of tier upon tier of bluish-green ridges marching off to the limit of one's vision. Surpassing it all, though, was the panorama of the human spirit that radiated on the rock that June morning.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some months earlier, Michael H. Brown, a human resources consultant and "transpersonal therapist," came to my office to talk about his various programs, especially something he calls Wilderness Vision Quest--a camping/backpacking experience whose purpose is "the awakening of a deep inner life through an intimate encounter with nature."

I asked him what he meant by a "deep inner life." Michael told me that his branch of psychology explores the positive aspects and qualities of human nature and deals with the development of people's "inner guidance systems": functions such as intuition, imagination, inspiration, and insight. On a Wilderness Vision Quest--removed from daily worries and pressures--participants are gently and carefully guided in processes that help them release stress and tension, clarify values, and get in touch with the meaning and purpose of their lives.

"Why do this in the wilderness?" I asked, aware of the proliferation of personal growth and professional training programs across the country, but also aware of an almost inherent prejudice against structured experiences among many wilderness enthusiasts. Michael replied that the Vision Quest concept had its origins in Native American traditions in which a person would go alone into a wild and remote place for days, often fasting from both food and water, to seek in the natural world a vision of transformation, a guiding spirit or "ally," or to develop a personal totem (symbolic object of power). Such rituals served as important rites of passage among native people, helping them to make the transition from one state in life to another. WVQers also challenge their own limits in one way or another, resulting in deeper self-knowledge and the development of latent human potential.

I listened dutifully, but my mind raced with doubts, judgments, preconceptions. I circulated Brown's printed material in AFA's offices, thinking the ideas might have some application for our Trail Riders of the Wilderness program. Then I forgot about the matter in the press of printshop deadlines for this magazine.

But Michael is a persistent man. He showed up in my office again, this time in the company of Al Sample, Peter Coppelman, and Susan Alexander of the Wilderness Society, and put on a slide presentation. I was mildly interested, but also mildly skeptical.

Then a friend, Dr. John Hendee, Assistant Director of the U.S. Forest Service's Southeastern Forest Experiment Station at Asheville, NC, and senior coauthor of the book Wilderness Management, called to say that Brown had visited there, and that it might be interesting and educational for us to take part in an abbreviated three-day version of this program and check it out. I was learning just how dauntless Mr. Brown really is.

Hendee had interviewed Brown for two days, read dozens of evaluations of the WVQ, and received material from other entrepreneurs offering vision-quest programs around the country. Each is different, John told me, but all of them combine the inspiring wilderness qualities of naturalness and solitude with group and personal exercises to promote self-awareness and connectedness to the natural world.

And so it came to pass that an ad hoc study group was formed by the Wilderness Society for the purpose of evaluating the educational technologies and recreational values of the Wilderness Vision Quest.

"Wilderness," said Al Sample's letter to me, "is being used increasingly as a medium for a range of human development programs, from those designed to develop renewed self-confidence and esteem through wilderness living and physical challenge (for example, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School) to those designed to promote spiritual and emotional growth through values clarification and a deeper focus on the inner self (e.g., Wilderness Vision Quest).

"The ad hoc committee will look at the latter programs as one use of wilderness. It will examine the need such programs have for a wilderness environment and evaluate them as a way of extracting intensified recreational benefits from the wilderness environment."

Our band, I learned, would include representatives from the National Wildlife Federation, U.S. Forest Service, Smithsonian Institute, National Audubon Society, American Rivers Conservation Council, and the forestry departments of both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and West Virginia University, in addition to the Wilderness Society and AFA. That news certainly lent prestige and authenticity to our efforts, but I wondered nonetheless into what sort of vortex I was being drawn.

On the evening of June 22, 1982, we gathered at a campground near Crabtree Falls, just off the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge. We brought with us our job backgrounds, a universal predisposition toward wilderness and its many uses, and also some other similarities that this group of strangers would discover as Michael Brown began to weave his spell.

He'll need some magic to make us forget our stomachs, I thought to myself the next morning as I stuffed the little bag of "provisions" into my backpack. We'd been instructed to bring no more than three pounds of food that required no preparation--we would not be cooking. I doubted I'd be satisfied with nuts, raisins, cheese, and pepperoni for the next three days.

My misgivings were not alleviated when we began our first morning with a dose of hatha yoga, which I'd always associated with some dimly perceived eastern mystical rite. I was to learn, however, that it is a superb way of physical conditioning that involves both exercise and breathing techniques. It was to help our mindset for the next three days--fostering an attitude of stretching, reaching, seeking.

The physical stretching continued as we spent most of that day climbing a mountain with 35 to 40 pound backpacks. The trail paralleled superb Crabtree Falls, which plummets a total of 1500 feet in a series of whitewater cascades. We were instructed to take our time, stopping often to really tune in on the surroundings--which was pure pleasure in that place of singing water, sun-dappled glens, and stately trees. In the process, the trappings of the workday world began to fall away, permitting the beginnings what Michael had called a "re-calling of our own deep humanity, a search for self."

Well, my "self" was getting hungry. Our leader explained that evening that we were in a "foraging mode"--rather than eating three squares a day, as society demands, we would eat whenever we got hungry, whatever we chose from our meager rations, and wash it down with water we ourselves carried. I liked the idea, and was to find to my utter amazement that in the next two days I didn't even think about food until noon or so, and felt largely satisfied with "gorp al fresco" and well nourished by it.

The following morning, we hiked into an open mountain meadow and went through some mental exercises designed to put us truly in touch with our natural surroundings. Even now, as I type these words a month later, I can almost physically feel the breeze condensing the sweat on my body, hear the actual notes of the birdsong and the insect hum, and see the outline against the blue sky of trees on a distant ridge. In a foot-square patch of field six inches below my nose, I got first-hand familiar with a wild strawberry (which I ate, along with dozens of others--Michael sure knows how to pick his mountain meadows!), a dozen ants, and a wealth of vegetative minutiae.

And in that same meadow, the group had the privilege of watching and listening as one of us took a giant step on the personal journey inward. As personal feelings and frustrations were expressed, accepted, and interpreted in a major step toward their resolution, the journeyer drew the rest of us gently along with him.

Then it was onward and upward, our packs occasionally sideswiping trees as we worked our way along a dim path, heading for a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As the hikers strung out and conversation dwindled, something special happened. We'd paused for a "blow" when, not six feet from me, a wild turkey burst from the brush and roared off, her wing beats like the thuds of helicopter's rotor in that wooded spot. VPI's Joe Roggenbuck went to investigate, and found a nest with its clutch of eight mottled eggs. Careful not to disturb the place, we moved on, enriched by the event and suspecting that somehow it was part of the plan that was drawing the 14 of us together little by little.

At a skull session that evening, however, there was some dissention as doubts were expressed and some of Michael's techniques were questioned. We were a diverse group of people with well-formed opinions and strong personalities, and we were, after all, charged with evaluating the WVQ.

It became clear that the outcome of this program, like any process of self-discovery, is dependent on several important factors: participants' willingness to experience and explore themselves in new and unique ways; the degree of honesty and integration of the leader himself; his rapport with each group member; and the kind of processes employed.

There were some stops along the journey that I myself could not relate to. But that is as it should be. One of the Wilderness Vision Quest's strongest points is that its results are as unique as each individual is unique. It's not a mass turn-on; rather it is a symphony in which each instrument contributes a unique dispensable series of notes that blend with, complement, and support one another.

Our symphony reached its crescendo the next morning when we hiked--without packs, thank you--to Spy Rock, where, after allowing us time to quietly drink in and think about the superb surroundings, Michael put us through an exercise he calls Fascinations. We were asked to think about and write down the highlights of our experiences thus far on the trip, to select one, and then to create a symbolic drawing depicting its value and importance to us.

I won't try to describe what happened there on that rock, except to say that it was an awesome display of the beauty and power of the human spirit, stunning proof of the energy and caring that exist in each of us, and a demonstration of how vitally important it is that we come truly to know ourselves so we can more effectively interact with the world around us. At the end of those three grace-filled hours, there was an incredible sense of freedom and peace. And we were strangers no more.

And what of the formal findings of our study committee? Are such programs as Wilderness Vision Quest a valid use of wilderness? Unquestionably so. Do such programs require a wilderness setting in order to function properly? Very likely they do, though not necessarily federally designated, capital "W" Wilderness. If you want to know more about WVQ, contact Michael Brown. But be warned: Michael is a persistent fellow. On the other hand, he also has a very special gift to offer.

 

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