American Forests Magazine
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
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.