by Sam Horton, Sonoma Academy
The Owlshead Mountains on the southern boundary of Death Valley are high desert. The desert with its inherent challenges of alien vistas, heat, cold, and wind heightens a person’s senses. The expanse of the land can’t help but open one up to the unexpected. The power of the land is important and fundamental for the student’s journey inward. Rhythms of sunrise and sunset during the long, cold winter nights or the spring-time heat and relentless wind afford plenty of challenges, time for reflection and “dragon slaying.” As one student stated, “The desert was scary to me at first because it is so open and left me alone with my thoughts.” The students often allow a dam of emotions to burst forth like a flash flood - a flood that never would happen in the comfort of familiarity and the routines of school.
The students return after sunrise on the fourth day of their solo with fire in their eyes. They are quietly effervescent when welcomed back from the spirit place where they have spent the last three days and nights. The stone circle at base camp brings them back to human fellowship, which they are eager to rejoin. The questers are greeted with fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs that never tasted so good, and one additional challenge – to save the stories of their own quest for the Elder Council that will follow.
Their quest had begun weeks before, as we gathered with our guides in council circle at school to learn of the four directions on the medicine wheel and for each student to share why they had decided to participate in this rite of passage. They take the baby steps of the South as they begin to reveal the reasons for their quest. Students go on this senior rites of passage for a variety of reasons: a few for adventure, some to slow down from the frenzy of their daily lives and the pressures associated with college application and the admission process; others come with deeper emotional scars from childhood which they want to confront. It is also their time – the time of leaving home and of the passage from dependent childhood to the independence and freedom of adulthood. The limbo of adolescence is ripe for an honoring and acknowledgement of the trials they have been through and the trials they are undertaking.
I have been an outdoor leader/teacher and natural science instructor for over thirty years. A zealous advocate of experiential education, I have seen the power of nature to teach and the lessons to be learned in an outdoor classroom. I know that this trip to Death Valley with Rites of Passage can be so much more than just a natural history trip. It is an exploration of the desert environment, but also the universe within. I trust in the ancient roots of the 2000 year old rituals born from indigenous wisdom and connection to the earth. What I experienced with my students were pan cultural ceremonies which were true and honest with no confusion between them and Native American ceremonies. These were ceremonies that spoke to the student’s own life and cultural beliefs while infusing pan- cultural aspects that are ancient and speak to all human beings.
As students tell their stories one by one at the Elder council, a collective wisdom grows. They tell heroic stories of confronting difficult emotions and facing personal dragons. Complex stories, confusing and deep, are shared. Stories are told so as to not carry a burden into adulthood. – to clear the waters which would enable them to trust someone again. Stories are spoken with compassion that acknowledge parents for their humanity. Stories are told that help at healing one’s childhood. Others students seek and come to know part of their own truth as the adult they are becoming. All stories speak of wanting -- wanting to make the world better and to live a true life. As they speak their stories, my students act as my teacher speaking lessons of compassion, forgiveness, awareness that I am so honored to share.
The listening and “mirroring” skills that the Rites of Passage guides possess were gifts that the students received. The questers had the words of their stories clarified, not judged nor interpreted, and they came to understand more about themselves in the process. Transition, initiation, ritual and council practice were words that had been spoken and practiced, but after the doing came a deeper meaning and a deeper personal connection with the earth. Sitting and listening to each story with sensitivity long into the night speaks to their growth.
Gazing out into the desert’s expanse and being in the moment at the Elder Council with my students, I could never have foreseen the impact that these young adults would have on the rest of the senior class upon their return to Sonoma Academy. The questers were initially anxious about their return and the lack of words they felt to explain their quest. In a quiet but powerful way they changed the language and culture of the senior class. Not by singing Vision Quest songs or by showing slideshows of their trip, but by living the changes that they felt within and by keeping alive the medicine that they gained during their quest. They formed tighter bonds with each other, forged strong friendships, and checked-in and watched out for each other, friends, and family during the last part of their senior year. They kept the fire in their eyes burning bright deep within which told the world that: “I’m ready for the next step on the medicine wheel.”