My out-of-control behavior worried my father, so he sent me to a summer session of Colorado Outward Bound, a survival school in the Rockies. Some girls in my group had the choice of Outward Bound or reform school. I spent twenty-six challenging days in the wilderness at the corner of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah where we hiked and rappelled, rafted down the Green River, and sailed small Sunfish in Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Away from drugs and boys, I regained a cocky self-confidence by carrying all my belongings in a pack on my back and blending into the purity of creation.
Near the end of our trip we were sent out on a three-day solo. Our patrol leader planted each of us next to a remote tree in the high desert of Wyoming without a sleeping bag or any food, just a jug of water, a plastic ground cloth, a journal, and a few matches. We were given a whistle in case of emergency, but were warned not to walk around or explore in case we sprained an ankle. I had nothing to eat but a small cactus—and a glob of honey I found stuck in my hair. I had no contact with another person and nothing to do except write in my journal and build a fire at dusk. This minimalism brought me face to face with my own confused and lonely self.
The first thing I did was to start breaking dead branches off the lower trunk of the Lodge Pole pine so I could lean against it as my only shelter from the hot daytime sun and cold night winds. As soon as I broke off a couple branches, a deep foreboding came over me, a sense of the ominous: who was I to interfere with this tree? What if the tree didn’t like it? It could fall right over on me. I had to reason with myself that the branches were already dead and that I could burn them in my fire at night.
I had imagined I would domesticate my solo space, fashion a garden, and put my creative imprint on nature. Instead I wanted to blend into nature without leaving a trace of myself. Apart from breaking off a few branches and gathering pinecones for my fire, the only change I made was to move a large stone at an angle to another one to create a fireplace so heat would reflect back toward me. During the day I did calisthenics and watched as the fasting melted away any fat left on my body. I wrote in my journal and sat in the shade of the pine, stripping off my clothes as the temperature increased; as soon as the sun began to set I put on all my clothes and built a fire. I slept on the ground. The first night I took off my boots, thinking I’d be more comfortable. Instead I froze.
My loneliness and confusion over the meaning of my life grew darker every day. I found myself crying, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, asking God for help, and comforting myself by smoothing my own brow—like I wanted a mother to do for me.
One day I hiked part way up the ridge near my tree and lay naked on the dry grass, watching the clouds appear and disappear. I began to feel a rocking sensation throughout my body as the energy within me pulsed in a figure eight. I felt heavy as if I were sinking into the earth, but also light as if I could rise up off the ground. (This feeling was reminiscent of a game I played with my friends at slumber parties in junior high when we fooled around with the Ouija Board and dabbled with levitation as we chanted, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board.”) As I lay on the side of the mountain, deeply relaxed, a voice spoke to me and asked me if I wanted to leave my body. This was not a foreign concept to me because I knew people at my university who claimed to do astral projection. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes.” My philosophy that I need not be afraid and that all would be well encouraged me to try anything. My meager common sense was easily suspended. Something intervened. A doubt crept in, and I hesitated. I said, “No.” The circling energy and numbing feeling left my body and I was once again on a hillside in Wyoming.
Early the next morning, before sunrise when dawn was just creeping into the night, a woke up to a loud rumbling noise. As I lifted my head from the ground I saw three huge deer run through the gully just yards from my tree. I had no scent of food, or clean clothes and body to warn them off. They were not apparitions or disembodied voices, but creatures like me.
Later that day, before my solo ended, another creature visited me. Being silent in the wilderness for three days heightens your sense of hearing, among other things. So when I was approached by a loud buzzing sound I looked around, thinking there must be a helicopter nearby. (A couple weeks earlier, while we were rafting down the Green River, there actually was a helicopter above us in the wilderness because another party of rafters was up river from us— the soon-to-be Senator Ted Kennedy with his sons and nephews, only a year after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. You can read this story in my fictionalized version, She Belongs to Me.) The sound I heard was not coming from a manmade machine, but a four-winged dragonfly!