At the end of my sophomore year, to rein in my hedonist behavior, my father sent me to Colorado Outward Bound, a survival school in the Rockies. I spent twenty-six days in the wilderness with eleven other girls hiking, rappelling, rafting, and sailing.
One day while mountain climbing we found a large non-poisonous snake and adopted it as a pet, taking turns carrying it around our necks like a scarf. Our patrol leader decided we needed to kill the snake and eat it as a lesson in learning how to survive in the wilderness. We held the snake against a log and decapitated it. The bodiless head jumped along the ground, baring its teeth and snapping its jaw. That was terrifying, though not as spooky as what happened with its body. After we skinned and gutted the animal in preparation to cook it, the long muscle kept coiling and uncoiling around the arm of whomever was holding it. The snake was dead, yet it was more frightening after we killed it than beforehand. Rationally I knew it could not hurt me, but I was still afraid.
After weeks of hiking and rafting, our patrol sailed through Flaming Gorge Reservoir in small Sunfish sailboats. We spent five difficult days zigzagging through steep canyon walls while the wind kept shifting and catching us off guard. On our last day of sailing I was partnered with an odd girl who called herself Peter and attended a college I’d never heard of called Wheaton. Peter was as repressed as I was uninhibited. We knew we were on the homestretch so we lollygagged along, letting all the other boats pass us by.
Suddenly a severe squall came up and rammed our boat against the vertical wall of the canyon, pinning the sail against the rock face. We were helpless, unable to move.
Our patrol leader approached in a small motor boat and we thought we were being rescued, but she ignored our cries and passed by without a glance.
After the storm abated we dislodged ourselves and sailed around the next bend which turned out to be the end of the reservoir. But where were the other boats? Where was the rest of our patrol? As we sailed into the basin we passed a flotilla of soggy backpacks floating on the surface, naked overturned hulls, and the strange shapes of broken masts with sails like triangular ghosts shimmering under the surface of the waves. All the capsized girls had been ferried to safety. Peter and I were the only ones still afloat.
Outward Bound ended with a three-day solo in the high desert of Wyoming without a sleeping bag, tent, or food. Our patrol leader assigned each girl to a remote tree with only a jug of water, a journal, a knife, and a few matches.
The first thing I did was break branches off my lodgepole pine so I could lean against it for shelter from the heat of the day. But suddenly a deep foreboding came over me. Who was I to brashly interfere with this tree? Could it choose to fall on top of me? But I reasoned that the branches were already dead and would be well spent burning in my fire at night. I wanted to meld into nature without leaving a trace.
I had nothing to do but write in my journal during the day and build a fire at night. The loneliness was intense and I came face to face with my confusion over the meaning of life. I found myself crying, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, asking God for help, and comforting myself by smoothing my own brow—like I would want a mother to do for me.
One day I climbed the ridge near my tree and lay naked on the grass watching clouds appear and disappear. I began to feel a rocking sensation throughout my body pulsing 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. From nowhere a voice spoke to me and asked if I wanted to leave my body. Immediately I said, “Yes.” I would try almost anything. But a shadow of doubt crossed my mind and I hesitated. The circling energy and numb feeling left my body and I was once again on a steep hillside in Wyoming.
Early the next morning as dawn crept into the night I woke to a loud rumbling noise. I lifted my head from the ground and saw three huge deer run through the gully just yards from my tree—not apparitions or disembodied voices, but living creatures like me.
Later that day, before my solo ended, I had another startling visitation. Three days of silence in the wilderness had heightened my sense of hearing so when a loud whirring noise approached I looked up thinking there must be a helicopter nearby. But the sound was not coming from a man-made machine, but a four-winged dragonfly!