It is the final day of our Vision Quest Camp. Everyone has completed their intercourse with the mountain. We are preparing to return home. The thought of going home is strange. I look forward to time with my son and to seeing all of the people I have loved and missed, but this place is compelling, and I will miss the family I have here as well.
Most of us have just finished our lunches or paused our activities to stand in a circle around the fire. The elders have called us to a special mourning ceremony before we leave today. Some of the people in the group have lost a dear friend recently and have asked for support. So, in this, our final community circle, we pray for these people, and then, one by one, we wash their tears before moving back to our place in the circle.
As I take my turn, standing before my friends, I feel the rush of energy move through me once again. My head is light, and I struggle to remain upright. I don’t know it is just the heat and lack of sleep, but I am grateful when the ceremony is complete. It has been a long week, and I think I am now ready to return home, so I can process and heal.
Many linger to offer additional support to those in pain, but I cannot. I turn to leave the circle but make it only a few steps before the world fades from view.
I do not know how long I was unconscious. I wake in the shade behind the larger of the two lodges. One of the people from the camp, a doctor, is kneeling over me.
I hear the people who have circled us talking. They think I must have collapsed from the heat. Heatstroke is a real danger in the mountainous desert sun, and they do what they can to hydrate me, but I struggle. I feel awkward. I don’t want to be an inconvenience. It’s embarrassing to have faltered. People shouldn’t be helping me this way. Sitting up, I push the people away, convincing them I am fine. Then, I quickly escape the ridiculous humiliation of my failed body and return to my truck to finish my final packing. I want to go home.
I make it down the road to my camp, but I am hit with another wave of darkness as I arrive at the site. Grabbing hold of my truck, I fight for consciousness, but the nausea is too much. I am overcome with sickness and searing stomach pains followed by bouts of vomiting and a nearly unbearable stabbing in my head. I drop to the ground, sitting against the truck for some time, trying to overcome the illness.
It is probably thirty minutes or so until I contain the worst symptoms and slowly finish my packing. I return to the people to say my ‘goodbyes,’ with only one thing in mind, returning home, to my bed. It is difficult to walk, but I pool all of my energy into presenting as healthy an appearance as possible. I don’t like anyone to see me sick.
I move slowly, meticulously, to avoid another flare-up. The first few people I see are convinced. They likely believe I am just altered from my Quest. Others are more concerned, but I tell them, “It’s been a long week. I am just tired.”
“It’s probably just heatstroke. Take it easy for the next couple of days. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
I nod, “Of course, that’s probably it.” I’ll say anything to stop people coddling me. “I really am fine. I’m just ready to go home.”
They nod approval. I’m convinced I’ve made the home stretch, and turn to leave. I can think only of getting home, but my body betrays me again, exposing my duplicity. I collapse in the same two rut road where I began my journey.
Most of the next several hours are a blur to me. I evolve through fits of shaking and nausea and agonizing pain. Each wave begins with a slow rise of heat from my belly. Then, intense convulsions continue for several minutes, before dropping to a less substantial roar.
I take advantage of the short respites to catch my breath, but people surround me, trying to hydrate me, telling me I need water. Each attempt awakens the monster in my gut, causing the fire to return. Dry heaves wrack my body, and I am overwhelmed with agonizing pain. It is impossible to relieve the suffering. Not even the smallest drop of water can touch my lips without instigating the beast.
I don’t know how long this cycle continues before I finally refuse their treatment. I beg to be left alone.
Someone finally hears me and takes me to a tent, and the most air mattress I have ever experienced. While one of the camp elders sits outside the tent and prays for me, I lay consumed by the same violent spasms. I am hot with fever, and my body trembles with chills. Fits still overtake my stomach, though it has long been empty. I can never in my life recall such a violent reaction from my body. I wonder if today might be my day to die. People do all the time.
After a few minutes, I hear the people returning to their tasks, talking about my condition, still insisting I need hydration. Someone leaves a small bowl of watermelon next to my bed, and finally, I am left alone. As the tent flap closes, a calm sensation washed over me. I feel distanced from my body, like an observer. This moment is more comforting than any I’ve had since first collapsing after the mourning circle. It seems I have brought upon myself more cold and more pain than I would have ever experienced in one more night of waiting for the Morning Star. I am living the suffering of my missed opportunity, but I am living it at the level of loss. I don’t believe I provoked this illness or that I am being punished, but maybe I could have avoided it if I had stayed.
Minutes pass into hours and like the day, so does the worst of my suffering. I am eventually able to rise again and insist on the opportunity to return home. I refuse any sustenance offered, over fear the whole episode will begin again. It appears I must experience the fast of my last night as well.
Of course, I decide I must drive myself home. Though it seems insane, I won’t inconvenience anyone or have the concern of returning later for my truck. I know I have within me the will to complete the hour drive.
I bid my farewells with sincere apologies and leave for home. As I pull from the camp, I see Robin again lit upon the gate at the valley entrance. Though I stumbled, I hope he is telling me I did well on my walk and that the elders are proud. I smile a little. I did try to find my way again, even when I was so desperately lost.
After a few days at home, with little improvement, I call a nurse. Severe pain has settled in my neck, and a rash has formed on my wrists. Through multiple medical consults, I am diagnosed have a potentially fatal illness caused by a tick. I recall the tick having to be removed after returning from my Quest. It likely attached from the tall grass in the two rut road and settled under my arm.
Treatment at this stage is a simple series of antibiotics. I will be healthy again soon enough, but this is the third fatal illness I’ve had. Facing the question of death while lying in the tent, I wonder now whether I have finally decided not to die.