Spiritual Healing in Death Valley: The Wilderness Quest that Changed My Life

Getting smudged with sage prior to trekking across the Valley two hours to my camping spot where I spent 3 days alone in the wilderness. Circa 1995.

Getting smudged with sage prior to trekking across the Valley two hours to my camping spot where I spent 3 days alone in the wilderness. Circa 1995.

A vision quest is a term used for a Native American spiritual practice that includes solitary time in nature, fasting, and praying to Spirit for a healing vision and direction for oneself or the community. Versions of it can be found around the world by different names in different cultures throughout time. The Aboriginals of Australia practice the Walk-About. Even the ancient Celts and Druids practiced what was called a Sitting Out where they would leave family and community behind and go into the woods alone for a period of time fasting and asking the question, "What am I to do with my life?”  

In 1995 I went on my own wilderness quest to Death Valley for my 24th birthday with that very question in mind. “What am I to do with my life?” I was 23 years old and had been addicted to methamphetamines and in a toxic relationship with my dealer since I was 19 and I knew something drastic was needed to break my dependency. I desperately wanted to change my life and found this quest at the perfect time. I was ready to leave behind everything I had know and break my self-destructive patterns so I could open myself up to greater possibilities. I needed a radical change. 

I spent 9 days in Death Valley, three days of which were on solo-time when I was fasting and alone in Nature. I had no tent. During the heat of the day, I had strung up a tarp to bushes and laid underneath it for sun protection while I journaled, cried for healing, and prayed. In the evening I placed my tarp on the ground with my sleeping bag on top of it. My sweater did double duty as a pillow. I slept out under the vastness of the night sky as the millions of stars shone upon me. I felt so small and insignificant, yet deeply connected to everything in the web of life and beyond.  I entered the sacredness of Nature and began to realize that everything in the outside world was deeply and inextricably connected to my inner word. My soul. There was no separation. 

I learned about Snake Medicine, which is different from snake oil. It’s essentially  spiritual alchemy. The ability to transmute poisons into healing nectar and wisdom, as well as the ability to shed old skin and renew oneself continuously, moment to moment. Toxic anger transmuted into compassion for myself and others. Addictions and self-hatred transmuted into self-care and Love. Numbness became empathy. I learned to place own my belly on the ground, like Snake, to ask Mother Earth for direction when I got lost. Feeling the right way to turn through feeling my body’s wisdom. Intuition.

I had 3 Western diamondback rattlesnake encounters in my 3 days alone in the desert. Each one had a very special meaning to me with many layers. A holographic message, as it were, for helping me out of my addictions and self-destructive behaviors. The first one was the biggest, about 7 feet long. I was walking along, absorbed in my thoughts, and almost stepped on this HUGE rattlesnake. It started to coil, readying to strike, and I took off running like a bat out of hell. I didn’t stop to look back for at least a quarter mile away, thinking it was following me right on my tail. I vowed, in that moment, to be present and aware of my surroundings to the best of my ability or my next step could be my last. Quite literally. Snake lesson #1: Be mindful of your body and surroundings at all times. Consciously use your breath to weave your spirit back into your body. Breathe.

 The second snake I saw was slightly smaller at about 5 feet long. I had been sitting in my medicine wheel, which is a specially created circle of stones with each stone carefully selected and placed in the proper direction. I asked permission from each of the rock people if I could use them in my ceremony and listened to intuition as best as possible for where to place them. Each one was imbued with a special meaning that was connected to issues I needed spiritual medicine for to heal my addictions.  I had created it earlier in the day and would be sitting in it all night from dusk to dawn for my last night of solo time, crying out for a healing vision. I had asked Spirit and the snakes of the land permission to place my circle in this specific spot. As I was sitting there contemplating the coming night, I saw this rather large snake crossing a ravine in front of me no more than 10 feet away. I started freaking out! I thought I did everything right! I asked permission. Thought I heard a yes. Oh, crap. Now what?!?! It was almost dusk and time to enter. I got sick to my stomach and practically paralyzed in fear. 

I hiked back to where I had been sleeping for the last two nights and sat down, freaking out, thinking I had made a horrible mistake and was probably going to die as I was overrun by rattlesnakes in my medicine wheel. That would be a fitting end for me, I thought. Should I stay? Should I go? Should I move my medicine wheel I spent all day creating? It was just then, as all of these thoughts and more were rolling through my head reaching a fevered pitch (I thought my heart was going to explode), that a baby rattlesnake came slithering out of a small hole in the ground about 3 feet behind me rattling away and ready to bite me on my backside. This is the exact same place I had been laying my head for the previous two nights. I got the message loud and clear, “You can’t stay here. You asked permission to be over there, now GO! Time’s up buttercup, get off your ass and move.  I want my hunting grounds back”. And if you know anything about baby rattlesnakes, you know they are more dangerous than adults because they have not learned how to regulate the venom in their bites yet. They just release the whole load. Snake lesson #2: Don’t let fear paralyze you from doing what you know in your heart needs to be done, no matter how scary or daunting the task. Procrastination breeds inertia. Move. 

I realized later in the evening, after I had calmed down and sat praying in my medicine wheel(and subsequently not been overrun but rattlesnakes of varying sizes), that the second snake I saw was actually honoring my request to leave its territory for the night because I had asked its permission to be in it! It wasn’t rattling as it had quite calmly left its hunting grounds for the night. My territory, for the short time I was there, had switched from my previous camping spot of the last 3 days to the area of my medicine wheel for my last night in the desert. The snakes let me know that with out a doubt. I truly felt in my bones, the magic and connection that is possible when we open ourselves up to Spirit and Nature. Snake lesson #3. There is an intimate conversation that can be had between humans and all of Nature’s plants, rocks, and creatures. It’s the body of the Mother. Our Mother. She hears us and responds. Listen. 

I gathered up my belongings and headed back over to where I knew I needed to be. In my medicine wheel from dusk to dawn crying out for my healing vision and the courage to follow through on whatever I was shown. I also prayed I wouldn’t be overrun with rattlesnakes and die a horrible death in Death Valley, as well.  

A strange and violent wind rose up through the night and lasted for what seemed like an eternity. It cut me to bone, cold and fierce. I placed just about every piece clothing I had on and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag all to no avail. It felt like everything that I had been holding onto so tightly, my addictions, self-loathing, and self-pity were being cleaved from my flesh and soul. I got sand blasted by Spirit. 

On that last night of solo time as dawn neared, a gentle power dawned upon me that suffused and illumined my entire being as the Morning Star, Venus, arose in the East and the full moon set in the West. I felt a wave of healing, courage, and love come over me as tears poured down my face with profound gratitude and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was 5:18 am. The exact time I was born 24 years ago. It was April 14th, my birthday and it was Easter morning. I felt reborn. Renewed. Cleansed. My life forever changed.  

This healing didn’t happen overnight. It took me about a year afterwards to completely quit methamphetamines and separate from my old relationship. But slowly, my fear of being alone and still transformed into a strength and clarity I felt in solitude. I slowed down. I didn’t need to speed.  

Healing is always possible. So long as we have breath in our bodies, we have the opportunity to change. There is always hope. 


View from my camping spot in Death Valley.

View from my camping spot in Death Valley.