Create Your Own Simple, Primal Challenge

Create Your Own Simple, Primal Challenge

Find out What Happens When You Say, “I’ll Take This Watch”

Illustration Credit: Peeking Over by Casey Roberts

Since my first vision quest 18 years ago, I’ve made a commitment to go out into the wilderness every year alone and fast, typically for three days and nights. This sacred time gives me the opportunity to contemplate my life and to renew my commitment to my life’s purpose. But this year I did something different. Inspired by a teenage experience as an Eagle Scout and perhaps by that pivotal line in so many adventure movies, “I’ll take this watch!” I decided to create a primal challenge: to build a fire at sunset and keep it burning until sunrise.

I also committed to three guidelines:

  1. I would use only one match and dry wood shavings to light my fire.
  2. I would have a legal fire, which meant waiting until the beginning of the rainy season.
  3. I would burn only wood I brought in. On my way into the mountains, I stopped by a friend’s house and stacked two rows of split wood into the back of my Jeep. After contemplating it for a few moments I stuffed in a couple more logs, muttering, “I hope this is enough!”

The place I chose for my vigil was on a ledge deep in the forest a couple of miles from any paved road. Since the forecast called for rain and temperatures in the low 30s, I brought full rain gear and layers of warm clothing as well as a tarp to cover the wood. I also brought two gallons of water and some emergency food. As with any solo adventure, I told a friend where I would be and promised to call as soon as I was safely out of the woods.

My vigil would start at sunset (6:04 p.m.) and last until sunrise (6:45 a.m.). As the starting time approached I organized my gear, stacked the wood under the tarp, cleared an old stone fire ring, and proceeded to stage my ceremony fire. Then, as the daylight faded, I lit some sage and smudged myself in the smoke before reading aloud the “Blessings of the Seven Directions.” Finally I took my match and struck it across the side of the empty matchbox. As it flamed up I carefully placed it in the center of the fire. The flame caught, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My vigil had begun.

At first I focused easily, gauging the size of the fire to keep it strong without using too much wood—and the vigil seemed easy as well. But after what was at least a couple of hours I checked my watch and realized it had actually been only 45 minutes. So I stashed the watch. This would be tougher than I thought.

As it got really dark, it was mesmerizing to sit and gaze into a fire, watching the flames dance. My thoughts wandered into my past and then into my future, only to be rudely interrupted by an intense inhalation of smoke as the wind shifted. So I found myself sitting, kneeling, standing, walking, and even dancing around my fire. As the temperature continued to fall, I felt it on my backside, so often I rotated away from the fire to warm it up. Not-so-profound questions like, “What the hell am I doing here?” crossed my mind.

I’m not a late-night person and it was probably near midnight when fatigue began to win me over. Sleep was a risk, for if I slept too long the fire would go out, but eventually I didn’t have a choice. So I added a few extra logs and reluctantly lay down next to the fire. It was probably only an hour before I awoke with a start. The fire was low, but with a few deep breaths it was back to a rich glow.

I now felt a deep sense of commitment to this fire, and to my life. What really mattered came to the forefront of my thoughts—my daughter, my girlfriend, my life’s work. Clarity came in the glow of the fire. I was grateful, and yet I realized I don’t really take the time to stop and reflect on my life as often as I’d wish. I would get lost in such thoughts until the fire called out once again, Feed me!

Around 2:00 a.m., I guess, I felt a few drops that became a light rain. I cursed as I pulled out my rain gear and put a few more logs on the fire. Honestly, trying to stay awake and tend a fire in the middle of a cold, rainy night is not fun. As the rain continued, I dosed off, and this time I awoke to gently falling snow. It was the first snow of the year. My fire was still burning.

As the blackness of the night gave way to a dark gray, I also noticed my wood was almost gone. This was going to be close. Snow continued to fall, and the early morning light gradually revealed my camp and the surrounding forest covered in a soft blanket of fresh snow. It was a beautiful scene to behold.

As I carefully placed my last log in the fire, I felt relieved that my watch was just about over. More important, I felt a renewed commitment to my life, and a deep appreciation for those dear to me.

For more about Robert Wagner’s vision quest, go to

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