Quests are fundamental to the human experience. Read to discover why four days in the woods can change everything.
Our first steps onto the trail take my breath away. The weight of my pack swinging rhythmically against my hips with each footfall feels deeply familiar and I sink into an easy rhythm. Step-pause. Step-pause.
My skin prickles with the heavy morning dew and with a rush of gratitude, as though the hairs on my arms are reaching out in reverence. Step-pause. Thank-God. Step-pause.
I’m not sure that the five women behind me feel the same way yet, though. I hear the muffled scrrriiiip of backpack straps being loosened and tightened and loosened again and I’m fairly certain of the thoughts that are echoing between their ears right now: “I have to carry this for four days?”
Two months ago, we sat around a conference table in the community room of a public library. Then, the realities of a heavy backpack and four days of freeze-dried meals were merely theoretical concepts. We were a ragtag group, with representation from all professions, body types, ages, and propensity toward outdoor adventure.
The bond we shared, though, was that we were all on a Quest. One woman was thinking about leaving her husband. Another was searching for herself again after devoting nearly a decade to her young children’s needs. Yet another was tentatively reclaiming a relationship with her body after years of self-loathing.
What Is a Quest?
Humans have been undertaking pilgrimages and vision quests for thousands of years. Across time and culture, quests have often taken the form of a three-part rite of passage involving phases of:
During the preparatory period the quester explores her intentions for the journey ahead, preparing physically, emotionally, and spiritually, as best she can for what is to come. The initiation is the experience of the quest itself, and the return—often underestimated in its difficulty—is when the seeker returns and reintegrates into her home community, bearing the wisdom she has unearthed along the way.
Almost always, these forays into the soul are also forays into the wilderness. Recent studies on the “three-day effect” have confirmed what longtime questers and outdoor leaders have always known: There is something—biochemical and psychospiritual—that happens to people when they’ve been in nature for 72 hours or more. Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway describes this wilderness effect as “an increased sense of aliveness,” with “feelings of expansion and reconnection.”
The wild is a good place to meet yourself. And, arguably, the need to find ourselves in nature is more critical now than it ever has been. So many of us are trapped in cycles of busy and burnout. We’re spending the vast majority of our time living in the realm above our necks, taking in and producing information with our eyes, ears, and mouths. Opportunities to unplug, reembody, and reengage with the natural world are increasingly rare.
But there’s even more to it than that. If you’re reading this, you’re probably among those of us at this time in society who are being pulled, almost gravitationally, toward a different way of being. Nestled quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) alongside our cultural narrative of achievement and domination is a rapidly growing movement of folks who are reorienting their lives toward meaning and purpose and authenticity. The way I see it, this shift in consciousness is like a modern-day rite of passage; it often requires not only changes to one’s internal landscape, but a renegotiation of career choices, relationships, living circumstances, and the other physical manifestations of our lives.
When we’re experiencing radical life transformations like this, all too often we seek very familiar ways of making meaning of our lives—verbal processing, reading and researching, or writing. While these are all worthy endeavors, they allow us to remain disembodied heads, relying only on the wisdom between our ears to guide us and forgetting about the power of our bodies and of the natural world to support our process.
We also live in a culture that has become bereft of meaningful rituals to mark the transformations in our lives. Weddings and baby showers and even funerals have become a series of culturally sanctioned checklists, often outsourced to Pinterest or event planners, devoid of the personal meaning they once held. And so it is that we also lack a way of catalyzing, embodying, and integrating the sometimes quieter, more personal revolutions that so many of us are having—the decision to leave behind the 80-hour work weeks, the loss of a relationship that no longer aligns, the journey toward reclaiming one’s own sense of worthiness.
When we embark on a Quest, not only do we have the potential to reconnect with who we are and what matters most, we also have the exquisite opportunity to reclaim a connection with and a relationship to the earth. It also urges us to reengage our compassion for the folks that walk alongside us, both on the trail and in our lives.
Quests, enacted with reverence for nature and from a stance of culture-creation rather than cultural appropriation, may be a potent medicine for what is proving to be a dynamic and sometimes challenging time in our history.
My skin is still prickling with gratitude on the final hours of our Quest, which is punctuated by the most breathtaking rocky oceanscape and then a long trudge back down to sea-level and along a pebbled beach. I remind the women to take these last footsteps slowly and steadily so as not to lose balance, and the metaphor for the return to our individual lives is not lost on any of us. Beyond the personal revelations each woman has experienced, we have also learned something about being in community, asking for help, and about the inherent wisdom and trustworthiness of our bodies. These tiny, personal revolutions run deeper than any aha moment and will weave their way into the marrow of these women’s lives—like they have my own—and take up residence there, acting as a compass for the path not yet traveled. So it is that four days in the wild has a way of changing everything.
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