THE VISION AT LOOKING GLASS
Not many men can pinpoint the exact moment they became a man. But I tell you, it is when the responsibilities and sufferings of manhood not only come knocking, but when it knocks the door down, and knocks you on your butt. I had an abrupt wake up call in my early 20s. So much so, that I had to call upon one of my Elders, who promptly reproached me for not coming sooner and prepared me for a much needed Vision Quest.
I arrived at the Medicine Man’s house at sunrise and began work on clearing and preparing the Sweat Lodge. I’m sure in most people’s imaginations, there is a picture-perfect image of the sweat lodge— immaculate, ready, patiently awaiting its next guests, stoic, with an ancient Native American mystique. But there is much labor involved and it’s certainly not glamorous. As an Apprentice, I knew where to start, I knew the routine, and how it had to be done. There was an order to everything and a way to do it. There were also specific rules, rites, and prayers.
I entered the dim, musty sweat lodge, the smell of medicines still in the air, crawling through to begin cleaning out the rock pit. I put my hand on the ground, which was covered in old carpet pieces, they were damp and smelled of mildew. I personally preferred the flooring of fresh, soft, aromatic cedar boughs. My other hand, on the edge of the earthen pit, almost slipping downward from the cold mud. I thought, Gross, was this mud from sweat or actual water? I could already hear the Elder’s telling me that I shouldn’t think like that. I immediately started hauling the cold rocks out of the lodge and onto a rock pile in the distance. Some rocks were shattered from use and crumbled in my hands.
The Medicine Man entered the lodge and begun helping with the rocks. He picked up a stone and immediately jumped backwards and shuddered. There was a frog in the pit! This was not a good omen at all. This could mean there was ‘bad medicine’ on me or sent against me (as the ceremony was meant for me). Nonetheless, it was a definite warning or sign. “Who did you anger? He asked. “Someone is probably trying to hurt you. It is good you are going fasting. I will use some medicine in the sweat lodge to help get rid of it.” One of my cousins soon arrived to help. He always had a way of showing up when the work was finished. He volunteered to drive me out to the Vison Quest site.
The vision quest sweat lodge ceremony was short, I was to perform half now, then finish upon my return. My sacred pipe was filled and blessed for the journey. It was to be kept filled for the duration of the ‘fast’ then smoked upon completion. I was also told that I could smoke it and refill it if I got spooked and needed protection or a serious prayer. I was never quite sure what one needed ‘protection’ from out there. I didn’t ask. I grabbed the bare-essentials—a tarp, sleeping bag, matches, and my medicine bag. The Medicine Man wished me well and my cousin, already in the truck, drove me to the drop off point. From there, was a hidden trail that would lead to one of my favorite Vision Quest locations, the ancient and magical place called ‘Looking Glass.’
Looking Glass was a sacred Vision Quest site used for hundreds of years by the Cree, it was nestled along the Athabasca River. Not only was it known for its sacred sites but historically used for travel and building encampments. You could almost imagine hundreds of tipis spanning the river, Native Americans traveling on horseback, people washing in the fresh waters, and nothing but forest up to the horizon. The heartbreaking reality was that the old dirt road leading to the site was replaced by a recently constructed logging road. The forest was slowly disappearing behind the illusion of thick forest walls, along with many archaeological sites.
As I was about to step out of the truck and set foot on the trail, my cousin looked at me sternly and said, “Don’t make any deals out there.” Then drove off before I could say anything. I had so many questions! What did he mean by that? Deal with whom or what? Was something going to visit me? I shook my head and started out on the path. You don’t say something like that and just drive away. Ignorance is NOT bliss in this case.
It reminded me of the stories of a particular spirit being, a black dog that could fly, and frequented the camps of people; Either on their Vision Quests or hunting deep in the forest. It was said to offer ‘magic,’ luck, and blessings in return for ‘unspoken’ trade. In one story, a sacred ‘tobacco circle’ was made to keep evil entities out and people safe within. The black spirit dog arrived and immediately got angry that it could enter the circle. It aggressively encircled the camp, constantly requesting that they remove the tobacco circle, and allow it inside the camp. The individuals refused, the dog grew furious, eventually giving up and flying away. Apparently, it resembled the character, ‘The Nothing,’ on the movie ‘The Neverending Story.’
It didn’t take long to reach the vison quest area; discernibly cleared of thick brush over the years with evidence of numerous aging campsites. Each campsite, telling a story of its previous tenants, its usage, and each begging the question—how many of my ancestors have fasted there before? Choosing a site is typically a competition with others, as you have a preference, a favorite spot; But I arrived alone. I had options. What site will bring a more mystical experience and perhaps a powerful vision?
I chose a nice level area near an old Aspen Poplar and a fallen tree, perfect to sit and relax against. It was always so beautiful and enchanting at Looking Glass. You could lie on your back and view the beautiful blue sky through the surrounding window of poplar, pine, and native plant life. The sounds of nature uninterrupted by your stay, seemingly aware that you were there and no less part of their world. I sat down on the nearby fallen tree, sacred pipe in hand—you are never to leave the pipe alone and must carry it or keep it nearby. It was surreal, listening to the sounds the nature; The wind in the trees, the grassy clearing behind me, moving in gentle waves. It was a beautiful day and the perfect weather for a ‘fast.’
As most Vision Quests go, time eventually slows down to a halt, the sun seems to stand still, and you realize how alone you are. Camping out deep in the forest; Nature brings a certain peace. When you leave the ‘world’ behind, time seems to completely slow down—with the sun as your only clock. You must remind yourself to stop looking up at the sky and checking the ‘time’ and that prayer and meditation are the only things that advance time here. There are also no luxuries allowed. No phones, books, watches, or distractions of any kind. Just you, your mind, nature, and the Creator. Your thoughts are your worst enemy. The imagination starts to drift off into scenarios of what is happening back home and that you are missing out on excitement. Your first test has begun—becoming the master of your mind and not the slave.
There are four main tests you must endure on a Vision Quest. The first is boredom. The second is loneliness. The third is fear. The fourth is hunger. These tests affect people differently. Some forfeit immediately to hunger and loneliness. Doing the walk of shame out of the forest and back to contemporary security and comforts. Those seasoned for this ceremony simply enjoy the peace and solitude—humbly revealing their faith and devotion. I was determined to succeed and prayed hard for the blessings and favor of the Creator. I had a very heavy heart. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown before seeking the support of my Elders. This was the only way out. The only way to gain the attention of the Father.
As I sat there quietly in prayer, I opened my eyes and noticed a large white furred jackrabbit sitting in front of me, studying me. I greeted it, startled, it jumped to the left and seemingly disappeared into the Poplar tree. I quickly stood up to see if it had run off into the clearing or into a den. There was no sign of the Jackrabbit. I was puzzled. I knew what I saw. I assumed maybe it was one of the mysterious things I heard that happen at this place. Looking Glass was known for paranormal activity and strange magical occurrences.
Nightfall finally arrived, welcoming the pitch-black darkness of the wilderness; Gradually, becoming illuminated by the rising full moon. The bordering trees highlighted by moonlight, behind them, the eerie darkness. It felt like many eyes were watching me. I clutched my sacred pipe closely as if to protect myself. I decided not to make a fire. I felt it would render the occasion too comfortable—I wanted to suffer myself. Lying on my back inside the sleeping bag, I gazed above. I’ve always loved and appreciated the visibility of the infinite number of stars above the country night sky.
Moments into my star watching experience, wolves started to howl and signal their positions around me, indicating my presence. I remembered what I was told that even the animals knew you were in a sacred state and would respect your ceremony—I felt safe. The wolves eventually became silent, and the coldness of night started piercing my feet. I thought this sleeping bag was rated for winter conditions, I grumbled. At least that’s what my cousin affirmed. Ignoring the temperature, I continued to gaze above and held my sacred pipe.
The moon reaching its peak was vivid and captivating. It was a beautiful night. The sleeping bag finally warmed up from my body heat and I started to fall asleep. Suddenly, the sound of three distinct ‘knocks’ echoed out from the nearby woods. It sounded like a club hitting a tree. I sat up and looked around. Who or what was out there? There was nothing but silence. My heart was racing. Then as if in relation to the sound, the moon disappeared behind thick ominous clouds, encapsulating it, and darkening the sky. The temperature dropped to chilling temperatures, becoming unbearable, and out of season. I tossed and turned on the hard earth, eventually falling asleep. Little did I know that this was the last time I would see clear skies for the duration of my Vision Quest.
I awoke at sunrise to gloomy overcast skies and a cold breeze. I contemplated making a fire but remembered my personal vow to suffer myself. I got up and sat down on the fallen tree and lit a cigarette. I do not smoke cigarettes, I personally do not like the smoke nor being around ‘smokers.’ But during ceremonial situations, tobacco is seen as sacred and used for prayer. I offered the cigarette to the ‘four directions,’ beginning with the east, and sat there quietly in prayer—what I refer to as ‘puff and pray.’
Amidst the wind and the sound of swaying trees, I heard the inaudible sounds of high-pitched voices in conversation. Excited, I thought my cousins, who were known for their high-pitched voices had arrived to pay me a visit; You were allowed visits in the daytime during a fast. I sat there and waited. No one arrived and the voices soon faded. I wondered if someone else was in the area or perhaps they had gotten lost. Sitting there disappointed, I soon grew lonely. Then, the high-pitched voices returned, inaudible, but evident. The voices would be heard throughout my stay.
It came to mind that perhaps the voices were those of the ‘Little People.’ The Little People consisted of two known races—the tiny ‘fairy’ sized beings or the ‘dwarf’ sized beings. These voices may have been the latter. Often spoken of in Elder’s tales of their historic relationship with man; Involving trade for magic and medicine for ‘shiny’ metals and tools. They inhabited different areas all over the land. Even spotted on lakes coasting on their magical ‘stone canoes,’ allowing them to submerge quickly under the water to avoid danger or being seen. If they were here, they knew I was here also, and were not afraid.
Reminds me of when I was younger, us young boys would attend annual Vision Quests, often as a rite of passage. One of my cousins would place metal objects on a cloth in hopes the Little People would come trade with him or be attracted to his ‘bait.’ They never made an appearance. We never stopped believing as our entire youth was immersed in such tales and legends of mystical beings and all types of spirits. They were fascinating to hear and sometimes even terrifying.
It was a cold afternoon, the wind picked up and it started to rain. I covered my things with the tarp and took shelter underneath. What happened to the summer weather? It rained all day as I sat under the tarp. I tried to keep warm and dry, but there was no escaping the wind and rain. Nightfall felt as though it was winter, I could not keep warm. Resting alone in the darkness, it seemed too quiet, I felt spooked. Then suddenly I was startled by what sounded like the impact of a large falling tree hitting the ground. I remembered hearing this about Looking Glass; It was known for people reportedly hearing the sudden crash of falling trees with no evidence in sight. I could almost imagine a large creature pushing it over to frighten me. I did not move or make a sound. I listened for the next falling tree or perhaps something more ‘paranormal.’ Nothing.
The next morning, I woke up to frost covering my now stiffened tarp. How could it be so cold? It was summer! I brushed off my tarp and sat up. My socks were still wet from the rain. I started my morning prayers. My hunger was growing, but not at its peak. Once more, the ‘high-pitched voices’ could be heard conversating in the distance. I hoped it was my cousins coming to visit me, but they never showed up. The Little People weren’t much for company. I did not doubt their existence but resented their lack of socializing and neighbourly etiquette—I was in isolation here.
The rain turned into a fine mist and the wind dispersed it everywhere. There was no lighting a fire even if I tried; The matches were wet and there would certainly be no dry wood. I sat under the tarp and began to wonder if I was being ‘tested.’ Suddenly the sound of falling trees rang out, as if being knocked over by a bulldozer or large animal. You could hear the path being cleared like something running and pushing them over. The treetops were shaking as it passed by. I thought, what if it was a sasquatch? They were known to inhabit the area. Whatever it was, must be massive, strong, and was presently running past my camp below the ridge. I went to investigate, but it had already disappeared into the distant forest. Some trees were still swaying from the path of the ‘sasquatch.’ It could not have been an Elk or Moose, they run along trails, and do not ‘bulldoze’ new ones.
This part of Looking Glass sat atop a hill, overlooking the valley and Athabasca River. It was beautiful. The view was like a painting; a vast woodland forest encompassing the horizon, the trees highlighted in their unique vibrant colors, the Athabasca River flowing below. I stood there gazing outward; I wanted to remember this. Loneliness was beginning to weigh heavy on my heart. I returned to my camp. An icy cold chill filled the air, and the misty rain was now a relentless downpour. The tobacco in my sacred pipe became noticeably damp. My clothes were drenched, my feet were cold, and for the first time I felt unbearably hungry, thirsty, and miserable. Another tree randomly fell that evening—it didn’t even bother me anymore. It was going to be another long, lonely night. Hopefully a vision comes tonight, I prayed.
The next morning, I woke up to a little animal sniffing my face. Its cold nose and whiskers tickling my skin. We were nose to nose when I jumped up, scaring it off. The hunger pangs in my stomach were intense and gave rise to strange cravings. At this point, all you talk about is food, thankfully I was alone. In earlier years, other participants would worsen each other’s suffering and hunger with stories and descriptions of their current cravings and memorable meals. The lethargy in my body intensified and I grew very weak. The thirst was intense, my mouth parched, and could not swallow. The suffering was exponentially difficult with each passing day.
The wind was very intense this day, it whipped with gale force, swaying trees, and scattered leaves. I could only lie there in my sleeping bag. I was too weak to move and had to save my strength. I prayed all day; It was the longest day I faced thus far—also the final day. Loneliness affects you deeply at this point—you are reminded of your friends and family, and those you have taken for granted. Appreciating their company, kindnesses, compassions; Especially instances you regret and forgotten transgressions in need of an apology.
The concluding nightfall was especially cold, I could see my breath in the air. I gazed up at the dark sky. It was lonely, quiet, and I desperately wanted to feel the Creator. My heart was heavy, and I could feel a weight in my stomach. Suddenly the sound of three knocks rang out, exactly as it did the first evening, like a club striking a tree. I looked up at the sky, as the clouds receded, revealing the moon and starry sky. I was ecstatic! Relieved and moved, I started to cry. This was such a blessing. I missed the sky. I missed the sun and moon. I gazed at the stars until I fell asleep.
At sunrise, I felt a sigh of relief, it was time to go home. I anxiously waited for the ‘morning bird’ to sing—that was your permission to head out. The sun slowly rose, like an orb shining through the trees. The morning bird finally sang out the most beautiful, anticipated song. I immediately started packing up camp. Frost covered my tarp, freezing my fingers to the bone. Lethargy and thirst were at its peak, I was dehydrated, and my head throbbed in pain. I set out on the trail back to the road, trudging very slowly; Exhausted. The trees seemingly tried to hang on to me, grab my pipe, and hold me back as if they wanted to keep me there. It was very peculiar. It was a relief to see the gravel road. Civilization, I thought.
I walked two miles before my ride came to pick me up. My cousin greeted me and asked me how it was. I could barely speak. He nodded his head, understanding my weariness, he let me rest. He too, was experienced at fasting. The ride back to the Medicine Man’s house was quiet and serene, I especially enjoyed the heat blowing from the truck’s vents. The sunrise was beautiful, it was good to be back home.
We pulled up to the Elder’s house, I could see the fire already burning in the distance, heating up the rocks. The sweat lodge was also prepared, doors open, ready for my return. I was grateful, knowing their work and consideration—this was for me. We walked to the sweat lodge, the Elder was sitting on a tree stump, waiting, smoking a cigarette. He smiled and asked me about my experience. I described the extremely unusual weather, the freezing temperatures, howling winds, and relentless rains. I described the dark clouds, overcast skies, and long cold nights. I described how I was soaked the whole time from the rain and could not stay dry.
The Elder started to chuckle, shook his head, and replied, “They really suffered you out there! Because it was beautiful and warm over here.” “Good summer weather,” he stated. I was a bit perturbed and confused as Looking Glass, the vision quest site I fasted at, was only 15-20 miles away. I continued my story of my paranormal and strange experiences. He listened and knew I was watched over and blessed.
We finished the final two sweat lodge ‘rounds’ and smoked my sacred pipe. The completion of the Vision Quest was beautiful and bittersweet. I felt alone as I had no family to greet me and participate, including other traditional festivities. However, this was a blessed and powerful journey, my own personal sacred accomplishment. I felt a reverence and love for the Creator. I especially felt his presence this day.
I returned home to a peaceful yet forlorn house. All my brothers had long since moved out and my mother was still asleep. Simmering on the stove was a fragrant pot of stew that my cousin had prepared for me. This sentiment, at this moment, could replace any homecoming feast or gathering of relatives. I served myself a bowl and sat down alone at the dinner table, quietly eating. Reflecting on my journey, my life, my sorrows; In contemplation and regret.
When I think back at how I felt as though I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders at such a young age—how light it would have been today. It’s as though our existence is guaranteed trials and tribulations that match our current understanding or lack thereof—continually strengthening and educating us, giving rise to wisdom or further chastisement from above. I was also forced to grow up fast at such a young age. Fortunately, I was raised around people who immersed me in prayer, religions, and spirituality—I built a foundation for faith, worship, and belief. And thank the ‘Father,’ I was always surrounded by Elder’s and relatives that taught me what it means to be a man and what a man sets out do.