Adapted from Gathering My Life into Feathers.
More or less on our way to Taos, on a spirit quest in 3/1988, my brother John and I had an adventure in Canyonlands Utah. While still in Minnesota, I obtained an excellent map of Canyonlands and the surrounding area. On advice of a ranger, we decided to visit public land adjacent to Canyonlands that was administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Four wheeling was a joy and compensation, as I had major limitations due to back pain. I felt I was on a quest to find the perfect campsite. Toward the end of the trail, a stone’s throw from Canyonlands National Park, I had found it. We passed under a natural bridge as we entered the isolated canyon. We both felt it – the energy of a special place. And we had the entire canyon to ourselves, or so we thought.
We set up camp next to some old ruins in the cliff: stonewalls partially blocking two small caves. Each cave was large enough for two to three people. There was only one way up to the caves: climbing a tree about 12 feet up to a ledge and walking along the narrow ledge until it opened up. Without the tree, it would have taken a ladder to get up there. Intuitively, the area felt naturally defensible. The ruins, the small caves, seemed more like guard posts than storage bins for grain (which is what anthropologists at that time thought the function of the small ruins might be). We intuitively called them sentry posts. As it got dark, John and I decided to take a shamanic journey. He decided he would take his journey in one of the sentry posts. Intuitively, it felt like a bad idea to me, but John had made up his mind.
I went into the tent and began drumming. I thought it would be easy to take a shamanic journey in this setting, but I was wrong. I couldn’t get my shamanic body out of the canyon. I called and my power animal came through a hole in the sky. He said we should not journey in the ruins. Too late for that piece of advice. He said I should help John down from the cave, and that in doing so I should stay out in the open.
By the time I stopped drumming, it had been about a half an hour. I called up to John, who came out of the cave. He said that he wasn’t able to take a shamanic journey, that he’d heard footsteps approach. He said a being was about to enter the cave and was surprised to find him there. He said there were at least “several” other beings, and that he was a little scared.
“Did you hear that, the light footsteps?” John paused. “They’re here. Can you hear them?” I didn’t hear anything. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because I’m further away. But I felt something. My hair stood on end. That’s what it feels like to be in the same room with someone actively hallucinating. Your body knows and responds. Ask any mental health worker who has been in that situation. I had no doubt that John was experiencing the swinging gate, and that my body felt the reverberation.
There was chaos in the air. I had the intuition to check out the narrow ledge by the tree where John would have to climb down. If there would be an “accident” I knew it would happen there. I went over and was gazing intently, like I might discover some hidden shamanic booby trap. I heard the words (in my mind), “You have no business being here.” Simultaneously a rock dropped hitting me hard on the foot. I looked up, not being able to imagine where it had come from. Feeling lucky the rock didn’t hit my head, I called John. I felt I could guide him down.
Once down we walked over to our tent. John was scared. “They’re still up there. Can’t you hear them pacing?” I couldn’t. But it was absolutely clear to me that the air was thick with spirits, and I knew John could hear them. My skin was still crawling, knowing that I was in the proximity of unseen energy. Somehow, we had disturbed the canyon ghosts, gotten their attention with our intention to open a crack in the world. We had simply run into them accidentally as we shifted into the shamanic world of journey.
John said that he felt the situation was dangerous. I couldn’t say why, but I knew he was right. John asked: “What are we going to do?” I knew what to do: create a sanctuary. I decorated our tent with feathers and performed boundary magic with my staff. Then I called out loud to the spirits of the ruins to inform them of what I had done and intended. We would leave them alone; they would leave us alone. A rock fell by the caves. I’d gotten my answer. We’d been heard. We understood each other.
That night, snug in the tent, I had dreams. In the first dream, I was holding chaotic spirits at bay with my magic. One of them said: “You don’t think you can stop us with your power objects, do you?” But I was stopping them. In the second dream, a stranger tells me there is an emergency that needs my attention. Some men had trapped a panther with tiger stripes in a basement. They had it cornered and were hitting it. I found them, and commanded: “Stop hitting it!” and called the cat to me. It came happily and we escaped.
The last dream was most peculiar. It was morning and John had left the tent (as he actually had done). I thought I had awakened, and was laying lazily in my sleeping bag. Still believing I was awake, I heard two vehicles drive up to the campsite. John went over to the vehicles and explained that we were here first and that we intended to stay several more nights. They said they were surprised by our presence here, explaining that they felt no one would be here this early in the morning. They asked John if they could at least make a visit to the ruins. John said that it was OK, and I heard a group of them, children included, all laughing and yelling as they walked past my tent and climbed up the cliffs into the ruins. They did not return from the ruins, but I did hear the vehicles driving away. Then all was quiet again.
I continued to lay in the sleeping bag. I listened for John, but he did not seem to be out there. There was no transition between sleeping and waking, between dreaming and not dreaming. I simply sat up and walked outside. I truly did not know if what I’d heard was a dream or if it had actually occurred in consensus reality. I realized that if it had actually happened, I would find fresh tire tracks in the sand. When there were no tire tracks to be found, I realized it had been a kind of dream, and that the spirits of the place had put on our clothes to check us out.
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Gathering My Life into Feathers is available on this website.