Mostly I manage to be upbeat in this time of pandemic closures but cancelling our annual June Cascadia Quest took me to a surprising place of grief. What is my work in the world now if I can’t lead people into the wilderness? Questing offers such an important path for seekers, what if the time for remote retreats in nature with community cannot happen for a long time? And, oh how I treasure our annual pilgrimage to the stunning lands of Skalitude retreat center in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains! When will I be able to return to those carefully held lands with my beloved Christina and our dear friend and co-guide, Deb?
The pandemic is a time when all of us are grieving something—not seeing friends, changed work status, lost vacation plans, people we know who’ve been sick, maybe even died—the list is harder and longer for some than others. Grief kind of piles up. I’ve had to cancel a visit from our grandchildren and a visit to my mother. Those were “expectedly” sad decisions. But the decision to cancel the quest is what opened the door to my accumulated grief about so much of what is happening in the world today.
After weeks of decision making around the quest, I felt overwhelmed by my sadness and disappointment at not being able to host it this year—did not have my usual energy for doing things. Only going outside for walks with our new puppy or puttering in the garden brought joy back. My lethargy worried me until I recognized it as grief.
The 2020 questers were already deep in their preparations—declaring intentions, journal writing, taking Medicine Walks—when the COVID-19 virus began to systematically shut things down around the world. As co-guides, Christina Baldwin, Deborah Greene-Jacobi and I spoke with each of the questers, monitored news, and consulted with other members of the Wilderness Guides Council. Five participants were coming across the Canadian border, which is closed at least through May 20. Our Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, has barred all non-essential travel until after June 1. Our colleague guides who were offering wilderness retreats in May and early June have all cancelled their quests.
Cancelling this year’s Cascadia quest was clearly necessary for everyone’s safety. That is the “professional” level of the decision. But the “heart” level of the decision raised a desire to help them from a distance to continue their inner journeys. In response, we have sent our participants three documents: Sit Spot, Medicine Walk, and Quest/ions writing exercise. Each describes an important spiritual life tool that we want to offer more widely during this time of worldwide retreat from ordinary life.
A long history of wilderness questing
Designing nature rites of passage has always been important to me. Long before I trained in multi-cultural quest guiding, my “bones” knew that something important happens when a person spends extended time alone in nature while being held by community.
When I was 14, my family started renting a cabin at a remote ranch in Colorado. Each day I would disappear for many hours exploring the uncharted wilderness of the surrounding White River National Forest. These were my first Medicine walks. Adventures at the Ranch were both solo and communal. Some members of our Brown family spent 2 weeks every summer for 49 years there. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving four generations this extraordinary opportunity!
When my son, Brian, turned twelve, I wanted to mark his shift into manhood. The culture around me did not seem to offer anything. So, a friend and I organized a day long hike for our two sons along the shore of Lake Superior followed by a big welcoming campfire. All eight of the boy’s grandparents came from out of town to participate in their grandsons’ growth. The boys hiked 12 miles alone that day. They got lost and wandered late into the campground with their waiting dinner and ceremony and loving families. Both Brian and Ben referred to that day often as they grew into fine men.
When I turned 43, I personally felt called to mark midlife, to give gratitude, and to ask the big question, “How else might my life be of service at this time?” In Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife I detail the 1800-mile, 65-day kayaking trip around the shore of Lake Superior with my dear friend, Paul in 1992. That trip marked the earliest beginnings of PeerSpirit and launched me into serving as a wilderness guide able to lead rites of passage work for others.
It is an incredible privilege and responsibility to serve as a guide for people on a wilderness quest. For a number of years, I served in that role in other organizations. In 2009 PeerSpirit offered its first Cascadia Quest. Every year since then, until 2020, men and women have gathered with us on the beautiful lands of Skalitude. We have booked ten days for 2021 in hopes this work can continue.
Holding hope for a return to traditional questing
I do not diminish what CAN happen online. I am participating in that venue. However, I am firmly holding the point on the wheel that many things really need to be done “face to face” with each other, and with nature. As many things move online, may our next steps out of quarantine lead us eventually safely back to one another and to Nature.