VISIONS AND VISION QUESTS - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter Fifteen




In life, time carries youth forward, and young men and women become adults. While there are traditional and nontraditional paths to maturity, the first rite of passage in life is often when people leave home. Leaving home, be it for college, military service, or any other reason is the first step into adulthood. That separation carries with it a sense of heading off alone to stake your own claim. Even in the cocoon of a university, surrounded by friends and supported by parents, young adults experience independence, and begin to search for their path forward. In the Native American cultures, they would escalate this experience by going on a vision quest, which I have found can be a powerful survival tool.

Native Americans have a connection with the land that is absolute. Many of their traditions and ceremonies have become precedents for the modern customs that people use to better their spiritual lives. Some of the Native American tools for growth, such as the vision quest, have not translated to modern society, though in this case many people would greatly benefit if it did. Vision quests are a way for the Native Americans to advance their lives. As a survivalist, they have moved me forward both spiritually and emotionally.

A typical Native American vision quest lasts four days and four nights. (Going out into the wilderness for two full nights and one full day can also yield benefits.) It takes place in a location with only the most minimal of possessions. Typically, a stone circle is constructed and the person does not leave the area. The vision quest includes four stages: solitude, immersion in nature, fasting, and community. Being alone forces one to look inside his own soul. The return to nature creates connection. Fasting opens the body up to absorb possibilities. The return to community with this newfound elixir helps others.

Most vision quests are purposeful and forced. Native Americans go on them to find their spiritual center, to reinvent themselves, and to chart their life’s direction. They use them to guide themselves in many pursuits, to open cathartic doors, and to recover from life-altering events. Once the body has opened itself up to nature, the mind has an ability to see it in an unconfined way. In other words, you can’t sit in your apartment, turn off the TV, and have this experience.

Vision quests are part of the fabric of nature and owe their power to the natural world. Being alone in nature causes the body to go into a more relaxed state. When the body reaches that state, it becomes more receptive. On these quests, the person often experiences visions because their mind becomes comatose from lack of food and sleep.

Starving yourself depletes your energy. When you have a normal level of energy, you are an “outputter.” The body constantly wants to push that energy somewhere. The idea on a vision quest is that you reach a point where you have no energy to push out anymore. So instead of pushing out energy, the body receives energy from other aspects around it, primarily the land and other spiritual sources.

I have talked to people who have studied aspects of people’s energy. Some people are born with more of their own energy, while others are born as empty vessels. People born as empty vessels usually have greater intuition and psychic abilities, and they are able to receive things. Some people have energy but lack a highly developed knowing center (the center of wisdom people are born with).

To break it down, there are energy channels that run through your mind, body, and spirit. Some people are always receiving that energy; they are not putting any out. These would typically be shamans. They would also be people who would be able to sit on a vision quest and find a profound spiritual revelation.

According to spiritual readers who have read me, I am less of a receiver than most. When I sit on a vision quest, I don’t see the proverbial white buffalo. One aspect about me that is unique is that all my energy centers are fully developed, along with my knowing center. That means I have the ability to be a teacher and to share the knowledge I was born with.

The land will share with anyone who puts themselves into the state of receiver. Most people who go through the first three stages will have some form of vision. Native Americans believe that people who need it the most receive it far more frequently. Therefore, if somebody who is already well grounded walks into the vision circle for four days and four nights and doesn’t have some powerful vision, the shaman’s explanation would be that you were grounded enough in that moment that you did not need to see anything big.

I have used vision quests whenever I need clarity. Upon moving to Boulder, before I applied for the job at BOSS, I went to the top of a mesa to see what the land had to tell me. I spent three days and three nights (the typical time for a vision quest) in a circle there to connect with the land where I would work and I found my home. But I have also experienced powerful visions while out in nature that have helped me survive.


My journey on the “revised” all-primitive walk that led me into the Grand Canyon was similar to a vision quest. Like the Native American men on a vision quest, I was experiencing extreme solitude. I was purely connected to the land. My body was beaten down. I was nearly starving. When I arrived at the motel, I was not consciously seeking anything. Even though I was hungry, food wasn’t on my mind. All I wanted was a hot bath to raise my core body temperature to a reasonable level and a warm bed for a night’s sleep.

I crawled under the sheets and pulled up the covers. I was focused on nothing. There were flashes of my near-death experience. I wasn’t planning for tomorrow. I didn’t even say a prayer of thanks for my life being spared. I went right to sleep.

I have always been a lucid dreamer and a light sleeper. I owe that to living in the wilderness. Even during sleep, there has to be a level of awareness because there are so many variables. As I developed the ability to detect danger in sleep, I also found that I could easily recall my dreams and separate them from reality.

That night, I began dreaming before I fell into a deep sleep. I was aware of the precise moment when my dream started to take shape. I liken it to the feeling when you start dozing off and fuzzily enter a dream state before fully checking out. This dream started the instant I pressed my head into the pillow—the first pillow that had been under my head in a couple years.

I saw my spot, my place in life, my oasis. It was something of a wilderness area that didn’t have a lot of distinctive features to it. The ground was covered with sand and a few trees dotted the land, but it was a very nondescript place. As I prepared to walk toward that spot, a man riding on what appeared to be a hovercraft approached me from the distance. The vehicle had no wheels and was elevated two to three feet off the ground like something out of the movie Back to the Future Part II. By the time the vehicle reached me, my sleep was getting deeper and deeper.

The hovercraftlike vehicle stopped in front of me. The man was of a tan Caucasian ancestry and held his face with a certain amount of compassion and wisdom, much like the actor Morgan Freeman would if he were playing the role.

“Hop in,” the man said.

Puzzled, I replied, “Where are we going?”

“I’m taking you to your house,” he said casually, as if he were giving a friend a lift home. “Your wife is there waiting for you.”

“House? Wife? I’m not married,” I said.

His demeanor turned stern. “Matt,” he said. “You have dedicated your whole life to teaching primitive skills and teaching people how to live with the earth. This is what’s been waiting for you.” He punched the phrase whole life, though I wasn’t sure what that meant.

I hopped on, and off we went. I was an adventurer on his strangest adventure ever. A mysterious excitement took hold.

The drive wasn’t long. We pulled up to a house. It was the most beautiful structure I could conceptualize. The house had a white-picket-fence feel without actually having a white picket fence. The awning and entrance to the door were formed from a log that created a natural upside-down U shape. All the materials were of the earth, but the house had been built with a human mind for detail.

Just as I stepped off the hover car, the front door opened. An absolutely gorgeous woman walked out. She was dressed simply, which accentuated her natural beauty. There seemed to be a celestial light radiating from her. She walked up to me.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of strange that we are married and we don’t really know each other?” I managed.

The corners of her mouth turned up as she spoke. “But I do know you and you know me,” she said reassuringly.

Instantly, I understood what she meant. My fuzzy thoughts became clear. We walked into the house and back into our lives together. From that point forward, there were no words in the dream.

We spent an entire week together getting to know each other again and making the house our own. I worked on the physical tasks, while she took care of the more graceful pursuits. For instance, I would build a table out of wood, and she would make a flower centerpiece. Everything we did had a synchronicity to it that didn’t require us to ask the other what to do. Our roles seemed perfectly defined. We were blissfully intertwined.

Six hours after the man picked me up, I awoke. I felt enlightened. The dream had taken up the entire six hours. Many experts claim that the longest dreams only last up to twenty minutes and occur only during REM sleep, but this was not the case. I know this because I recalled the precise moment the dream began, just as I crossed from consciousness to sleep.

The dream I had was unique, and I knew it. It was born of the harrowing experience I had in the Grand Canyon. Unlike a vision quest, I had not been seeking answers to my path forward. I have been on full vision quests for four days and four nights and not had such clear visions as I did in that dream. Still, I could not ascribe any larger meaning to it at that time.


My most complete visions have come on hunter-gatherer-type walkabouts in which I am living off the land for long periods of time. Most of the time I’m alone, but sometimes I’m guiding groups. Sometimes when I guide on long courses for a couple weeks, students will have visions that make me jealous. In part, this is because the previously uninitiated body is more receptive once it is put in a state where it can be an “inputter,” rather than “outputter.”

These visions tend to be highly stylized versions of something missing from their lives. Perhaps their late father said something so profound that it wouldn’t be in an ordinary dream. Recalling such visions, the people are often in tears because they feel they have been touched by something real and lasting.

When students go through the starvation phase, they often start dreaming that they were with friends feasting at a banquet. Some people wake up and brush it off, saying it was merely a dream. But if the dream endures, others like myself enjoy the experience so much that when we wake up, even though we know it was a dream or a vision, we feel like we actually ate the feast and hung out with friends.

Like many people, in my early days I may have discounted such an experience, dismissing it as an ordinary dream or a hallucination, from being too hot and too dehydrated. But I have had visions that show these accounts are more than mere dreams or the side effects of a depleted body, and that things are connected more deeply.

I began to understand this on a long walkabout. I ended up staying out in the canyons alone for forty-two days. After about eight days, I found a cave in which to rest. I didn’t sit in the cave as a substitute for a vision quest circle. Instead, I decided to purify my body by drinking mint tea and not eating any other food.

I stayed in the cave for a week. I was wearing a breechcloth and had another piece of cloth tied around my waist. Those were my only belongings. My primary daily activities consisted of leaving to collect mint and water from a spring that was deeply cut into the ravine below, and building a fire at night. I did little else.

On the fourth night, I was lying on the cloth by the fire preparing to go to sleep. My skin was exposed to the night sky and the fire. Seconds after I fell asleep, I heard a noise coming from the spring down the hill. I woke up.

I sat up and looked at the fire. The smoldering flames looked real, but I realized I hadn’t woken up my real body because I could still feel the fire on my shoulder. It was a variation of my body, my consciousness, in a place that was identical to where I had fallen asleep.

I was puzzled. I didn’t know how to react to this feeling. I was listening to the spring and looking down the hill, all the while wondering what I might be looking for. The sound was real. What if there was something dangerous down there, a potential threat?

For a moment, I lay back down and thought about waking up my real body. I’ve always been able to control dreams before they veer to an uncomfortable place. But I stopped myself. I stood back up. This feeling of being in two worlds was too bizarre not to explore. Because I had somehow created this state, I wondered if I could go further. I wondered if I could fly.

I lifted my body up. Sure enough, it elevated. Yes, I can, I thought. I can fly. I flew around the comforts of the majestic alcove. The cave was as large as a football field. The feeling was amazing, if not totally believable to me.

When I started to lie back down, I could still feel the fire. But before I lost this ability, whatever it was, wherever it was coming from, I decided I should explore.

I looked up at the sky. There was a three-quarter moon, so I knew the desert would be bright. I lifted my body again and began to fly.

I flew up over the canyon rim, across the desert, and through the countryside. I kept flying, over the San Bernardino Mountains, all the way to California. By the time I reached California, the sun was starting to rise.

Typically, there is a layer of smog over the San Bernardino Mountains. It was there but different. The smog had risen to the tops of the mountains and created black swirls in the sky. From above, it was the most polluted air I had ever seen. It looked like carbon exhaust that was magnified forty times to the point where I didn’t think anyone could live or breathe. In the city below I didn’t see any activity, not even any cars driving around. I decided to explore.

I descended. As I approached the foothills and closed in on the city, I spotted an apartment complex. The two-story building had a courtyard in the back. I landed on the walkway of the second floor. Through an open door, I heard a mother and child talking. They sounded fine. But the entire situation felt weird. The cars in the streets were all abandoned. As I walked toward the door, I heard somebody walking up the stairs.

I reached the door and leaned into the apartment. I saw that the mother and child were in the kitchen. They were occupied with something and turned away from me, so I decided to enter and slip by them. Despite knowing I was dreaming, I didn’t want to get caught because I was unsure what the repercussions would be.

As I made my way through the apartment, I saw there was a screen open, so I went out the back to the courtyard. Once in the courtyard, I decided to depart. But the courtyard had wooden latticework around the top. I flew around like a trapped bird looking for a break in the lattice. All the while, I still felt the fire on my left shoulder.

The fire kept me focused. I knew I had to return to my real body. I found a gap in the lattice, squeezed through it, and returned to my cave faster than I had arrived. Back in my real body on terra firma, I opened up my eyes. The fire was crackling in front of me, real as could be.

I sat up, dumbfounded and bewildered by the whole experience. I didn’t want to analyze it, so I lay back down and fell asleep.

I woke up the next morning, the fifth day after the fourth night, when visions typically occur. The vision was over; my awareness was heightened. I didn’t know what to make of the experience, but I did know it portended well for me. It was time to return to my tasks of the journey.

I had collected a couple of squirrel skins that I wanted to sew into pouches. I decided to go out and hunt some more squirrels. I also wanted to make a bone awl. The area was pretty void of bones, but I remembered one cave where I thought I might find an old cow bone.

I walked to the cave where I thought bones might be. I entered and walked the length of the cave but didn’t see a single bone. Right as I was on my way out, I saw one little white speck in the sand. I reached down, flicked the speck, and saw there was more buried there. I kept digging. Two feet underground, I felt something and spread out the sand to have a look.

I uncovered what was certainly an ancient, thousand-year-old Anasazi bone awl, perfectly made. Six inches in length, the awl was carefully made from the femur of a deer. The tool’s maker had split it from a section of the femur and ground it down. It was still sharp. The craftsmanship was exceptional. The person had done a far better job than I could do.

I ended up using that bone awl for the next two weeks until a cave took it away. It disappeared into the sand again. Small things such as awls often get lost in the sand and disappear easily. The bone awl was left to be discovered again.


To this day, I still don’t understand the significance of the vision I had of the mother and child in their apartment with a virtual wasteland surrounding them. There are possibilities. I don’t know if it is part of my life that is yet to be lived, or something that I will discover affecting someone else’s life. Perhaps it is as a simple as the fact that a night gave me something intangible that I had never seen (the flying scene), and the following morning gave me something tangible that I had never seen (the bone awl).

The awl was like finding a needle in a haystack. To this day, none of my friends has ever found an Anasazi awl. I just happened to walk out that morning needing to find a bone to make an awl. Those awls exist in museums and ancient burial grounds, but to stumble on one randomly in a cave is a one-in-a-billion chance. That led me to tie the discovery to the vision I had.

I do know that visions make it possible for me to be alone for long periods of time. They make me feel that there is a greater being watching over. They make me feel that I am not alone. As such, they have become an essential part of survival.

Visions have allowed me to discover that I can confidently live alone for extended periods of time with no human contact. But rather than feeling alone during those times, I actually feel more connected. Many survivalists who spend time in nature feel as though they have to read to keep themselves from losing all touch with others. Absorbing the stories from the pages keeps them from feeling alone. But I found that if you don’t read, then you can open yourself up to visions that ultimately make you feel even more connected to life.