Preparing for a Vision Quest

by Nancy King

I turn 80 this year and I’m a walking cliché. I don’t feel 80 but what is 80 supposed to feel like? Still, it’s a huge birthday and, I decided, it required a special celebration. I have always wanted to do a vision quest—it seemed like something intriguing and mystical and magical. So, over the years when I met people who led them, almost the first thing I was told was that I would have to fast—for two days or three days or, good heavens—four days. “I can’t fast,” I would tell the leader or guide or facilitator. The answer was always the same, “You could if you REALLY wanted to do a vision quest.” Actually. No, I couldn’t. My blood sugar, at its best, feels like an inner rollercoaster unless I eat regularly. If I don’t, I pass out.

When I learned that a healer I know had just returned from leading a vision quest—her 30th—I told her I had always wanted to do one but couldn’t fast. She immediately responded, “Of course you can’t, it would be contraindicated for your body.” With no blood sugar blues to stop me, I asked if I could participate in her next vision quest as a way of celebrating my 80th birthday. “Why do you want to do it?” she asked. I’ve been carrying around a lot of baggage from a violent and sexually abusive childhood. A vision quest seemed an opportunity to leave it in the forest, to metaphorically dump the shitty contents and let it nourish the forest. 

“I’d like to lighten the load I carry around,” I told her.

“The process involves one meeting a month prior to the vision quest in August, three days in the retreat center preparing, four days and four nights in the wilderness by yourself, three days in the retreat center to process your experience, then once a month meetings until the end of the year. What do you think?

I thought. 

I gulped. 

I told her that if she thought I could do it, I would do it. She had no doubts. I kept mine to myself.

During the first two preparatory sessions I managed to avoid thinking about what I would do for four days and four nights in the wilderness without a tent, and endured more than slightly uncomfortable discussions about spirit, with whom I am not on speaking terms. I also managed to tamp down fears of claustrophobia every time she talked about the sweat lodge ceremony. Then came the third session. I was going to have to cut out 108 four-inch squares to make prayer ties. To make matters worse, I had to fill each square with a bit of cornmeal that represented female power, and tobacco, which was male power, and tie them in a special way to then bind them to a long piece of red thread that would surround me while I was in the woods, all the while thinking deep thoughts about why I wanted to do a vision quest and what I needed from spirit to do it. My brain was spinning. In all of my almost eight decades I have never managed to accurately measure anything. I mess up recipes. I can’t follow directions. Just thinking about cutting out 108 four inch squares with anything remotely measuring four inches was so unfathomable that it took all of my willpower to avoid saying, “That’s it! I’m out of here.”

I left the session feeling helpless, frustrated, and stupid. I beat up on myself. Why did I have to have the relentless urge to push my boundaries every so often? I was going to be 80 for God's sake. That brought no comfort. Having to buy tobacco, which I have never in my life bought, made me wish I’d never heard the words: vision quest.

I was directed to a local store where they sell tobacco. Feeling impossibly clueless, I asked a cashier wearing a leather pouch around her neck if she would sell me tobacco. “Of course,” she said. “May I ask what you want it for?” Clearly, she didn’t think I was a smoker. “It’s for a vision quest,” I mumbled. Her joy was astonishing. “This is wonderful. I’m so happy for you.” Filling 108 four-inch squares? Not a problem. Two pouches would do it for the squares and the sweat lodge ceremony. Didn’t I want to buy it on a reservation? Much cheaper. No. Too much trouble. After paying for the tobacco she gave me a hug and said she hoped I’d come back and tell her how it went. Now I had her good wishes and tobacco and the cornmeal in my refrigerator, but 108 four-inch squares? 


To make myself feel better, and to take my mind off 108 four-inch squares, I called a friend to ask how she was feeling. She sews, so after hearing the excellent news that all her medical test results had come back negative, I asked where I could buy yards of red cotton. “What for?” She knows I am as sewing averse as anyone she’s ever met. I told her my tale of woe. She guffawed, but before I could tell her what a miserable excuse of a friend she was, she offered to buy and cut out my 108 four-inch squares. Yes. She offered. Without my asking. I immediately thanked her so profusely and earnestly, and at such length, that she laughed uncontrollably and insisted I had to stop the thanksgiving or she would explode. I don’t know if having someone else cut out the 108 four-inch squares for me is cheating or if it’s a manifestation of spirit. May I learn more about the ways of spirit in the four remaining sessions before I leave for the vision quest.


Nancy King’s newest novel, Opening Gates has just been published. On her website, you can read excerpts of all her novels and learn about her books of nonfiction that focus on the power of stories, imagination, and creativity. She lives in Santa Fe where she writes, weaves, and spends time in the mountains. She leads workshops in creative writing, memoir, exploring imagination, the healing power of stories, and discovering our inner stories, in the US and abroad.For further information please  contact her at

Opening Gates
By Nancy King
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