What you can plan is too small for you to live.  (David Whyte)

I’m such a bad storyteller. 

Alright, that might be a bit harsh. Perhaps let’s say, such an “incomplete” storyteller. 

What I mean is all those stories I told about what my “wilderness adventure”, a “Soul Quest” with the Animas Valley Institute, was going to be like these past weeks were, well, just so wrong. 

I’ll admit that I couldn’t quite get my head around where I was going on this “adventure” with all the other details rumbling around in my head the weeks before I left. Things like plane reservations and rental cars, worrying over the extra pair of socks and how many “not too many” bandaids actually meant I should bring. I only knew that I was headed to some desert in Southern California with a long name I couldn’t pronounce. A trip that had sounded great in October that I now wasn’t sure I really wanted to go on.  

What I assumed was confirmed for sure, looking down in the plane from Phoenix to San Diego – a forbidding, desolate, brown rocky landscape below with a reasonable anticipation of a good share of misery and suffering ahead.  

Confirmed as well the next day in our drive to Anza-Borrego State Park with a few of my fellow adventurers to meet the rest of our group. We pulled off on a dusty mountain pull-out to look down on the vast brown plain below that seemed to stretch on forever. The dull blue rim of the Saltan Sea beyond that indeed looked from here as “gross” as Christian said it was, polluted by run-off from everywhere upstream.  

And yes, confirmed by our arrival in “Desert Gardens”, at another sandy pull-off on a dirt road in that plain below where we’d be camping for the next few nights with the three gallons of water to sustain us that we’d bought in the little town down the road. When we showed up, someone had already entangled themselves in the persistent hold of a ball of cactus barbs. We were warned to beware and ask for help if we too got ensnared, “The needle ends have hooks like barbed wire.” Ouch.  

On my way home but a few days ago I continued to find a few lingering barbs lurking in the bottom of my pack, here in the back of my sock, there at the side of my jeans. Today, before I lose all the sharp reminders of this trip, I’ve vowed to take time to remember.  

Yes, there were clear gifts I received, and I’ll tell you about some of them, but today it’s the stories I told myself and others about this trip that get to me. I mean those silly and incomplete stories I told of how I thought things were going to be. These small stories that I realize I tell myself all the time that are not big enough to contain all the wonder and surprise of what actually is and will be. 

And so, in a place where I expected only dry sand, I was met by a desert in bloom in early spring flowers – purple, yellow, white and red. Each day I met more and more, so many varieties of flowers I lost count. Gray, tall spindly ocotillo cactus covered here with delicate green leaves, there topped with brilliant red shoots of flowers.  

Where I had expected only a lack of water and perhaps with it some good share of suffering and misery in the desert, I found myself instead camping in an oasis, a true Garden of Eden with rushing stream, palm trees, frogs and hummingbirds.  

Who knew? Who could have expected what wonder was before me so different from all the small and scary stories I had told? Not me. 

Each of us in our little group of twelve, aged 25 to 62, were seeking in our own particular ways a deeper connection to God, to Spirit, to Mystery, to something we couldn’t name. We found that connection with each other and our immersion in this amazing brown and blooming land, this brilliant blue sky and moonlit nights.  

I don’t mean that there were not times that were hard. Times that we all got entangled in cactus barbs and more so in our own small stories. But we had to agree with our friend Christian that at the end of the trip we all wondered, “When was the last time we had so much fun?” Yes, as he said, “Even the hard parts were fun.”

12 days of camping, 12 days without a shower, 12 days without a cell phone in hand, 12 days of no coffee! All of it making you truly off-line and in-touch in another way. A perfect setting where something, anything might happen.  

I fail at words to describe what actually happened. Tell friends that my words for what I discovered sound“trite” because they fail at translating a depth that words cannot reach. Yes, a deeper trust in myself. A trust in mystery. A recognition that my small stories at their root are part and parcel of everyone else’s small stories. My own stories no longer so very precious, needing to be held so tight, precious as they are. In sharing our stories, we realized again that we are part of one larger messy, story of life, of being alive. No longer so separate, no longer so afraid. 

I don’t know if I have any more idea of what a “Soul” is other than something more mysterious and real than I’d thought. I do know it’s a different kind of compass to follow that I trust more fully. 

It will take a while, a good while to take in all that happened and I am most curious about what will be revealed in the weeks, months, years ahead that I can’t see or anticipate now.  

One day we walked side by side into the desert telling the stories of our lives in the language of myth. 

Along the way, we paused and looked back. Wondered, where in the world did our stories go? We must have left them somewhere behind in the dusty road as we walked along.

Wherever they had gone, whatever those stories were, all we knew was that they had led us here to this dusty road on this warm day, walking together into this new story.

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