Friday, April 29, 2005

Pilgrimage to Wellpinit

Friday the 29th of April strained my pocketbook and my peace of mind. I paid nearly $200 more than anticipated to repair the brakes on my little Isuzu Pup (and several other unforeseen repairs), and then found out the frame of the vehicle is actually broken! I'm not an auto repairman; nor am I a psychic, but I predict spending loads of cash if I can't find someone to help me weld the frame back together.

As you might imagine, news of economic hardship has a tendency to sour my outlook on life.

I spent the better part of an hour lamenting my current financial troubles and planning my surrender speech to the forces of adversity in the world. I cancelled all my engagements for the rest of the day and settled in for a long nap and a good dose of denial. Fortunately, Rhonda had better plans for me.

Every Friday afternoon, my uncle Pat Moses holds a traditional sweat lodge ceremony at his home in Wellpinit, Washington (on the Spokane Indian Reservation). I've heard him say the sweat lodge is a church; and truly it has become so for me within in the last several years. I try to join him every Friday, except of course when I don't...which usually happens because some dazzling distraction of this modern age (like movies, computers, or fast food) temporarily blinds my path from the rigors of traditional and spiritual discipline; or as in this case, something happens to provoke temporary insanity by way of depression or self-pity. Lucky for me, Rhonda recognized my current mental trap and forced me out the door to pay respect to my spiritual path.

Depending on how fast I decide to drive, it takes me somewhere between 35 minutes to an hour to reach Wellpinit from my home. I used to go a lot faster than I do now, but I finally figured out the spirits were scolding me for my habit of recklessness. I had a few close calls over the years with a number of animals running in front of my speeding car: deer, hawks, owls, mice, and even an old coyote which I ran over and killed. I also hit a deer once, but it was kind of comical the way it happened. He was a beautiful buck with a full rack of antlers, and I didn't see him until it was almost too late. I must have been traveling around 80 miles per hour when I saw the deer and slammed on my brakes. The old buck stood frozen in the middle of the highway as my little Ford Festiva screamed to a stop. I almost lost control of the wheel, but the car literally stopped just as my bumper gently nudged the deer on the rump! The animal looked up as though I had awaken him from a trance; he then jumped the fence and fled into the night. I laughed hysterically for about ten minutes, but after a while I finally realized the spirits were trying to tell me to slow down, literally! Needless to say, I try to drive a little bit slower during my weekly pilgrimage to Wellpinit.

This week I started my trip to Wellpinit feeling rather pessimistic and dour, but the clouds of gloom began to lift the further I got from home. I brought my digital camera and decided to photograph some of the sights along the way. As it turns out, the camera helped me find some good medicine for my soul.

I stopped first at the old Indian paintings near the Little Spokane River on Rutter Parkway. I carefully avoided paying the new $5 parking fee imposed by our state park system and completed a quick and deliberate mission to photograph the paintings. A large sign at the trailhead proclaims that modern Indians deny any knowledge of their origin, but my favorite theory says the paintings are a record of important spiritual experiences, probably connected to young men and their vision quests more than two centuries ago. The primary campsite of the pre-contact Middle Spokane once stood at the confluence of the Spokane and the Little Spokane Rivers just five miles away. In fact, the first Europeans in this area built Spokane House at that same location. I can imagine centuries ago the youngest vision seekers, perhaps only 8 or 9 years old, may have traveled alone to this very place to brave the dark of night and find a "sumesh," or spirit helper. Usually spirit helpers are animals: one of the images on the stone resembles a bird, and others resemble creatures caught somewhere between magical and mundane realities. One of the images has antennae like an insect, and its head is surrounded by the sun. Standing on that spot, I suddenly felt reverence for the spiritual experiences recorded by our ancestors, and I looked upon these paintings as more than cultural or historical novelties, but as a living, spiritual document; like a pictorial Bible written on stone. If God, the Great Mystery, could speak to the boy-prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-21), then surely he can reveal himself to the young seekers of the various tribes of this region who made their quest in places like this.

Shortly after I left the rock paintings, I crossed the Spokane River at Nine Mile Falls and stopped to photograph the dam. It saddens me to think of everything our people lost when the white man utterly destroyed the Indian way of life by building dams throughout our entire river system and blocking the salmon. The dam at Nine Mile Falls stands as a reminder of our loss, and yet I the spirit of the river lives even still. Once again a feel a deep sense of humility and reverence as I stand at a sacred site hidden beneath a hydroelectric dam.

About 20 minutes later, I stopped at Devil's Gap to pay respect to the marmot. About fifteen years ago my mom's car killed a marmot in Devil's Gap. We didn't stop as we should have, mainly because I was running late (as usual), and I did not want to miss the beginning of my father's winter dance. However, once I got to the dance, that poor marmot sat on my conscience all night. The next day, my father drove me back to Spokane through Devil's Gap, and when I told him the story, he agreed to stop. We found the animal just as I expected; its body mangled and destroyed by passing cars; but we found something else that caught us by surprise. A second marmot lay dead with its little arms snuggled around the one we killed less than 24 hours before. Unlike the animal we hit with our car, the second marmot had not been broken, damaged, hurt, or touched in any way. It reminded me of a man who witnessed the death of his one true love and later died of a broken heart. Is it possible the second marmot died of loneliness for the one he lost? Is it possible the animal people also know grief as we do? Something about that thought pulled me out of my limited, self-absorbed teenage world and forced me to touch the deeper mystery of spirit; and as I sat there on the asphalt in the middle of the highway, I wept. With all the tenderness of a bereaved lover, I carefully removed the marmots from danger and placed them near a thicket of wild roses by the roadside. I placed a small, polished, black stone by each of them as a prayer for the lives I stole.

After we left Devil's Gap, my father dropped me off at my home in Spokane.

That evening, I had just gone to sleep when the phone rang and woke me up. My father greeted me abruptly and sounded shaken. "Listen," he said, pausing frequently to catch his breath, "After I went to sleep tonight, those two marmots visited me in my dream. They looked normal, except they were real big, like people. They gave you a song because you had a big heart and honored them with your tears. They said someday you can use that song to take bad things out of people, but they said you have to be careful. You have to tell people if they want help from that song, they have to pay something for it. They showed me how to sing, and I could see their little hands reaching inside of people and taking out the bad." After he related his experience of the marmots, he sang the song over the phone. To this day, I sing that song every year during the winter dance.

Maybe someday I'll tell you more about that marmot spirit. For now I'll just leave you with a drawing I made of the woman as she sometimes appears in my dreams.

I stopped briefly to photograph the sunflowers and the scenery near Coyote Spring.

Because of the sacred nature of the sweat lodge ceremony, I will not write very much about my experience, except to say that once I arrived at my uncle's house my mood had completely changed. I felt reconnected to my spiritual foundation. Like I said before, my weekly drive to Wellpinit is a pilgrimage, even if I sometimes forget. This Friday I remembered and touched the spirit of my ancestors.

Starting my weblog...

I get complaints every now and then from friends and relatives who want to see pictures of my family more often than I usually send them out. While it is unlikely things will ever improve, I can certainly send photos via email. For all those who want to know all the breathtaking details of my so-called life, this weblog is your ticket.

Seriously though, my family and I spent a delightful afternoon at Riverfront Park; playing on the toys, strolling among the pre-Bloomsday crowds, feeding the ducks, and cursing the seagulls who eventually chased away all the gentler fowl.

At one point, Rhonda and I sat back and watched the kids as they threw popcorn to the ducks, geese, and seagulls. It was a perfect moment. We realized how blessed we are to have such gentle and amazing children.

On the way home, we stopped briefly at St. Aloysius Catholic Church for a couple of photographs. I had visited several days earlier to photograph portions of the church as part of a newfound interest in amateur photography.

It was a simple yet beautiful day.