It was a burning sensation from Hell as I awoke from an exhausted sleep. I was so warm that I couldn’t climb inside my sleeping bag, so I simply rolled it out and laid down on it.
The long days sun had drained me, and though terribly thirsty, I wasn’t the least bit interested in food as I searched for a spot off the roadway. It had been hours since I seen a vehicle pass by and I truly had begun to wonder if I’d stepped off the world somehow and came to travel through a bewildering landscape.
On either side were high, red cliffs, below was a double lane road that snaked it’s self like a gray ribbon between the slotted walls. Strange sounds, tumbling chips of rock and heat were my only companions and I was half-scared, half-in-wonderment and fully lost.
Now, I’d been bitten or stung. Was it a spider, a scorpion or perhaps a centipede or a snake? I had no idea as it was far too dark for me to see anything as it scurried away – assuming that it did.
Within seconds the right side of my face puffed up, swollen to the point I could no longer see out of my eye. I felt a warmish sensation course through my body which left me wanting to throw up, a severe danger in the heat of the desert, leading to deadly dehydration.
It was struggle to shake out my sleeping bag, roll it up and get it back into my rucksack. I was in a dazed-frame of mind as I finally completed the task and made it over to the asphalt.
After walking through the darkness, half-sighted and completely ill, I finally found a rock by the roadside and sat down. I needed to wait for the venom to finish what it had begun and I wasn’t sure it it’s job was to finish me off or fade away till I felt better.
Hallucination overcame me and I believed someone or something was watching me. Even though it was dark, I believed I could see shadows dancing, gyrating and floating between the canyon walls.
By this time, I was so miserable that if they were agents of the Devil, I would have welcomed them to kill me. Eventually, the poison had spread to the other side of my face, making it even more difficult to see and worse, my throat was tight and drinking from my canteen became practically impossible as I could barely swallow or feel my lips.
At first, I thought I was dreaming as I heard the sound of the vehicle pull up and stop. Next came two voices, speaking in a language I didn’t understand, but which seemed somewhat familiar.
The woman’s voice, older, more dominant, the younger one, a male, compliant. Together they approached me and ushered me to the still running vehicle and helped me into the back seat.
As we began to moved I allowed myself dream that they were aliens and I was about to get the ride of a life time. It wouldn’t be the last time I fantasized, becoming confused about events over the coming days.
My memory fuzzed out at that time, perhaps because I sensed safety or maybe my will power to struggle and survive had ebbed; I have no idea, At any rate, I didn’t wake up until a few days later in what I would learn was a hogan.
The first person I saw was a man with snow-white hair, a brightly colored shirt and crisp blue jeans. He introduced himself as Hatáli Sam. Since I couldn’t say his first name, or what I thought was his first name I called him Mr. Sam and he appeared okay with that.
Later, I learned hatáli means ‘singer’ in Navajo and that Sam was the man’s last name. He had been the one to treat my sting, what he knew to be an Arizona Bark Scorpion.
“You’ve been bit before, no?” Mr. Sam asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “I sat on a scorpion when I was 18.”
“Ahh,” he smiled, “This one must have thought you his brother and offered greetings. Makes sense. Never seen a sting in the face before.”
“Thank you for helping me – saving my life,” I said after a lengthy silence.
“You are welcome. Are you hungry? Would you like some coffee?” he asked.
“Please,” I answered.
It took me the rest of the day and most of the next to regain my strength. By that time, I was becoming a sort of cause célèbre as visitor came and went each wanting to see the man with the ‘fat face.’
Evidently, bringing gift’s is a part of the culture and soon Mr. Sam had a bench full of items. It felt good to eat, drink and enjoy the dry heat of the summer day as Mr. Sam told me I should stay more days and fully heal.
The evening of the second day, we were sitting by the hogan’s door way when Mr. Sam stated, “I wouldn’t not do this for an Anglo usually, but your case is different. You need a hozhooji, if you are willing.”
As soon as he said this, I nearly broke tradition by asking, “What does it entail.” Instead, I simply shook my head ‘yes.’
The following day, Mr. Sam awoke me before the sunrise, leading me down a narrow path to a small flat below his hogan to a ‘wiki-up.’ Constructed of branches, the wiki-up’s frame is dome-shaped and covered in several layers of skins, everything from coyote to deer and possibly bear hide.
There, he instructed me to strip down to my ‘skivvies’ and go inside and wait, which I did. Soon six other men, some my age, other’s slightly older, joined me and the ceremony began.
It started off amazingly simple; a small fire in the center of the wiki-up, hand-held square drums with wooden sticks that had a curve to their heads and chanting. The ceremony becomes more complex as one sits, sweats and eventually joins in the chanting, as I did my best to do.
Eventually, we were given a weak tea to drink. At first it was bitter to my taste, but the more I drank the less bitter it became. Unbeknownst to me this tea’s designed to make a person upset to their stomach.
The idea being, that if you puke it up, you are ridding yourself of the bad things of ‘this world.’ I was unable to keep mine down.
After several exhaustive days filled with chanting, singing, dancing, drums and sweating, and with very little sleep and food, I was given a small piece of ‘fruit’ no bigger than a raisin to chew and swallow. A few minutes after that, I entered a new ‘level of self,’ as best I can describe it, that allowed me to see sound in color, to feel the air as it entered my lungs, hear the heartbeat of the man sitting next to me, though he was a number of feet away, and to feel myself float or glide beyond my body.
Somehow, I managed find my way, spiritually, through all five steps of the ceremony – which include the Protection way, purification and cleansing, a nine-day spiritual renewal process and finally my journey to spirit world and back. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was in ‘another place’ for over 48-hours.
Once I returned to my natural-self, I was very hungry and thirsty and Mr. Sam made sure that each man had plenty of water and food. As I sat outside the wiki-up, eating and sipping water and coffee, I couldn’t but think how selfish I was being, running away from my problems, creating new one, and not giving a damn about any of it.
There was such a peace in me that I didn’t want to leave for fear that it would not last or would be lost, but after more than three-weeks, I knew what I had to do. It was Mr. Sam who drove me to a busy rest stop, where he dropped me, sending me on my way.
I was soon to learn, that inner-peace doesn’t mean a lack of personal trouble.