Brenda turns the key in the ignition and the yellow VW bug jumps forward. She’s in the driver’s seat talking nonstop with Mary who’s riding shotgun. Our backpacks are tied to the roof and I share the backseat seat with canteens, sleeping bags and pillows piled to the ceiling. I lean back in the seat and rest my head, close my eyes, trying desperately to ignore the gyrations in my chest and the lump forming itself in my throat. “I’m going on a vacation,” I reassure myself. “Going to California, to the mountains to do yoga and meet some groovy people.”
It’s an all day drive from Central Oregon to Elk, a blip on the map just north of San Francisco in Mendocino County. The trip is smooth and, except for the minimal shock absorption and incessant engine racket, I am comfortable. We arrive at the site after nightfall, our meager headlights leading the way down a winding dirt road through tall pines, inching us towards the unknown experience that awaits.
“There’s no way out,” the voice in my head blurts out. “You don’t have a car. You couldn’t get back by yourself in a million years. You’re no camper. Are you kidding yourself? You have no idea what these people are up to!”
We pull into a makeshift parking lot set in a large meadow and are directed by longhaired, (some of them turbaned) young men to park our car and unload our gear. It’s muddy and I slog through it in my tennies, already slapping at mosquitoes and casting about for any snakes or other menacing critters that might come out of the darkness. Mary and Brenda are still talking, though a bit more subdued now and with longer gaps between their spurts of conversation. I drag my pack and sleeping bag onto the back of a flatbed truck and hop up and in. A baby is crying and a couple dozes in the front end of the truck, their heads touching at the crown as they lean into each other. The truck lurches forward and we all grab the sides to keep from launching backwards onto the ground and into the mud.
It takes about a half hour to cover the ten miles to the campsite. We rise and fall, turn left and right, go through patches of open space where the stars cast their brilliance upon us, only to be quickly immersed in dense layers of pines again, as if turning into a tunnel carved through a mountainside. We disembark and are told we must walk an additional half-mile to our campsite, as the road is dicey and the fewer vehicles over this last bit the better. I am not a hiker, I don’t exercise and I only stopped smoking two months ago. There is no choice so I gather my stuff and head down the slope.
I am here for ten days. Ten days over the Summer Solstice, the most intense time of the year. The sun is at its height and the days are the longest of the year. This is no Club Med, no Disneyland. Our canvas tent is pitched on a hill, sloped at about a 45 degree angle. I wake several times in the night to find myself in a wadded mass at the bottom of the tent pulled by the gravitational force. To get to the main stage area, to the meals, to the showers, to the bathrooms we must walk down the hill. To return to our tent we must climb up the steep and slippery incline, unstable from the constant traffic.
I do seva: chop vegetables, clean latrines, pass out bananas for breakfast. There are the fire-walkers flying across the hot coals, the wrestling pit with four women wildly pulling one male out of a cheering circle, the ecstatic dances of triumph after a day of White Tantric Yoga and always the music, the mantra filling the pure mountain air. There is Yogi Bhajan on his white horse, a chieftain standing proudly above the camp, a vision of courage and the possibility of majesty that seems so far away from our present state of consciousness. There is the food: Four bananas, four oranges and a bowl of steaming spicy potato soup for breakfast with mounds of rice and beans, steamed carrots and iceberg lettuce filling our wooden bowls at dinner. The water is cold, ice on the body at 4 in the morning, gulped eagerly midday as it slides down my sandpaper throat. Days of silence where communication is done in sign language or scrawled notes torn from dirt-stained notebooks, with “Sat Nam” the only words uttered aloud. Time is lost and only this breath and the one immediately following exist. I slip into sleep at night shedding tears of pure joy or complete terror, often not clear which are which.
And, of course, there’s the yoga. Five days of kundalini yoga, for eight hours a day. In the middle of the day, with no shade from the sun, I do White Tantric Yoga with my boyfriend, Hans who is the inspiration (or should I say tormentor) who encouraged me to go on this “vacation.” One minute I am screaming in pain and know that death would certainly be a sweeter pill to swallow than rising up on my knees and bending my head back for the 31st minute of this 62 minute exercise. The next moment (or so it seems), I am flooded with warmth, sitting around a campfire lifting my voice together with 500 other hippies-turned-yogis, as we gaze into the flames, our souls open in ways we never imagined.
Tomorrow we return home. I have not thought about what will happen when I get in the yellow VW and we turn north again. My job at the hospital, the parties with my friends, my parents, are not a part of this, of these days. I walk slowly up a trail, passing young men and women, some alone, others talking softly with friends or carrying a smudge-faced baby. There is sadness and a deep calm in their eyes. I know they see it in mine. The sun has left the valley, but light still penetrates the forest, throwing a golden blanket over the campsite. I stop and stand alone at the crest of the trail. I am the same body that came out of the darkness into this camp ten days ago. My name is the same. My address is the same. My birthday is still the same. And yet, I know, I know somewhere so deep I can only touch it, then dart to the surface for air, that I am not who I was before. I will never be. Below me in the valley is my destiny, the future I have been waiting many lifetimes for. A door has been opened and I need only step forward.
Mary and Brenda do not speak as we reach the smooth pavement and turn north. I stare out the window cradling these last few seconds in my consciousness before we pass another car or stop at the store to buy bread and cheese for the trip. I still do not know what will happen when I get back to the life I inhabited before this week. I can no more plan what I will be doing in the next week than I can plan what I will be doing in thirty years. The only thing I do know is that I have found my place of belonging. I am home.
last month: From Hippie Chick to Kundalini Yogini: Inhale Up, Exhale Down
next month: Rock-Hard Cake & Folding Chairs: Our Wedding Day and the Hippies, Straights & Yogis who Loved Us Through It
interview with the author: Life, Light and Kundalini Yoga with Hari Bhajan Khalsa
A few more photos, all courtesy of my dear friend Siri Ved Kaur, who had the presence of mind (and a camera) back then to snap these pics.
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