Northern California, USA: Personal Quest into the Sierras Part 1 and 2

Tahoe (1)

Part 1

During the boundless energy of the sun sitting static in the late June sky, I ventured into my own inner-space with my car, my sarong, and a map pieced together from five tarot cards. I followed the representation of the cards to carve meaning and adventure from a well-worn path to an Eastern Sierra hot springs, around Lake Tahoe, and through a sound healing meditation. This is a game I play on occasion, like a spiritual guide scavenger hunt. I pull cards and search for the expression of that card manifested in material reality. For this adventure, I chose five cards and kept the integrity of the order; I could not begin searching for the next manifestation of one card until the one pulled before it had presented itself. I followed these metaphorical concepts to understand that I was on a true and authentic path for myself while the buzzing energy of the summer is fully awakened now from its gentle spring.

My first milestone was the Three of Cups. It represents friendship, community, exuberance, and a sense of coming together to welcome joyful moments. It is a recognition of the importance to partake in a time of joyfulness and festivity, when a loved one’s celebration is shared. Driving along the Feather River Byway, I stopped in a small village called Quincy. Quincy is home to about 2000 residents, and is nestled deep within the Plumas National Forest. The land used to belong to the Maidu people who hunted the area and gathered acorns, until their conquest during the time of the gold rush. I had visited the town once before, to deliver wildfire education materials to the county library on behalf of the American Red Cross, but I had never explored  on foot. After a quick breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee at Patti’s Thunder Cafe, I took my dog for a stroll around the few blocks of downtown. My dog, Nahla, doesn’t like to travel as much as me, so I’m sensitive to her needs and comfort when she accompanies me. On our walk, I discovered a mural depicting a celebration of art and culture. There it was, the Three of Cups. I was on the right path, and it was time to move forward.

Three of Cups
The Three of Cups.

The next milestone was Justice. Justice is an account of responsibility to set a course of action for the future. It is cause and effect, and identifying the connection between a series of events that unfold in life. I am approaching another transition, a nomadic exploration of packing and sorting, organizing and discarding, and have been reflecting on the past few years of my life and the events that culminated into this moment of, in some ways, absolute transcendence, and in others, gut-wrenching pain. Justice seemed an appropriate point of contemplation.

I arrived at Sierra Hot Springs shortly after noon. I had dropped Nahla at the cabin where I would stay for the night, and arranged for a 24-hour pass. Sierra Hot Springs and Harbin Hot Springs belong to the same non-profit organization and hold the same membership requirements, but the atmospheres are very different. Harbin Hot Springs was destroyed during the 2015 Valley Fire and although they are actively rebuilding and replanting, they are non-operational until further notice. Sierra Hot Springs is significantly smaller, but also much less crowded, than any of the approximately 25 times I visited Harbin.

The Bear
Nahla Bear, my travel partner, resting after the journey.

The Temple Dome is a short walk up a steep mountain trail through thickets of sage, lavender, and wildflowers. Inside is one hot pool about 110 degrees, and then two cold plunges fed directly from mountain spring water. The cold plunges are 36 degrees. All the pools are directly fed and natural. People sometimes ask me if clothing-optional hot springs are sexualized or awkward, and no, they are not. I have been sexually harassed and objectified far more times while fully clothed walking around in the world, than ever at a hot springs. We share the space to heal, to reflect, to refresh our minds and bodies; and in case any of us forget, polite signs are posted throughout the grounds reminding visitors to “keep the passion out of the pools.”

After a series of alternating between the hot pool and the cold plunge, I began my wandering to search for Justice, like a vision quest without the peyote. I followed the Medicine Trail past the organic garden at the Lodge, through the campground, until it reached the meditation pool, another natural geothermal spring nestled in a grove of Douglas fir and poplar trees. After a quick dip, I was stepping foot on the trail to continue into the mountain, and there it was, nearly hidden from site in three foot high grass, a carved wooden totem with a bear on top resting between a compass rose that displayed the orientation of the cardinal directions. Justice.


The Bear is a powerful animal in the Maidu tradition, and they honor the sacred relationship every year with an annual Bear Dance led by the Yeponi leader, a shaman. The multi-day gathering includes fasting and ceremony, and a reminder of the agreement with Bear that it will not harm the humans for another year. In the Maidu narrative, Bear and Rattlesnake were the only two animal-people who did not agree with the Worldmaker to create humans. The Bear Dance ceremony concludes with a series of sacred dancing, handing over to Bear any bad feelings, and then cleansing hands, arms, and faces to remove negative feelings and thoughts, to connect to the powerful meaning of the gathering. 

Mural Depicting the Maudi Bear Dance
Mural depicting the Bear Dance.

Justice. Recognizing how one event bleeds into another. Following the course of action. Cleansing and purifying the self of negative thoughts. I packed my belongings, and headed back to the cabin to rest. Three more milestones to unearth from beneath an eternal mess of meaning, possibility, and human time. Fate’s yarn unravels yet another inch.

 Part 2

After a night of reflection into the three of cups and justice, and about how the concepts of community and karma both relate to the Maidu Bear Dance, I was ready to find the next metaphor in my life, The Hierophant. The Hierophant represents holding sacred tradition, interpreting secret knowledge, and channeling venerable energy for use on the planet.

Contact Image
Breakfast coffee and journaling.

I cleaned up the cabin, with my dog watching closely the entire time. She fears that one day I will pack and leave her behind, so every bit of sorting and organizing, discarding and storing, is scrutinized with trembling anxiety. Her sharing in the quest is undeniable though; her last name has been “Bear” since she joined my party two years ago.

Over a cup of coffee at Smithneck Farms Cafe in Sierraville, I speculated over how to demonstrate the actions of The Hierophant. I had brought a stick of palo santo with me, what remained of a New Year’s Day spent exploring a Peruvian market on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and had also harvested some white mountain sage from the mountainside near the hot springs to wrap into smudge sticks. The burning of incense connects the earth to the sky as the heat and the smoke rise from the intention in the smoldering herbal fire. I was near Lake Tahoe, and decided to continue forth to the water.

Every vision quest or pilgrimage is incomplete without the point of frustration where the seeker feels the pull of, “whatever. I’m going home.” I discovered this obstacle in Truckee and all along Tahoe’s north shore. First, there is no where to park. I wanted to explore the area on foot, because how can I find the meaning of the experience while I am shuffling along at 35 miles per hour, pushed from all directions, and confused on unfamiliar roads? Second, the beaches on the north shore are privatized, and the lake is obstructed with very expensive looking houses. My morning mellow had devolved into a tense drive alongside tourists with yachts in tow, trucks hauling wave runners, and herds of cyclists.

Each mantra of “whatever-go-home” was immediately followed with a mild urge to keep looking. Ahead in the road, I noticed a grove of majestic ponderosa pines, and a shimmering mirror of water that caught the sun and sparkled through the green branches. I knew that was the spot, and a perfectly timed parking space opened for me as a truck twice the size of my car pulled away. The grove was hidden from the road, and the trees shrouded the lake shore in solitude. I heard only the gentle water lapping on the sand, and pink and white wildflower blossoms scented the air. As I gazed at the ancient water, I reflected on the history of the area. For the Washoe people who used to inhabit the land, what we now call Lake Tahoe was the center of their world. They called it, “da’aw,” meaning “the lake,” as in the one and only, and it occupied the very center of their home.

The Heirophant
The Hierophant with a found eagle feather, wildflowers, pine cones, and a stick of palo santo from Peru.

I gathered some pine cones, an eagle feather, wildflowers, and the stick of palo santo, and constructed somewhat of a natural found object sculpture to rest against a tree stump at the very edge of the lake. The Hierophant is a process of honoring a sacred tradition, and of discovering a link between our lives and a divine energy. In my mind, I see no difference between a sacred and a non sacred “thing.” All of life is sacred, and every piece of earth is hallowed ground. Actions themselves are neither good nor evil, but it is the intention behind the action that creates its meaning. I felt pained to leave my last stick of palo santo, but that is the lesson of a quest. If something is not lost, then space is not available for something to be found. Cosmic law seeks balance. Nahla Bear and I watched on as the sun set over The Lake.

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