Shamanic Drumming Blog

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Calling"

An excerpt from the newly released book
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Drake 

The spirits called me to a path of shamanism. I do not know why I was chosen. I ceased making such queries long ago. Over the years, I learned to just go with the flow. The how and why of my circumstances became less important to me than the lessons that I was learning along the way. As time passed, I began to see how my life experiences honed me into the artist I am today.

For as long as I can remember, I have been an explorer--pushing beyond familiar territory to investigate the unknown. As a child, I had a near-drowning, out-of-body experience that opened my eyes to the hidden dimensions of life and propelled my explorations. Like everyone, I was trying to find myself. I was also searching for something that resonated with me--anything that evoked a shared emotion or belief. I identified with people whose words were congruent with their actions. My inner self was most nourished when I was immersed in Nature. Being introverted and eccentric, I often felt a closer kinship to Nature than I did to people.

My birthplace was Oklahoma, but Topeka, Kansas became my home at the age of five until I moved away at age twenty-three. I was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist Church, which shaped my personal ethics and early life. I had my first ecstatic experience as a youth at a church revival, an evangelistic meeting intended to reawaken interest in religion. This state of rapture and trancelike elation inspired my spiritual quest. For much of my youth, I had aspirations of attending seminary to prepare for some form of ministry. I met my wife, Elisia, at a church function. We were wed by our pastor in a church wedding in 1976.

After I graduated from college in 1977, I felt a great pull to “Go West.” I mailed résumés to employers up and down the Pacific Coast. As fate would have it, I was offered a job with the Glidden Paint Company in Portland, Oregon. Elisia and I promptly sold our house and moved to Oregon. As a couple, that is how we often did things and that is how we still do things, after thirty-five years of marriage. We decide to do something, and then we just do it. Elisia and I have learned to trust and follow our inner yearnings. One of the things we learned working with spirits is that they often prompt us through urges to do one thing or another.

Upon our arrival in Portland, we soon found a house to rent. After settling in, we spent most of our free time hiking and exploring. Enamored with my new home, I began studying the geology and ecology of the Pacific Northwest. What I began to understand is that Nature sustains us and everything around us through an interdependent web of life. There is no separateness. We are all one consciousness.

In early 1980, I lost my retail managerial job. I was ready for a change and, with so much free time, I took up reading full-time. One of the influential books that I read was The Dharma Bums, a 1958 novel by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac. Kerouac's semi-fictional accounts of hiking and hitchhiking through the West inspired me to embark, with my wife's blessing, on a backpacking/gold prospecting adventure to northern California. After all, in 1980 the price of gold hit a then-record of $873 an ounce. 

In May of 1980, my journey began with a bus ride to Yreka, California. From Yreka, I planned to hike and hitch my way about fifty-three miles over a mountain pass to Sawyers Bar, California. I stepped off the bus in Yreka, shouldered my heavy pack, and started walking south on State Route 3. After walking a few miles, a local farrier in a pickup offered me a ride to the small town of Etna. I spent an uneventful night camped in the Etna City Park.

On day two, I arose early and continued my trek. After a few hours of steep climbing, I hitched another ride to Idlewild Campground, a forest service recreation area on the North Fork Salmon River six miles from Sawyers Bar, California. Idlewild became my base camp for prospecting and further explorations in the surrounding area. 

After a few days of unsuccessful gold-panning, I decided to backpack into nearby Marble Mountain Wilderness. I walked up Mule Bridge Road along the scenic North Fork Salmon River until I reached the wilderness trailhead. From the trailhead, I hiked the North Fork Trail deep into Marble Mountain Wilderness.

I met no one along the trail. I was alone in the wilderness. Late in the afternoon, I came upon the skeletal remains of large bear along the trail. It was one of the most peculiar sights that I have ever beheld. The skeletal paws of the bear resembled human hands and the massive skull was quite intimidating. I later learned that a local bear hunter had reportedly shot a dangerous nuisance bear, but not had not killed it outright. The wounded bear had then escaped, but eventually died next to the trail.

I dropped my pack and walked a short distance down the trail to a river crossing. The North Fork Salmon River was swollen with spring snow melt, making it unsafe to cross. It began to drizzle again; it had been raining off and on all day. I had no choice but to turn around and look for a suitable place to camp for the night. Wouldn't you know it; the only level campsite was only a short distance from the bear skeleton.

I certainly was in bear country. There were tracks in the sand and mud all along the riverbank. I came across a bear footprint so large that I could step into it with my size 12 vibram-soled boots. It wasn’t a fresh track, but it was at the base of an ancient cedar in the very grove of trees where I was going to have to camp for the night. All of the large cedar trees in the area bore the claw marks of a bear marking its territory. The claw marks were so high on the tree trunks that I could barely touch them with my fingertips when standing on the tips of my toes. This was a very large bear and I was going to have to spend the night in its territory in a dark grove of trees along a raging river. I took some comfort in the fact that the tracks and markings might have been made by the bear that I discovered along the trail before it died.

I was nervous to say the least. I am always on my guard when trekking through bear country. After setting up my tent, I fired up my camp stove and cooked a hot meal. To minimize odors that might attract bears, I hung my nylon food bag from a high tree limb some distance away from the camp. I then gathered up as much firewood as I could find for the long night ahead. I found some cedar bark, which is good for getting a campfire started under soggy conditions. Once the fire was going, I stacked damp wood around the perimeter of the fire pit so that it would slowly dry. Heat from the flames warmed my face and hands and the warm glow perked up my spirits. As long as the fire burned, I felt relatively safe. I tended the flames late into the night until I finally ran out of wood.

Without the comfort of a warming fire, I had no choice but to crawl into my tent and try and get some sleep. I lay awake in my sleeping bag for a long time, listening to the night sounds. I focused intently on every strange noise I heard outside my tent. To get to sleep, I focused my attention on the current rushing over the river rocks. At times, the river made haunting sounds as it rolled big rocks along its course. At some point, I fell off into a deep sleep.

Then it started; the most terrifying experience of my life. I was awakened by a mysterious roar. It resembled the sound of a helicopter hovering directly over my tent. The previous day, before entering the wilderness, I had heard the "whop-whop-whop" sound of a dual-rotor logging helicopter in the distance. Helicopters, like all motorized vehicles, are prohibited in designated wilderness areas. Rationally, I knew it was highly unlikely that the sound was emanating from a helicopter hovering over my tent, yet a whirling windlike howl filled my ears in the predawn darkness. I have never been so frightened in all my life. I had spent countless nights camping in wilderness areas across the West and never had I experienced anything like this.

As I opened my eyes, I realized that I couldn't move, or I was too afraid to move. I was virtually paralyzed. I lay rigid inside my sleeping bag and prayed that whatever was outside my tent would just go away. My heart pounded like a drum. My panicked mind was reeling, as I struggled to classify what I was experiencing. Frenzied thoughts of UFOs, alien abductions, and even Sasquatch raced through my mind. I don't know how long the mind-bending experience lasted. It was all so surreal. I started to hyperventilate. Death seemed imminent.

Suddenly, the eerie moaning stopped and the bizarre incident ceased almost as abruptly as it had begun. I could hear the roaring river again, along with the pitter-patter of raindrops bouncing off the top of my nylon tent.

The paralysis ended immediately and I gasped in a lungful of air. I finally managed to sit up in my sleeping bag, my body trembling in shock. I sat motionless, lost in my thoughts, wondering what had just happened to me. The entire experience was much too real to have been a nightmare. As I relived the terrifying event in my mind again and again, the first light of dawn illuminated my tent.

I arose, hastily packed my gear, and then marched out of there as fast as I could. I retreated from the wilderness, returning to Idlewild Campground--back to familiar territory. Upon my arrival on May 18, (1980) I learned from a fellow camper that Mt. St. Helens had erupted earlier that day at 8:32 a.m., killing fifty-seven people. The destructive power and devastation of the eruption served to distract me from my disturbing predawn experience. Though I prefer the isolation and quietude of the wilderness, I spent the remaining two weeks of my vacation camped in this developed campground, never venturing back into Marble Mountain Wilderness.

During my stay in this idyllic area, I made many new friends. I met mountain climbers, backpackers, gold prospectors, miners, kayakers, a hermit, and a colorful assortment of local hippies living on gold mining claims and growing weed. All in all, it was an epic adventure for me. I will never forget it. Idlewild Campground became a restful sanctuary for me at that moment in time. Where the North Fork Salmon River wrapped around my camp, the soothing sound of the water lulled me into a peaceful sleep every night.

Many years later I began to understand the significance of my anomalous Marble Mountain experience, although I realize that I will never understand it fully. I have come to accept that there will always be that which is unknown to me--that which is "the Great Mystery."

I now also know that the eerie howl that aroused me on that fateful night resembled that of a bullroarer. A bullroarer is a thin, feather-shaped piece of wood that, when whirled in the air by means of an attached string, makes a loud humming or roaring sound. Bullroarers produce a range of infrasonics, extremely low frequency sound waves that are picked up by the cochlea (labyrinth) of the ear, stimulating a wide array of euphoric trance states. The bullroarer dates back to the Stone Age, and is probably the most widespread among all sacred instruments. With over sixty names, it is universally linked to thunder and spirit beings in the sky.

The first time I actually heard a bullroarer was in December of 1991. Elisia and I were traveling through New Mexico on a cross-country tour, promoting my newly released book, The Shamanic Drum. By chance we happened upon the annual Shalako festival, which is a series of dances and ceremonies conducted by the Zuni people near the winter solstice in which they celebrate the return of the sun and pray for rain, growth, and fertility. Shalako is named for its masked dancers who embody kachinas or ancestral spirits. Kachinas mediate between humanity and the gods of rain and prosperity in a sacred ritual performance that ensures the transformation of winter’s death into spring’s rebirth. Standing ten-feet-tall and resembling birds, the colorful Shalako kachinas dance rhythmically, clacking their long beaks together. They come to the human realm to collect the people’s prayers and take them back to the spirit realm.

On the day of the Shalako ceremony, the six kachinas, one for each of the four cardinal directions plus zenith and nadir, entered Zuni Pueblo at dusk. Each Shalako deity was escorted by a group of singers and an attendant whirling a bullroarer over his head. As the first procession filed into the plaza, the sound of the bullroarer elicited an intense feeling of déjà vu, triggering memories of my traumatic experience in Marble Mountain Wilderness. Reflecting on my ordeal created anew the conditions for revelation, learning, and reintegration. I finally realized what had transpired on that life-altering night in 1980. Although I didn’t know it back then, my guardian or tutelary spirit was "calling" me. Chosen by the spirit of a bear, my shamanic initiation had begun and, like a sluggish bear emerging from the slumber of winter hibernation, I gradually awakened to the knowing of my true self.

I have since had other initiation experiences, such as a shamanic death-and-rebirth. However, none of these subsequent experiences have impacted me as much as my Marble Mountain experience did in 1980.

That mystical encounter with Spirit shattered my ego, cracking me wide open. Shamanic initiation serves as a transformer--it causes a radical change in the initiate forever. It is typically the final step in becoming a shamanic healer, a process that is facilitated by the aspirant’s shamanic teachers as part of a training program. However, initiation may also be spontaneous, set in motion by Spirit’s intervention into the initiate’s life. It is probably the most powerful and least understood of all forms of spiritual awakening.

This excerpt also appeared in the 2015 book "Shamanic Transformations: True Stories of the Moment ofAwakening." It is a collection of inspiring accounts from contemporary shamans about their first moments of spiritual epiphany. Contributing writers include Sandra Ingerman, Hank Wesselman, John Perkins, Alberto Villoldo, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Tom Cowan, Linda Star Wolf, and others.

Entering Marble Mountain Wilderness

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