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Excerpted from

A Tribe Apart; A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence



The figure of his mom in the doorway of their townhouse fades in the rearview mirror as seventeen-year-old Jonathan Tompkins pulls out of the parking lot in his Volkswagen Rabbit. He tries to erase from his mind the image of the worry in her eyes as she hugged him goodbye, still clutching one of the two loaves of his favorite raisin-walnut bread she had purchased fresh that morning. At first he was annoyed with her for offering the bread at all. He is supposed to be fasting the next several days. But she was just trying to be a good mom. He is glad he compromised and took one loaf. He is going on a Vision Quest, a solitary four-day rite of passage.

The idea of going on a Vision Quest began to blossom last winter when his mom gave him The Vision, by Tom Brown Jr., a book describing the Native American learnings and self-knowledge Brown gained on his own solitary forays into the wilderness. The book resonated inside Jonathan. Since the summer after eighth grade, when he spent a month backpacking in the Bighorn wilderness with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, Jonathan had sought refuge in the outdoors. To Jonathan, the wilderness is less scary than the halls of his high school. In the wilderness, the challenges are clear. You survive by knowledge of nature and your wits. In high school, the rules of the game are always changing and reality is a slippery slope.

The hour-and-a-half drive from his home in Reston, Virginia, to the George Washington National Forest is a familiar one. Usually he feels tension melt away as he travels through the rich farmland and old homes steeped in Civil War history just beyond Reston. But today he is nervous. He struggles to maintain his determination. In the space of twenty-four hours he's gone from day camp counselor leading ten-year-olds in song to lonely spiritual wanderer, from a regular seventeen-year-old suburban teen who loves to hang out with his friends, go kayaking, and listen to Grateful Dead albums to an initiate upon an ancient pathway to manhood. He reminds himself this is his choice.

When he gets to the forest, he pulls his car into the tiny parking area at the base of the trail. "As I closed the car door it was the strangest feeling," Jonathan recalls. "I looked at the car door and knew in four days I'd be back after sitting in the woods by myself, and it would be the same 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit but I might be different."

He gathers his belongings, takes a deep breath, and walks around the gate that marks the footpath heading north toward Signal Knob. The path is narrow and rocky, and it winds upward along the edge of the mountain. The summer has been dry, and dust blows around him with every step.

As the late afternoon sun casts dancing shadows through the trees, the cicadas burst into song. Their constant whir is the only sound besides his footsteps as he hikes toward his destination. He passes no other hikers along the way.

Aware that the days are already getting shorter, he picks up his pace in order to set up camp before dark. Where has summer gone? he wonders. On this late August day, the earth whispers of the change of seasons.

His senior year. He can hardly believe it. The last year at home. It is scary and exciting. Mostly it is agitating. There is so much pressure building as the school year approaches. It's like the last chance to get things right.

After approximately two miles, Jonathan comes to an area of low green grasses that offers a clear view of Signal Knob. He decides to turn off the marked trail and go directly up the mountain. A sudden charge of confidence surges in him as he leaves the dirt path and starts his trek through the grass. He remembers how, at day camp, the other counselors affectionately nicknamed him "Mancub" or "Mowgli" from the movie Jungle Book. He is Mancub darting through the grasses. He is Mancub, king of the mountains, friend of all living things.

The grasses give way to brush, and after a while boulders replace the brush. Playfulness is overcome by the challenge of the terrain. Jonathan works his way dexterously up the rocky ledges, gripping tightly with his fingers and camping boots to protect his uncovered legs. The concentration required takes his mind off everything until he reaches the crest, about three quarters of a mile from the trail. At 2,220 feet, the top of the mountain, dotted with chestnut oaks and mountain laurel, offers a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley, a long ribbon of lush green farmland edged by the Allegheny Mountains on the far side. But he doesn't notice. It is 7 P.M., and Jonathan Tompkins is scared and lonely.

Keep busy, he tells himself. He goes about the tasks of establishing a campsite. He sets up his tent along the ridge; he will leave it standing during his Vision Quest as an emergency retreat. He unpacks his supplies and collects firewood. After he builds a fire, he cooks a "lousy meal of gummy pasta and lumpy cheese" and drinks his first quart of water. He thinks it unfortunate that he can't provide a decent final meal for himself. It's only 8:30 and he wishes like hell that he were tired. Eager to soothe himself, he reaches for his native drum, holds it between his knees, and begins with a soft stroke across the top, a hard hit or two, and then, with eyes closed, lets the rhythm develop.

In his crowd of friends, native drumming had caught on during the past spring. His buddy Bill carried a drum in his car and Jonathan got hooked playing it along with Grateful Dead tapes while they drove. Then Alan and Joan bought theirs, and they'd all gather in the local park and improvise rhythms. Sometimes they'd read their own poetry to the beat. Jonathan loved his drum, which he'd purchased during the summer. He kept it on the coffee table in his living room at home and often, when lie was alone, he would beat his drum and find himself expressing feelings in rhythm and song that he'd have had trouble speaking directly.

Finally, exhausted from the physical and mental stress of the day, he spreads his blanket and stretches out his six-foot frame, resting his head on folded arms. Inhaling the sweet smell of wild berries, gazing at a sky filled with stars, he knows it is right to be here. In minutes, he falls asleep.

Up early the next morning, his first thought is, Okay, get your stuff. Let's go do this thing. He skips breakfast as a way of officially beginning his Vision Quest and does a quick search for a secluded site. The idea is simple: the place must be enclosed to discourage looking around and to force looking inward. In five minutes he sees a location that will work. A big dead tree had fallen over, its weathered limbs creating a tangled enclave obscuring the surrounding area. Jonathan works his way inside among the rotting branches and finds a spot where he can sit. He spreads out his blanket and places the remaining gallon of water beside it. Within arm's reach, he stacks his clothes, his bread, and his drum. Then he sits down on the blanket thinking he is filled with all the wrong feelings: instead of peacefulness he feels himself hateful, restless, and trapped. Maybe this is a terrible idea. Maybe he should go backpacking instead.

He hears some noise in the bushes that captures his attention. Four small brown-and-white chickadees fly out and perch on one of the dead branches about ten feet from where he sits. They come closer and look at him. "I'm thinking, maybe I don't ever want to leave here because the birds are part of this place and now I am part of this place too."

That feeling lasts about ten minutes. The birds fly away and the day drags on endlessly. He rails at the sun's intensity. He watches ants walk across his legs. He hates ants. But he can't kill them. He's supposed to be communing with nature and must respect all creatures of the earth as one. The flies buzzing around his head are maddening. For fourteen hours, he squirms and shifts his position a million times. This first day, Jonathan is aware only of the interminable march of time and his own incredible boredom and discomfort. The feel of the rocks under his slim body - how they jut and poke and irritate. The stupefying heat. The biggest moment of the day is at sunset when he decides to eat a quarter of the bread.

He's not sure what makes the difference, the small amount of food or the coming repose of night, but suddenly his mood improves. He gets a "great feeling of everything being fine: everything being wonderful." Brown, in his book, writes about having faith in the process, in the supernatural, in creation and in yourself. Jonathan feels a pang of inadequacy. He certainly does not have a grasp of complete faith. He is an unsure visitor in every domain of his life. But if he waits, maybe if he just waits, the answers, the feelings will come. When darkness at last descends, and the stars once again fill the sky, he feels soothed. The first day is ending and he has survived. He smiles and plays his drum and sings about his friends and about the world he has left behind.

The morning of the second day, he wakes up to the sound of the birds. He decides to take the second quarter of bread and slice it in half and have one piece for breakfast and one for dinner. Leaning back awkwardly against the branches, he tries to eat slowly even though he is ravenously hungry. He sips the warm water from his jug carefully, remembering that he must conserve enough for three days. The same chickadees land on the branch before him as he eats. He swears they are checking him out.

He runs his hand along the smooth bark of the dead tree. He feels the rocks hitting his thighs below, the radiant energy of the sun unrelenting in a cloudless sky. He hears the gentle swoosh of a light breeze, a symphony of chirping birds, the buzzing of flies, his own breath. He feels discomfort through every fiber of his being. He isn't a good enough friend. He is too hung up on his own insecurities and doesn't pay enough attention to the unspoken feelings of his friends. He doesn't show them how important they are to him. It's his senior year and he will be leaving Andy, Alan, Bill, and Joan. They will scatter and it will never be the same. And, oh God, the worst of all, only one more year at home with his parents. The pain is so great he moans aloud and literally writhes in agony, facing this fact fully for the first time.

He thinks of the years he has wasted with his mom and dad. "When you're in seventh, eighth, ninth, even tenth grade, you don't want to be seen with your parents, and I thought about how horrible that must have been. I kept seeing their faces and thinking of all the mean things I've done to them. Like my mom is taking courses at Georgetown, and she got accepted into the honors program last year. I acted like it was no big deal. I didn't acknowledge it was special for her when she was so proud of herself. I could have been nicer." He considers how fragile everything is with his parents and with life in general, "how delicate the balance is for what makes us happy, what we all hang on to, what keeps us going."

The call of a bird brings him back. Then the quiet. It is so still in nature. Nothing seems to be happening and yet everything is happening. Never has Jonathan felt so grateful for the coming of night and the peace of sleep.

It is fear he wakes up with at daybreak on the third day. Fear of the pain he felt the day before, fear of not being able to change things with his parents, and his friends. Fear of having spent forty-eight hours in total isolation and achieving none of the light of understanding he craves. As he slowly nibbles his ration of bread, he thinks about leaving. "Each day I thought maybe I should leave today because of some reason. But I was reluctant to leave before the four days because I was afraid that if some kind of process was happening to me, what if I stopped it halfway?"

The third day is as interminable as the previous two. Hour after hour, he squirms and shifts his position. He feels parched and lightheaded, alternately starved and sick to his stomach. He goes over and over all the things be has done wrong in his life. Again and again he berates himself for not being more sensitive to those he cares about. But on the third night, something amazing happens. The shroud of pain and failure engulfing him lifts with the rising of the stars. This is what he has been waiting for: a flash of insight coming from his heart and spreading like a healing balm on his burdened soul.

Self-knowledge. Awareness. Empathy for the lives of those around him. Belief in his capacity to change. These are the bounty of the third night. He is more aware of his role in the lives of his parents and friends. He will be more sensitive. He cringes with remorse remembering how his mom wanted to go to the circus last year and his immediate reaction had been, " 'Give me a break.' I think I was afraid we would look funny, the two of us." He vows to improve. He picks up his drum and sings songs of hope and love to those people he misses so much. He sings of how he will return soon, a better person.

Tags: Parenting and Families