Back in DC, safe and sound and wondering what in the hell happened.

11 June 2007

Last week some very good friends of Lyssa and I (Heron61 and Teaotter) stayed with us for a couple of days, and then we headed out to the Four Quarters Farm for the gather called Walking the Thresholds - camping for three days in the middle of the woods of Pennsylvania, completely off the grid, with good friends and extended family, eccentrics one and all, for company.

Sounds like fun... and it was, for the most part.

Teaotter went to stay with Laurelinde and family around the middle of last week, so there were only three of us who packed up and piled into the TARDIS around 1200 EST5EDT on Friday afternoon, headed north for the Farm. Thankfully, I'd packed the night before and emptied out the car so it didn't take us very long to get loaded up and moving. Given that we had quite a bit of gear with us as one would expect (including the air mattress and a four-man tent), I think that we moved pretty fast. Lyssa was nice enough to make a fast breakfast for Heron and I before we set out and then hit the supermarket to pick up a couple of things that we needed, in the form of food to nibble on the way up in lieu of lunch and breakfast for Sunday (cinnamon and rum raisin rolls) and batteries for the Mag-Lite. Hasufin and Mika would be following later in the day on Friday and were nice enough to make breakfast for everyone on Saturday morning, so it was only fair.

Much to my surprise, it only took us about three hours after the stop for petrol to reach the farm. We used the directions from the website this time, so rather than getting lost because Google Maps and Mapquest don't have some of the tiny roads in the area in their GIS databases, we found the right side road and arrived at the house presently. More's the point, we arrived before sunset, which meant that we could navigate without trouble. The sign for the Farm is quite tiny (probably about six inches by eight), so it's easy to miss from the road.

Shortly after parking up top, we began to unload the TARDIS. It was, as they say, all downhill from there, so gravity was working in our favour most of the time. Our original plan was to set up the tent on one of the stages on the edge of the campground, big wooden structures that are used during many of the festivals by performers. The first WtT we went to, I pitched the tent on the flattest part of the hillside (about a 3% grade), which wound up causing us no end of problem through the weekend. All things considered, I'll take a known flat surface to sleep on... Lyssa and I got the tent put up in a couple of minutes (no big trick, seeing as how we've got one of the nicer quick-setup tents on the market). We also discovered that the tent hadn't been cleaned out by the last folks we loaned it out to: There was dirt, leaves, and assorted other stuff all over the inside that had to be taken care of before we could set up. I'd forgotten to bring a broom of any kind so Araxcies from New York and I ran around the campsite searching for a broom, a mop, anything that we could use to gather together little bits of dead leaves and stuff for disposal.

It was in the kitchen building about halfway down the hill that we ran into Ashran Gildowan and his daughter munching on Rice Krispies treats.. if you've been following my weblog for a while, Ashran is the guy who was caught in a housefire a couple of months ago and was in the hospital. As it turns out, he's up, around, walking unassisted, and at his new job, only slightly worse for wear. On the whole he looks pretty good; the only way you'd know what happened to him was if you looked very closely at his right shoulder and recognised the discolouration and unusual texture for what they were - the remains of third-degree burns. Because one of the plans that Araxcies and I came up with involved turning the tend on end and shaking it until all of the trash came out (assuming that we couldn't find a broom), we figured that we'd have to distract Lyssa while we took care of business. To that end, we asked Ashran and child to distract Lyssa until we could finish.

As things turned out, we didn't have to turn the entire tent on end, because Fishy had brought a whisk broom with her, and we used it to sweep everything out in fairly short order. Ashran was remarkably cool about the ha-ha-only-serious "distract Lyssa' schtick, even though it was hideously hot on Friday afternoon (between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit at times) and definitely not fun when standing out in the open. This includes the time spent up at the car with the engine running to inflate the air mattress... the mattress we bought has a very efficient air pump built into it, but unfortunately it requires more current than the inverter I have installed can produce. It would only force short bursts of air into the mattress, but those bursts were enough to fill the mattress in short order. Lyssa got the mattress filled while I played sherpa and moved our gear down to the stage in a couple of trips. Once that was taken care of, we were ready to go.. or not go, as the case happened to be. I think we've really got it down to a science in that it took, in total, about an hour to get unpacked and ready to go. Lyssa and I went our separate ways and went wandering around the camp, seeing people that we haven't seen since last year and catching up on everything. I ran into some of the New York and New Jersey contingents, hung out with Jarin for a while, and then wound up hastily engineering a way to lay a rain tarp over the tent for extra protection because a thunderstorm was on the way. You could smell it in the air, least of all because what humidity there was abruptly vanished, taken up by the clouds in preparation for a downpour. It involved using some of the tie-downs on the tent and a couple of carabiners from my backpack to improvise another set of attachment points on the stage railing for the tarp. On the whole, I'm quite proud of the job I did; the knots were self adjusting to a certain degree, and would shift back and forth with the wind so that the tarp wouldn't rip and go sailing off into the trees. Afterward I ran into Butterfly and we hiked back into the woods to find the Hemlock swimming hole and talk shop for a couple of hours. This wound up being harder than it sounds because we got lost looking for the swimming hole. Thankfully, we ran into Fearadyn by the sweat lodge and she was able to help us find where we needed to be.

A lot of time was killed until just after sunset, when they got the sweat lodge going while most people (the sensible ones) were having dinner.

And here's where things start to get weird... but then again, people tell me that I should write up some of my adventures as Unknown Armies supplements. Lyssa and I had agreed to do the sweat lodge on Friday night, because we'd be up to our necks in official-type stuff and simply wouldn't have the time later on. I won't pretend that it was anything like the traditional Native American sweat lodge ceremony because I highly doubt that someone like myself would ever be in a position to take part in one (many different groups of people have invaded Poland over the centuries, but I think the American Indian tribes took a pass on the opportunity), and I won't try to describe it in those terms. I feel fairly safe in saying that it was an adaptation of the traditional ceremony, with what I think was one of the expected outcomes.

To keep from sounding like an utter nutter (no jokes, please), I'm going to leave out the more unusual aspects and stick to what I can explain, and what I can verify. I'll save the weird stuff for later... the sweat lodge at the Four Quarters Farm is a roughly dome-shaped structure about fifteen feet on a side and built out of wood, lots and lots of blankets of some kind, and twine. That's it. It's put together in such a way that a lot of air, and thus a lot of heat is trapped inside. It's also big enough for somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty people to sit on the bare earth if they're friendly. In the middle of the lodge a large depression was carved out of the ground, into which large rocks that were heated in a campfire were pushed through the opening with pitchforks. As one would imagine, a number of rocks the size of a child's head that were heated until they glowed bright red would crank the temperature of the air in the sweat lodge up a considerable amount. I think by the end of the second round, there were ten such rocks piled in the center of the lodge. Every couple of minutes, one of the older people on the lodge team would pour water over the rocks, filling the air with clouds of steam that caused rivers of sweat to pour down our bodies.

When I say rivers, I mean just that: You could feel each and every rivulet of sweat running over your skin and through your hair. By the end of the first round, the earthen floor of the lodge was noticably wet.

I found out later on that the rocks had been trucked in from a Navajo reservation out west. I have a very poor memory for languages so I don't remember the name of the reservation.

Before entering a sweat lodge, it's required that you divest yourself of most, if not all of your clothing. If you don't, you'll probably pass out from heatstroke because there won't be any air circulation, nor will there be anywhere for sweat to run off of you, it'll just accumulate in the fabric and act as an insulator. Also, anything solid on your person, be it an earring, a pair of glasses, a ring, or the underwires of a brassiere will heat up much more rapidly than the rest of you and burn your skin, so you'll go in without anything. You can wear underwear if you like, but chances are it won't do any good save make you feel more modest in what little light there is for what few minutes the rocks are hot enough to glow. You're better off going in naked. Also, what little clothing you wear in a sweat lodge is probably going to be a wreck afterward; you might not get it clean.

A sweat lodge is conducted in four rounds, corresponding to the four Aristotelian elements, the four cardinal directions, four kinds of rocks held sacred by certain tribes... you get the picture. You can map pretty much any quaternity into the process if you try. I only did two rounds before my body began sending back warning messages, the rounds corresponding to the eagle and the hummingbird. There are two others, but I do not recall what the were. The first round was to get everyone used to being in the lodge, fill them in on what was going to happen and what to do, and act as a purification and blessing before the heavy lifting started. Everyone went around the circle and asked for blessings from $deity_or_power for people, their families, whatever was important to them. Everyone also asked for something for themselves, something that was important on a personal level, and involved somehow in their personal growth. After the round was over, we were lead outside and allowed to stretch, walk around, drink water, and generally compose ourselves while the rocks were re-heated. Everyone kept an eye on everyone else to make sure that they were all right and not in any distress. The second round had fewer people, so the round was longer and more involved. Everyone had more involved things to say, more deeply personal or private things that you wouldn't hear at the family reunion (especially if you weren't actually part of the family).. things that I will certainly not talk about because it is not my place.

There wasn't any pressure to try to make it all the way through. Sometimes people get what they needed out of one or two rounds (like myself). Some people asked to be lead out of the sweat lodge partway through a round for whatever reason. You do what you can to get what you need, and there's no need to push yourself to the breaking point if you don't absolutely have to. I bowed out after the second, or hummingbird round, partially because my blood pressure had gone up to dangerous levels, and partially because I needed time to process what had come up, and trying to handle too much in too short a period of time is a good way of messing yourself up. Lyssa stayed in for the third round, but then we started heading back up the hill by way of the showers to clean ourselves off, get what grit and junk our bodies were excreting out of our pores, and cool off. Much to our pleasure, Rialian had left the generator running up top, so there was water pressure sufficient to scrub down and relax somewhat before we stumbled back to the tent to try to get some sleep.

I can see now why Camp Cambodia stays up and parties all night when they're at Walking the Thresholds: There is no way in hell that you can sleep comfortably at night out there. We're just getting into summer around here, so it wasn't terribly cold, but neither was it warm. I think it was in the low to mid 60's Fahrenheit all night. It was also extremely humid, to the point where perspiration from your skin would turn into streamers of vapour and everything felt cold and clammy. Trying to sleep was, in fact, a losing game at best. Lyssa was so worn out that she fell right asleep regardless of the conditions. I was up until gods-know-when because I was still trying to process what was going on, I was cold, I was damp, and on top of all of this, the accoustics of the hillside were such that I could hear everything.


The people sitting up by the gravel road talking all night, and the sounds their cigarette lighters made. The rustling of the grass and the "Bang!" the doors made as somnambulant people trekked to and from the bathrooms or porta-johns. The creaking of the branches. The sounds of people trying to sleep in their cars. You name it, I heard it loud and clear.

I wound up wandering around Four Quarters Farm for a goodly portion of the night in an attempt to tire myself out, but it just wasn't working. I even accidentally found Camp Cambodia (they'd set up in the lower campground this year, at the base of the hill) and ran into another bit of strangeness in high concentrations, complete with beaning Rialian over the head with my enamelled tin coffee cup... and no one noticing, not even Rialian.

I wish that I could say that Saturday night was any better for sleeping, but it was even worse. Lyssa slept in her clothes that night to help keep warm. My duster was called into service as an extra blanket - an extra blanket that was so full of moisture from the air that the cold made it as stiff as cardboard. Teaotter eventually figured out the right thing to do: She put on socks and wrapped her windbreaker around her head, which kept a good amount of body heat from escaping into the air.

It seemed that the poor sleeping conditions had taken their toll on most of the people at WtT this year: Come consciousness on Saturday morning, most of us were righteously pissed off for one reason or another, and we were taking it out on each other, I'm very sorry to say. Small groups of people all over the campsite were hungry, tired, cold, and cranky as a dragon taking inventory of a collection of rare coins, and finding a bunch of squished bottle caps instead. Thankfully, things began to calm down after most of us had gotten something warm and filling to eat for breakfast or lunch and were able to work things out by 1200 EST5EDT on Saturday, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were occasional aftershocks later into the day.