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Weekend Wanderer: Vision Quest at Nanih Waiya

The subject of this week’s article is a bit out of the ordinary. The plan was, in a nutshell, to travel to what used to be Nanih Waiya State Park and have a vision quest in an all-but-uncharted sacred cave that belongs to the Choctaw Nation. I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about vision quests, but according to Wikipedia, a vision quest is a turning point in life taken to find oneself and one’s intended spiritual and life direction. Given that I am one-sixty-fourth Choctaw on my father’s side, I feel like I have every right to experience this sanctified rite of passage for myself, and, yes, I do indeed see how that may or may not make any sense whatsoever.
Regardless of my entitlement, my professional team of investigative journalists (whomever I could convince to come) and I departed for Winston County. After a two-hour drive and some directions from a friendly local, we found the Nanih Waiya ceremonial mound. Derived from the Choctaw word meaning “leaning hill,” the mound is 25 feet high, 218 feet long and 140 feet wide. While the actual date of origin is unknown, pottery shards found on the surface of the mound date as far back as 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. The cultural significance of the mound is widely acknowledged, but the legends surrounding it have been somewhat obscured by time. The legend I personally believe, for no reason at all, is that Aba Iki, or “The Father Above,” brought the Choctaw tribe forth from the nearby caves. Because the Choctaw folk were still wet, and Aba Iki is such a swell guy, he laid them on the Mother Mound to dry, and the Choctaw tribe was born.
In the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the Choctaw Nation was forced to cede much of its land to the U.S. government. The property eventually became a state park, failed to generate revenue, fell into a state of disrepair and in 2008 was given back to the Choctaw, like a stolen toy that an elementary school bully finally got tired of playing with. Anyway, that’s entirely enough history for now.
While we were surveying the surrounding land from the top of the mound, an adorable black and brown Dachshund (That’s a Wiener dog. You should get out more.) materialized, seemingly from nowhere. I promptly named him Cody, and we proceeded to lavish him with love and fierce cuddles. He accompanied us in our exploration of the mound and the nearby swamp, until he found a decomposing deer carcass to wallow in. We didn’t cuddle him much after that. As would later be apparent, Cody was the closest thing to a spirit animal we would find on our vision quest.
We continued our journey, leaving the mound to search for the caves. I had only vague directions by word of mouth as to where the caves were, and finding any mention of them on the Internet is all but futile.
Therefore, we engaged in the tried and true method of finding a friendly-looking local and asking for more directions. Nobody knows an area better than a local. After a short drive down the dusty roads of Winston County, we came across our sign. And a locked gate. I looked that gate straight in its smug, judgmental face and, with the fire of combat glinting in my eyes, I whispered softly, threateningly, “Go ahead, bro. Take a swing.” Needless to say, the gate was beside itself with fear, completely unhinged. After that little confrontation, we were on foot, and my friends all hated me a little more because nobody appreciates a good pun these days.
The trek to our destination consisted of a mile and a half of dirt roads. We began our search for the caves, which took us through a labyrinth of trails meandering through swampy terrain. At one point, while keeping my eyes trained on the surrounding marshy banks, I heard a member of my team exclaim, “Did you just step over a snake!?” I had, indeed. It was a water moccasin, to be exact. Also known as the cotton mouth, it is a dangerously poisonous snake native to Mississippi. I would like to take this opportunity to refute, once and for all, the old Southern adage, “If it was a snake, it would have bitten you.” I stepped over a snake, and to this day I remain bite-less.
We searched the grounds for the better part of two hours, ultimately in vain. We trudged back to the car in defeat. While we were discussing how to salvage our vision quest, a dark truck sped down the dirt road and came to a stop beside us, towing behind it a cloud of dust. Out of the truck emerged two cowboys. Like, real cowboys. As in, they proceeded to herd cows. Only in Winston County. Anyway, we asked them for any information they had on the caves. They informed us that the caves were all but extinct.
The main cave apparently collapsed after the state tried to build a pavilion over the top of it. The second, smaller cave had also given way, leaving only the third cave, which was about two feet in diameter on the surface. It led to a slightly larger cavern, which was not even big enough to stand upright in. As disappointed as we were, there was nothing to do but move on. We couldn’t have a vision quest in a cave that doesn’t exist. After a short period of debate and confusion, we unanimously voted for, “Screw it, let’s just go camping.”
Two hours later, we found ourselves in Morton at Roosevelt State Park, a park none of us had ever been to before or knew anything about. We had an hour to make camp, which we did. We met a pair of middle-aged disc golf enthusiasts, had a drink or maybe slightly more, then rendezvoused at their camp for grilled venison and barbecue. Even though we started our day expecting to be somewhere entirely different, we still had a great road trip, made some new friends and had a wonderful time.
Sure, it would have been great if the caves still existed and we had gone ahead with our vision quest as planned, but there’s something to be said for playing it completely by ear.
When things get confusing and the plan gets shot to hell, there’s nothing to fall back on except improvisation. Well, our plan did indeed get shot to hell, and we did indeed improvise, and it turned out as good or better than the plan would have. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the kind of vision quest we were looking for, but the kind we needed.

Madison Ruthven writes for the Daily Mississippian and kicks boring in the face for fun. Ask him how at mdruthven@live.com