by S. Alexander Alich

There is a place many of us hold in our hearts that we plan to visit on our spiritual journey. This place may call to or resonate with something deep inside us. We may feel pulled there throughout our life, or “accidentally” discover it. No matter how we arrive, visiting special places on the earth has always been an important human experience. When we develop a relationship with a place, we can create an important anchor for ourselves and our work.

My first journey to a sacred place began with a sentence from one of my teachers. He said, “Go visit Chaco Canyon and you’ll understand everything.” I can’t say I understood everything when I finally went there, or well… anything, for that matter. I can say though, that the trip opened my perspective and kicked off a lifelong fascination with the Southwest.

Here are some tips from my own experience, and a few I picked up from other lovers of the Southwest’s sacred sites. I hope they’ll make your own journeys more rewarding.

Ask permission: How and when we plan to visit a site is very important. Each place has a Spirit and taking time to greet it, and ask permission to be there, is a considerate way to start. One should remember that native people did not normally live at some of these places and only went to them on important dates.

Slow down: Enjoy the present moment. Remember to keep your eyes, ears and mind open. Plan for enough time to get used to the area, climate and possibly altitude beforehand. Many places required ancient people to travel great distances over rough terrain. These treks could have helped prepare them physically and psychologically for their visit.

Show respect: Enter with proper respect for the ancestors, the place, and the people who keep it. Please dress conservatively, as sometimes native peoples still live in these areas, and bared midriffs and such are seen as an insult to their sacred sites, just as it would be in a church.

Research first? Books offer a lot of information – sometimes too much. You may want to put off researching and make your own experience first. Many places hatch a new story or theory each year. Sadly, many people don’t realize this and take the current version as complete truth. The reality is that we don’t really know much about these ancient places and most of the truth about them, we will never know. If you just can’t wait, reading up on the indigenous plants and wild life is good starting point.

Practical details: Many of the world’s sacred places are located in physically harsh environments. Make sure that you are prepared for and equipped with whatever protection your body will need. Sunscreen, enough water, good shoes, and clothing to cover your arms and legs are only a few of the vital requirements for a trip through the desert, for instance. Mountainous locales may call for additional safeguards. You may want to bring a camera or sketchbook with you to record your journey – but please ask first. Some places such as reservations do not allow any photographic or recording devices, and your equipment can be confiscated.

What about those Park Service rules? Many years ago, three of my friends were arrested while visiting Chaco Canyon for going on a midnight walk through the ruins – something that is strictly forbidden. Please remember that the people taking care of the place are trying to preserve and care for it – and their jobs are not easy. When they are not breaking up late-night parties in the ruins (yes, people do that!) they are kept busy documenting vandalism and theft. When you arrive, be sure to ask for a copy of the rules. If there aren’t any, or if you are visiting a rural area, here are some basic ones that apply almost anywhere: stay on the footpath; take nothing away from the site but your experience; don’t touch or draw on the ruins; and leave well before sunset, so you’ll still have time to leave the area safely.

3 Biggest Traps to Avoid:

1) Forgetting your physical and/or spiritual boundaries: It is easy to overdo both, which can result in your trip being cut short. If you are uncomfortable entering a certain area …don’t! Try again on a different day, or maybe on another trip. It might not be the right time for you to be there– even if your friends feel fine with it.

2) Making a spectacle of yourself: I can’t count the times I have run into people playing drums or chanting in the middle of the day. Sadly, this is an uncomfortable situation for everyone. Please remember that other people have also traveled great distances and would like to enjoy their time there. It is possible to get permission from the Park Service to be at some of these places after hours, for a private visit.

3) Being over eager: Developing a relationship to a place takes time. If you can, get to know the place over a period of years, and during different seasons. Your life will be richer for it.

(Thank you to Maia for her help with this article)