When the crops were put away that Fall, we turned our collective attention to peyote.
Peyote was deeply associated with New Mexico, one of the centers of the Native American Church, which uses peyote in its religious ceremonies. There is evidence of peyote’s use for at least five thousand years and many beat writers and early Hippies had used the cactus. I’d never tried it, but I went on one of the first picking runs.
The picking fields were a thousand miles away in the scrubland outside of Del Rio, Texas, on the Rio Grande river not far from Brownsville. We drove straight through from Llano, south along the Rio Grand through Sante Fe and then across the high plains of eastern New Mexico on highway 285, through Roswell, Green River and Carlsbad, where the highway starts to follow the old Pecos trail into Texas, across the empty, forbidding Staked Plains that had driven men crossing on horseback mad. The Staked Plains had stopped the Spanish explorers and provided a hiding place for Comanches who resisted the American army until well into the 1880’s. Highway 285 ended at Highway 90, heading East and West along the Rio Grand.
It was dark by the time we crossed into Texas and there were no other cars on the road. Somewhere south of Fort Stockton we saw a tiny speck of fire burning in the immense darkness of the flat plain and endless sky. As we approached the remained in front of us, and then there it was, along the side of the highway, a car burning with flames shooting up, windows burst out, nothing could possibly have been alive. We slowed and stopped. There was no sound but the fire, we saw nothing but emptiness in every direction. We continued on our way, passing around another joint, separately convinced it was a sign.
Our picking map was for a location outside of Del Rio, but we hoped we could find new picking fields of our own. The broad valley of the Rio Grand was a grey landscape cut through with gullies full of mesquite, chaparral and an intimidating variety of cactus and thorns, all tough enough to survive desert extremes.
We pulled off the road at several likely spots, scrambled down the bank into gullies of dry wash and started searching. Peyote grew under the bushes, low to the ground, the territory of scorpions, black widow spiders and sidewinders, and the grey/green buttons could be hard to find. We were unsuccessful at a series of stops and finally drove straight through to Del Rio, across the Amistad Reservoir. We could see the first housing development on the next ridge as we turned onto a side road and parked the car behind low trees.
Full of excitement, we left the car and started cautiously to look through the undergrowth. Nothing. Not a sign of the tiniest button. An hour went by. We checked the picking map. This seemed to be the right place. Another hour. We searched more frantically. We stopped being cautious about the new houses going up on the ridgeline. We stopped worrying about scorpions, black widows, and snakes. Another hour went by and we were near tears from exhaustion and the searing heat. It was late afternoon. Time was running out. Three arm four fruitless hours had passed.
Then we spotted one, small button, about an inch across. A good button can be from two to five inches across. We cut it carefully just above the ground to preserve the root and encourage new growth. We sat in a small circle, carefully removed the fluff coming out of the eyes and divided the button in three parts.
Fresh peyote is the bitterest substance I have ever eaten, more nauseous than the salty taste of strychnine in an Amazon rain forest vine, infinitely more bitter than roasted coffee beans. We chewed our pieces slowly and carefully, swallowing small, well-masticated portions to keep the gorge down. We sat and waited in the late afternoon light, and the tension and anxiety drained away, like a deep sigh liberating a troubled soul. In concentrating so heavily on the bitter taste and our bodies instinctive rejection of it, the world outside disappeared for a few moments, and when the medicine was finally down, safe and secure, we looked up and opened our eyes as if seeing everything for the first time. And there was peyote everywhere, under every bush.
I still cannot explain what happened that late afternoon in Del Rio. We had worked our way up a wide, shallow draw, sandy soil with scattered hillocks of brush and cactus, and then started back down again when we found our first button. So we had gone over the same ground that now had an abundance of peyote. I do not see how we could have missed it the first time. We chewed new buttons as we worked, and high as we were, we never questioned our discovery. We knew peyote had found us.
Within an hour, we had three huge burlap sacks full of buttons that we hauled back to the car. We were afraid to put them in the trunk because of the heat that would build up during the long haul across the desert, so we put them on the floor of the back seat where they filled in the foot space to seat level. I lay down on a seat with a blanket over the peyote.
We drove west on Highway 90, back the way we’d come. Someone passed around a joint but I declined a beer. We turned off 90 heading north on 285 as the last light left the sky. That’s when the Texas Border Patrol pulled us over . It was not a happy moment. Friends had spent time in the Del Ro County jail while their lawyers tried to work something out on drug charges and when the lawyers failed the prison time was serious. Texas had draconian drug laws and peyote was not exempt.
One officer checked drivers licenses in the front seat and told the driver to get out of the car and open the trunk. It was empty. Another officer shined his light on my face and asked where I was from. I was in the back of a two door Volvo, and the cop was looking at me through the front door window, so he was shining his light on my face, not the floor. I passed the Anglo test and they waved us on. The peyote gods were with us.