Peyote became our drug of choice. It seemed to take hallucinogenics in a whole new and much more profound direction. You didn’t have to believe in the stories of Carlos Castaneda, who wrote about fantastical adventures under the tutelage of a Yaqui Indian Shaman, to live through transformations that altered your understanding of reality. I have sat at night in the light of a full moon and stared into the eyes of a coyote not three feet from my face as we shared some kind of wild recognition across species.
Late one afternoon, after taking peyote alone in a vision pit on the summit of Mt. Jicarita, I headed back to valley by a new and untried route, dropping down the rocky, talus slopes on the face, crossing the basin and the high meadows, and then plunging down through a steep aspen forest where momentum set me running. After a few steps I was out of control on the steep slope, careening through trees, leaping broken logs, dodging brambles and saplings with an instant awareness of the awful consequences of falling or colliding with a tree. My panic grew as the slope became even steeper and I was sure that I was about to crash.
The inevitable destruction would be a true test of manhood. If I survived the crash at all, I would be injured and possibly helpless deep in the forests, far off the trail. I saw myself emerging, after a horrendous ordeal, larger than legend, dragging my broken limbs to the campground road. As quickly as these thoughts raced through my brain the ground began to level. The trees were higher and the golden light of dusk filtered through yellow leaves. I cleared the next fallen log like a deer and when I landed, thousands of small white butterflies like tiny angels rose from the undergrowth and surrounded me as I glided now gracefully through the trees, butterflies emerging on every foot fall. I felt blessed. I could run forever with complete confidence that each step would be the right one.
I have no idea how long I ran. I passed through the white butterflies in the aspen forest as the light was leaving the sky and entered a darker maze of tall cedars and pines, where I was running with my German ancestors in the forests of Germanica, outflanking the Romans, on the war path, warrior women at my side. I hardly slowed as I turned down the path of a mountain stream, bounding from stone to stone, with a touch so delicate that I maneuvered rocks slippery with wet moss, finding just the rock with enough stability to give me purchase. Now I was a hardy mountain man, with an Apache raiding party at my side, heading for Picuris Pueblo.
Peyote made one thing clear for sure. Our minds and bodies are capable of much more than we usually give them credit for.
My large, stubborn mule named Sweetheart was reluctant to plough the backfield. I’d harness her up to the plow and start down the fence line on my first furrow and we’d do fine until we hit a rock, even a small one. Sweetheart would simply stop and refuse to go forward. She’d spent her early life pulling a lawn mower around oil tanks (mules were safer than tractors around gas fumes). Stopping at obstacles was a good strategy on manicured lawns, but it didn’t help on the rocky soil of Llano. I tried to encourage Sweetheart in every way possible, but she wouldn’t go forward until I lifted the plow over the obstacle and got her to go forward again until we hit the next rock. Not only was the furrow a mess, but I had to go back and take out each little rock by hand. At the rate I was moving forward, it would take all summer get in two acres of alfalfa and oats.
I decided to see if peyote could help me out. After chewing up several button and drinking a few cups of peyote tea, I walked out to the pasture and went up to Sweetheart explaining the situation. Sweetheart didn’t like me getting that close, and I had to follow her around the field to stay right in her face, but this huge animal of muscle and stubbornness knew I had her number. I could feel it and so could Sweetheart.
She followed me to the barn where I harnessed her up and headed into the backfield. I tied a big rock to the harness instead of the plow, then I led her up and down the field and each time we got snagged I just pulled her forward until she gave in and tore the stone loose or rolled over it. She couldn’t believe I had the staying power, and each time she moved again she looked at me strangely, but I just absorbed the dry, high mountain air with the smell of pinyon and wild roses, watched the magpies landing on fence posts and kept forcing her forward.
When I put the plow back on Sweetheart she took it through the stones like a champ. Oh, she’d still rebel after every row or so, until I dropped the plow and got up next to her and she finally realized I knew she could do it.
Beyond individual experiences, what endured from the peyote trips was a new connection to everything around me. Watch infants exploring the world and you recognize your own psychedelic experience, where the tiniest detail is absorbing and eventually every experience is beneficent. It makes sense, because in the process of growing up we shut off those connections with the world that don’t help us adapt to our social environment. We reduce sensory input to what’s useful to us. Peyote reopened those connections.
We took it with others as an extended family in quasi-religious settings, with lots of drumming and ecstatic sunrises and sunsets, sometimes sipping peyote tea for another day or two. We lived with our emotions on our sleeves, riding roller coasters of ups and downs with their intense, illicit pleasures and their staggering betrayals. We all knew each other so well, young people who had been feral kids on the streets of America’s big cities and PhD graduates from MIT, all trying to bond around a sacred medicine.