Sticks and Scarves

It’s the end of a Thursday night, which for me means it’s Friday morning around 4:30 a.m. I’ve just closed down the bar and polished off two beers and about three and a half shots of Jameson in 30 minutes before catching the bus.

Earlier, a trolley full of drunk idiots in their early twenties rolled in. One of them drunkenly stammered over to the stage, so I watched him to make sure he didn’t try getting up there or assault the acoustic duo playing tonight. He spit on the floor, so I grabbed his drink from his hand, “You’re done, let’s go.”

Well, apparently this particular drunk idiot was the organizer of the bus, so that meant all the business he brought in would be leaving, as well. It’d been so slow that I backed off and told them they could stay if they agreed not to be fucking assholes. Tall order. Two guys darted out the door with a full glass of whiskey, a beer, and a full pitcher. I caught up with them across the street. I grabbed the drink and the pitcher, then had to wrestle the beer bottle from the guy, resulting in a beer-covered left shoulder and beer in my left eye.

“Don’t be a dick, man! At least give me the pitcher!” He yelled.

“Go fuck yourself, bro,” I said, looking him in the eye while I poured all three drinks onto the sidewalk. I stood by the door and stopped about ten more people from walking out with their drinks. Fucking full moons or Friday the 13th’s or whatever.

Anyway, I have “slacks” and “wings” written on my left hand so I don’t forget those things when I leave, but I already ate the wings and the slacks have gone missing. I did get a lovely scarf from the lost and found, so the night wasn’t a total loss.

At this hour, the bus is largely filled with homeless people riding back and forth across the city to stay warm and get some sleep. Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s homeless given that everybody looks pretty haggard between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. Everyone’s eyes are barely open, and they’re slumped into the support provided by their five layers of winter clothes and/or newly acquired scarves.

Many people nod off. The guy to my right who just polished off a styrofoam container of fried rice is snoring at varying volumes. A man in a three-piece suit is asleep against the window in the back. Those that are awake stare blankly at their phones or some meaningless fixed point in front of them. The man at the front is scribbling something on a napkin. Maybe it’s a poem? A piece of his memoir? A grocery list? A plan to overthrow a dictatorship? I won’t be asking because… well… it’s almost 5:00 a.m. and I’m in Chicago, and “mind your damn business” is the most surefire way to stay safe.

“Howard! Last stop!” The bus driver yells at the top of his lungs in the hopes he won’t have to get out of his seat to wake the sleeping passengers. I leave before I find out.

On my short walk home I find a pretty awesome stick. It’s got a good circumference and decent heft, so I grab it. One car drives by and I imagine they think I’m off to club somebody or rob them at stick point, but that’s not the plan (at least for tonight). I huck it into the little fenced-in park near my apartment, excited to show my dog when we get there in a few minutes.

Good news: he liked the stick. When he started eating it, it was time to go. Food and too-little sleep waited for us back at the apartment, and I needed to be back at work in less than 12 hours. At least my neck was warm, though.

Where The Wild Seans Are

While the breweries, dispensaries, and museums made for amazing time-consumers, the real reason I was in Boulder was to check out Naropa University, as their Master’s Program in Counseling Psychology with a focus on Wilderness Therapy is the coolest fucking program I’ve ever heard about. To give you a brief rundown, you spend two and a half years checking the boxes to become a licensed counselor, much of which is spent outdoors doing backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, kayaking, and horseback riding all over the US. I mean… come the fuck on. How cool is that shit?

Anyway, the day of my visit started with sitting in on a Human Growth and Development class required for all first year students in the program. The teacher had been at it for 32 years. She was frank as all getout, full of fiery calmness, wonder, and humility, and she reminded me a lot of my aunt. She felt compelled to tell you things right as they cropped up in her head, and they were always relevant, informative, and entertaining, while still being kind of an interruption. I loved her.

The class started with a few minutes of silence and meditation, then a “bow in.” I read about the bowing before I got there, and it sounded a little on the hippie side for my tastes, but after actually being a part of it I think they converted me. After letting me introduce myself, the badass teacher picked up where the class left off last time – on the fourth of five developmental stages as defined by Robert Keegan. After about an hour and a half of lecture, we broke off into small groups of 4 or 5 and created arts-and-crafts renditions of the five stages. Glitter and paint and Elmer’s Glue were thrown onto large pieces of construction paper, then we went around describing our chosen visualizations. Then we went on break.

The second half of the class was taught by the graduate assistant. She started off with a one-word check-in on our emotional states, then we got up out of our seats to stomp our feet, grounding us in our bodies. The lesson was on post-traumatic growth, which can be an exhausting topic for everyone involved. Feelings get brought up, emotions run high as we silently launch into remembrances of our own traumas, and then we’re supposed to learn how to counsel someone on them on top of that. It was invigorating and a real reality check as to what this career involved. We ended the class with five pushups, ten jumping jacks, a final check-in, and a bow-out. Fuckin’ loved it.

I had some time in between the class and my meeting with the admissions counselor so I got some (of course the ingredients were organic and locally sourced) empanadas and a beer. I made it to the main campus (there are three, soon to be two) early, and read out on the lawn in between the buildings. The sun was shining, there were attractive people doing yoga and acroyoga in the grass, birds were chirping in the trees, and you could see the mountains in the distance.

I was wearing my Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) shirt, which just had the logo on the front. A gorgeous young lady in pigtails walked by while I was standing in the office waiting for the counselor, pointed at my shirt and said, “I love your shirt! MAPS, right?” I’m sure I blushed and said something meaningless like, “That’s right.” Honestly I was too drunk on awesome to solidify any of it into memory. 

The counselor was kind and knowing and wrote down the book I was reading so she could look into it later. While we talked I found myself thinking, “Oh that’s some hippie nonsense” with a fair amount of regularity, but when asked, I had to admit that I did indeed practice multiple forms of meditation (including mindfulness and loving-kindness) and yoga, I had a daily alarm on my phone to remind me to practice gratitude, and I journalled regularly about my thoughts and emotions. Fuck, I’m totally a hippie, sort of. Fit right in here, though!

Next I met with the career counselor, who just graduated from the program last May. She described her reaction to first reading about the program like, “Holy shit! This exists?!”

“Fuckin’ right?! That was VERBATIM my reaction!” I shot back at her. She, like pretty much everyone else I met, was beautiful and fit and authentic and captivating. 

I hit up a couple restaurants before making my way back to the hostel for an early bedtime, then I got up before the sun again, hit my weed vape pen, and made my way to the lobby for coffee and waffles. There was a second floor that was entirely unoccupied, so I read until the sun came up, and did some breathing and stretching exercises (the hostel beds were not the kindest to my back). Quick shout out to the Wim Hof Breathing Method – I definitely think it helped me adapt quickly to the lower oxygen up there even in the face of my extreme lack of cardio lately. 

Serendipitously, the trails were closed to bikes on Wednesdays, and the road leading to the trail was closed in the middle of the day, so I was completely alone for the duration of my four mile hike. It was serene and it allowed me a lot of time to integrate my experience in Boulder. The main takeaway being, “I’m gonna fucking love it here.”

Boulder, You Beautiful Bastard

I was surprised by the long TSA line at 3:30 in the morning on a Monday at Midway. I was also (much more pleasantly) surprised that the very-airporty Irish pub was open that early and serving alcohol, meaning my airplane nap would be substance-assisted. 

The three of us sitting at the bar were all in our early 30’s, clearly single, and with varying degrees of facial hair (none were cleanly shaven). I caught the guy sitting next to me staring at me through the mirror behind the liquor bottles as he open-mouth chewed the greasy breakfast served to him on a paper plate. I grimaced at the $27 tab for a Guinness and a shot, and thought, “This scene would be an awesome painting to have on my wall.”

Not thirty minutes after landing in Colorado, I was in love with the place. My bus driver to Boulder was a spitting image of Zach Galifianakis from the movie Masterminds, complete with well-groomed facial hair and mullet. I went straight from the airport to a weed dispensary open at 9am. The lady behind the counter was bubbly, well-informed, extremely helpful, and cute to boot. “Where would you go for breakfast?” I asked her.

Her spot was only two blocks away. There was a wait when I got there, but by the time I got out of the bathroom, a seat opened up at the bar. I saddled up next to a lovely old woman who chatted with me for the better part of 15 minutes. She gave me recommendations on places to check out before I left, then I scooted her chair out when she was done because she was too tiny to get out on her own.

The bartender brought me a cinnamon role pancake appetizer for my chivalry, then I followed that up with the Benny Duo – one half steak-and-eggs and one half latka-lox. There was hip, contemporary alt rock playing over the speakers, a vibrant-but-not-overwhelming buzz to place, and it was filled with beautiful young women in combinations of hippie and hiking attire. I thought maybe the flight crashed and this was my heaven. Or maybe I was still asleep on the plane, and would eventually wake up to a sore back and the more standard gruffness I’ve become accustomed to living in larger cities. But it just kept being awesome.

One odd thing: people seemed to keep almost running into me on the sidewalk. They either walked on the left side of the walkway or haphazardly veered in my direction while making eye contact that would normally indicate their recognition of a human presence. Maybe they were all just magnetically drawn to my love of the town. Or maybe there was a glitch in the coding for these NPC’s, and we’re all in the Matrix. But whatever, I guess. Small price to pay for an otherwise-perfect experience.

I felt inspired to write there. It’d been such a long lull of forcing myself to sit down and type. I don’t know if it was Boulder, in particular, or just the experience of newness, but I grabbed emphatically at my little notepad with a fair amount of regularity. (Author’s note: I’m presently back in Chicago and forcing myself to sit and type this). 

The hostel I ended up in straddled a creek and was nestled between tree-lined, snow-covered mountains. I had my first real hit of mountain air while I was standing outside smoking a cigarette of all things. I caught the edges of it on an inhale, then purposefully sucked as much air through my nostrils as I could muster. I let the smell of dirt and snow and pine fill my awareness and my eyes rolled back into my head like I was hitting heroin. 

The combination of sleep deprivation, weed and alcohol consumption, and early sunset meant I was in bed and asleep by 6pm. True to hostel form, I was woken up intermittently by the comings and goings (and snorings and fartings) of the roommates I hadn’t met. No matter – still a solid first day.

What the hell? Why not?: Intermittent Fasting

I looked at myself in the mirror a few weeks ago and only saw two abs peeking out of an otherwise flabby torso. Being that I’m from Los Angeles and therefore shallow, I launched into a panic. “Something’s gotta give,” I told myself.

Was the answer returning to the keto diet? Nah. As it turns out, I eat a lot of sandwiches and I just can’t sustain a diet that doesn’t allow me to eat an occasional cheese danish. Was the answer to reel in the beer intake? Well… No. There’s a lot of good reasons for that one, but no.

A couple of friends suggested intermittent fasting to me, and I thought it would be too hard given my varying late-night shifts, so initially I shrugged that one off. Also, I can be kind of a douchebag when I’m hungry, and I thought I’d just be starving and a dick (more than usual) all the time. Then more and more of the research I was doing pointed to its efficacy (I use the term “research” loosely here – I watch a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of articles about health and fitness in my free time), so I opted to eat for an eight hour window each day and essentially just drink water (and maybe an alcoholic beverage or four) the remaining 16 hours.

When you fast for that long, your body produces similar amounts of ketones (the chemical produced by your liver that aid in metabolizing fatty acids) as it would if you were on the kind of semi-commital version of the keto diet I was on, and you can still eat pretty much whatever. When I wake up, I also have a cup of black coffee with unsalted butter and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, which kicks up the ketones another notch. Most of the videos I’ve seen with strict keto advocates have a segment where they mutter something like, “Yeah, I guess you could just skip breakfast and achieve similar levels of ketosis, BUT” and then they go on to support their high-fat, low-carb diets.

I hit a tipping point and I’ve been doing this for a little over two weeks now. The first few days were rough, but after day three or four I settled into a comfortable space. My calorie consumption has stayed largely the same, though I admit it’s harder to cram a lot of food into an eight hour window without feeling like a fatass.

I’m fairly physically active, so I was concerned I’d see a dip in my energy and/or willingness to exercise, but I haven’t had that experience. I was also concerned that I’d be constantly dwelling on my hunger, but that hasn’t happened either. Ultimately, this shit isn’t that hard AND I’ve seen awesome results. I’m back to six visible abs (granted I still have a small belly, but fuck you, I love beer), and all I had to do was change the schedule of my consumption. And since it’s such an easy solution, I can actually see this being sustainable long-term.

For the sake of mentioning it, I did see an article that said skipping breakfast was bad because you ended up eating more at lunch. BUT they said that you’re only likely to eat about 20% more at lunch, so if your lunch and usual breakfast are the same size, you’re still eating less calories in the day. So… Whatevs.

Will I eventually get bored of this or read about how this is killing me in fun new ways? Maybe. But for now it’s working, so I’m sticking with it.  

Ayahuasca Part IV: Takeaways

What do you say about an experience that challenges your notions of what’s real and what isn’t? Well… This, I guess.

I had done plenty of psychoactive substances prior to my experience with Ayahuasca, and I did a fair amount of academic research on it leading up to the ceremony, but there just isn’t anything that prepares you for the kind of journey I was taken on. Every image that I saw with my eyes closed felt real – as if I wasn’t coming up with the images on my own, but I was being granted new eyes to see things that had always been there. Like in dreams where you’re convinced that you’re actually in that reality, but I never lost the sense that I left my reality – only added on new layers.

I interpreted the universes I saw as universes that exist simultaneously with this one. I knew that the spirits I encountered were very real, and many were there to help me. Not only that, but the other people in the room seemed to be able to tune into the visions I was having, and react to them in ways aimed at assisting me with them.

Prior to “releasing the dragon,” I had vivid images of the Spirit of Ayahuasca in a humanoid form, her hair made of long vines, her skin translucent, her heart and veins clearly visible, green, and glowing with life. Her and the Shadow Dragon stood side-by-side, arms outstretched, clearly holding space for my healing process as a blinding white light came from behind them. 

At the end of the ceremony on night two, Randy said, “I don’t want this to come off as egotistical, but I view myself as somewhat of a healer, and I was trying to help Sean release some spirits.”

“Let me set your mind at ease,” I said when the feathers were passed my way, “You hit the nail on the fucking head with that one.”

I view myself as an empiricist – I hold a very scientific worldview, but as any good scientist would, I leave open the potential that my view can be improved upon or disproven based on new evidence. This particular set of evidence caused me to challenge a lot of notions. It also ripped open a lot of old wounds, reexposing them to the open air, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready for it.

I can see how, with the right guidance in the weeks following the ceremony, this would’ve been ultimately very good for me. I did not, however, have any plan whatsoever for the integration of this experience into my life. I should have set myself up with counseling to accompany this event, but I did not. I should have sought help to interpret these images and form constructive ways of dealing with them, but I did not. 

I do not see myself doing a ceremony again for some time – I still have a lot to go over spiritually, mentally, and emotionally after this go round. If/when I do embark on anything even remotely similar to this, I will have a very particular counseling plan set up so I don’t fall back into depression like I did this time. Without that plan, all those wounds just left me thinking, “Ow, this really fucking hurts,” as opposed to, “Here’s what I can do to help these wounds heal.” 

Ultimately, I’m glad I did the ceremony. I’m glad that I stepped outside my comfort zone to explore my reality in such an expansive way – I am, afterall, a dedicated explorer. Also, now that I’ve done this the wrong way, I feel certain that I’ll do it the right way going forward. If you choose to do anything like this, make sure you’re set up with a strong support system afterward, and be open about the fact that things aren’t okay. This particular form of medicine is powerful and can lead to amazing insights, but it’s also unrelentingly honest about where your weak points are, and without the proper guidance, that can really fuck your shit up for a while.

Take an honest inventory of whether this or any other psychedelic is the right choice for where you are in life before you do it, and make sure you’ve got a plan for afterward, otherwise you’re just doing drugs, and potentially causing more harm than good. Happy traveling.

Ayahuasca Part III: Dragons and Purging

I woke softly when the sun rose, and everyone else joined me in consciousness shortly after. We were all quiet and contemplative while we prepared a breakfast of of fruits and some plain organic oatmeal I brought (if you’re wondering how much like cardboard it tastes, the answer is “a lot”). We arranged everything in large bowls, then placed them on the alter, and returned to our mats.

Prayer circles of water and food happened. We gave gratitude for each bowl as we passed it from person to person, saying “hayllalla” as we went, which translates to “well-being.” Holy shit did food taste good. I had eaten very little in the preceding days to account for the vomiting and diarrhea portion of this experience, but I restrained myself from shoveling too much into my face because night two of ceremony loomed in the near future.

We went around the room sharing some of our experiences from the night before and the Curandero offered his interpretations. Apparently the Spirit of Ayahuasca is often interpreted as a large snake, which I didn’t consciously recall knowing. Maybe I read it somewhere, maybe I unwittingly noticed the snake on the tapestry hung on the wall, or maybe (and here’s where I landed) I really fucking saw the Spirit of Ayahuasca as she wound her way around my innards. Maybe her twisting and turning in my stomach was her way of routing out all the spiritual knots I’ve accumulated in my thirty years of life. Who knows?

After we broke off from the morning circle, I spent probably an hour or so writing in my journal (I’ve since drunkenly misplaced that journal, so there’s probably shit I’m missing in this retelling, but oh well). Then I went to the middle of the large stretch of grass and did my thirty-minute stretch routine, taking in the morning sun and accumulating a good number of new mosquito bites. Was I secretly hoping the Curandera was watching me from the window while I did those stretches? Maybe – she was quite attractive in both appearance and aura. But her love for her partner (the Curandero) was clear and I had no interest in getting in the way of that. Fun to think about, though.

Anyway, Randy wanted to go back to LA Fitness for the sake of showering, then he wanted to get an air mattress to use that night, and go to lunch. I had no real interest in doing any of that, but I was his navigation (he had me turn on the audio for Google maps, but also regularly requested updates on how far we were before the next turn), and he had really grown on me, so I was down.

In keeping with “la dieta,” I had steamed rice and steamed broccoli at the Chinese restaurant we stopped at. I went crazy and added a little salt because I like to live on the wild side. Randy had shrimp lo mein because he clearly gave zero fucks about the purging potential. Somehow, he managed to avoid purging the previous night, which he attributed to his antacids. The man’s a spiritual beast in sheep’s clothes.

We got back, meditated, napped, and chatted a bit before reconvening for Night Two of ceremony. We all knew what we were getting into, but I wouldn’t call any of our feelings “excitement.” Night One was taxing physically, mentally, and emotionally, and from what I read, the intensity was supposed to compound on the second night.

My intentions had been whittled down considerably. That night my only intention was “to ride the coils of the serpent as the surfer rides a wave.” Poetic as fuck, right? After night one, I relearned something I already knew from previous psychedelic experiences – those drugs (or Spirits) are gonna take you wherever they want anyway, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The Rapé was considerably easier to deal with. It was really just about calming the fuck down and not trying to breathe through your nose at all. It involved a lot of spitting as saliva gathered in your drooped-open mouth, but it was manageable and I gagged much less. Others were not so lucky and heavy bouts of vomiting ensued around me. I was glad I figured it out, but I felt their pain when I heard the heaving and bucket splatters.

I did my best not to be inspired to throw up, closed my eyes and meditated until She was ready to take me on my next journey. My good friend The Shadow Dragon showed up to say, “Hey.” I was touched that he would visit me, then I realized that he had always been with me – he was there watching, protecting me just outside of my field of vision. I felt bad for not seeing him and thanking him sooner. He was pretty cool about it, though. He just gave me a knowing look that said, “I’m here for you,” then curled up by my side.

I was suddenly launched into a kaleidoscoping fun-house mirror universe. It was filled with creatures similar to the previous night – demons if you will – and one of those douchebags had the nerve to teabag me. I found that very funny, but still, dick move. Luckily, when any of those spirits got too costic, The Shadow Dragon would flap his wing and they’d skedaddle.

Back in the physical world, I was in a lot of pain and discomfort. My stomach was cramping and I almost continuously felt the urge to vomit. I’d sit up and dry heave for a bit, then lie back down to resume my tossing and turning on the mat. After one of those bouts, I was violently thrown into a number of memories from my childhood. One involved being so scared that I hid in a closet. I was afraid of the dark back then, but I was more afraid of what was going on outside of the closet, so I thought, “Fuck it, the dark’s not so bad.” (I was like six when this happened so I probably didn’t say it exactly like that, but you get the idea)

First I experienced the memory as if I was there, then I became an outside observer as the Me I am now. I met Young Me in the darkness where he sat huddled and alone, and I took him into my arms and held him. I gave Young Me the type of love and protection that I didn’t get in that moment. “It’s alright,” I told Him/Me, “you’re safe now.”

Just then I got yanked back into reality. “Wait! I’m not done hugging me!” I thought as I opened my eyes and let out a barrage of dark brown, mostly digested, very bland foods into my dog dish. I was able to recenter, close my eyes and do a little more hugging, then I felt much, much better. I felt warm and grateful that The Spirit of Ayahuasca had granted me that opportunity. I cried tears of joy and chuckled at the ridiculousness of it all. I also opted out of Round Two of the medicine because I felt pretty fulfilled in that moment, and fatigued from all the purging.

Grandmother Ayahuasca wasn’t done with me, yet, though. I settled back into Her world, and had visions of being a dragon. I saw my scaly red skin and felt my wings expanding behind me. I was sitting up, and I could feel myself stretching my limbs like a dragon just getting up after a long nap on a mound of gold in his cave. That transitioned into very vivid images of me murdering people. I was slicing throats and plunging long blades into stomachs, but somehow I was still doing it tenderly – almost lovingly.

In the same first-to-third-person perspective shift that I had with my memory, I reinhabited myself and saw a man in a black leather hood standing in a room lined with his victims. I knew immediately that he was a past self – someone I had been in another life. I also knew that he had never been loved, so I embraced him like I did with Younger Me. He collapsed in my arms and wept.

I opened my eyes and heard the Curandero chanting about dragons. Then I saw Randy flailing his arms about wildly. It looked as if he was gathering energy in front of him and then shooing something away, but he was definitely flailing in my direction. Finally he said, “Be free!”

Just then I realized that I wasn’t the dragon – I was holding onto this spirit. With that, I vomited one last time, and when I closed my eyes again the dragon (this past self that I just met) spread its wings and flew away from me. It was like having a huge weight taken off my shoulders. I felt lighter, and instantly sober.

I had every bit of mental acuity back, and I was content as fuck, so I just sat there for the remainder of the ceremony jamming out to the chanting and percussion of the Curanderos. When the circle closed, I had some more Rapé with the Curandero, then gathered my things and made my way to the tent I set up the day before, but didn’t have the energy or motivation to make it out to the previous night. I curled into the warmth of my experience and my only-slightly vomit-stained blanket, and was lulled to sleep by Mother Nature’s song.

Ayahuasca Part II: Randy, The Serpent, and The Underworld

The recounting of my Ayahuasca journey would be incomplete without full coverage of my main man Randy. I needed a ride to the ceremony, so I asked the Curandero and he connected me with Randy. Initially, we’d all be riding together, but the Curandero and his partner (also a Curandera) ended up riding separately, so that left me and Randy to figure things out on our own. In total, we communicated through 18 emails, 5 phone calls, and 6 text messages over the course of the three days leading up to the event. As a retired software engineer, he’s the first to admit that he isn’t “the best at people,” but he’s very thorough with his communications, specifying routes of travel, time of travel, and one or two alternatives. He even clarified if I’d be using Siri or Google Maps on my phone to navigate after he picked me up from the train station (he had a phobia of driving in the city, so I needed to make my way to the suburbs to meet him).

When he picked me up, he said, “I was lucky enough to grab a free parking spot right over there. It was free for 3 or 4 hours, so I went to the coffee shop to answer some emails. It’s a really nice coffee shop. They have free WiFi and the coffee is pretty good.” It went on like that for a while.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting him to look like after our extensive electronic communication, but it was different than what I got. He was a tall man in his seventies (best guess), slightly hunched from years of being too tall and sitting in front of a computer. He wore a plaid button down short-sleeve shirt tucked into khaki cargo shorts held up by a belt. Long, spindly legs reached from the shorts to the top of his white socks that filled his large white running sneakers. He wore glasses, and his phone and glasses case were clipped to his belt. He was a kind, gentle human, and based on his appearance, he would’ve been the last person I picked out of a lineup to go on a psychedelic ‘trip’ (he kept using that word and correcting it to ‘journey’).

We stopped at Costco so he could fill up his gas tank, then we stopped at LA Fitness so he could check out the facility and brush his teeth, then we stopped at a few other shops for groceries and some other random shit. Finally, we were on our way to the property in Wauconda, IL where our trip – or journey – was to take place.

The property was motherfuckin’ gorgeous. It was tucked back away from the road and surrounded by tall, beautiful trees. There was a rolling meadow that lead down to a large pond, and everything was a vivid green even before the hallucinogens. You could hear occasional cars drive by on the road and there was construction on the adjacent property, but when the sun started to set, Mother Nature was the only one making noise. Daytime cicadas gave way to nighttime crickets and frogs. Coyotes and owls punctured the continuous hum of the amphibians and bugs every once in a while, and the leaves rustled in response. Mother. Fuckin’. Gorgeous.

The ceremony would be taking place on a covered patio, which was fine by me because I got like 7 mosquito bites in the first five minutes after I got out of the car. We removed most of the furniture from the room, then when the Curanderos got there, we removed the rest and set up the alter and our respective mats, pillows, and blankets. Also, we each got our own “purge bucket” in case we couldn’t make it to the one bathroom to vomit. Mine was a porcelain dog dish, and I was concerned that it wouldn’t be large enough.

We moved pretty quickly through setup, and all sat down to begin the ceremony after some of us meditated for a bit. First, the Curandero gave a summative, “Here’s what to expect out of tonight” talk. Then we had a brief water prayer circle where we presented each other with the life-nourishing water that we’d later all be expelling violently from our bodies.

Then we had a round of “Rapé,” a powdered tobacco similar to snuff, but mixed with tree ash. The Spirit of Tobacco was described as a grandfather spirit – social, calming, and providing focus. It was poured into two small piles on the Curandero’s hand, then scooped up in a small, wooden pipe. Then you helped guide the pipe to your nostril, and it was blown forcefully up your nose on both sides. It burned, made your mouth water, and if you let it hit the back of your throat (or heaven forbid swallowed any) it made you gag.

Then we all went up one by one to the alter to receive “the medicine.” The Ayahuasca root is mashed and boiled along with Chacruna, and the end result is a thick, dark brown tea of sorts. Based on my experience with mushrooms, I figured it would taste awful, but I was delightfully surprised by its sweetness and palatability. After we sat back down, a condor and eagle feather – symbolizing the spirits of the North and the South – were passed around, we summoned one or both of the spirits and shared our intentions for the evening.

I can’t recall each of my intentions, but I can say with certainty that I had the longest list. As the Rapé took hold, my nervousness turned to excitement. As evening darkness settled in around us, we fell silent. The Shaman eventually started chanting lightly, and I could feel the edges of a drug state creeping up on me. I went prone and closed my eyes just in time to catch a flood of images rushing past my eyelids. They came too fast for me to make heads or tails of them. I opened my eyes and was surprised that my vision wasn’t really affected with my eyes open. There were still little hints of hallucinogen here and there, but compared to the technicolor world inside my head, the outside world was muted.

I closed my eyes again and found myself in a rainforest. I saw a large serpent descending from a tree in front of me. She (I intuitively knew it was a female) lowered herself until we were staring at one another eye-to-eye. “Hey there, Snake.” I said. She said nothing, but she then phased through my face and slithered down into my torso. I had vivid images of her writhing around in there continuously, and they were accompanied by my stomach feeling unsettled. I was never scared, though. Somehow this all seemed very natural.

My eyes shot open as a very clear and present need to expel my stomach’s contents from both ends took hold. I made my way to the bathroom and locked myself in, grateful for its presence and for the moments of quiet that punctuated my purging. Per the “what to expect” conversation, we were to have a second round of medicine, and while I sat on the toilet I thought, “Well there’s no way I’m doing that!”

When I got back to my mat, the Curandero said, “Alright, we will now open up the circle to the second round of medicine.” So of course I did it. This time, the Rapé was administered via a large, hollowed out bone that allowed for much more of it to be given much faster. I gulped down the second helping of tea and got back to my mat just in time to take advantage of my dog dish. After expelling a plethora of dark, brown matter from my person, I laid back down.

This time I had visions of my skin being charred from head to toe. Then I started to see demonic faces – some with horns, some without skin, some with red, glowing eyes, some made of lava. I saw one of them run his hand along the entirety of an animal (it was either a warthog or a possum, couldn’t tell) and with the passing of his hand, all of the living tissue was stripped from the bone. Again, none of this scared me – it just was. Finally, I was surrounded with these creatures in their world – a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with burnt, crumbling buildings and swirls of ash. Honestly, I felt very at home.

Then vomiting. Much more vomiting. As I started to come to, I realized that the two Curanderos had stopped their rhythmic chanting and drum beats, and the circle was coming to a close for the night. The two feathers were being passed around again so we could share the gift of our voices. I was still hunched over my bowl when I heard Randy say, “I’ll wait for Brother Sean to feel a little better before I pass him the feathers.”

“No… Skip me…” I muttered as saliva dripped from my lips.

But he didn’t. He waited. Then he said, “Hold the feathers – they have healing powers.”

“Ugh.” I said. But I took the feathers, and thought, “I’ll be damned. I feel better.” I explained my violent transition from one world to another and the serpent and probably a host of other things that I just can’t recall right now.

“You were in the underworld,” the Curandero said in a calm, “well duh” kind of way.

I remember thinking, “I wasn’t just in the underworld – I was a fucking king there.” and I had a vision of me with a gold crown on a delapidated throne, then I passed the fuck out.