Ayahuasca Part I: The Leadup

The organizer of a local Meetup Group I frequent sent out the usual reading material prior to the monthly meeting. Feel free to read the whole thing, but if you’re not inclined, it’s the manifesto of Mother Ayahuasca (the spirit of Ayahuasca), describing herself, her intentions, and her journey through the world. It offers information while still being some degree of readable, but I had a little trouble with it because I’m generally not one for indulging in that particular brand of whimsy.
I had known a little about Ayahuasca for years, but felt strongly that I had more to learn, so I was excited to see the headlining speaker at the Meetup, who was a Curandero (a healer who uses traditional remedies, also referred to as an Ayahuascero or Shaman). As with the reading, though, I was hesitant to throw my support in the ring for this guy and his practices just yet because my background is in the more modern psychological practices. For a long time, I held the “newer is better” belief, and it still lingered around in my brain coloring my view of older practices.
When I got to sit in front of him and hear him speak, I was impressed by his sense of humor, his down-to-earth attitude, his traditional college-level education in sociology, and the laid-back assuredness that can only come from 19 years of working with Ayahuasca. I asked him the requisite, “What kinds of questions do you ask people before you work with them?”
“The biggest questions we ask are, ‘Are you on any medications right now? Do you have a history of mental illness in your family? Have you ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?’ Things like that.”
He also qualified it by saying, “That said, have I still given the medicine [Ayahuasca] to people on medications like lithium? Yes. Have I still given it to people with schizophrenia? Yes. But it’s all on a case-by-case basis after sitting down with them and discussing potential problems.”
He also said, “Usually when it’s time for you to do the medicine, the spirit of Ayahusca will call you to her.” And I definitely heard the call.
This guy had exactly the kind of practical approach I was looking for, plus I just fuckin’ liked the dude. Before we hugged each other goodbye, I overheard him mention the potential that he’d be doing a healing ceremony sometime before he headed back to Peru, so I connected with him on Facebook. He wouldn’t know the details for certain until he had confirmed enough participants to make it worth his while and had returned from the Sun Dance he was headed to (a Native American ceremony involving hours and hours of dancing).
Before he even left, he sent me a message confirming that it was happening, and providing some reading material on “la dieta,” which gives some fairly strict guidelines on the types of food you can eat leading up the ceremony. You were supposed to start it as much as two weeks in advance, but being me, I waited until like three days before. Scientifically, the point is to have very little in your stomach that might increase acidity, as Ayahuasca can be pretty hard on your digestive tract. Spiritually, the point was to eat a diet as close to that of our Peruvian predecessors as possible to maximize our ability to commune with the Spirit of Ayahuasca. So it was a lot of fruits and vegetables, and very little seasoning (if any).
I spent many of the days leading up to the ceremony reading about the science and tradition of this particular plant medicine and listening to personal accounts. Honestly, most of it was an attempt to assuage my growing nervousness about being ripped out of this world and shown the more sordid parts of my history. Every account I heard went something like, “There’s nothing particularly fun or enjoyable about the experience. Usually it’s actually pretty rough and it was one of the most trying things I’ve ever done. But it was absolutely, 100% worth it.” It was also described as, “ten years of traditional talk therapy crammed into two nights, with extensive vomiting and diarrhea thrown in.”
Really selling it, right? Anyway, a few days before the ceremony, right after I had really committed myself to the diet, I sat down to meditate. Once I was able to clear my mind, I saw a figure making its way toward me. I intuited that this was the Spirit of Ayahuasca. When she reached me, she placed her hand on my forehead, and I felt warmth and comfort and calmness. She saw me stirring about in my own mind, and took time out of her busy schedule to put me at ease. Nervousness lingered a little, but I was as ready as I’d ever be to take this journey.

The Bears Won

The Bears were doing well and the bar was humming along at a manageable pace. There wasn’t much of a need for me to be there anymore, and the bartender had just accidentally opened a bottle of Old Style, so clocking out was the only reasonable thing to do. I saddled up on the other side of the bar to knock back way too many shots and beers with the regulars and randos I had come to know so well (or at least was very friendly toward with all the shots and beers on board). One of my coworkers got her purse stuck in a bike lock, and I was able to pry it out, which affirmed my functionality and gave me the bravado I needed to start sending out “Hey. What are you up to?” texts.

The first and only person that I really wanted to see was a good friend who lived less than a block from my bar. She was a regular, and we were fast friends as we shared a lot in common. It didn’t hurt that she was (is) incredibly attractive and charismatic, I suppose. She was in Boystown (if you think that sounds like a gay neighborhood, you are correct) drinking with her friend, so I Ubered my way over.

Her friend was nice enough from what I remember, but she and I were both particularly drunk, so as we are wont to do, we started making out and hanging on each other. At some point her friend started hitting on another gentleman and probably got fed up with our overt display of affection, so he excused himself to the stairwell to continue his conversation out of our line of sight. Fingers crossed he got some action – it’d only be fair after what we put him through.

After making the vast majority of the gay folks around us uncomfortable with our hetero tongue exchange, some loud and enthusiastic conversations with the bartender, a brief stint in the stall of the women’s restroom (there was a gender neutral bathroom, but the stall didn’t lock, so…), and repeatedly pulling my friend off the bar after she hopped up there, we decided it was time to move on. No, not just move on, it was time to fucking dance!

“Hey!” we slurred at the bouncer. “We know we’re drunk and we need to leave. Where’s the best spot to dance?!”

We made our way to a cavernous spot nearby that had a large, pulsating dance floor at the back, where “Slave 4 Britney [Spears] Sundays” was in full swing. She led me by the hand directly to the front, and we hopped straight up on stage. The bouncer responsible for the stage said we were cool, so we ground and gyrated our drunk selves through the next hour and a half. There were trips to the bar to get drinks, but most of them ended up disappearing after we set them down to keep dancing. At some point I was so sweaty that I took my shirt off, but like most nights like this, my memory of it is limited to snapshots of the fun and frolicking like a montage under a strobe light. For the sake of mentioning a couple, we danced with probably five or six other people and at some point I picked my friend up for some dancing with an acrobatic tilt. I also remember us drunkenly yelling, “I love you!” at one another, but with lights and music and hormones blaring, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment.

Anyway, she had work the next day and was conscious of the time, so we eventually hopped off the stage, I put back on my shirt, and we headed back out to the street. After some convincing, I dragged her to one more dance spot with a Latin vibe. We didn’t finish a couple more beers, then I got us an Uber to her apartment. I kissed her goodnight, said an awkward goodbye (my doing, not hers), then walked the half block back to my still-open bar where I regaled the patrons and my coworkers with stories of my exploits.

After sharing a cigarette or two with some guy, we made enough of a connection that he was intrigued by the prospect of an after-hours joint I’m a member of. We made a stop at his apartment to drink some whiskey that was too high quality for how drunk we both were, then I lead him into the dark, dingy world of Chicago’s late-late night crowd. To his credit, he hung in there for a bit, but eventually his head started to nod and he got my approval to excuse himself (not that he needed it, but he asked for it).

Left to my own devices, I flirted with a lovely trans woman for a while, made some random friends, had them buy me my final beers and shots, then walked through the 9am sunlight to the bus stop. A bus and a train later, I was back in my apartment ordering takeout food I didn’t really need. As with most nights like this, it ended with the sun high in the sky, empty to-go containers, and the strong notion that I probably didn’t need to do it again for a while. Though… It has been a while…

Whiteout Wandering

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We started onto the trail enthusiastically, some of us just having met, and all of us entering into the cold wilderness right out of the warmth of our vehicles. It was sunny, and so were our dispositions. We were all brought together by a love of the outdoors and shared connections in Berkeley, so we all shared similar world views, making for easy conversation.

“I actually used to be a search and rescue skier in this area,” one of our group said. And my friend had a Garmin tracking our route for portions of the trek, so we were pretty sure of ourselves as we powered forward, away from the Boreal ski resort where we left our cars. It still wasn’t particularly easy-going – all of us were degrees of youthful and fairly athletic, so we kept a decent pace and occasionally had to push through new packs of snow.

If you’ve never had to push through new snow on foot before, I can tell you that even with snow shoes, your feet sink down about two feet with each step. The snow shoes then collect snow on the way back up, making for a weighted-stairmaster experience even on flat ground, which is compounded by going up or downhill.

We reached our predetermined campsite as the sun started to set.  We all tamped down a portion of snow that would act as a wind and snowfall barrier for our tents over the course of the evening. Also, it created a hard enough surface to actually put the tents onto. Overly confident in our work, my partner at the time removed her snow shoes, and promptly sank waste-deep into the snow, filling her boots with ice shavings. She put back on her shoe shoes, and fought the feeling of frostbite by the fire for the remainder of the evening.

We also created a dining area by sinking a circle into the snow, with the center acting as a table, and the sides as a bench. We put the fire in the middle, and ate dinner and drank a little, and patted ourselves on the back for making good time on the way there, then retired to our respective tents for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and found a fresh powder over our tents. We started heating breakfasts and coffees and teas, consistent with our left-leaning palates. Just then, a man emerged from the trail leading farther into the forest. He was rugged-looking, by himself, and seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, but was happy to stop for some hot coffee. In exchange, he offered up his eggnog, which was still surprisingly a liquid, on account of its incredibly high alcohol content.

“You guys should really start packing up,” he said.

“Why’s that? We’re not that far off from where we started. Should be a quick hike out of here,” our “guide” said.

He responded by pulling out his radio, and clicking it on.

STORM WARNING… WHITEOUT CONDITIONS… IMMINENT DEATH… GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE…

The woman’s monotone voice came in loud and clear, so we thanked the wild man for the info, bid him adieu, and began our tipsy packing as quickly as we could. We started the hike, and quickly realized that the altitude, morning alcohol, fresh powder, and steep uphill portions of this hike were not going to make things easy on us. Shortly after, the whiteout conditions the woman mentioned kicked into gear.

We were in a single file line, trading off the lead position (it’s harder at the front, as you’re the first to pack down the snow), and very slowly making our way back to our cars. My glasses fogged over every few seconds, and icicles formed on my beard and in my ringlets of hair. We were never more than a few feet from each other, but it was still difficult to make out the people in front of you.

We continued like this for a few hours, then the gentleman immediately in front of me turned to me, “I feel like we’re not going the right way.”

“Yeah, I’ve been checking my compass every now and again, and I’m going to go ahead and agree,” I responded. He and I were the only ones who brought compasses. I don’t recall why the Garmin wasn’t doing this job for us, but it wasn’t. We were following the rescue guy. Well, it turns out he hadn’t been up in that area for over a decade.

“Let’s go to the top of this mountain, then we’ll be able to see if we’re on the right track!” he yelled back at us through the flurries of snow. We were tired, and not particularly interested in a steep climb, but it was our best idea for the time being – we were quickly losing daylight.

We neared the top, and lo and behold, the lights of the ski lift could be seen through a five second hole in the cloud cover. And wouldn’t ya know it, it was in the exact direction that the two people with compasses had been quietly pointing toward for some time.

Reinvigorated by knowing where the hell we were going, we started in the direction of the lights. We realized we weren’t going to make it by nightfall, so we made camp for the second (and unplanned) night in a clearing between some trees, balancing the benefits of having wind cover against the concerns of snow-laden branches falling on us as we slept. There was still laughter and joviality in the face of generally shitty conditions.

The next day, we started off early. We were no more than half a mile from the cars, but there was no way of knowing that the day before. We got hot cocoa from the resort, and my partner sat in the car enjoying it while I lie on the frozen pavement fumbling with the chains for the tires – my cold fingers only responding to fractions of the instructions they were given.

Finally off the mountain, we stopped at a cafe for one of the most satisfying burgers I’ve ever eaten, and warm apple pie (not a euphemism). As the color returned to our cheeks, we laughed at our stupidity, and talked optimistically about when we might do it again. So far we haven’t, but we’re still degrees of youthful.

The Desert in the Off Season

We were greeted at our camp site by a ten foot tall neon green penis that sprayed a light, refreshing mist during the day, and shot fire from its tip in the evenings. We piled out of the Lincoln Town Car I rented to shuttle us to, from, and around the desert, and set up a camp of tents, shoddy 2×4 supporting structures, and an old parachute. It was Black Rock Desert, but there was no organization okaying our presence, no expensive tickets, no large-scale art or upsettingly large stacks of speakers pumping out garbled untz noises at 5am, and no rules.

After being there a couple hours my friend asked, “Hey are you cool with me taking the trunk off of that Town Car so we can fit more people in it?”

“If you feel confident that you can get it back on, then yes, absolutely!” He was a mechanic, so I felt confident in his abilities, and I also loved the idea. We were now able to (somewhat) comfortably transport up to 13 people at a time, meaning we were the party wherever we showed up.

When I wasn’t building or tinkering, I spent most of the daytime hours in the open desert teaching people how to do donuts in the Town Car, and lounging around at or near Frog Pond (ponds, really – it was a collection of small hot springs) in varying amounts of clothes. My particularly eccentric Ukrainian friend liked gathering the small fish or tadpoles inhabiting the pond into his mouth, then spitting them onto anybody who asked why his cheeks were puffed out. It was hilarious.

The evening rolled around, and my friend said, “Would you like any of the liquid acid I brought?” I feel like you can all guess what my answer was. “How many drops do you want?”

“I dunno. Three? Four? That sounds reasonable.”

“Okay, tilt your head back and open your mouth. One… Two… Thr- OOPS!”

“Throops?! How many is throops?!”

“Uh… Maybe like… Eight to ten?”

Great. Clearly it was time to load up into the Town Car and head out into the desert. There were thousands of people spread out over the vast expanse of public land (you were only legally allowed to have so many people at each campsite, which seemed to be the only rule people were interested in following), so you just had to drive toward the lights to find a group partying. For some reason, I was still elected to be the driver, and we may or may not have spent 30 minutes following around a car with a flashing light on it, and we must have visited upwards of ten different locations.

My friend that throopsed me and I stood watching a group burn a five-foot high wooden man, and they neglected to tell us that they filled it with fireworks. One of them zipped right between our heads; neither of us moved. We turned slowly to each other and I said, “Well that was close, huh?” Then we laughed until it was time to move on to the next place.

When we’d had our fill of nonsense, we headed back through the pitch black desert to our camp. I was still driving, but my passenger was dictating all of my wheel turns, as I could not see. “Okay, straight. Left… LEFT! MORE LEFT!” We narrowly avoided a large muddy patch that the car would have sunken into, and I finally decided I had had enough of the driving thing, stopped, and made my passenger drive, which he was basically already doing. When we got back, I did that cartoon thing Homer Simpson does where you spin around in circles on the ground saying, “WOOOOOP, WOOP-WOOP-WOOP-WOOP-WOOP!” until I got tired and went to bed.

The finale of the event comes in the form of a 30-foot tall frog with vampire teeth and bat wings, made primarily from wood and propane tanks, constructed at the far end of the shooting range (there was a shooting range). I took my shotgun and lined up with about 40 to 50 other naked or nearly naked people with guns, then someone yelled, “Holy shit, it’s a Frog Bat!” And everyone opened fire.

The explosions reverberated through your bones, and the thing went up in a glorious mushroom cloud of smoke, fire, and Frog Bat bits. Having slain the beast, there was nothing to do but pack up, put the trunk back on, and head home – tired, hungover, sunburnt, and victorious.