I’ve struggled with whether or not to write this story.
Actually, I always knew I would write it, but wasn’t sure I would ever share it here. After all, I’m an upstanding young woman practicing medicine, and have a certain image to uphold.
That being said, if I want to be honest about myself here (and I do), you should know I value interesting and unique experiences over following rules I don’t believe in. And I think the lessons I learned apply very much to the people I hope to help here – people who are open to seeing the world from a different perspective, and are searching for meaning and happiness in their everyday lives.
Oh, but if you work for the DEA, the following is a fictional account of what might have happened had I done LSD while visiting Joshua Tree with my boyfriend Peter over Christmas – which I didn’t.
Now, with that disclaimer in place, on to the story…
I’ve always been curious about hallucinogens. I’m a fan of life experimentation, and while I don’t recommend the abusive or reckless use of drugs, I’m fascinated with the idea that a drug could alter your reality, revealing alternative ways of approaching the world, other people and yourself.
Hence experimenting with an hallucinogenic drug made it on my list of 29 Things I Want To Do Before I’m 30. When my boyfriend Peter and I decided to plan a last minute trip to Joshua Tree over a long weekend in December, I figured, there’s no time like the present.
The Day Begins
It was late morning when Peter and I finally hit the road. We had slept in at the little cottage we rented a mile or so outside the park, and meandered our way to a local breakfast spot for some pancakes, eggs and orange juice before driving into the park.
Peter insisted I had to drink a lot of orange juice, which is supposed to increase the effects of the LSD. I had never heard of it, but he seemed to know a lot more about hallucinogens than I did, so I went along with the recommendation.
After breakfast we made our way to the park, first to the mile-long hike to Barker Dam.
I was in charge of the drugs. I pulled out three tabs of acid from the snack-sized ziplock bag in my backpack, and Peter used his knife to neatly divide the middle tab, leaving each of us with a tab and a half. I slipped it in my mouth and chewed for a few minutes before swallowing the soggy paper.
While I had been eagerly anticipating my first hallucinogenic experience, I was also anxious. In my OCD-like preparations for the trip, I had read some Timothy Leary (although later finding out that his work is now considered a by-product of the eccentric 60s culture rather that a necessary LSD how-to guide).
He talked about how you had to be careful about the circumstances and people surrounding your experience, because any underlying anxieties and subconscious insecurities could be brought to the surface. I imagined stories of horrible trips, desperate hallucinations, fried neurons never to be repaired. The reality was nothing like that.
The effects came on slowly. Very, very slowly. After about a hour I felt some twinge of feeling a little “off,” similar to how you’d feel after half a glass of wine. I waited for something else to happen. After a few more minutes my hearing changed. My ears buzzed, like I heard things more acutely than I could before. My skin was more sensitive, and I would reach my hands out to brush them against the tall grasses as I walked.
Peter and I finished the hour-long hike and plotted out our next stop. At this point my brain and planning abilities felt fairly intact. We decided to go on a more ambitious hike, a six mile loop that led to an old gold mine. We started walking to the trailhead.
Somewhere along the walk the effect hit me like a ton of bricks. I sputtered out a spontaneous giggle. “Fuck!” I said. “I feel fucked up now.” My mind felt heavy, lumbering, odd.
We arrived at the trailhead and decided to leave our food cooler hidden behind a bush. I pulled out my backpack, considered for too long what to put into in, and then packed a jug of water and my sunglasses before heading out. In a mental lapse, I did not pack any snacks.
Immediately I was sure everyone knew I was high. The thought made me spontaneously laugh, and not in a subtle, giggling sort-of-way, but in a deep, throat-clenching, belly-heaving way. And then I would become conscious of my unprompted laughter and it was die down.
There was this one couple we passed a few times on the trail. They looked in their thirties – she a midsize brunette wearing a blue track jacket, he a tall and preppy blond. They would stop to take a drink of water and we would pass them, and then Peter and I would stop, either to drink water or marvel at how messed up we felt, and they would pass us.
I caught the woman’s eye a few times, and I felt sure she knew – she must know, she had done it before, she could spot the telltale signs – the wide eyes, spontaneous giggling, extremely slow walking.
Surveying the Landscape
I wasn’t actively hallucinating at this point, but everything had an odd sheen to it. The landscape was massive and dotted with Joshua trees – the unique cacti of the park named because their limbs are said to resemble the outstretched arms of Joshua, leading you to the promised land.
The Joshua trees, the shrubs and grasses, the rocks, everything was intensely colored. Light and shadow seemed to roll and gloss over the surface of the rocks.
Peter and I walked down the path, side by side, rarely talking, intensely preoccupied on our own internal worlds. But a few times I noticed him eye me watchfully, reach out and touch my arm, and I could tell he was doing it to make sure I was doing okay.
A couple of times Peter would pick up a rock, roll it in his hands, and then hand it to me, saying “feel this,” encouraging me to experience the heightened sensation of being on LSD. I would try turning the rock over in my hand a few times, but even the weight of this simple object felt so intense that after a few seconds I would abruptly throw it on the ground. Everything felt intense.Walking, standing, sitting, being.
Now, the map had indicated this hike would be six miles round trip, but I swear to God it was a hundred. It felt like we were there for days, wandering the desert like lost souls.
I yelled at Peter, “There’s no fucking way this is only six miles!” He laughed and walked ahead, but I could only walk a few shuffling feet before stopping because everything was so intense, the colors of the landscape, the feeling of the ground under my feet, the buzzing sound of the desert.
I felt ready to give up and turn back, but just then the giant, arching gold mind appeared from behind a mountain. We were close! I started shuffling a little faster.
I had this idea that LSD would help me solve some huge life problem or come up with amazing ideas and solutions I had never thought of. After all, didn’t Francis Crick discover the double helical structure of DNA while tripping on acid? I was going to be just like Francis Crick. I was sure LSD would be my ticket to some major, life-changing discovery.
As I was shuffling through the desert, I figured this was as good a time as any to start solving problems. I told Peter, “I’m going to cure world hunger now!” I narrowed my eyes pensively. Nothing. I figured that LSD lasted hours, so I could tackle the world hunger problem later.
Meanwhile, while I felt like I had walked a mile since last noting my location, it had really been closer to twenty feet. The gold mine, taunting me in the distance, seemed just as far as it had before.
No one tells you about The Hunger. They talk about the hallucinations, the trippy thoughts, the heightened sensitivity – but they leave out The Hunger. The Hunger starts as a queasiness and discomfort in the pit of your stomach, and then turns into a raging hole that no amount of nourishment could fill.
Over the following hour I became intensely preoccupied with hunger. I imagined the snacks available to me back at the cooler – jugs of orange juice, trail mix, nuts, fruit, leftover fries and chicken tenders from last night’s dinner, tortilla chips, salsa…
I lambasted myself for not bringing any of these snacks with me on the hike. What had I been thinking? The orange juice jug and cashew nuts could have fit so neatly into my backpack. How could I have made such a critical error?
We ended up turning back before reaching the gold mine. The sun was setting, my knot in my stomach became more intense, and Peter was probably tired of hearing me talk about how hungry I was.
Time sped up on the walk back. As the sun began to set, the colors of the broad, desert landscape became more intense. The Joshua trees dotting the landscape looked so full of energy that they just might take off and shoot straight into the sky.
In one singular moment, I knew the peak of the drug had passed. Suddenly my brain felt slightly more clear, slightly less heavy. It was about two hours after the effect had first kicked in. I even said out loud to Peter, “The high just passed! Right now. Just a few seconds ago. It just happened.” He laughed. As we slid down the mountain, my mind felt more calm, more at ease, more quiet.
When we reached the cooler I unleashed myself on the food. I reached for the french fries, shoveling several into my mouth, then the cashews, which I swallowed by the handful, then the tortilla chips, which I loaded with chipotle salsa and somehow fit into the remaining free space in my mouth.
I couldn’t believe how happy I was, how much pleasure I was getting from sitting on the ground, eating all that food. As I chewed on french fries and gargled orange juice I started laughing hysterically, heaving, until my gut hurt.
“I could just die right now!” I sputtered out. The french fries, with their decadent saltiness, and the orange juice, with its teasing, subtle sweetness, were so delicious, so exhilarating, I felt like if this moment were my last I would die happy.
Witnessing the Sunset
With my hunger fading and the sun setting, Peter and I decided to head out to a final spot a few miles away, a lookout point the gaping views of the entire desert. The sun was just disappearing over the mountains, and the sky was washed in brilliant purples, yellows and pinks. I sat with Peter on a bench overlooking the cliff drop. I folded my hand over his and we watched the colors wave and flash over the sky.
The air became chilly and crisp, and I realized I was shivering, although I didn’t feel cold. I think my mind knew something my body hadn’t realized yet – that I couldn’t be cold because I was connected to everything around me, the crisp air, the fading sun, the proud Joshua trees, Peter’s warm hand next to mine. The same energy flowed through all of us, giving and taking freely, with any small changes (such as my warmth slipping out into the dusk air) being of little significance in the grand scheme of things.
The Night Descends
The sun fell quickly. With the light disappearing out of the sky, shadows started to dance from the landscape. Peter and I walked to another camping spot and meandered through one of the unique giant rock formations of Joshua Tree.
Once the sun set, I started hallucinating intensely. While my mind was clearer than it felt earlier in the day, my eyes no longer had a grasp on reality.
I looked down at the shadows dancing over the rocks, and then up and felt the stars vibrate in the sky. Around me, energy seemed to flow from one thing to the next – from the vibrating stars down to the tops of the mountains, through the giant rocks formations and the trees, and back over the landscape like a rising flood.
At one point I thought I saw a discrete object darting through the rocks. I tried to focus on it. Peter insisted I was hallucinating, and, to be honest, I thought I was too until the object darted in front of the light of a street lamp and revealed itself to be a little fox. It stared at me with it’s beady little eyes and I started right back. I decided this must be my spirit animal.
We spent at least an hour at that rock formation – wandering, sitting, talking. We talked about our experiences, our past, our futures, our dreams. I mentioned I had better hurry up and solve that world hunger problem before the drug wore off. He laughed.
I knew it was too late. I wanted to go back, to experience the peak again, that sense of my universe feeling so different from how I had ever seen it before. But it was time to go home.
We started the long walk down the empty road back to the exit of the park. Neither of us talked. My eyes drifted over the landscape. Everything was so bright and vibrant. Colors swirled and danced around me. I wanted to drink it all in before it went away.
We got back to the little cottage where we were staying, but I didn’t want to go inside yet. I stood outside, eyes focused upward, taking in the stars dotting the night sky. I stretched my hands up, feeling as if I reached hard enough I could touch them.
When I was at the height of my trip, I had this feeling that I was viewing everything from above, that I could see myself as one small part of a giant interconnected universe, with energy flowing freely between everything in a way you couldn’t see from standing on the ground. Could you tell me that I was wrong?
It made me realize that we have many perceptions, but there are few absolute truths. So the next question we need to ask is, how do our perceptions serve us? Do they encourage us to love, to be generous, to feel effective and motivated, to seek and give fulfillment? Or do they constrict us, close off our hearts, limit us, create fear, doubt and insecurity? Can we let go of those negative perceptions and beliefs, knowing they are no more true than anything else, and that far more power comes from deriving strength from our interconnectedness?
Over the past few months I’ve thought a lot about that day in Joshua Tree. I’ve thought about the visions, the sites, the sounds and the smells. I’ve thought about Peter and how much I loved sharing that day with him. I’ve thought about how exciting it is that there is such a richness of experiences available for us to pursue.
And I’ve thought about the proud Joshua Trees, reaching out with their limbs outstretched, leading me to somewhere better than where I came from.