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Trippin’ In Joshua Tree (Or, The Time I Crossed Hallucinogenic Drug Experimentation Off My Bucket List)

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.

The Hunger

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.

***

Photos by crankeyturtle, stevebaradi, stevelyon, kudaphoto, hofluk, proimos

Comments

  1. Hey, nice story very intriguing. I especially like how you included Francis Crick in there lol. Although I think Rosalind Franklin was in on it too :P

    Also, thanks for the note on being careful about the circumstances and people surrounding the experience. I have heard stories of people going on bad trips.

    • Hey Rami, good point! She tends to get left out of the history books. I was definitely hesitant about the idea of a bad trip…. but I think going into the experience with some maturity and common sense makes it unlikely.

  2. This is great. As a first timer you perfectly captured the feeling, the heightened awareness of simple things we experience every day, the loss of time perception, the hunger, lol, felt like I was there. If that was and will be your one and only experience, sounds like having that experience in Joshua Tree was about as good as could get! I’ve never been to Joshua Tree, but I imagine the scenery is mind blowing without hallucinogens, never mind with them!

    • Thanks Russ! A lot of factors definitely aligned to make it an awesome experience, and you can’t beat Joshua Tree!

  3. I’m glad you *did* decide to share that, Elana. That was awesome! Like Russ said, I felt like I was there. That beautiful feeling of intense interconnectedness… Sounds incredible. Hm.. =)

    • I was an amazing feeling… and made me how I’d love to cultivate that perspective in everyday life. Glad you liked the post!

  4. Nature is definitely the place to be when you’re expanding your perceptions. Post-trip clarity is sort of refreshing. The day before your mind could be bustling with all kinds of things to sort out and then when you drop it just kind of forces you to be in the moment and really see everything and feel everything.. Life is constantly reminding us of how everything is connected but often we drown it out with our own conditioning.

    I had a funny experience on mushrooms in my own backyard around a fire just with a cat. I thought I could feel his soul haha!! Maybe cats laze around and roll around smelling and petting everything because they’re in a constant state of ecstacy and spiritual communion. :P

    Also another note about bad trips, I wouldn’t say you are exempt from them, but as a psychologist I would think you have a better understanding of mind than most. And in large part the negativity of a bad trip stems from the person’s fear of not being “in control” of the situation even though outside of his/her own perception there is really nothing to be stressed out about. Just think happy thoughts/surround yourself with positive energy and your trip will be happy. Don’t do it around people who drain your energy or make you uncomfortable and don’t get caught up in worrying about things because you’re not really going to be taking care of any sort of business while you’re tripping balls haha.

    Planning is a good idea. Also pretty surprised that you got the munchies because I’m the complete opposite. Never gets past the queasiness for me, so I like to do it on an empty stomach and I find there is less nausea and my appetite is gone until I sober up.

    Lastly, read the late Terence McKenna if you have not already. He also has many talks up on youtube. Beautiful mind, I love his manner of speech and unique vision.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your blog is beautiful.

    • Hey Kat, thanks so much for your comment. Great point about surrounding yourself with the right kind of energy when experimenting with these types of drugs, and I agree being willing to let go of control will make the experience much better.

      I actually had that nauseous/queasy feeling too – but for some reason got insanely hungry at the same time. I wasn’t sure if that was a common effect or just me :-).

  5. haha I LOVED that post! I still remember when we went out with medicine team and you said you seriously wanted to try shrooms or something. Good for you for crossing something off your bucket list!! Thanks for your description. It was super fascinating, especially since I have never tried LSD and don’t think I ever will (hearing a piano talk after sleeping too little was way too traumatic already!) I am glad you did not have a bad trip and that you were safe. Thanks for the fun post. It was really meaningful…I like your point about perspectives in life. so true. This was the best analysis on an acid trip that I have ever seen. You should win some kind of award. :)

    • Haha, I remember that piano story! Good times. Yeah, might be a good idea for you to avoid hallucinogens :-)

  6. I love this for so many reasons. Your bravery in sharing your, um, fictionalized account of an acid trip (ha), how it’s set in Joshua Tree (one of my favorite national parks), the humor (What, you mean you *didn’t* solve world hunger?? Jesus.), and the beautiful insights you got from the experience. I’ve never done any hallucinogens and this post makes me want to. Um, not that I would in real life. Just in theory.

    • Thanks Deonne! Yeah, I was bummed about the world hunger thing :-). Maybe next time! If you ever decide to try acid (theoretically), I approve :-).

  7. After fasting several months a year, over several years, the ritual of eating when one is hungry takes on the tome of if I don’t think about this pain, I don’t have this pain. One never really thinks of controlling ones hallucination because the wealth of understanding this new dimension of one with the universe is relatively new. The Dali teaches we are all the same breath of air. Take what you will from this Fox spirit, … The down side of this, is once you have experienced this telling personality with say a cat as described in an earlier comment, the animal or spirit friend seeks that spirit it is closer too, and wonders why it is no longer understood on that level. Domesticated animals react much differently than non domesticated animals. A wild animal will sense immediately you are not the same energy you were in or out of the lets say your electrified state, as you found your one harmonic to ride through the astral plane.

  8. awesome story. Hallucinogens remind us about the magic in our lives.

  9. I don’t know how I got here, I was watching entourage I saw the that they went to Joshua tree. About 2 days ago I was coming back from desert springs and I saw a town or exit called Joshua tree and that’s going to be my next experiment :)

  10. Just found you on the CWA site and thought I’d check out your blog and wound up reading this amazing post! Congrats for your bravery in sharing so beautifully about this…The photos are psychedelic gorgeous!

  11. Listen, I think you’re awesome for this post. Without a doubt you’re an amazing writer and can really get in touch with your perceived mind. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong cause it’s your trip, but LSD and psychedelics are not about finding the double helix spiral or solving world hunger. If there is anything you can take out of this trip it is that joshua tree is an exterrestrial landing zone in where people have the opportunity to experience real life. As for the “bad trip” scenario, I have the belief that people experience a bad time on drugs when they want, more than anything, to be sober. Whether its weed or acid, if someone subconsciously decides to get sober then they are in for a bad time. It is because acid and mushrooms are nothing to take lightly, they are spiritual devices not a light switch you can just turn on and off at your will. I love that you had a great time but it seemed like you and peter were distant because of your lack of strong communication. Anyways, I don’t want to be a negative nancy so I will leave it at this: Francis Crick didn’t find the DNA helix because he wanted to make a discovery, he found it because he was ready and willing for the universe to give him the next essential part of human discovery. Thank you for your post, I think you are brave, awesome, and a beautiful person (inside and out.) :) keep it real

    • Hi Joshua! (Oops, I’m sorry I did not respond to this comment earlier, I missed it in my queue!). Yes, I actually agree with you on many of your points, especially that hallucinogens aren’t about forcing some sort of special experience. I meant that part of the story in a more tongue-and-cheek sort of way (I did go into the experience with expectations, but left with a different understanding of what it all meant). I think meditation works in a very similar way, actually. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment.

  12. What a information of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious knowledge
    regarding unexpected emotions.

  13. tejes pradeep says:

    Thouroughly enjoyed this post. Youve captured that first trip experience ,emotion, feelings and put in words perfectly. Great that you have someone like peter with whom you can share these unforgettable life experiences with. Cheers and goodluck to you both.

  14. Holly Thornton says:

    Elana – loved going on your trip with you. An experience you will remember forever – looking at your mind and feelings in a different way. So glad you were with nature to make it all the more meaningful. Remind me to share with you my experiences. You are a very talented writer.

  15. Psychedelic tripping on acid formed an essential backdrop to my undergraduate college education. The universal at-one-ment lessons blended with the linear logic lessons of the western mind allowing me an aikido perspective of life. (Alan Watts helped deepen those lessons. His “Psychotherapy East and West” solidified It for me.) Tim Leary also said “Chemistry is applied theology.”

    But that all seems like an illusion to me now. Haven’t done acid or any drugs in decades. As with so many virginal experiences, all joy seeks eternity. How to sustain the liberating lessons of youth into middle and old age is the Boomers’ greatest challenge.

    Thanks for sharing your beautifully written psychedelic experience with us Elana. Peace be with you.

  16. Sherap Nyima says:

    In my youth I did all of the heavy drugs but never put a needle in my arm.
    And never had a bad trip. Frequently did this alone in the mountains (perhaps
    foolish). Enjoyed everyone.
    The point you make about being comfortable when doing this is important.
    Andrew Weil talked about the setting and the set. You need a setting
    that is not dangerous and you need to be around people you trust.
    Some people should not do these drugs. You need to have a strong
    sense of self before you mess with your sense of self.
    I think drugs helped open me to “spirituality” whatever that
    word means .
    Congrats on your website, keep up the good work.

  17. Elana, this paragraph was so powerful, it is worth restating:

    “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?”

    And, yes….set and setting cannot be over-emphasized. Sometimes it’s OK to work out some not so great stuff, letting fear come up, but with the right supports in place! Part of the experience seems to be about what intention was set forth for having it, in the first place. …curiosity, growth, connection?…Or simply recreation, escapism?

    Thank you for being courageous enough to share your experience/perceptions. The pic’s were fabulous, too!

    • Thanks for your comment, Sharon! I liked that paragraph myself (I really felt the writing flowing when I got to that part!). I wish I could take credit for the photos, but they were taken by photographers far more talented than I who posted on Flicker (although it was fun finding them and connecting them to different parts of the article).

  18. Hi Elena,
    I took part in a legal hospital study for a swiss pharmaceutical company (I think it was Lily) who were trying to assess the correct dose of LSD for men and women in the early 1970′s. My experience was extremely intense, in fact I gave birth to myself. The experience is similar to the near death experience described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Back then, the only way to “come down” from these trips was with an injection of Largactal or time…. I tripped for 3 days, it became very tiring, and although I remain grateful for the experience all of those years ago, I have no wish to recreate it now!

  19. I totally enjoyed reading this story! Like many others commented, I felt like I was there! As a child of the 60′s and 70′s I’ve had a few similar experiences, but I must say never in a place like that, it sounds awesome, Now I have something else to add to my bucket list! Thanks for the experience!

  20. In this day and age, we are so wrapped up in our normal every day perception that we forget to view the world through different lenses. Shamans realized this a long time ago. Just saying…

  21. Have you read “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley?

    “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.” ~William Blake

  22. Please let mee know if you’re looking for a article writer for your blog.
    You have some really good posts and I believe I would
    be a good asset. If you evfer want to take some of the load off,
    I’d love to write soje articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to
    mine. Please send me an e-mail iff interested. Cheers!

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