By Roberto Loiederman
We went to Santa Fe in Paul and Cheryl’s rust-colored pick-up truck, a ’48 Chevy that had ugly splotches on the exterior, holes in the floorboards and no heat, so as soon as we got into higher elevations, it was cold in the vehicle. Joan and I huddled together for warmth.
When we stopped for the night on the side of the road, Paul, Cheryl and their one-year-old daughter Kamala slept inside the truck, covered in blankets, while Joan and I slept outside, snuggling in down sleeping bags that kept us more or less comfortable.
Joan was attractive but no striking beauty: stringy dull-brown hair, square face, thin lips, wide shoulders. I had met her the night before the trip and we decided to go together. She was probably in her mid-20s like me, but she looked older, like a weathered homesteader who’d taken on backbreaking responsibilities without murmur or complaint: clopping sod, chopping wood. Quiet and self-contained, every once in a while she’d zone out, staring into the middle distance. I couldn’t tell what was behind it: Drugs? Enlightenment?
“You done peyote before?”
“Nope,” I said. “This’ll be the first time. Lots of acid, though.”
“So…why are you doing it? What do you expect to get out of it?”
It seemed odd, in the mid-1960s in San Francisco, that someone should be so direct, as if she were looking for an answer that would guide her own behavior.
“Not sure. It’s a kick, I guess. A friend of mine says you gotta keep sending out your mind till it stops coming back.”
Joan smiled. “Jeff Brewski, right? He says that a lot.” I’d met Joan through mutual friends so it wasn’t at all surprising that there were others we both knew.
“Right,” I said. “Jeff and I are friends.”
She examined my face as if she were getting ready to paint it or film it, slowly checking out my nose, my eyes, my ears. “You know, you and Jeff look alike. A little.”
“Medium height. Dark. Good-looking, in a Semitic kind of way. And muscular.”
“We’re both seamen. Deck-hands. Pulling rope gives you arms like Popeye.”
She touched my arm, then my goatee. I felt her strong fingers graze my cheek. It was sensual. “Jeff doesn’t have a beard,” she said, smoothing out my scraggly goatee. “You know,” Joan said, her eyes registering a sweet memory, “he’s a very attentive lover.”
There was no embarrassment when she said this, no self-conscious little laugh. No ulterior motive or unsubtle attempt at seduction. It was a simple fact, simply stated. And it was intensely erotic.
“Jeff really prides himself on giving pleasure,” she went on. “Full of wild techniques.”
I shouted something to Paul and Cheryl about the route we were taking, aborting any further talk of Jeff’s wild techniques with the woman I was going to spend the next few days with.
That night, in our shared sleeping bag by the side of the road, our breaths overlapping, Joan and I made love. Of course, a sleeping bag outdoors, on the ground, in a public rest stop, in cold weather, doesn’t lend itself very well to wild techniques. But it was pleasant and intimate, making us amorously-certified travel companions.
After sex, without any emotion, as if she were masking a royal flush, Joan revealed one personal story after another: back-alley abortions, lesbian interludes, group sex.
Maybe this litany was sexually titillating for her, but I felt intimidated, as if treading water in a lake so deep it seemed to have no bottom. Her longest reverie was about her relationship with my pal Jeff, with whom she shared “violent erotic fantasies.” When she recounted this story, she turned her back to me, shielding me from the full-frontal brunt of it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear all this, not about a guy that was a friend of mine.
“He likes to go to the edge,” Joan said with an affect-free tone, as if she were talking to a lie detector. “I think we really did love one another, but, you know…it kind of got out of hand. I took him to the emergency room twice…. ”
After a year together, she said, she walked in on Jeff when he was in bed with another woman, involved in acts of pain and bondage she knew all too well. “I didn’t freak out or anything, I mean, he can do what he wants, right? But things weren’t the same between us after that, so it ended the relationship. We separated but remained in touch. I mean, nobody knows me like he does. We’ve got the same crazy stuff going through our heads.”
Unlike me, nothing human was alien to Joan. What had I gotten myself into?
The next afternoon, having passed the Grand Canyon, while Paul was looking for a place to stop, we saw red and blue lights whirring behind us, heard the stomach-churning wail of a siren, and pulled over: we weren’t speeding, so why had we been stopped?
As the cop approached, he shined his light on us. Cheryl held up Kamala to show we had a one-year-old with us: Look, we’re humans like you, we procreate in the normal way and rear our young just as you do. Unmoved, the cop asked Paul to roll up his sleeves. Using his flashlight, the police officer carefully inspected Paul’s veins for needle tracks.
The cop found no damning evidence and let us go on our way, but it was disturbing. We were tired and ready to call it a night but didn’t want to lie down in an area where cops, based on the vehicle you’re driving, inspect the crook of your arms for signs of heroin use. So we headed down the road for another hour before finding a place to sleep.
The next day we arrived at the house outside of Santa Fe where the peyote rites would take place. I was excited, imagining we’d touch something deep and real, some rock-hard immutable revelation that wouldn’t crumble in bright sunlight and close scrutiny, something that would stay with me and guide me during the rest of this incarnation, however long.
In the 1960s we still believed such radical new beginnings were possible.
As we parked our truck in the very large yard, I noticed a yellow school bus that had been converted into a mobile home. The door had a hand-painted logo on it: two playing card jokers, at angles to one another, and below it, in curved script: Dick & Ted—Two Jokers.
As it turned out, the “Dick” joker was Dick Alpert, who wouldn’t become Ram Das until later that year, in India. At that time he still used his given name and was traveling in the converted school bus with a friend in order to visit spiritual communities and events throughout North America. It was clear that Alpert, half of the Alpert & Leary LSD parade, was the star of the weekend, the sage everyone wanted to connect with, one way or another.
There were others who claimed their share of the spotlight. A woman who called herself Araby compared the spiritual life to listening to the radio: “The most illuminated gurus are like a radio station that’s finely tuned in, with no static,” Araby said. “Think Ramana. Or Buddha. Tuned in. No static. Others aren’t quite so tuned-in and static-free. Gurdjieff was tuned in, but there was static. Ouspensky had no static but wasn’t tuned in. And Madam Blavatsky, ah, Madam B. was tuned to a different radio station altogether.”
Alpert, with a sly smile, kindly listened and helped Araby parse out the relative level of tuned-in-ness and static-free-ness of each potential spiritual guide.
Then there was Jimmy Sparrowhawk, tall and handsome with, in fact, a nose that resembled a hawk’s beak. He pontificated endlessly about New Mexico, its history, its delicate racial and ethnic balance, how the “hippies’ arrival on the New Mexico scene upset that balance,” how to live in harmony with nature, how peyote should be ingested and the nature of cleansing rituals: how vomit acts as spiritual ballast to an otherwise “trivially clean existence.”
Sparrowhawk was exhausting on all levels. He asked Alpert for his thoughts on these weighty matters. Instead of answering directly, Alpert, again with a sly smile, said: “Jimmy, I feel like I’ve known you through a hundred incarnations!” Sparrowhawk wasn’t sure how to take that.
At one point during the night a genuine Native American arrived. In his mid-20s, with Santa Claus girth and jolliness, James Red Cloud jumped from the welcome mat to the inside of the house with a loud: “Here comes the hap-hap-happy hippie Hopi hopping in!” His presence, in fact, was crucial because it lent official religious validity to these weekly peyote rituals.
That night was not the ritual itself, but the preparation: fasting, spiritual discussion, focusing on what each of us was seeking from the experience. The event would be the following night. Most of the two dozen or so who’d shown up for the peyote ritual drifted out of the house and back to their trucks or buses or VW vans. It was cold that May night in Santa Fe, and Joan and I once again wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags and slept outside.
Somehow, it didn’t feel right to make love as a pre-peyote rite, so when we got into our sleeping bags, I turned away from her. Still, I could feel her body near mine.
The next day involved making sure the teepee was tidy and that food was gathered and cleaned for the stew that would cook all night for the post-peyote feast.
At 8:00 that night, more than a dozen of us got into the teepee. Dick Alpert was there, and so were Jimmy Sparrowhawk, Araby, Joan, and several others. Paul and Cheryl took turns, one staying back at the truck with Kamala while the other took peyote. We chanted Native American rhythmic syllables, accompanied by a small drum. Sage bundles were tied together in finger-size packets and lit to provide incense.
Roy spoke: “Welcome, all of you, to this ancient ritual. During the next few hours we’ll drink tea made from this sacred plant, a holy sacrament, and we’ll connect to one another and to nature. We’ve fasted and prayed, and now we’re ready to listen to messages of harmony. We recognize that we and our world are out of balance, and by performing these rites, we make an effort to bring some balance to our lives and to the world.”
A bowl with peyote tea was slowly, ceremoniously passed around, and we all drank from it. Events unfolded in an unhurried manner. Some sipped, some slurped, some used a tissue to wipe the lip of the vessel before they drank, some wiped the vessel afterwards. There was more chanting and Roy asked those who wanted to share words of spirit to do so.
Predictably, Jimmy Sparrowhawk was the first to speak: “Brothers and sisters: By participating in this ritual, we hope to fulfill our destiny as human beings. We’re—” His face turned red, his cheeks ballooned and then burst with sudden projectile vomiting.
Alicia was prepared for this. She slid over, holding a whisk broom, and scooped the vomit into a pail, along with some dirt from the ground. Then Roy, on his knees, waddled over with a lit sage bundle and waved it in figure eights over the area where the vomit had been.
While this was going on, the chanting picked up again, softly, but whether it was the smell or the retching noise, or an instinctive response to the taste of peyote tea, there was almost a chain reaction: the first vomit led to others. Most people leaned down and vomited in place, in a few cases some vomit spattered on those sitting nearby. Roy, Alicia, and Araby were busy sweeping and then waving sage bundles. It was hard to know, with all the premature vomiting, whether any of the psychoactive substance in the peyote tea had had time to take effect.
The puking became intermittent, and for the next hour, there was a steady flow of chanting punctuated by patches of silence and audible breathing. Occasionally, for whatever reason—a bathroom break or respite from the fetid air in the teepee—people would get up and walk out.
A feeling of discomfort crept over me. This scene was too organized, too ritualized. I felt this was a trip I wanted to do alone, so I left, forcing a rictus smile to those who remained. I didn’t even notice if Joan was inside the teepee or not.
Outside the teepee, I took a few deep breaths, then went to my sleeping bag and wrapped myself in it. Once I’d freed myself from having to finish out the ceremony, I felt better. I shook my head, letting my cheeks go loose. I was spreading downward, sprouting mushroom-like in the damp earth that still had a hardness to it from the winter. The peyote had glided into my being, wormed its way into me.
Gradually, I wound myself into a fetal position. And I started crying. I don’t know why.
Yes, I do.
I was thinking about a virginal seventeen-year-old I’d had an affair with a few weeks earlier. How I’d left her without a word of good-bye. How, when I was with her, I’d grabbed a wild goose and twisted its neck until it died. How I’d left the feathers in the utility sink of the rented cabin, left them there for someone else to clean up. How, after skinning the goose, I’d stuffed it and stuck it in an oven, then fell asleep, so that when I woke up in the middle of the night, the goose was an inedible piece of leather, a burnt sacrifice.
So many betrayals!
A hand touched my shoulder: “Hey. You okay?” Joan. I couldn’t answer.
There was a long silence. We could hear the wind coming down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It whipped up in gusts with a high-pitched whine.
“You know,” Joan said finally, “why don’t you help me? I’ve been stirring the cauldron.”
“The cauldron. For tomorrow’s feast.”
“Come on, we can do it together.”
I unfolded myself, got out of the sleeping bag, then wrapped it around my neck. Joan held my hand, as if I were a lost child—which I was—and walked me to the cauldron, which was atop a grate with burning logs beneath it. A large witch’s cauldron. Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.
“There are two parts to this job,” Joan said. “One is to add wood to the fire. The woodpile is over there.” She pointed to a large disorderly pile of split logs. “The other is to stir the cauldron.” She grabbed a wooden paddle and stuck the wide end into the bubbling stew. I could smell vegetables, grain, herbs. “Go ahead,” she urged. “Go on, stir it.”
I grabbed the paddle and stirred, using too much brute strength.
“Easy, this is food. You need to be careful. Otherwise all the vegetables will turn to mush.”
“Right, right.” I stirred more softly. Too softly.
“That’s good, but you have to make sure the paddle goes all the way to the bottom,” Joan said. “Otherwise, the food will stick and burn, and the burned parts will give a cruddy taste to everything. Be careful…but thorough. Go down deep, but slowly.”
“Ah, right.” I stirred slowly and made sure to touch and scrape the bottom. Figure eights.
While stirring, Joan and I wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags, determined to spend the rest of the night stirring, at least until someone relieved us. For an hour or two we hardly talked, but there was closeness. Stirring a cauldron together was real. Adding logs to the fire was real. Shared warmth. Shared task. Shared objective. Doing, not thinking.
I kept on stirring, as Joan had shown me, while she took a break and lay down.
Joan. She’d sensed my anguish, that toxic mix of foul memories, guilt and pain and peyote, and had found a way to coax me out of it by having me stir the pot. She’d treated me with consideration, even a kind of affection, and I was grateful.
That’s when I heard, very clearly:
“Stir me gently…but all the way to the bottom.”
The voice was soft and spectral, neither a man’s voice nor a woman’s. I looked around. Joan was wrapped in a sleeping bag, apparently asleep, her breathing rhythmic and heavy. So who had spoken those words? The peyote? The cauldron?
Was this the cosmic message I’d hoped for when I came to the peyote weekend? The revelation that would guide me through the rest of this incarnation? The words were resonant and had the power to lead me into the future….
“Stir me gently…but all the way to the bottom.”
…If I could grasp these words, if I could just grasp them.
Roberto Loiederman has been a merchant seaman, TV scriptwriter, kibbutz cook, English teacher, and journalist. He’s had more than one hundred articles published in Penthouse, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Serving House Journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other publications. He is co-author (with Richard Linnett) of The Eagle Mutiny(Naval Institute Press, 2001), a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times.