From The Fringe: The Peyote Way
Words by Harrison Christian I met Oscar Colato through the website Couchsurfing.org when I was looking for a place to stay in Phoenix. He picked me up from the Greyhound terminal and we spent the night drinking red wine around a brazier with his flatmate Jeremy and a friend called Golden who was an anarchist. In the morning we set off after two bloody Marys and some huevos rancheros. We were driving to the Peyote Way Church of God. Oscar was from El Salvador and he was telling me about growing up during the civil war. Oscar's car ran out of gas. We sat on the side of the highway and Oscar called the AAA. There was an exit sign up ahead but it was too far away for us to read it, so I got out of the car and ran closer to the sign and then ran back. The sign said "Superstition Springs." The AAA man arrived, but he had forgotten to bring the gas, so he drove away to get it. Finally he returned and filled us up and we drove to a gas station and filled up more and continued the trip. We stopped at a supermarket and I bought a grapefruit because I had been told to bring one. The Peyote Way Church Of God is about 4 hours out of Phoenix. We followed highway 60 until it became highway 70 and between the towns Fort Thomas and Pima we turned onto a dirt road. It was getting dark. The dirt road was 26 miles long. The sun was setting and the clouds were dark with soft red edges. We were driving into the Sonoran desert. We arrived at the Church. There was nobody around but there were lights inside. I knocked on the door. I went inside. "Hello?" I said. "Is anybody here?" It was a comfortable lodge with pottery for sale on shelves and tables, and paintings depicting indigenous beings dancing around the Peyote plant, or the Peyote plant as a humanoid creature with a cactus head. I came outside and went inside again. Oscar peed and then rang a bell that he had found. We stood in the dark with two friendly dogs. I wanted to ring the bell again. "They'll be on their way," said Oscar. Out in the dark there was a light coming towards us. I waved my phone around to signal it. It came at a leisurely pace. A young, bearded man came out of the dark. "Hello," he said. His name was Tristan. I said goodbye to Oscar and went into the lodge with him. Tristan showed me around. He sighed a lot. He seemed relaxed and satisfied. I went into the room he had given me and read a book about Peyote. Later, two guys knocked on my door. They were staying in the lodge and one of them had just finished his Spirit Walk. His name was Ezekiel and he was fixing some beans in the kitchen. He offered some beans, but upon arrival at the Church I was supposed to begin a 24 hour fast. It was one of the rules. Ezekiel could eat the beans because his Spirit Walk was over. "Make sure you drink it slowly," he said. "I drank mine too fast, and I vomited, and I was like, aw, shit, all that hard work for nothing." "How was it?" "The sunset was pretty trippy." Ezekiel smoked weed out of a glass pipe. He showed me pictures on his phone of a sunset and of a heart-shaped rock arrangement he had made on the ground. We talked about girls and football and I went to bed. In the morning I went outside and Tristan was there. He took me to a wooden shed. Inside there were small Peyote plants growing in sectioned areas like little green buttons. The endangered Peyote cactus (other names: Devil's Root, White Mule) grows in Southern Texas and areas of Northern Mexico. Native North Americans have used Peyote for 5000 years as a religious sacrament. The Peyote Way Church of God was founded in 1978 by Apostle Immanuel Trujillo, Reverend Anne Zapf, and Rabbi Matthew Kent, on 160 acres in the wilderness of the Aravaipa valley. The Church sells pottery and asks for a donation in exchange for the setting and Peyote Tea necessary to embark on a Spirit Walk. The United States Government considers mescaline - the active ingredient in peyote - to be a dangerous hallucinogen, and in the substance control schedule it is listed alongside Heroin and Cocaine. However, in some states - including Arizona - Peyote use is permitted with the condition of sincere religious intent. Apostle Immanuel Trujillo was a stern advocate for "all race Peyotism," and had been arrested for possession of the cactus more than once before he died in 2010. Reverend Anne and Rabbi Matthew are still alive. Tristan is their son. Tristan showed me each of the three campsites where Spirit Walks are undertaken. The third was called the South Canopy. It was a white gazebo with a reclining chair underneath it, surrounded by mesquite bushes. I liked it because it had a good view of the hills. I went back to the lodge and packed my things. Reverend Anne and Rabbi Matthew were in the lodge. I asked Anne if I could send an email. She took me to her computer. I was messaging somebody on Couchsurfing.org because Oscar had gone to LA with his aunt and he couldn't pick me up when my Spirit Walk was finished. I asked Anne if I should say a prayer before I drank the Peyote. "Sure, you can say a few words," she said. "I usually say something like, 'Go easy on me this time...'" "Ezekiel was saying that I should drink the Peyote slowly." "Yeah, just take your time. A sip every 20 minutes. A small sip." Anne gave me a flashlight, a jacket and a deck of Native American Wisdom Tarot cards. I had my grapefruit and a notebook and a Dictaphone and a sleeping bag. Anne drove me to the campsite. She gave me the peyote in a glass jar. "There's a lot of sediment in it," she said. "Make sure you shake it up real good." "Will I see the sunset from here?" "Yeah. Some people try to climb a hill to see it, but I recommend you stay in the chair. Just relax and take it easy. We had this woman who climbed up that hill over there, and she was trying to yell to her husband - who was taking a Spirit Walk at another campsite - but he couldn't hear her, and she got lost. So it's best to just stay in the chair." Anne drove away. As the sound of her engine was lost in the desert I noticed it was very quiet and still, and that I was hungry. It was hot but I was under the shade of the gazebo. I sipped the Peyote. It was a green-brown mixture with a bitter, unpleasant taste. It was 12 PM. By 1 PM I had climbed a hill behind the camp to take some pictures with my Samsung Galaxy and then returned to the chair. I was slowly getting through the Peyote. I felt sluggish and it was good to relax in the chair. By 2 30 PM it was becoming more difficult to drink, and I was experiencing waves of nausea. The nausea got worse. I sometimes walked away from the camp and returned. I looked at the plants or the rocks and tried to decide whether or not they were "trippy" yet. The sun was going down. The hill behind the campsite was a series of ridges going up towards the sunset, and I decided I wanted to make the most of it. I put some things in my backpack and put my sweatshirt around my neck, and found a long, straight stick to use as a staff. I started to climb. I had the Peyote in one hand and the staff in the other. I felt like Moses. I climbed one of the ridges and thought that the view was beautiful. I found an old deck chair and set it up. When I sat down, it collapsed. I laughed. I set it up and tried to sit in it again, but it collapsed onto the ground. "I'm through trying with you," I said. I looked at the mountains to the north. There were folds in them. It looked like they had been shaped by hands. To the south, the sun was disappearing below the highest ridge. When I looked at the sunset I had to squint my eyes because there were rays that were being split by the ridge and shining down. I kept climbing toward the highest ridge, and I found the heart-shaped rock arrangement that Ezekiel had made. I also found other medicine wheels; rock circles that people had made during their Spirit Walks. I wanted to make one but it seemed an arduous task. The climb was difficult. I started to feel anxious. The light from the sunset was very bright. It seemed divine, but at the same time there was something overwhelming and terrible about it, as though I were walking into oblivion, or the vastness of God. I started to breath deeply so that I would remain calm. I reached the edge of the property. It was a wire fence. I climbed over the fence and kept going toward the sunset. I felt on the verge of panic. I decided that I had to get back to the campsite immediately, because the sun was going down and I didn't have my sleeping bag and I might become too intoxicated to find my way back later. I walked quickly down the hill and climbed over the fence again. I was still breathing deeply. I walked quickly down the ridges toward the gazebo. "I don't like this," I thought. "I don't want to do this anymore. There must be a way to make it stop." I put my fingers down my throat and retched, but no Peyote came up. "I must get back to the camp and eat my grapefruit," I thought. Ezekiel had mentioned that a grapefruit was good to eat after the Spirit Walk because it absorbed the alkaloids in the Peyote. He had also told me not to drink much water, because it would dilute the effects. I took my water bottle out of my bag and took a drink. It was unpleasant. I felt sick. I went down the last ridge into a little gully and kept walking downhill. In the gully, the gazebo disappeared from view. It seemed that the mesquite bushes were barring my way. I had to push through them with my stick, or find awkward paths. The bushes were aggressive. "I'm lost," I thought. I thought that I had seen the gazebo a moment ago. I thought that if I kept walking downhill, I would be able to see it again. I imagined the woman Reverend Anne had told me about - standing on-top of the hill and trying to call her husband. She must have been hysterical. When I arrived at the campsite, there was water dripping down my back. I had forgotten to put the lid on my water bottle, and it had spilled in my backpack. I thought that it was sweat. My sweatshirt kept slipping off my neck. It wanted to be free of me. I had found the campsite but there was no relief. It felt like I was doing everything too slowly and I wouldn't be able to eat the grapefruit in time. I found the grapefruit and plunged my fingers into it. The skin seemed to resist me. I bit into the bitter flesh of the grapefruit. I had thought that it would be a comfort, but my anxiety was worsening. I was on the verge of catastrophe. I lay down on the chair. I turned on my side and closed my eyes. I wanted to go to sleep. I groaned. I vomited onto the ground. I knew that it was going to get cold, so I got into my sleeping bag. But now I was too hot - and I didn't want to leave my sleeping bag, even to pee, in case I passed out or got lost and died of the cold. And I didn't want to dehydrate either. I drank some more water. I wanted to go and find Reverend Anne and Rabbi Matthew. They'd make it stop. But I couldn't leave the chair. I seemed to be sinking into it. When I closed my eyes, I could see the curved walls of a temple emerging out of a red darkness. It was sinister. I worried that it was something to do with the devil. The sun was still going down. "If this is what it's like when it's light," I thought. "What will it be like when it's dark?" At this point the writing in my notebook turns bigger and messier. The page is stained a greenish color. "I want to go to sleep." "I am being healed." "The most powerful experience of my life." It felt as though the Peyote was moving through each area of my body and "clearing" it. I was horrified by the loss of control of myself but my body felt very relaxed. I was horrified by how good I felt. I'm not sure how long I was incapacitated in the chair, but at some point I was able to get up and move around again, and I lit the fire that Rabbi Matthew had prepared. It was difficult to balance. "Coyotes; they are howling." "This is what it's like to be mad." Now the stars were out and I noticed them, and was overwhelmed by their beauty. "Oh my goodness," I said. I believed that I had gone insane; I was able to remind myself that I had drunk the Peyote, but it seemed impossible to return to any kind of sobriety. I was insane and I thought that I would be insane forever. I thought that the sun might never come up again. "There is no time." Slowly, my insanity was no longer disturbing. Having accepted it, I felt deeply grateful to be a part of what was happening and in awe of the beauty of the night sky. I felt I was going to cry. "Let go." "I feel quite all right." I sat down in the chair again and when I closed my eyes, there were clear visions. "I see the earth - bright, dazzling blue. Ancient symbols. Hieroglyphs, multicolored. It's all wonderfully mad." "So intricate. So beautiful. Aztec pyramids. I see now. I understand. Let go." "I'm so grateful to be here." "I understand now," I said out loud. My voice sounded deep and distorted, and the chair was drifting away, and a song that I had heard on a bus in Mexico a few days prior was playing in my head, and I heard sonorous, metallic whooshes, like from a futuristic machine, and there was a high-pitched hum and a static that sometimes surged, like a radio being adjusted. When I closed my eyes, there were changing, timeless symbols, organized in perfect, curving arrangements, that had a multicolored neon glow, and they reminded me of the Aztecs or the Mayans, but they weren't specific to any culture. There were shrines and temples and churches. With my eyes open, everything was a part of the same geometric pattern; it was impossible for me to draw it but it looked like a snowflake. You could see it in the mesquite bushes, the shadows made by the fire, the sky - it seemed to radiate outward from a center, but on closer inspection the centers were everywhere; the origin was everywhere and the end was nowhere. Everything was a part of the same immaculate design, and I could see the constellations in the sky; there were lines drawn between the stars, and comets that had unusual curved trajectories. It was a beautiful, changing canvas. Now, there was a feeling of total peace and contentment; I thought that I would never be afraid again - what was the point? How could I fear insanity if I was already insane? How could I fear death if I had already died? Sanity and insanity, life and death, the past and the present - these things were happening simultaneously; they were all one thing. I felt that the source of my fear and panic had been the struggle of the individual within me, and that the Peyote had surrendered me to the whole. I had feared loss of control, loss of ego - but now that I had lost them, there was nothing to be afraid of and there was no reason to suffer. I lit a cigarette and as it burned to the filter I observed my desire to have one last drag on it, and then realized that there was no point, because the cigarette was lit and unlit; the enjoyment of the cigarette, and the craving of it, were the same thing. I peed in the bushes and when I returned to the camp I banged my head on the edge of the gazebo and I laughed, and realized the bumbling triviality of my existence. But it wasn't disheartening; it was a comfort. I felt comforted that I was a part of something bigger and, in that way, immortal. I was nothing compared with the whole, and I knew that the sun would rise and that in the meantime, the fire would give warmth and light. There was enough wood, there was enough of the grapefruit left, and everything was pregnant with meaning and purpose, and I lay back in the chair with my Dictaphone and made a few long, recordings that are embarrassing to listen to later, and went to sleep. When the sun came up the coyotes were howling just as they had howled when the sun went down. I was sober. There wasn't a hangover. Slowly, I packed my things. There were two horses, a black one and a brown-and-white one, grazing nearby. I went over the black horse and touched its head. Then I walked down the road to the lodge. Tristan was inside. "Good morning." "How's it going?" "Good." "Good." He sighed, satisfied. It didn't seem necessary to tell him anything. Later, Reverend Anne and Rabbi Matthew came in. I talked to Rabbi Matthew about the experience, but not in detail. I checked Couchsurfing.org to see if the person would be able to come and pick me up that day. They weren't able to, so I decided to hitchhike back to Phoenix. Rabbi Matthew helped me make a cardboard sign. I spent the day sleeping and reading. The next morning Reverend Anne and Tristan drove me to the highway in an old van and I stood on the side of the road with my sign.