It was 1988. Two decades had passed since the Summer Of Love, and a hit of 60’s nostalgia had come on strong. TV commercials were tye-dyed with psychedelic music and hippie vernacular. The “hippie drugs” appealed to those of us who hadn’t ridden the electric orange carousel the first time around. Weed and psychedelics offered a communal experience which contrasted the self-absorbed, violent excesses of cocaine and its derivatives. Good quality LSD had become became (relatively speaking) easier to obtain.
This backdrop of 60's nostalgia set the stage for my first experience with LSD. I was looking for the inner universe, chasing the weird. Little did I know, but reality had an ironic twist in store for me.
In truth, I was scared shitless of LSD. Acid was legendary and notorious. Celluloid images of terrified hippies turning their faces inside out at Altamont and Woodstock ("Don't Eat The Brown Acid!") left a lasting impression. The psychological derailments of genius musicians like Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, whose minds had been permanently altered by acid trips were cautionary tales. But my fear was countered by reverence for the psychedelic output of The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom made the case for LSD as a mind expander/door opener. People I knew who had tried the drug spoke highly of the experience, with caveats. You need to be in a good head when you do it, they said. Don't have any plans for 12 hours, take it with someone who's experienced and do it in a safe place. So I cautiously resolved to drop acid the next time the opportunity arose.
Timing is everything; soon a close friend scored some LSD at a Grateful Dead show (all cliches are true) and invited me to trip. It was late summer 1988, and I was 23 years old. We chose Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve in Lloyd's Neck, NY as our launch pad. Developed in the 1920's, the 1426-acre park is a beautiful pastoral estate, with rolling hills which fall to a beach on the Long island Sound. It was a very familiar and non-threatening place, and I'd be with with an experienced friend.
I resolved myself to remain firmly tethered to reality during our trip. I knew my perceptions would be warped while on the drug. But the bedrock of reality would always be a few scrapes beneath the trippy daydream, and that knowledge would me allow me to stay in control. A rock is, after all, always a rock, even when you've got a head full of acid.
We ate the hits in the parking lot, and meandered down a dirt trail into the forest. The drug took nearly an hour to show any effect. What was it like? Heavy. The endless details of nature were mightily amplified. Plants and trees vibrated with a peaceful intensity while animals and insects chattered. Immersed so deeply in the present moment, time itself was like a foreign railway station with blurry departures and arrivals. The schedule written in a language we didn't speak, so we kept missing our train.
It was all a gorgeous burden for the mind to decipher. The intense sensory input was somewhat disorienting, but I felt grounded and in control. Reality was acid drenched, but tangible all around me.
After walking through the forest for some time, the tree cover began to open up and the soil became sandy. We arrived at the beach. The retreating tide had left a sweeping, skeletal pattern of ripples on the sand, like an exposed ribcage. Mathematical animations sizzled on the top of the waves, extending out to the horizon, while a strong breeze sent sand particles crashing into our faces. A peak of psychedelic heaviness hit us, and we both laid down. We watched grinning skull clouds blow sailboats around with their exhaled breaths. We were silent for a long while.
Then my friend said, "I can see San Jacinto from here." "San Jacinto" is a Peter Gabriel song we were obsessed with at the time. In the lyric, a Native American mourns the loss of his culture to modern white society. We imagined San Jacinto as a mythical place that could only be seen by members of a vanishing tribe. At first, I thought he was speaking metaphorically. But he insisted, "Look, San Jacinto is over there, on that bluff. It's real." So we got up and started walking as a light drizzle began to fall.
The first thing we encountered was a primitive grass hut. It sat in the shadow of a tall palm tree; quite puzzling as neither palm trees nor grass huts were indigenous to Long Island. The scene looked like a postcard from a remote South Pacific atoll. What lay beyond was far more mystifying — a huddle of shabby buildings, laid out like a small settlement. The main structure, a corrugated metal shack, had a steer’s head hung on the tin roof. The wall was spray painted with a peace sign and the words “No More War”. There was an assortment of teepees and dilapidated shacks. The village was deserted, no people in sight.
A large vegetable garden was planted before the metal shack, with corn stalks and tomato plants swaying in the wind. Wait — there were ten-foot tall marijuana plants too, with swollen buds. Parked at the end of the garden was a dayglo schoolbus, with patches of the original orangish yellow still visible beneath the Further-eque splashes of paint.
The sky darkened; rain began to fall more steadily. “What IS this place?” I wondered. I had stood on this empty bluff a dozen times before. Now a throwback acid playground had been dropped here. IN A STATE PARK. My confident grasp on reality started to slip — was this some massive hallucination? Fear began to rise inside me. My friend picked up a boulder that must have weighed 800 pounds, hefting it above his waist. Confused, he opened his mouth to speak, but before he did, I heard a voice behind me say:
"Please don't touch anything, they've got it set up just the way they want it."
A security guard stepped out of a teepee while sliding a rain slicker over his uniform. “You can look around all you want, just don’t touch anything,” he said. Confused beyond words, awash in the peak effect of the LSD, I replied “I don’t understand. What is this place?” He laughed and said, “It’s a movie set! They’re shooting a couple of days from now. It’s about some hippie commune that gets raided. That guy from Cheech & Chong is in it.”
Kaboom. On my first ever acid trip, I had stumbled into a Hollywood film set, a movie about hippies with Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame in the cast! Here I was, standing amongst fake structures, fake plants, even fake boulders. The rocks weren’t actually rocks. My confident sense of reality flew away like a startled murder of crows off a power line. But I managed to keep it together, and after a moment my friend and I began laughing hysterically as it dawned on us what an incredible cosmic joke reality had played.
The film, released in 1989, was called Rude Awakening:
The security guard hadn't actually gotten the plot right; in the film, two hippies wanted by the Feds leave NYC in the late 60's, live in a remote Central American jungle commune for 20 years until it is destroyed by war, so they return home to face the music, unaware of anything that's happened outside their village for the past two decades. They get back to NYC to find their former hippie pals have abandoned their ideals and transformed into Yuppie Scum. Can they exonerate themselves and make their friends remember what really matters in life?
Drenched in preachy hippie sentimentality, critics savaged Rude Awakening and audiences stayed away. I eventually watched it on VHS. The village scene we stumbled into was onscreen for less than 30 seconds. The movie had a few funny moments; Cheech Marin was great as always, overall it was awful. But I will always remember Rude Awakening fondly, for obvious reasons.
The rest of that acid soaked day in 1988 was interesting and pleasurable. Some highlights endure: listening to the post-jam chatter at the end of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child back my apartment, which seemed to last forever. Negotiating the impenetrable menu at a Chinese restaurant while the last drips of psychedelic derangement ebbed away. Then deep sleep, to recover from a dozen hours being here, but not really.
I had a couple of encounters with psychedelics after that day. Compared to such a magical experience, they were a letdown, and I hung up my acid spangle for good. Nearly 30 years later, it’s interesting to see LSD obtaining a tentative degree of mainstream acceptance. Although I personally am not so sure microdosing in order to be more productive at work is exactly what Timothy Leary had in mind.
Magical experiences should be rare, lest they become something far less magical.