There was a growing sense of panic as I clung to the cliff face. I knew enough to not look down. But the urge is impossible to fight. The sun was beginning to set and I knew that I must find a way somehow back to the campground. What started as a teenage desire to sow some wild oats was quickly turning into a waking nightmare.
I thought that I had little to live for, but that was going to be tested tonight. My survival instinct was beginning to awaken. But would it be enough to save me? I am scared of heights (like any normal human would be). But here I was climbing the almost vertical sandstone rock formation by myself as night approached.
It was Spring Break of my ninth grade year and we were camping at Red Rock Crossing outside of Sedona, Arizona. I had fallen in with with a pretty bad group of low-lifes. This group was an odd mix of middle class teens that were alienated from their parents, and lower class kids that had literally nothing to lose.
Looking back I am surprised how many of my friends from that time died young or spent their life in prison. I thought that I was clever enough to avoid the tragedies that played out around me on a weekly basis.
There were about 30-50 of us in our junior high school of 1000. We self identified as "Heads" or "Freaks" to distinguish ourselves from other social groups (Jocks, Straights, Goat Ropers, etc.). We tried to meet up for lunch at the "Yum Yum Tree" (a designated tree about a block from our school) to get high with our friends.
Our values were mostly to rebel against all forms of authority and break free from the moral oppression of government, police, teachers, and parents. People were still dying in Vietnam and Nixon had just been impeached and Jerry Falwell had just formed the Moral Majority. We worshiped lawlessness and were open to considering violent insurrection if it came to that.
We used catchy slogans to identify "Cool people"
Most of my friends were raised by wolves and suffered extreme neglect. Ten years later this would be the normal upbringing of most kids in the US. Other teens had extremely controlling parents which required a huge effort to break free long enough to get in real trouble.
Our camping trip involved six junior high schoolers. Our chaperone was my friend's sister that was sent into the Navy for using drugs and her husband, who was also from the Navy, and they both had an excellent supply of high quality drugs.
This weekend was to be my first LSD experience. LSD comes in many forms. This weekend featured Window pane LSD. It comes on a transparent little square 1/4" across, looking like a piece of folded scotch tape. Placing it under the tongue dissolves the acid. Some people would put it in their eye for a faster trip (but I thought that this was barbaric).
We got to the campground in the early afternoon and setup camp. By about 4:00 we were ready to go tripping. After taking the LSD (dropping the acid) it takes about 45 minutes to alter the brain chemistry to start tripping. The LSD trip lasted for about nine hours, until well into the morning with the effects gradually subsiding throughout the early morning.
I have never experienced anything in my life that could compare to the sensory stimulation that I experienced that night. The power of that time lingers with me to this day.
I recall that a hit of Windowpane costs $5 and will take you on a nine-hour trip. It is an extremely thrifty form of entertainment unless something goes wrong. Then it can have life altering repercussions. Indeed, this weekend would almost cost me my life.
We used to think about drugs being grouped into different classes. Uppers (amphetamines), Downers (barbiturates, alcohol), Pain Killers (Heroin, Morphine, etc.), and Hallucinogenics (like LSD). As I understand it, LSD affects the neurotransmitters in the brain so that the processing is fundamentally altered.
I experimented with a wide variety of drugs but never experienced anything close to tripping on LSD. Most drugs slow down your experience of the world and make you feel drowsy. LSD heightens your sensory experience by several factors. There is the sense of being able to see sounds and feel smells and the world becomes alive in a way that makes you feel that the unaltered state is shabby and boring.
Movies often do a good job of approximating the mind-bending reality that is characteristic of an LSD trip. It is virtually impossible to complete any actual task while tripping. Reality is so bent and distorted that for a nine hours the real world does not even exist. This is the primary risk of dropping acid. You are very likely to do something incredibly stupid because you forget the laws of physics in the real world.
I spent most of the night staring into the campfire. The coals formed this cave and there were small figures that were hiding in the cave. The glow of the coals would mix with the sounds of the night to create wave patterns that would undulate and pulsate. Almost 50 years later I recall the sensations that I experienced in those hours.
We all think that we can play with fire and not get burned. This may be built into our human psyche. After a night of tripping on acid I was bone tired (no more than that); I was brain tired. After all my brain had been altered at a electro-chemical level and my neurons were seriously upset.
The peer group that I was a part of had a high value for "courage", which meant doing completely stupid things without regard for the consequences. By personality I have a strong sense of self preservation, although you could not tell from this story. My friends decided to drop more acid and I didn't want to look afraid so I joined them.
It speaks to the level of desperation and rage that governed my life at that time. I was willing to risk my life so that I could gain the approval of my peers. I was spent, physically and mentally, but unwilling to risk rejection.
It was a recipe for disaster. This was perhaps the lowest point in my life. A bitter nihilism had taken over as my guiding philosophy at the tender age of 14. Life is hard and then you die! Get it while you can!
Our senses continuously inform us about what is happening and how to cope.
Senses are the gateway to reality. But what if those senses no longer work properly. Then we are lost in a world that does not exist.
This is the sensation that we get during a nightmare. Our brain knows that something very bad is happening and creates a story line to match the feelings. At the height of the nightmare we startle awake and we can resume living in the normal world where normal rules apply.
Imagine being trapped in an altered mental state and fear escalating out of control. I was well aware of the possibility of a bad trip. I had just finished reading the book "Go Ask Alice", about an LSD trip gone awry, leaving its victim in a permanently collapsed mental state with no prospect of a normal life possible. Indeed, This was my greatest fear.
We took the next dose of LSD and then decided to go hiking around the area. There are gorgeous red rock formations everywhere in the local area around Sedona. As we walked along the road we were starting to feel the effects of the LSD. Visible color trails, patterns, and sound waves everywhere. The world was beginning to bloom once more.
Then my friends grew bored walking on the road and decided to climb up on one of the major red rock formations. At first this was fairly tame but as we got higher I began to grow frightened. Young teens are not famous for either compassion or empathy so they soon grew inpatient with me. They left me clinging to the cliff about 30 feet up while they scampered to safety at the top of the formation. They disappeared and I didn't see them again for hours.
I had three choices. It is a little difficult to think clearly while tripping.
It was starting to get dark so I needed to make my choice.
Rock climbing on LSD in the dark alone is not a good experience. There are a large number of scary scenarios and I have an excellent imagination. In times of danger my imagination is not at all helpful. It is easy for me to imagine worst-case scenarios, while not tripping on LSD.
Somehow I made it back to camp in the dark. But I was far from uninjured. My mind was broken. While the previous night was colorful and joyful tonight was grim and sinister. The blues, greens, yellows, and oranges had turned to gray, purple, brown, and black. The laughter of my friends had turned into the scorn of enemies just waiting for a chance to devour me. I was in the grips of a bad trip from which I may never return.
I looked at my watch and after the numbers made sense, realized that I would be tripping for at least five or six more hours. I got in my sleeping bag and nestled by the fire that had given me such joy the previous night.
I could hear the demons laughing as I began to panic. I began to weep uncontrollably. Someone shouted for me to stop it or they would kick my ass. This was not particularly helpful to me at the moment. I could feel that this event was nearing the climax.
If I were to survive the night, I would be a vegetable. This is not really living. I decided to end it ... but how. All I could see was the rocks around the campfire. That would have to do. I readied myself for big moment I was shaking with terror. My worst nightmare had become my waking reality.
My plan was to beat my head on the rock until I expired, or at least lost consciousness. So this is how my life ends. My skin was crawling with insects just beneath the surface; I knew it had to end. I would do what needed to be done and end this nightmare. That is the last thing I remember from that night.
Unlike heroin and barbiturates, people on LSD do not lose consciousness. Instead they lose control of their mind and slip into insanity. There was no medical explanation for what happened to me that night. I had determined to kill myself and then blacked out and awoke safely in the morning. This does not happen.
There are a handful of events in each person's life that profoundly alter the perception of reality. These moments always involve something supernatural - whether internal or external, I cannot say. That night at Red Rocks Crossing something miraculous happened to me.
I did not believe in God at that point in my life, but I knew that something supernatural had taken place. The Universe had acted and saved me? Some random cosmic force had preserved my life as it hung in the balance?
That night of desperation brought me to the edge of sanity and what I saw was very unpleasant. I was thankful to have avoided death and permanent insanity, but little changed in my life.
In reality, I was a fractured person; I was broken in so many ways and had given up on any hope for the future. The only joy that I had in my life were the shallow relationships with my drug buddies and the drug experiences themselves. This was my main fantasy that occupied my thoughts.
The Red Rocks Crisis marked a turning point in my life. It galvanized my
thinking. I became a full-blown hedonist, just living for the next thrill.
Sex, Drugs, & Rock and roll. Eat, drink, and party for tomorrow we die. At 14, I never really expected to see my 20th birthday. But I was fully committed to living in the moment. The next seven months would be the low point in my life.
My life was very enjoyable when I was high, but the rest of the time I was driven by rage and hopelessness. Perhaps this mental state set me up for the epiphany that I was to experience just months after Red Rocks. My life was about to undergo a radical change in direction, that has lasted until this day. But things were going to get significantly worse before I was fully ready to change.
I have seldom spoken of these events. My close friends and family are often surprised to find out about these dark times. Maybe it is just too painful for me to tell the story, because the telling brings back those feelings of despair and hopelessness that are long forgotten. Or perhaps I am ashamed of how I thought and felt at the darkest time in my life. But I share this story with you in hopes that you might see a bit of yourself in my journey and have courage to face the monsters in your own life.