We’re in our twelfth round of cards when Rick starts swatting at the air with his hands. “I don’t think that this LSD is doing anything for me,” he complains, continuing to swat at invisible flies. Across the table, Wiley has given up cards altogether and is writing an in-depth analysis of his mental state onto the tablecloth in multicolored crayons. I laugh and deal another hand. Our trip has begun.
Nico, Bobby, and I have hosted Thanksgivings before, for up to 20 people at once. But this year I’m not interested in cooking for a group, managing other cooks in my kitchen, and (oh god, least of all) cleanup. Hiding our comfortable clutter beforehand, endless pots, plates, and glassware afterwards — I’d rather not.
Instead, we’re spending a long Thanksgiving weekend in Point Reyes, California, a peninsula neatly separated from the rest of the state by the San Andreas fault. It’s 100 square miles of grass and scrub, cloud forests, salt marshes, rocky cliffs, and sand, all well-scoured by salt wind and ocean storms.
It will be a relaxed stay. We’ll enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a fancy local restaurant, and on Friday night we’ll drop acid together. Saturday is for recovering, then everyone will return home on Sunday. This seems perfectly civilized; a weekend at a country house, a lovely meal, and an adventure.
It’s a testament to the friends that form my extended family that they all think this sounds like a great idea.
The stage for our weekend is a rented home in Inverness, a small mossy village on the protected landward side of the peninsula. The house is at the end of a long and winding road that climbs to a ridge above town, remote and secluded. It’s a sprawling, organic, quintessentially hippie structure, beautiful and weird and perfect for us.
Bobby, Nico, and I arrive at the house on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon. We settle in and prepare for our friends’ arrival.
I’m feeling an incredible amount of apprehension about the weekend. I grew up in a large family, and I find the presence of familiar friends comforting, yet at the same time I have an incredible amount of social anxiety. Even hanging out with old friends, I feel as though I’m walking along the edge of a cliff. I fear that at any time I may stumble, say or do something wrong, and my friends will cast me down, shun me, leave me broken.
This has happened to me several times, most recently with people I considered family. They disapproved of Bobby joining Nico and I in a ‘thruple’ relationship. The three of us were no longer invited to parties, phone calls and emails weren’t returned. Only one person from that group has continued to be part of our lives, and Melissa will be with us this weekend.
Having introspected on this for years, I still feel like we did nothing wrong, and I still mourn the loss.
Now here I am in Point Reyes with other friends, people I love, and we’re about to do something emotionally risky. I worry that someone could have a bad time and (reasonably) blame me, I would be shunned by the entire group, and once again I would be alone. Even if everyone enjoys themselves, perhaps I will say something wrong, something that alienates one of my friends, and one by one they will turn their backs to me.
But the alternative is to live in fear, cower in loneliness, give in to social anxiety. I could go off on my own, not sharing moments of laughter, of touch, of feeling loved and wanted.
I travel a lot, and the number one reason is the addictive intoxication of new friendships, the narcotic feeling of sharing a beer and a story with someone you just met. There is magic in having a person from a very different culture laugh at your jokes, alchemy in the universal human condition of drunkenness and farts.
Travel is often uncomfortable, and sometimes I can’t make those human connections. In those lonely moments, I remember my friends back home. Even if I cannot talk to them from whatever godforsaken place I might be, I still know they’re there. I still know that they love me, that I have a family to welcome me back.
I don’t want to lose them. Without their love, their encouragement, I wouldn’t have the courage to travel.
Fighting anxiety, I remember the childhood lessons my father taught me about warming a cold house on a New England winter’s night. I mentally go through the checklist, as comforting as any mantra.
Make sure that the stove’s vents and flue are fully open, creating a path for oxygen to flow up through the fire. Put down paper, preferably newsprint, each sheet crumpled separately. On top of this nest, lay a grid of small kindling. Use this as the foundation for a pyramid of larger pieces, but nothing thicker than your finger or wider than your hand. Make sure that no two pieces rest against one another, lest it create a dead spot where air can’t flow. Then light the paper, close the stove door, and pray.
If you built your starter pile correctly, the paper will burn quickly, igniting the edges of the small kindling. That in turn will take up the flame, reluctant but then quickening. Before the small kindling is consumed, the larger pieces will be aflame.
Add a single split piece of wood, a small one, no thicker than your fist. Use restraint. If you fail now, you will have to start over, and you will be working with an angry stove. Place this wedge onto the hottest part of the fire, careful to not smother it, mindful to keep the air flowing. If you’re a man, your arm hair may singe to ash. This only happens once, and then the hair is gone. Once that first log ignites, the fire will continue to burn. Lay new logs across the existing ones, not parallel, and don’t overfeed.
By the time the sun sets, the house is toasty and our friends are arriving.
Rick drives up first, his Mercedes crunching the gravel drive. He was born in Shanghai, and lives up to the stereotype of the inscrutable Chinese man. Piling on more stereotypes, Rick is good at math, a frugal accountant who minds his money with one exception. I’ve never heard him complain about a dinner tab. Rick and I share a love of food that borders on obsession.
Rick is a peacemaker, a drama-defuser, a flame douser, and a pourer of oil on troubled waters. Emotionally, I tend to be less than nuanced, less than diplomatic. Rick feels like a safety net, someone who will be there to understand me, to explain me, to save me from myself.
Next to arrive are Wiley & Ed. Wiley, from northern China, acts as a stereotype counterpoint to Rick. The feelings pour from Wiley in waves. Love and anger, confidence and insecurity, innocence and passion, I’ve seen all of these in Wiley. But mostly I see pain, a deep sadness from having his partner die unexpectedly, a loss that shrouds Wiley five years later.
Wiley has been seeing Ed, a gadget bear, a big furry tech geek who always seems to have new electronic toys in hand. As soon as he’s settled into the house he shows us some twisty toys he’s made with one of his three-dimensional printers, including one machine whose gears that can be twisted to transform into a smooth red heart.
Melissa rolls in after dark, entering the house with a cry of “Helloooooo!”, a fluster of fabric, and an exasperated sigh. “I am not going to comment on the soot & particles that this fire is putting into air” she says, then gives me an accusatory look that says quite a lot. Melissa is an atmospheric scientist, and I am killing the planet.
Melissa moves in like a weather front, and you never know which direction the barometer is heading. Like Wiley her heart was broken, but in Melissa’s case her husband deserted her for her best friend. The experience left Melissa both angry and insecure when it comes to men.
She surrounds herself with gay men, who dote on her as a tragic, funny, larger-than-life diva. But the price for her company is listening to complaints about Men and the numerous problems that we inflict onto the world.
I love Melissa and fear her. When I’m in her company, I worry that I may say something that causes her to snap at me, to point out that i am male, contributing to the problem, and anything that I say can be dismissed. When this happens I go silent, not wanting to make things worse, not wanting to give her more reason to dislike me.
On Thanksgiving evening we dress up (nicer jeans, button-down shirts) and head into the nearby village of Olema for our Thanksgiving Dinner. We’ve made a reservation at the Sir & Star, the new restaurant by the former chef-owners of Manka’s Inverness Lodge. Manka’s was an institution, a rustic lodge on the hillside in Inverness, filled with taxidermy and specializing in game cooked over an open fire. Unfortunately the popularity of Manka’s upset its residential neighbors, and chef Margaret Gradé quickly developed a reputation for dismissing their concerns.
On a stormy Christmas night in 2006, a tree crashed into the lodge at 3 in the morning, igniting a fire. Guests fled in the rain and one, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, helped recover sculptures before the building was consumed. Efforts to rebuild over the years have been stymied by neighbors. “Margaret didn’t make any friends in town,” said a long-time Inverness restauranteur. “She’s kind of a bitch.”
But in 2013 Margaret and fellow chef Daniel DeLong took over the historic Inverness Inn. After a remodel, they re-opened it as the Sir & Star, where we’re going to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal.
The meal is amazing and lasts for three hours. There is ‘Faux Gras’, a rich liver pate served with a red wine jelly and toast, sweet and savory, an adult peanut-butter-and-jelly. Oysters come pre-seasoned with shallots and a surprisingly delicious pickled kelp, perfectly amping up the brininess of the Tomales Bay shellfish that people make day trips from San Francisco to eat. Next appears a small pile of local crab served over a disk of perfectly cooked potato, drizzled with a crab-infused beure blanc. And of course there was roast turkey “last seen on the range of Bill’s Bolinas ranch”, served with sourdough and rabbit stuffing, a chutney of local plums, a generous amount of gravy, and sweet rolls.
Rick & Bobby are cruising the good-looking men eating their Thanksgiving dinner at nearby tables with their unsuspecting spouses. Wiley & Ed are murmuring things to one another in a corner of the table. We share our Thanksgiving dinner as a family, no wasted words or forced conversation.
“This simply will not do!” says Melissa, gesturing at her empty glass. I reach across and fill her glass, and the evening continues.
Francisco arrives on Friday. Just 21 years of age, he rarely drinks and never partakes of other substances. He attends raves for the music and cares for those other attendees who are having a bad substance experiences. He loves both his mother and his father, who are themselves model human beings.
He is as pure as I am tainted. Francisco calls me his Auntie Mame for my efforts to get him to feast at life’s banquet. Time and again I am the devil on his shoulder, efforts he gently deflects like a judo master, his path in life sure.
“Francisco, would you like a martini?” I’ll ask.
“Oh, Ron, that’s really sweet of you to offer. It looks wonderful, but I need to study later, and then I need to make a web site for an immigrant rights group.”
That night we all gather around the dining room table. I talk about what to expect. I’ve already spoken with everyone during the weeks leading up to this weekend, but I wanted to make the rules clear. Don’t leave the property. Don’t go off too far by yourself. If you feel uncomfortable, talk with someone.
LSD is not a dangerous drug, but almost everyone here is a hallucinogenic virgin. People can have bad experiences, especially if they don’t know what to expect. And I haven’t done LSD in thirty years. Will it affect me differently in middle age? I’m about to find out.
Bobby pulls out a tiny candy tin containing seven mints. Each mint contains one dose of LSD. “Oh” I think, “so that’s how the kids are doing it these days.” The last time I did LSD, 25 years ago, it was distributed on little pieces of blotting paper, an absorbent paper intended for absorbing fountain pen ink. I feel really old. But then I think to myself, “Hey, I’m doing acid in a cabin in the woods, how old can I be?”
We each take a candy, somberly, place it onto our tongues like minty little communion wafers. “Oh, was I supposed to swallow?” said Wiley. “I swallowed it! Will I be okay?” Yes, I assure him, we will all be okay.
There is a moment when everyone waits for something dramatic to happen. It doesn’t, and we start playing cards.
I know that it will take one to two hours for the LSD to take effect. During this time, the drug is traveling through my bloodstream and crossing the blood-brain barrier. It enters my brain and settles into the thalamus. Sitting at the center of the brain, the thalamus sends out nerve fibers in every direction. It acts as a gatekeeper, filtering out irrelevant sensory information and letting through what’s important. LSD dampens this filter, allowing in more raw, unprocessed data. From my past experiences, I know that I’ll see colors more intensely, start making random associations, and notice things that might otherwise have gone unseen. The barriers between ‘what is me’ and ‘what is outside me’ will become less clear.
We play cards because it is really annoying to spend an hour asking “am I high yet?” We play cards to allow the LSD to surprise us while we’re not looking. And it does, each of us in turn realizing that the world had become a different place, at least for a while.
Wiley is an intensely intellectual doctor of computer science. He takes it upon himself to document his experience, and starts writing notes onto the sheets of paper covering the table. “Nothing distorting, but feeling intense distance,” he writes. Ten minutes later he adds in large cursive script “I looked at the mirror of myself, and it was ok. The letters are floating.”
By the time Rick starts swatting at flies, Wiley is drawing a large tropical fish, its eye another fish, and a helpful note pointing out that the outer fish has “Shrek’s ear.” I ask him if Shrek will mind, and Wiley brushes away my concern. “Shrek has another ear.”
People drift away from the table, bodies relaxing and minds opening. Melissa, Nico, and Bobby are in a relaxed pile on the day bed, murmuring to one another. The tension I felt earlier dissipates… no one is going to have a bad time tonight. Relieved, I happily release the reins I’ve been holding on my own mind. I climb into the day bed and snuggle with my friends. We talk about whatever comes to mind, one thought triggering the next.
“Should we open a door?” asks Bobby. “I think that a pigeon may come dancing across the floor.”
“Are the trees getting closer to the house?” asks Rick. “Maybe they want to cuddle” says Bobby.
“You know, it might be really amazing to throw eggs across the room” enthuses Melissa. Both Nico and Francisco quickly suggest that she might be happier cuddling with stuffed bear, and Melissa starts designing a Van der Graaf Teddy for very bad children.
A collection of Indonesian demons laugh at us from the wall.
We take turns through the night playing music for one another, amusing one another with songs that are funny or bad or complimentary to whatever we happen to be talking about at the moment.
I play one of my favorite horrible songs “I’ve Never Been to Me”, a song about a jet-setting woman who has traveled the world socializing with kings on yachts. The singer goes on to lament this sad life, a life that meant nothing because she never had a baby. “Really, Ron?” laughs Melissa, “REALLY?”
Francisco is always nearby, not tripping, not judging, just watching, a foo dog guarding our dreams.
Outside it starts to rain harder, and the sound of drops on the window expands to fill the space, a gentle series of pulses that travel through the room like tiny bottle rockets, each a call for attention, a whispered “come out to play.”
Ed materializes an ultraviolet flashlight and suggests that we use it outside. We walk outside in our pajamas holding hands like kindergarteners. The rain beads in our hair, then runs behind our ears and down our backs in streams. The rain is as cold as the nearby ocean, a wonderful mix of pleasure and pain. The garden mulch massages and washes the bottom of our feet. When we point the magic flashlight at a rose, it ignites into flames, the raindrops bouncing from the petals as bright purple sparks. A nearby bush becomes a chandelier of amethyst crystals, each one shivering with light in the wind of the storm. We spend a minute or an hour in the garden before heading in to dry ourselves in the caressing heat of the stove.
We settle back onto the sofa, everyone touching, limbs draped over one another, heads resting on one another’s shoulders. What would have normally felt too intimate feels expected & natural, another form of communication. English seems unnecessary. Rick says something in Chinese, and Wiley gently smiles and nods. Bobby spends ten minutes looking at himself in the mirror. Nico sits straight up, his head swiveling back and forth like a meerkat, then he smiles and melts back down onto the sofa, the threat having passed.
I dread feeding the stove, red hot cast iron filled with hellfire. I absolutely don’t want anyone else to do it. I imagine Francisco running across the room engulfed in flames, a movie stuntman with arms waving back and forth. That would be bad, bad, bad. I gather my courage long enough to toss a log in, then back slowly away from the stove until I’m at a safe distance, perhaps ten feet, watching it carefully.
“The trees outside are dinosaurs, they are watching me, why are they watching me?” frets Bobby. “I wish they wouldn’t.” He burrows under a blanket, and when he emerges the reptiles have moved on to other voyeuristic opportunities.
“I feel like I becoming alienated from Ed.” says Wiley in a five-year-old’s voice. We take turns holding him, cuddling him, until the fear passes.
Rick twists Ed’s geared heart until the soft rounded curves disappear inside, leaving only the gears, a heart of thorns. He stares at it for minutes before putting it down. “I don’t think that acid works for me” he says, sounding disappointed, then he giggles.
At midnight Francisco says that he has to go home, that he has to drive his mother to church early the next morning. He smiles, gives each of us a warm hug, then he’s gone. For a very long time after he leaves we talk about how much we love him. It’s the most focused conversation that we have all evening.
At around 3 or 4 or 5 a.m. we drift to our beds. There we cover ourselves and watch the fractals sparkle in our minds until sleep takes us.
By Saturday afternoon everyone is recovered. Melissa has left for home, as have Wiley & Ed. Rick proposes a hike to Abbotts Lagoon on the northern side of the peninsula.
We make the short drive to the trailhead, then walk quietly through grassy fields and along barbed wire fences. The land gently tapers tapers towards the sea, and the wind blowing from the north tastes like salt and sage.
The lagoon sits a few hundred yards from the ocean. Mostly fresh, the pond is a deep indigo blue splashed with verdant water hyacinths. Along the edge a great blue heron stands knee-deep in the water, motionless, waiting.
Leaving the others, I head towards the ocean. My eyes are downcast, watching the sand passing beneath my feet, the delicate textures, the subtle patterns of an enormous sand-painted mandala. Occasionally I squat down to excavate a partly-exposed bird skull, or examine the footprints of a passing beetle.
My walking meditation ends at the sea where terns rush to pluck tiny crabs from the retreating surf. Nearby three children giggle as they play this same game of tag with the ocean.
I look over my shoulder to see Nico standing atop a dune, head swiveling, watching his family. Further back, Bobby & Rick are sitting on a large piece of driftwood, their heads together, talking, laughing.
I stand there for a long time at the edge of surf and sand. There is comfort in knowing that I have these friends at my back, that Nico is there to watch out for me, that Bobby is there to make me laugh.
I know that fears will return. Over time friends will come and go from my life. But for right now, I feel safe, strong, and lucky to have shared such a wonderful trip with such wonderful people.
When You Go
Van der Ryn Eco-Refuge
+ (415) 669-7252
Call for availability and prices.
80 4th Street, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
Open Wednesday thru Sunday, 10am-6pm.
Sir & Star
10000 Sir Francisco Drake | Olema, CA 94950
Dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday from 5 until 9pm. Reservations strongly recommended.
Abbott’s Lagoon trail
From Inverness, drive about 3 miles to the junction with Pierce Point Road, and turn right. Continue about 3 miles more to the trailhead on the left side of the road.