It is 4 o’clock on a bracing Burning Man afternoon, and I am riding my bike across the uneven pavement of the Playa, singing heartily enough to fill the entire Black Rock Desert basin. The horizon is billowing flamboyantly with clouds, portentous gray on their undersides and swept with light from the top — the kind of sky that makes perfectly sober people silly and turns the drug-addled downright religious. I think I’m biking faster than I ever have, slaloming between clusters of bodies and shards of art. I take one hand off the handlebars, then the other. I put my hands on my hips. I gesture in the manner of Carol Merrill pointing to door number two. I press my palms together over my head like an Indian goddess; I hand-dance like a hieroglyphic Egyptian. And with a certain sense of wide-eyed, goofy wonder, I recall that I gave up trying to ride no-handed when I was 10.
Even by the standards of this chemical culture, I’ve been reckless with drugs, but I can’t say it’s ever been bad. Today’s substance of choice is N,N-5methoxy-Diisopropyltryptamine, a slightly psychedelic, mildly aphrodisiac substance otherwise known as “Foxy.” It was recommended to me by a friend of mine the day before as she rolled on the ground laughing spasmodically. I followed her instructions, located a man lounging in a tent, followed him into a red bus and paid him $20 for two little blue pills. He assured me that Foxy was not yet illegal. It didn’t seem to make either of us more comfortable.
Foxy was leisurely in rearranging my brain chemistry. After a half-hour, I’d assumed it had failed me like so many drugs — cocaine, Ayahuasca, opium tea, Vicodin — all of which resulted in little but low-grade anxiety, wobbly knees, and a vague sense that I should shove my fingers down my throat and get on with my life. A full hour passed before I was cycling across the desert like the kid I never was: arms akimbo, funny, sure of myself and fine. I wanted to bottle the feeling; instead, I made an emotional note of it — the texture, the sensation, the thoughts, the way colored light flickered at the edge of my vision and a deep shifting purple painted the mountains, but also the faith in my physical power that allowed me to let up on the handlebars. It seems a small thing, but I have come to realize, on my various psychotropic adventures, that no lesson is trivial. I have also learned that the lessons last.
My interest in drugs is mostly recreational — I take drugs because they’re fun, and when they’re not fun, I avoid them. Pot leaves me speechless, cocaine depresses me, and amphetamines put me to sleep. I have never done acid, because I’m sure I’d be the one to mistake the blue flame on the gas burner for a flower, or dive off a building thinking I can fly. But the drugs I’ve come to trust have taught me how to live, and it is impossible for me to even consider that they have had anything but a salutary effect on my productivity, my good citizenship, my mental health. Strolling the Getty gardens in the soft psychedelic glow of 2-CB, I stumbled upon a palpable sympathy for Robert Irwin’s sense of order, as if I could intuit what he’d endured in his effort to arrange things just so. On my first MDMA trip I stood swaying for hours, awash in the realization that to be devastated by criticism is to be profoundly ungenerous to the critics. On a capsule form of mescaline I came to understand — not just in my head, but in the very fiber of my viscera — how my own judgmental nature is born of fear and keeps me safely separate from the world.
One afternoon, I set out with a psychologist friend for a hike in Joshua Tree National Monument, each of us chewing a few caps of Psilocybin cubensis. The fungus proved unexpectedly potent, and we made it only about 50 yards before I collapsed on my belly and began crawling like a lizard, transfixed by tiny civilizations blooming in the serpentine sand. “This is why you and I get along,” declared my friend, who had taken to walking in circles. “We like to get together and glory in our puniness.” I liked that, but when I tried in my know-it-all way to sit up and recite Kenneth Rexroth’s ode to impermanence, “Halley’s Comet,” a crushing wave of nausea slammed me back to the ground. I determined that the plant god was trying to shut me up, and spent the rest of the day weeping.
This was not, as you might assume, a bad trip. In fact, were I to be transported back in time to any moment in the past year, I might pick that one: My friend and I, submerged in a shape-shifting diorama where emerald trees breathe and pink-veined rocks have a pulse, convinced that all is as it should be and nothing else matters. Unlike Arthur Koestler, who told Timothy Leary he’d forgotten the mighty ’shroom’s secrets by breakfast the next morning, I never lose these moments; each of them etches another groove in my ego, reminding me to glory, as often as I can, in my ever-liberating puniness.
The other evening, biking un-enhanced on a smooth stretch of boulevard in Hancock Park, I let up on the handlebars, just to make sure. I stretched my hands to the sky. It still works.