I am now a big believer in signs. I don’t mean rest stop exits or traffic signals, but clear omens revealed by universal forces. And I was on a mission to find an unmistakable sign that I was meant to be a travel writer while hanging with some friends in a national touring band for a few cities on the east coast. At the time I was reading Pam Grout’s E-Squared and wanted to put her “Dude Abides” principle to the test.
On their tour bus with my friend Gavin, the drummer of the band, I explained that I had given 24 hours for the universe to show me an obvious sign. I suggested, half-jokingly, that maybe Hunter S. Thompson would send a message from the grave. I needed something fun or unexpected to happen. As if he were reading my mind, my friend looked at me with this mischievous grin I had seen a hundred times before. He leaned in as if he had a secret, quietly informing me, “I gotta feeling tonight is gonna to be a little different from the last couple of shows.” I didn’t know if it was nerves because my friend and I are notorious for getting into trouble together. Maybe it was my excitement about being engulfed in music at an outdoor festival or because I didn’t really know what to expect. But I also felt it. There was definitely something about this event that made every cell in my body feel a lingering anticipation for some future event that I could have in no way prepared for.
It seemed like we had been on back roads for an eternity by the time we entered the campground. We passed through security, pulling up near the back of the stage. The front faced towards a very large field surrounded by what seemed to be endless woods. It was a beautiful, secluded area far from civilization. There’s an exhilarating feeling you get when you know you’re going into an environment without the common amenities and luxuries we are so used to. You can rely on your most basic, fundamental instincts. It’s seductive. The lush green grass in front of the stage only added to my excitement. I managed to set up my tent fairly quickly about 100 yards from the front of the stage while sampling the beer I brought and the whiskey that was offered to me. It was about 1pm. The sun was bright but the day wasn’t too hot. I decided from looking at the other festival goers that I would no longer need my shoes or socks. I have always been one to try and blend in with my environment. You know? Absorb the culture! I pulled up a lawn chair next to a band member’s girlfriend in front of the stage, listening to the first group. I was almost as comfortable as I wanted to be. But that seemed to be the theme for the next 16 hours.
Mindi, a girlfriend of one of the musicians, greeted me with the most innocent and genuinely happy smile. But innocent girls don’t date musicians. She grabbed my hand with her tiny fingers and opened it up like she was about to hold it. She stared at me directly in my eyes and in the most casual manner she politely asked, “Want to take a hit of acid?” That’s what she so gently placed in my hand. I didn’t even respond; we both just took it. See? Always blending in. Not 20 minutes after we consumed the first, Mindi, again in the most innocuous tone, asked me, “should we find some more?” Now, had I known the events that were about to unfold I would honestly have to say that I would probably make the exact same decision again.
Even the most mildly successful bands have groupies. And normally not by choice. It’s just the nature of being an artist. Since these were math-rock bands, the followers are not what you’d expect. There’s no crowd of girls peeing their pants like at a Justin Beiber concert. No. These are all primarily dudes. And there can be some interesting characters. The band I was with had exactly this interesting character: Eddie. I looked over at the bald man in his early 30s, sitting in a wheelchair directly in front of the stage, casually handing out tabs in exchange for money. He didn’t have a disability, at least not a permanent, physical disability. Eddie apparently consumed way too much LSD a few days before and fell off a cliff.
I walk over to make the exchange and Eddie greets me with friendly eyes but otherwise his face doesn’t show any expression. Something had caused him to lose happiness a long time ago. He never smiles. Ever. As I would later find out, Eddie was also single-handedly the most important person to know at this particular festival.
As bands play on and the day continues, more and more people come flocking in towards the stage. The larger the crowd grew the more alcohol we consumed and the more liberal everyone became with their psychedelic consumption. No one was trying to hide it. Our little group recognized the need to stick together to avoid getting lost. As I began to succumb to the drugs’ effects, I realized it was the most comfortable and safest environment to be so free with psychedelics. Day quickly became night and the swirl of people and events began to take on a new form. A new meaning. The music began to synchronize perfectly with the attitudes, dialogue, and movements of everyone around me. The theme was in place and I was like a member of the audience at a well orchestrated play. At one point I noticed the headlining band finally got on stage. It was dark out except for a few lights from various campfires and the most beautiful scene of stars radiating throughout the cloudless night sky. Without the lights or smog of a nearby city, the view was unbelievable.
Somehow I had wandered away from the stage and no one I knew was in sight. I began to panic and began circling the entire field through the mess of people to find my friends. If there is one thing to remember when taking psychedelics, it’s that you always have to keep your cool. Any idea that pops in your head becomes amplified.
I made my rounds several times. No one I recognized. As I was walking through the crowds and talking to people, I noticed that every single person there had taken the acid. People were giving it away. People offered Molly. I said yes to everything. Turned none of it down. I tasted what I assumed battery acid would taste like in the back of my throat. I started throwing up near my tent. A tent I clearly would not end up sleeping in. Not sure how I got there. I had to find my friends. I was on the verge of a panic attack that would be exacerbated by the LSD. When I asked no one seemed to know. Out of desperation I blurted out for the only other person I knew: Eddie.
Immediately someone within hearing distance told me they knew Eddie. They informed me that he was at a campfire at the other side of the field on the edge of the woods. It was difficult to walk, not just because the grass was now cold on my bare feet, but because my brain was beaming in so many different directions. I had to pull myself together. I had been here before, many times. Take a deep breath. Get centered. Everything is OK. Your environment is just a reflection of your thoughts. I asked another group of strangers.
“Think I saw him over there somewhere.”
As I worked my way over towards a glowing light away from the festival-goers, I asked several people. Everyone seemed to know Eddie and his whereabouts. I finally found him and his entourage. He hadn’t seen my friends. A lot more relaxed (as relaxed as you can be with 4 hits and a head full of Molly), I made my way back towards the stage.
There they were. Probably the whole time. Dancing and sitting on a big blanket on the grass. The ground had become very cold and wet. Gavin and crew welcomed me as if they hadn’t seen me in years. He spoke, much too loud for being so close to us, “this band has been playing for nearly 4 hours!” He was right. It had been a really long time. I asked for a beer and it then dawned on us that we were out. Completely. For some reason, we panicked slightly. We then began our search for beer. Surprisingly, alcohol was scarce in the campground. During our search we found a smaller bonfire near the stage. Still no beer. People were playing guitar and singing. Gavin and I immediately joined in. An out of place Mormon looking couple selling books and not partaking in the “recreational activities” handed Gavin a paperback to borrow as a percussive instrument.
We must have played for an hour. When we finished two things happened. First, a younger looking guy that didn’t seem to any longer have a grip on reality handed me a strip because he had “had too much.” I immediately split it with Gavin. We ate it all. The second event that happened was in the midst of all the chaos. Suddenly, it was like someone had turned down the volume on everyone else. All I could hear was my breath. Even the stage had closed down for the night. Everything in my peripherals became blurry. You might say it was a moment of clarity, or some kind of epiphany. Looking back I’m sure this was a spiritual moment despite my head full of drugs. My eyes focused on Gavin. Before giving back the book he had been using, he turned it around to look at the cover. He looked up at me in disbelief.
I asked, “what book is it?” Then, plastered on his face was that grin I’ve seen so many times before.
“You’re not gonna believe this.”
There is one action that can instantly revert even the most sophisticated man back to his primitive, cave-dwelling state: staring into the depths of a campfire. There is this universal fascination with a warm, glowing, controlled fire that gives the spectator a blanket of security to sport and with the added embrace of alcohol can bond even the fiercest of foes. We had worked our way back over to Eddie’s roaring campfire, where we were doing just that. It was the popular place to be and for good reason. Our friend Eddie just happened to have what seemed to be the only stash of beer left around. While some of the guys were debating consuming DMT, I happily slugged on beers from Eddie’s case. I found what I was looking for. My blatant sign came just hours after I asked for it. I no longer needed the psychoactive medicines. I always thought I would need a shaman to have the experience I did (although a spiritual experience with a shaman would take place a few years later), but I had access to it all along. I walked away from the comfort of the fire and the happy people telling stories and playing acoustic guitars and into the woods. I no longer felt fear for my future. I was overflowing with confidence. I found a broken spiral slide resting on its side. It was perfect. I climbed to the top and slid down the cinnamon swirl. Ah yes. I had been here before. My thoughts were expanding. I could still see the cover of the paperback Gavin held up for me to read just an hour earlier. The glow from the fire shone directly on the front side of the book clearly revealed the title. My sign was staring directly at me in the face. My friend was right. I could barely believe what I was seeing. But it was no hallucination. It really was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.