Late in the morning of Saturday, August 31, 2019 my wife Vanessa and I arrived by car at a private music event on Canada’s Niagara Escarpment near the Town of Creemore, Ontario. We planned to tent camp, enjoy the music, and consume psychedelics. In my case, this meant San Pedro cactus. Vanessa was unsure, but after dousing for guidance decided to try a half tab of LSD.
San Pedro cactus (also called huachuma) was the sacred medicine of the Inca. In the Amazon rainforest enough forest dwellers escaped the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers that their ayahuasca traditions remained somewhat intact. But enough Inca priests were killed that we know little of their rites for San Pedro, though legend has it that devotees in large pilgrimages would visit sacred sites over a number of days in the medicine’s thrall. In any case, the psychoactive ingredient in San Pedro is mescaline, so the experience is similar to that afforded by peyote. It’s normally consumed during the day, and is therefore called the “ayahuasca of the day.” It’s also known as the grandfather medicine (ayahuasca being the grandmother). (San Pedro or St Peter is an allusion to that saint as guardian of the gates to heaven.)
Upon arrival we checked in with our hosts and proceeded to set up our tent and camping equipment. The prediction was for cool seasonal weather but clear skies. We greeted various friends, including Annabella (not her real name), who’d invited us, and shamanic practitioners Natalie and John. Over the next 24 hours we enjoyed many deep conversations with these friends on a range of topics, which seemed to center on energy healing, helping the Amazon rainforest, and our experiences with various master plants.
Within a few hours the farm-field venue filled up with brightly-coloured tents.
At 3:00 pm I mixed a dose of San Pedro cactus with water in a Nalgene rigid-plastic water bottle, stirring it into a slurry, which I drank. I had trouble getting it all down, and gagged several times. The taste was not as bitter as other doses I’d consumed in the past, but the texture was off-putting. It was less “slimy” than gritty, as if it contained sand.
Knowing the medicine would take at least an hour to come on, I decided on some physical activity. Vanessa and I, along with Natalie and John, descended a steep cliffside of the Niagara Escarpment to a river below. The hike was fairly athletic and included holding onto ropes that the property owners had affixed permanently for this purpose. I was thankful to have worn running shoes and socks; those who wore only flip-flops regretted their decision.
The effects came on slowly for Vanessa from the half-tab of LSD she’d taken. She became very interested in patterns in the river water and I chuckled to myself she wouldn’t normally be so interested in the surface play of light and shadow.
I ascended back to higher ground, concerned the San Pedro might hit me before I got back to safety. Back at our tent site, my first sensation was a luminosity that appeared from within the trees, grasses and other vegetation. A familiar snake-like pattern appeared also, weaving itself through everything. The beautiful green, blue, mauve and other iridescent colours of these snake patterns danced with shimmering jewel-like designs. I can’t say what this pattern represents. Are these spirit world entities? I wondered, or simply a motif of this medicine.
What unfolded over the following 12 hours or so is impossible to describe in words. The experience filled the whole evening and night, and the multi-hour peak was almost unbearably strong. I tried lying inside the tent with eyes closed, but this didn’t offer any relief. I felt called to go outside and look at the trees and open sky.
I interacted with people at their campsites and attended music performances at the stage. Whenever I found the sensations overwhelming I returned to a camping chair beside our tent. Sometime very late Vanessa turned in and I attempted to sleep beside her. The medicine was too powerful, so I returned to the main music area. The electronic music had ended and a group of about 30 people sat around a large fire pit playing acoustic guitars and drumming softly. I joined in for a while.
I finally went to bed around 4:00 am, by which time the medicine had mostly dissipated. Faint geometric patterns inhabited my field of vision.
During the peak, everything moved. Trees, bushes, rocks, etc throbbed, pulsated and changed shape constantly. My ayahuasca visions normally look like the paintings of psychedelic artist Alex Grey, but with San Pedro in this instance the visions were more like the works of Vincent van Gogh or Canadian artist Emily Carr, with swirling energy and kaleidoscopic effects.
My body was filled with an electric energy that was at times difficult to bear. I made a decision to step into my power and own this experience. This attitude allowed me to exploit what the medicine was offering.
At one point I entered the main house in search of food, and made my way to the second floor kitchen where I spent a long time examining the furniture and wall textures, the surfaces of which changed constantly. The terra cotta ceramic floor tiles moved like porridge in a cauldron. It was incredibly beautiful and intriguing.
Returning to the campsite, I invited Natalie and John to probe me with questions. I wanted to make sense of my experience, but couldn’t find the right words. As we spoke, everything melted and shape-shifted, as though made from mercury. Over time this sped up, and then sped up further. The trees and bushes swayed almost violently. The light breeze couldn’t explain the explosive energy that caused all the forms to pulsate. I focused on my breath whenever I felt overwhelmed.
John sat directly in front of me and asked me questions. He seemed to understand what I was seeing. He looked like a cosmic trickster, and was one of only a couple of people that night whose facial features didn’t shift constantly from the psychedelic effect.
“Would you say it’s like the frame rate of reality has slowed down?” John asked.
The term “frame rate” helped me deeply understand what was happening. It was accurate. The cactus was showing me that the human brain is a quantum transducer. It converts the projections of nonlocal awareness into the appearance of a steady-state reality. Just as the eastern spiritual traditions tell us, “nothing” is appearing as “something.” The medicine slowed down the refresh rate of this process, which normally occurs so rapidly that the illusion is maintained perfectly.
The illusion of Shakti’s coils. Maya.
In a previous San Pedro experience I’d sensed an elderly man — an Inuit elder perhaps — who chuckled, tweaked my nose, and said in a raspy voice, “You take yourself far too seriously, sonny boy!” In this experience the plant spirit was not external to me: I became the grandfather.
At one point I shared with Annabella I was “seeing the world as shamans see it” to which she replied, “Welcome to my world, Guy.” (Annabella is one of those individuals for whom the veil between worlds is thin at the best of times.)
Annabella introduced me to a young man with long blonde hair who she told me is an experienced practitioner with medicine plants. I sensed I was in the presence of an old master, who had returned to do further Bodhisattva work. Like John, he was one of the few people whose face remained perfectly intact without shifting shape. He made observations about the need to unite Mother Earth and Father Sky.
I found myself in a landscape with “no place to stand” — an ever-changing liquid reality. It occurred to me a person could learn to manipulate reality or conjure things from within it, if they were in this state all the time. When I was ready for bed the sky turned an unusual colour with strange clouds, and as it kept changing a little voice inside me said, “You’re doing that.”
Once again, I’d caught a glimpse of reality as a magic trick.
Guy Crittenden is a freelance writer who focuses on spiritual, psychedelic and environmental themes. His book The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls (Apocryphile Press, San Francisco) won the Silver Medal in its category at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Contact Guy at [email protected]