My Very Brief Membership in Carlos Castaneda’s Church of the Shamanistic Upward Flight of Liberation


Peyote consumption, dear readers, was the central ritual of the religion I practiced for at least 12 hours.  Yes, for the first time ever, I publicly acknowledge that for a day-and-a-half, I was a member of  Carlos Castaneda’s Church of the Shamanistic Upward Flight of Liberation.

It’s a long story, one ill-suited for this genre.  Perhaps an epic poem would be too grandiose, but certainly a blog post in no way could do justice to the hero’s journey Johnny Dryer and I took across this great country of ours in search of Carlos Castaneda.

However, now, that I’ve let it out, I guess I do owe my reader(s) a bare bones narrative.

LA street

LA circa 1973

In the spring of ’73 my good friend Johnny Dryer and I decided that after a harrowing semester of cutting classes, attending keg parties, and watching pretentious foreign films, that we deserved a sabbatical, so we skipped the spring semester to hitch across the country to California to see if we could find the famous anthropologist/would-be shaman Carlos Castaneda, who recently had slipped out of public view and moved into a large house somewhere in L.A.

I’ll spare you the details of the memorable rides we hitched, e.g., our sitting in the back of rig of an eighteen-wheeler with a trucker’s wife (Janelle) as we witnessed the driver go through can after can of the Old Milwaukee he had stowed in a cooler on the passenger’s side.  (After finishing a beer, he would smash the can with the palm of his hand as if it were a Dixie Cup and fling it out of the window, sometimes while passing slow-moving vehicles at night on the downslope of foothills). [1]

Or the time we were picked up by a bus transporting a professional female roller derby team.

Let’s just say that it was a cross continental zig zag that took us from Tijuana to Denver but that eventually we arrived at the City of Angels alive but thinner.

I have to give Johnny 100% of the credit (and the blame) for not only turning me on to the mind-expanding philosophy of Carlos Castaneda and his mentor Don Juan, but also for the brilliant detective work in our eventual successful tracking down Castaneda’s house (Think The Big Sleep meets Easy Rider).  No, by the time we hit L.A., I was one lovesick puppy, moping around like a latter-day Troilus, missing my beloved girlfriend, Cressida  Debbie.  Johnny is the protagonist of this tale, I merely the comic morose sidekick.

We did at last get to meet the Master, the Manson-lite entourage that surrounded him, and found him to be a very short, charismatic narcissist whose megalomania didn’t quite jive with the shamanistic attributes that Don Juan projected in The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

And though I fully expected for my initiation to the sacrament of peyote to ignite spirit-spawned visions of totemistic reality (an albino aardvark, say, speaking truths to me in an ancient Yaqui tongue that I could mysteriously understand), the truth is that I became paranoid and dared not open my mouth for fear that I might sound as idiotic as the rest of drug-crazed groupies surrounding Carlos.

peyote sofa

From left to right, yours truly, Johnny Dreyer, unknown dude, unknown chick, Carlos unknown chick, unknown dude having a bad trip.

Perhaps Gringo idiots like us co-opting sincere Native American religious rites and transforming them into New Age bacchanalia played a role in the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision to bar Native religions from using peyote, a sacred plant that had been part of their ceremonies for centuries; nevertheless, Oregon v. Smith represents a bone fide assault against an individual’s right freely to practice religion, a decision reached by a majority of conservative justices, who later would claim it’s okay for Hobby Lobby not to provide employees with birth control because it contradicted the owners’ religious beliefs.

It’s enough to drive you to drugs.

[1] Hat tip, Furman Langley. Please note, reader, that this post is classified as fiction.

An Old Manuscript Resurfaces

Last night I was talking to my wife Caroline about the experience of having written a pre-word-processing novel in my late twenties. I told her how the idea of the story had come to me and how the narrative had almost effortlessly unspooled from my imagination.

It was 1980, and I had managed to get an agent, who shopped it around, but to no avail.  Eventually the agent mailed the manuscript back with a letter from Viking claiming I had talent, but the book was a downer. Perhaps to show me she was no slacker, the agent mentioned that she had received other, less-charitable rejections.

I casually mentioned to Caroline that I still had the manuscript somewhere in my study, which surprised her, and she asked me to go upstairs to see if I could find it.  I eventually located it in the back of a file cabinet.

I hadn’t looked at it in thirty-five years and expected to be totally embarrassed, but as I started reading, I thought to myself, “Some of this ain’t half bad.”

For example, I think the excerpt below captures fairly well that awful feeling when something you’ve done has seemingly ruined your life forever.

In the wee hours, the narrator, fifteen-year-old Kenny Stevenson, has been deposited home by the police after his girlfriend nearly drowned in a hot tub during an unsupervised party.  He has awakened in his room the next afternoon.  His hectoring mother, a difficult woman even on a good day, has just burst in and denigrated him in raw angry hurtful language.  Overwhelmed, broken, in considerable physical pain, he screams an obscenity back at her.

I couldn’t believe I had said it, but I had — had hollered the words at pointblank range, — and as soon as the they hit her, she started screaming and crying and punching me all over my face with her fists. I was getting ready to start crying, too, not because the punches hurt any more than my body already hurt, but because there was nothing left to do. Finally, she quit and ran out of the room sobbing, slamming the door real hard.

I could hear the sobbing disappearing down the hall, so I scrunched a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear or see.  It felt like my body was getting ready to out-sob hers, and I was gonna let it.  I was looking forward to letting it out.  I moved the pillow out of the way, opened my mouth, ready to gush tears all over the place, but the only thing that came out was a sort of foghorn honk.  It sounded horrible, like a rhinoceros call or something, like an eighty-year-old Tarzan’s pathetic holler.  I honked it four times, and with each honk, I felt the rhinos stampeding in my head, trampling down everything that used to be.  It was like everything that used to be had been washed away in vomit.  Now I was actually trying to cry like a baby, but my body wouldn’t let me. All I could do is let out a jungle honk, and then there was silence, except for the sound of my panting.

Even though the air-conditioner was on, I must have left the window open to throw up sometime during the night.  Eventually, my panting slackened, which turned into silence, and silence gave way to cars swishing in the street.  Or was that the wind rustling through the trees? I made myself get up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it and went over to the window and squatted down beside it. I pulled the shade back, and the light stabbed my eyes. For a second or two, yellow blobs  floated right in front of me, but as my eyes gradually got used to the light, the blobs faded away, and I could see the world outside tending to business as usual – people in cars going somewhere, Mrs. Ayers walking down to her mailbox, Hambone in the shade shooing flies with his tail.

I would’ve traded places with any of them – even Mrs. Ayers. At least their lives, no matter how boring, were the same as they had been yesterday.  Mine had changed, changed for good, and all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.

I had to split.