Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. Those words, magical and otherwise, a mantra for the sixties, were written and spoken by Harvard Professor Dr. Timothy Leary. While he didn’t invent LSD, he popularized the drug for all of us to delve into; almost as easy as popping open a beer with a church key or riding a bike. Acid was readily available. Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out: Opening doors on unseen perception previously closed to all but a few. Dropping acid: What it meant to experience life and death in the drop of a tab.
I saw Timothy Leary at the University of Denver Arena on August 29, 1967. He came on stage to a sold-out crowd dressed in a white hippie shirt and jeans. He talked to us about the power of LSD, always punctuating with the mantra: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. What he said made sense, and it made me want to try this new drug. I’d done mushrooms and peyote, but not LSD. I was a freshman in college; pot was my thing. Leary changed things for me. Put me in a new, freer frame of mind.
I dropped acid for the first time in 1967 with Sven Hamsun, raconteur and my best friend. Haggis Altoona supplied us with the goods. He also joined us for our first foray into deep outer and the vastness of inner space. He told us the stuff came from Owsley himself. When Haggis talked, you believed him. Talk wasn’t cheap listening to him.
Headed toward the Great Divide
Augustus Owsley “the Bear” Stanley III, the high priest magician of high. He distilled the finest, most powerful and pure brand of acid that could be found in those halcyon days of the sixties: Orange Sunshine. The kind we were about to take. But first we had to get the hell out of Denver. We headed for the mountains, the three of us jammed in my ‘55 Ford Pickup. We had plenty of beer in a gigantic cooler in the bed of the truck; blankets, food, wood, a couple of tents. It was a Sunday in the fall, maybe October if I can remember right, the land swarming around us as I drove the truck up on I-70 toward The Great Divide. Brown and gold colors drifted in and out of swaths of green. Patches of snow left over from the previous winter blinded when you looked at them in the sun, all dancing in front of the windshield; the Aspens gloriously radiant in the hazy morning, orange-sunshined sun. The blue sky welcomed us with infinite arms. And I wasn’t even high—not yet. Nature can do that to you.
Autumn, Sven’s girlfriend, would join us in a couple of hours. She had an exam to take. At least someone was serious about school. We would wait for her to take the acid. I hoped the flight would last long and be good to me. I had heard about bad trips. I hoped we would all fly well together. First class on the acid run, into the sky and beyond the inner shape of our souls.
Then, as it happened, we got stopped by a State Trooper—pulled over right before we were headed up Berthoud Pass and the Divide. One of my tail lights was out. Fortunately, I carried spare bulbs. In front of the burley trooper I quickly removed the rear light cover and exchanged the bulb. Good to go. The trooper held back on giving me a ticket, told me it was good I carried spares. Wished us luck. If only he knew what were up to. He would have hauled us off to some cold mountain keep with subterranean cells deep inside a mossy, wet cavern. I was happy I wasn’t on acid at that point. Happy I hadn’t been drinking. That would come later. I wanted to be pure at first, let the drug work on me without the alcohol or pot messing me up.
We were headed to a camping spot by a lake I will not name, high on the other side of the divide. We found the turn-off and headed up a dirt road. The mountains were not as crowded as they are these days. In half an hour we came to the lake. I’ll call it Lost Lake, because here I would become lost for a period of time, finding myself later on as a changed person.
We were the only ones there. Parked the truck and lugged our gear around the side of the lake to a spot that would give us a view of Mt. Holy Cross, a fourteen-thousand-foot peak, glorious in the fading afternoon light. We decided not to pitch the tents. We would sleep under the stars, next a roaring fire sending its sparks heavenward. The stars would be out in force tonight, no doubt. So would we.
Soon we had a fire built and the quiet of the shadows closed in around on us. We sat around the fire, lost in our own thoughts. Then Autumn arrived and sat down next to Sven. I looked to Haggis and nodded. He dug into his satchel and produced the tabs. The sun was lowering its fire into the peaks, spikes of orange fanning the sky behind Holy Cross. It was time for the trip. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. Still, so many others had gone before me, and here I was in my beloved mountains, away from the maddening crowds and infernal noise. This was the place. I put the tab on my tongue, waited, let it dissolve a little, then swallowed.
LSD was invented by Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist, in 1938. Without realizing its psychoactive potential, he gave himself a small dose and immediately began feeling the effects— mainly a heightened perception. He managed to make it home riding his bicycle, terrorized the whole way, thinking he was going to die, his perception of reality screaming out of bounds. After he made it home, his doctor found nothing wrong with him. Later that night Hoffman felt the effects of euphoria. This is now known as Bicycle Day.
I sat back and relaxed against a boulder not far from the fire. Indeed, the sparks were flying heavenward, spiraling and leaving trails of multi-colored wisps. I became afraid, but then talked myself into calm state. I looked out across Lost Lake to Mt. Holy Cross. A chill in the air descended on me as the sun went down behind the peak. The fabric of space began to shift around me. I felt an opening in the air, as though I could see through to another world. I was still there in my own body, but my sense of self was shattering. Then things really changed.
I grabbed hold of one of the sparks from the roaring fire nearby, latched on and rode it upwards. I became a miniature man riding a dragonfly via pedals, as though the creature were a bicycle. I had recently read a book called The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, so all this made sense. Below me I could see my companions sitting around the fire. I saw fire erupting from the tops of their heads. I called out to them, but they didn’t respond. They smiled and waved, though, and I knew I was good to go. I drove my dragonfly higher into the night, the Earth a small, wobbling ball beneath me. Now the stars were close. They closed ranks around me. I could hear them talking to each other, then to me in a language I couldn’t understand. I felt the blackness of Death looming behind them. The blackness approached. I started to panic. But I didn’t move. The dark and cold settled around me. I thought I would scream, but I didn’t. Slowly, my panic subsided. My being was filling with light, pushing away the dark. I backed away from the stars and headed back to Earth on my dragonfly, landing next to the boulder. I shook my head and I was lying against it, whole. Voices came to me. The voices of my friends. The sun was coming up in the east. I had been tripping all night. I was back.
That’s all I can remember. Undoubtedly there was more, but my mind has repressed it. When I came out of my altered state, I felt a little shaken; that all of what had happened to me came out of my center. It had always been lurking there, but hadn’t surfaced until now. This new drug had pulled it out, made me see what was possible—made me see Death, and not be afraid of it. Death is Life and Life is Death. The Yin and Yang with parts of each in one another. A few hours later, when the effects of the drug wore off, I felt like jumping in the frigid water of the lake. Nothing could harm me at this point. I was soaring in the here and now.
Sven and Haggis sat down next to me. Popped open some beers. Autumn lit a joint and we passed it around. It’s important to have a secure place and be with your close friends when you’re taking acid for the first time. At least for me. I needed the quiet the mountains afforded me. I needed my friends nearby. To pull that which had been hiding inside me, outside in. Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out—that’s exactly what I did. Thank you, Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Hoffman. Thank you for the bicycle ride, and to the stars inside.