Those who say life is short have never attended a peyote ceremony.
This thought occurred to me just after midnight on July 23, 2006. Thirty-one of us formed a circle around a fire in an enormous tipi we had erected on top of a mountain near Lukachukai, Arizona. Thunder and lightning ripped through the sky, and heavy rain lapped under the edges of the tent, soaking our cushions and turning the dirt floor into a muddy paste. My companions sat cross-legged on the floor, motionless, gazing at the flames with sleepy eyes dilated by the mescaline from the sacred herb peyote. Three strapping young men with long black hair moved around the circle, pounding on a water drum and singing an urgent chant, which sounded to my untrained ears like, Doo doo doo doo DOO DOO doo doo doo doo DOO DOO. I understood nothing, since they sang in the Navajo language, Dine, but I felt the power of the chant like ropes wrapped tight around my body. I could not move, only breathe.
But I wanted to move. I was desperate to move. I had been sitting for three-and-a-half hours on a thin, wet cushion. The only relief came in shifting from cross-legged to a kneeling position, and then for but a moment. Unlike my happy and stationary co-participants, I was not in fact stoned. I was an "observer" — an observer of one of the only forms of drug-induced spirituality sanctioned by U.S. law. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), and mescaline had been outlawed by the "war on drugs" in 1971, ending most of the emerging research on the states these drugs seemed to uncork. Only peyote and ayahuasca used in Native American religious ceremonies are permitted, which is how I found myself sitting in a tipi, bobbing my head to Navajo chants with a silly grin, wet and sore and as close as I could legally come to observing mystical states created by Schedule I drugs.
Well, almost as close. I could have ingested enough peyote to reach an altered state myself. But I had opted out. Okay. I took a little. The law permitted Native Americans to ingest peyote for religious purposes only, and there appeared to be no loophole for NPR. More important, I thought the peyote might actually interfere with my work, since violent vomiting is common for the uninitiated. I then reminded myself that I had a stepdaughter, and tripping on sacred mushrooms might not be the best message to send a twelve-year-old. Whole truth be told, I also worried that the peyote would deliver on its promise and thrust me into an enlightened spiritual state. I fretted that God might be reduced to a chemical, making my own daily commitment to spiritual practices look a bit archaic. All that prayer and study, when I could just swallow a bit of mescaline — a little like using the Pony Express in the age of e-mail.
Once in the tipi, I found that skipping the altered state was, from a culinary point of view, less of a sacrifice than I had imagined. When the peyote man first came around with his coffee can full of dark brown sludge and spooned the peyote paste into my mouth — using the same teaspoon for everyone, I noticed — I nearly choked on the acrid taste and lima-bean–like texture. Just as I was recovering from the paste, another man thrust a silver bowl in front of me. I reached into what felt like a mass of writhing worms and plucked out a peyote button, the cactus herb itself. I held the soggy yellow button reverently in my hand until he had moved on, and then quietly dropped it on the dirt behind me. I looked up to find a third man kneeling before me with a jug of green liquid — peyote tea — which he pressed to my lips before I could brace myself.
The trinity of peyote would return every two hours or so, but after the second circuit I politely declined, leaving myself in a wired but not altered state. At just after midnight, the drumming ceased, catapulting us into silence, save for the hiss of the fire. Eventually the Navajo woman in the place of honor cleared her throat, and we all turned to gaze at her.
"I want to thank you for praying with me," Mary Ann began in a reedy voice. "I know that the peyote and your prayers will heal me. Now I want to tell you something I have never told anyone." She paused, looking around the circle. "I need to confess to the fire."
Courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA)