The desert is for riding choppers and doing psychedelic drugs.
Words Todd Blubaugh Illustrations Ewa Moss
I knew the mushrooms had started working because the granite boulder next to me began to transform itself into a giant camel’s head. I looked across the fire pit at my housemate, his teeth clenched, lips furled, and eyebrows raised as he looked out into the expanding darkness of the Mojave Desert. I usually don’t worry about Snake, but I knew he hadn’t slept in two days. His reality was being displaced as the boundaries of our physical universe surrendered to the drugs. I had an enlightening conversation with the giant camel head before looking back at Snake. He had disappeared.
Snake texted me yesterday afternoon: “Meet me at the Denny’s off HWY 14 at 10 am.” His curt message seemed impulsive, considering he would be working most of the night and intended to party through the remainder of it. In the morning I poked my head into Snake’s room; his bed was tidy and unused. I grabbed a book just in case he flaked — this is L.A. after all — and packed up my bike, somehow ahead of schedule. Isn’t it amazing how easy you can hit the road when you ride out alone?
When I arrived at the teeming restaurant, I watched an enormous crowd come together, united by a common interest in bacon and eggs. Observing one of the most multicultural groups I’d seen under one roof — different races and religions, economic and educational backgrounds sitting shoulder-to-shoulder — I decided there might yet be hope for our country if Congress simply agreed to meet at Denny’s. I skipped breakfast and found a small parking spot behind the restaurant where I sat under a sliver of shade, read some pages from Fool’s Progress, and anxiously waited for Snake to arrive. Eventually, he did, with seven friends in tow: Anna, Andre, Austin, Chatty, Sherm, and Kate and Shalon, who drove their El Camino. Altogether, we set off on a trip to Ransburg, a tiny desert village far beyond the trappings of our everyday lives.
I could see it on my friends’ faces as they rode along: that deepness of thought. It’s something different to each of us, but the feeling is the same: a physical and emotional achievement that makes the muscles in your stomach, shoulders, and neck flex in excitement. It sends your eyes darting in every direction, operating on impulse, executing thousands of decisions so embedded in instinct that our cognitive mind has no real control over them, much like a beating heart. On a long ride, I focus intently on words I will likely never write, or reflect on the friends and family I have lost and imagine myself traveling to see them again. Apparently, our platoon leader, Chatty, was in deeper than any of us and missed our turn for Ransburg by 12 miles.
It is refreshing to find somewhere untouched by advertising. Such places do exist, but like Ransburg, you have to seek them out — rumored townlets far enough from multi-lane freeways that they still operate as they did when they first appeared. But someday they will all be gone. When the rich migrate here from the city, as they do, with their margin of wealth, all authenticity will be lost.
We easily found the joint we were looking for, which was literally called “The Joint.” We lined the bikes up out front along the red wooden fence that partitions this drinking zone from the rest of Main Street… which is about two buildings long. The inside is a capsule of this country at its finest: one large open room with dark leather booths and chairs around Formica-top tables that bore witness to the days of the ashtray.
The back of The Joint has two well-used pool tables in the middle of the floor, flanked by a pair of standing wall pianos. I sat down with a Coors and studied the bar and its patrons. A pair of stout good ol’ boys sat next to each other on the center stools. They looked perfectly in their element, drinking draft beer and talking with the bartender. The far seats were occupied by two seemingly out-of-place characters, a man and a woman in their later years, both quiet but curious about our bikes. They had my attention, and I observed the man make an unprovoked outburst about riding motorcycles. He appeared to be speaking to the ceiling, but some of what he said made sense to me — especially about riding behind bikes that spit oil.
The good ol’ boys heard him and snickered to themselves. Observing the episode reminded me of high school, before I learned to conceal my opinions to avoid being humiliated. I admired the old man as he walked outside, probably to be even more alone than he already felt.
An old woman at the very end of the bar sat reading a paperback. I too enjoy reading at bars; somehow the atmosphere helps me focus my fragile attention. I really wanted to know what she was reading, but she concealed the cover. She read fast and with every turn of the page, she caressed the top corner of the paper with her thumb, fanning the pages gently like a flip book. It was almost sensual, and I could tell she was taking great pleasure from the story.
The wall behind the bar was a mosaic of dollar bills layered over a large mirror. A photograph of an elderly woman sat on the antique cash register in the middle of the counter. The bartender, Neil — who said to call him Junior — told me the woman in the photo was his great grandma. She opened The Joint in 1955, and now Junior was the caretaker. He had a warm smile, fair skin, and a good sense of humor; a fine diplomat and specialist for an institution like this one. He told me about the town of Ransburg, population 69, and its history of mining. I liked Junior. He bought me a beer and showed me a huge chunk of tungsten that was unearthed in the area. Then we went outside to kick tires, which turned into tequila shots as Snake pegged wheelies up and down Main Street.
Junior told us of a good campsite 30 minutes away. We loaded up, shook hands with our new friend, and left feeling like we had found what we were looking for. We made camp beneath the highest pile of boulders we could see from the road. At the top of the pile was a granite crow’s nest, and from it you could see parts of our world we did not know were there. Austin told us the world was actually a flat petri dish and we were an experiment… entertainment, like an ant farm, to creatures more highly evolved. As the sun set, I thought, so be it — even if it’s true, this is a pretty good dish.
The wind was relentless that night and we built a fire in the boulders where the gusts couldn’t reach us. Derrick White rolled in after dark on his Panhead, and we celebrated his arrival by breaking out a small a bag of psychedelic mushrooms. Now, I realize indulging in this behavior will, without a doubt, incriminate us in the eyes of those who have demonized the use of psychedelics. I once disapproved, too. But I’m glad I allowed myself to participate, and I would now recommend the experience to anyone as long as they feel safe and comfortable with their environment. We watched the Mojave transform as we shared the bag of caps and stems. Rocks came to life, sounds became colors, and the horizon unfolded, draping a blanket of stars over us.
I don’t know how long I sat beside the fire before noticing Snake’s absence, because the boundaries of time dissolve as psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms, binds to the brain’s receptor for serotonin. The brain then stimulates long-range connections that normally can’t be accessed.
I became curious and felt compelled to find Snake. I wandered into the night and finally stumbled upon him and Anna lying under their bikes, staring at the lit end of a cigarette. Snake said he found a universe inside of it. I looked into the glowing ash and saw it too — a tiny web of patterns multiplied in the glow of burning tobacco. When Derek came to join us, I looked up at him and discovered we were a great distance from the campsite. I couldn’t be sure if the distance was real or imagined until Austin manifested like some sort of mystical shaman and asked why we were so far from camp; he wore a cape (or something), which had speakers in it that were playing music, and he had no real distinguishing facial features until he smiled, revealing two rows of glowing white teeth.
We laughed and howled at the moonless sky until a terrifying stream of light shot through the night and bounced across the barren landscape. As the light grew brighter and drew closer, we huddled together, frightened by its intrusion. We retreated deeper into the desert and ducked behind a huge rock. Derrick’s stomach began to growl, and the deafening sound — like a cooing pigeon being eaten by a grizzly bear — was sure to give away our position. I bit down on my finger to suppress the laughter welling up inside me when suddenly Snake sprang to his feet and surrendered to the light, which was coming from Chatty’s high-power flashlight; he’d set out to find us and make sure we were okay. We burst out laughing as I explained to Chatty that we were simply evading the scariest light any of us had ever seen. He led us back to the fire, and one by one we slowly retired for a six-hour sleep.
In the morning, as we made eggs and tortillas in the skillet, I looked for the camel in the rocks next to the fire. Though I could longer see it, I felt satisfied knowing it was in there, somewhere.
This article was originally featured in Issue 030 of Iron & Air Magazine.