A batch of psychedelic mushrooms and a lazy canoe ride helped Michael Carpenter realize he was a man.
We were poised at the door, waiting to scramble in the final moments of high school’s junior year. I was a week away from traveling around the world, alone.
In hindsight, I am glad that there were laws in 1977 that made drugs and alcohol (at least) more difficult for me to get when I was a kid. Otherwise I would have spent every dime I made to promote my state of being perpetually numb. I was 16 years old and on my own, sleeping on a shelf above a washer and dryer in a friend’s garage at the beach. I had saved four grand, got my visas and split.
A few months later, I was slightly lost in the desert of northern India, making my way towards the jagged silhouette of the Himalayas that shattered the northern horizon. I would target the shade of a scraggly tree a hundred yards ahead and marched until I got there. Then I’d search for the next target tree. That’s how I crossed the desert in the middle of the hot season, without a hat, water, food, map or much of anything useful. I was totally unprepared for everything I was experiencing.
I saw a patch of green ahead that wasn’t a mirage and pushed the stretch between shady stops, hoping that I found a town and water. Instead, I came upon a group of igloo-like, thatched huts. It was very primitive, not resembling my version of the 20th Century. In the center of the village was the pit, a muddy, reeking bog with a scant depth of muddy liquid. Next to me was a swiveling pole with a rope and bucket.
An old, wrapped-up woman, the only human I’ve yet seen, was squatting nearby and stared at me with wide eyes, as I swung the pole out and dropped the bucket into the muck, extracting a quart or so. I pulled the bucket close and dipped out a cup but as I drew it near me the aroma of months-old, flower-vase water curled my nose. Putrid as it was, I feared that I would die without water, so I put it to my mouth.
The auto-responsive convulsion was too fast to consider. As the sip touched my tongue, I tossed the cup’s contents as far from me as possible and released a squirmy sound of being totally grossed-out. Just then, the old woman jumped up, screaming in an unknown dialect. Other villagers came out of their huts, looking at me as if I’d just doomed them all. Did I offend their water god? Will they perish for my sin? There was a dangerous looking, zombie-like mob forming. I just grabbed my pack and ran, fast and far, being chased by a new and advanced degree of dysentery that overtook me within a couple of hours.
Travel became easier and cooler as I rose above the dry flats and into the foothills. I held my pack overhead while crossing a muddy river near a herd of elephants lolling in the water, spraying mist in the air. It wasn’t clear if they were tame, so I kept my distance, lingering in the cool flow before continuing north on the ever-widening path.
I came to Limbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. This was a small, sparse, mud-brick temple in the low foothills of Nepal. I would have expected a shrine more grandiose and ornate for such an honored figure. I pondered the decadent and gilded chapels of Christianity and the vast wealth of the Catholic church. How humble and natural the spiritual path is here in the East.
Pokhara was a small, mountain village at the edge of Phewa Tal, a lake with nearby grazing fields for cows and buffalo. Being a California beach rat, when some young Napali boys asked if I wanted magic mushrooms one morning, they had my full attention. The boys unwrapped a cloth bundle full of freshly-picked, pearl-colored mushrooms with purple streaks. They told me to wash them in the lake and eat. They had a dugout canoe, carved from a single tree, which they let me use for a couple more rupees. So I ate nine of these little gems and began to paddle the old log boat into the deep waters.
The view from the lake was magnificent! Above were the famous peaks of Annapurna and K2, with their glistening glaciers shining against the deep blue backdrop. I felt the rush of the moment and had pretty much forgotten about nibbling the mushrooms earlier. Then I noticed the ants…
The bow of the canoe had a deep knothole in the log and a dozen ants were crawling out from the knot, looking around and poking back in. Over and over they came in and out from the knot, looking for clues. Why these bewildered ants were living in a boat on the lake just struck me in the most delightful way. I saw myself in their plight and began laughing like I’ve never laughed before. I resonated with these ants, floating through my own life, detached and alone. I was looking for the same clues. The absurdity of it all was so funny! When another canoe came by with villagers paddling across the lake I was so incapacitated with laughter that I slid down into my canoe to hide from them, shrieking.
I don’t recall much of the mid day, except drinking from a spring on the far side of the lake. I drank what seemed like five gallons of water, good water that I surely needed from the dehydration of my desert ordeal, as well as the severe, 10-second-warning dysentery that I now suffered.
When I began to paddle back onto the lake, a very profound and stilling awareness overtook me. I pulled up my paddle and just sat, floating. Behind me was the past, more to run away from than I’d want to remember. I pondered the date as being early September, the best surfing days of the year back home, and my friends were busy ditching their senior classes to hit the beach, crashing parties, and trying to make it with girls. That was the ideal life back home. And I was here, on the other side of the world, floating with ants in the Himalayas.
The revered insight from the mushrooms allowed me to observe life from a greater perspective than all that I previously knew. My life was presented to me for the first time, with deep realizations, options, and potentials that I’d never dreamed of. I sat still in that boat, a half mile off shore and just drifted away, watching my life unfurl into the future.
The chaos and confusion of my childhood became clear to me and made perfect sense. The choices I made in facing the challenges of my past had led me towards the freedom that now lay before me, like a gift. I left my sandy surf town as a confused kid with questions that my worldview could not answer. My lifestyle was without ritual and could not show me how to step into the world as a man, with meaning and belonging to a community. Experiencing this natural gift of wisdom helped me to understand.
The canoe continued to drift while I sat in stunning observance of seeing my life stretch open. There were mountains before me that I wanted to take long treks into and a Mahayana course at the Kopan monastery to attend. There were many tropical beaches, mystical temples, and exotic lands awaiting. Many possible paths passed through my mind to chose from, like the menu of a cosmic restaurant.
The boat seemed guided by my thoughts, it drifted directly to the exact docking spot from where I began, at a little wooden pier. The boys sat there, waiting and watching as I slowly drifted toward them. I’m sure they were impatient but… I was having a moment, one of great meaning. My selected choices became confirmed intentions as the boat glided to a stop, self-parking against the wooden posts of the pier. I simply stood from my composed seat and took a strong step off the boat. It was magic. It was the first step that I ever took as a man.