The First Step I Took as a Man

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.

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About Michael Carpenter

Michael Carpenter is a father, a son, and a struggling contractor who strives to spend more time in nature, and with his kids. He is working through his challenges in facing relationships to become a better partner, and to achieve true intimacy.

Comments

  1. Roger Durham says:

    Michael – those piercng moments of insight are quite stunning, aren’t they. I would be interested to know more about what, specifically, changed for you that led you into manhood with that step onto the dock. What, beyond perspective, did you discover about yourself in that canoe?

    • Insightful question Roger. The most powerful and new feeling that I embodied was self-empowerment. I had lived my youth staying small and out of everyone’s way. On this day I realized that I, Michael, had a way, a path that only I could walk. This allowed me a sense of presence that alters my decisions and thereby defines my character and affects in the world. Secondly was the knowingness of being interconnected with It all, which continues to amaze and intrigue me.

      • Roger Durham says:

        That is awesome, Michael. I could feel it in the telling of your story – the firmly planted step you took out of the canoe and into the rest of your life. Really cool stuff.

      • I heard a quote a while back about looking at life from a point slightly to the left. I think it may have been Buddhist, but I really can’t be sure. Does this resonate with your experience? I see it as a third perspective where you can actually analyze your own life and stop living it for a second. I’ve experienced it a little, but that sounds simply awesome.

        • Seems to me that the more fluid our perspective then the more able we are to see things differently, to face challenges and aspirations from new angles. There’s that Einstein quote that you can’t solve a problem from the same mind that created it (or something along those lines). So yes, always stretch to see things wider, brighter and farther. We can always remain in a state of growth.

  2. Wow, Michael your well-rendered vignette took me back a spell.

    About ten years ago my teenaged son requested my permission to do something that I thought was ridiculous, dangerous and foolish. He prefaced the request with something about becoming a man. That stopped me cold. Now, I could have debated about almost any issue, told him how to execute almost any plan, or how to find out nearly anything he needed for school, but I could never, ever teach him how to be a man.

    I reluctantly agreed to his request that I still believe was ridiculous, dangerous and foolish. But maybe it would look that way to any mom. Or any woman. Maybe that is part of the process to become a man. Robert A. Johnson seens to think that a man’s individuation is a process fraught with more perils than a woman could possibly grasp on all levels.

    Yours certainly was a unique rite of passage—thank you for the very personal and delightful sharing of that uniquely male mysterious-to-me event.

  3. All that, just to escape the mesmorizations of the “Great American Corporate and Capitalist Propaganda Whore’s” and their “Sales pitch bull Shiite”, and to find a reality every Canadian boy knows instinctively to be true. The frozen North-land a harsh teacher – never lick metal, keep your mitts dry, never work up a sweat on a cold day, and wax your moccasins daily or lose them to rot, oil the snowshoe harnesses every time you use them, to keep them soft and supple, guard the snowshoe mesh, your life may depend on it, keep your ammo dry, compasses know best, matches used properly can summon help, save lives, need to be dry, blow out easy, check your snare-lines before the fox does, or no supper for you, and much much more. Poor city kids, a whole other set of lessons taught by the True Cold north and Free – most keep gullibility at bay and encourage very straight clear thinking, judgement. The Socialist notion of communal strength, bred right into our souls, we share without hesitation, stand by our brothers, never kill without eating the victim, all of him, wasting nothing, giving thanks to the Great Spirit, and the animal, for its sustenance, we walk tall, say little, be heard when needed, and defend our brothers, our families to the death, always. The following wisdom not valid now, on the cusp of economic collapse, but will be understood well even by the most mesmerized:
    An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life…. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
    They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”
    The Elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”
    To today’s mesmerized American mind, this has no meaning at all. That alone is cause enough for despair.

    • Thank you for the good, wise words Uncle. I always wanted to reconnect to the ancestors after some severed generations. We came from the Cherokee that walked the Trail. You sound like you are in the north lands. I hitch-hiked into northern British Columbia a couple summers after the above story happened, in the late 70′s. Went as far as Dease Lake, walked in there at night and laid my bag on the ground. The big Grizzly that came in never touched me, just circled and yelled, snapping big limbs. The bear was really big and circled me all night. I didn’t move, or breath. The bear taught me something about power, and didn’t take my peanut butter that was next to me. When morning came and I was alive, I went back to the beach for awhile.

  4. Michael, a great account of coming of age as a man; written so atmospherically too. It looks like those “pearly” mushrooms gifted you with the beginning of an awakening to your true self. Our western culture squanders and abuses these sacred gifts from the earth to get high, trashed, or ‘have a good time.’ There is little introspection and it’s a messy kind of life to live. While the ancestors knew to treat these gems with respect, as a sacred portal to glimpse the larger and deeper meanings of the Great Mystery and our role in it. I’m glad you found some answers out there, and I can only imagine how hard it was for you as a young boy to take those intimidating steps to becoming a “man” with no role models or community as you did. But, here you are defining it and co-creating it as you move forward through your life. Righteous indeed!

  5. What an awesome trip. That is an area I have always wanted to go to. The top of the world can really make you think about what is important.

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  1. [...] a ‘real man’ must be.” On a heady note, we particularly enjoyed the piece, “The First Step I Took as a Man” about one man’s mushroom trip while traveling by canoe around India and Nepal. [...]

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