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The Trip
Bridget Potter

Bob wanted me to do acid.  Dropping acid may seem like an extravagant request from husband to wife, but this was the 1960s and the boundaries were different. We had vowed to each other that our marriage would not mean that we were dead. We would be experimental. Openness would rule. Honesty would prevail. I was confused by my struggle with his desire for sexual openness, and he suggested that we would both benefit from an expansion of my consciousness. I could have kept putting him off, but here is the thing about the 1960s: the adventures were real, and kept sweeping me in.  

LSD hadn’t yet become the recreational drug that it is today, and I was intimidated by the mystical experiences described to me by proselytizers of the psychedelic. They talked of their trips as life-changing, ecstatic, religious, an awakening which gave life deeper meaning. These descriptions involved changes in perception of time and color and distance, hallucinations, alterations of self.  

There were real dangers. Bob had become a pseudo-expert at talking people down from bad trips. Almost weekly, usually in the early hours of Saturday morning, he would get a call during his all-night New York City radio show from someone terrified and close to incoherent, or from someone just plain terrified, who was trying to help someone else who was having a psychotic episode after taking some sort of hallucinogenic drug. He would soothingly advise gentle sounds, soft light, a glass of orange juice with a pound of sugar, an appropriate wait, and only then, and only if absolutely necessary, a visit to an emergency room. But not just any emergency room. Some hospitals would treat these episodes with a straightjacket and a call to the cops. Others handled things more gently. Bob Fass knew which were which. 

Bad trips worried me. And also the flashbacks. Though deeply connected to the counterculture, I was a working girl, ambitions growing, and I placed high value on my lucidity.  Monday through Friday, during office hours, anyway.  I didn’t need sudden flashbacks in the office. But I wanted to try everything, and I loved Bob Fass. So, I would trip, I finally declared, if I could be guided by Timothy Leary, PhD., the Master.

Leary and his collaborator, then known as Richard Alpert, later as Ram Dass, had conducted the Harvard Psilocybin Project experiments in the early 1960’s using Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD or LSD-25, manufactured by Sandoz. He was fired by Harvard in May of 1963 and he and a group of followers ran to Millbrook, New York to hang out at the Hitchcock estate, expanding their minds under his supervision, despite constant interference by the local District Attorney, G. Gordon Liddy. Eventually, the FBI shut them down.

And it was Leary who, at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, urged a crowd of thirty thousand acolytes of my generation to Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.  Turning on and tuning in were fun, but even if I couldn’t commit to in dropping out, I’d trip with Tim Leary.  So Bob swung into action.  Leary was in San Francisco.

 I was going to be spending a couple of weeks on location in Los Angeles for my job, secretary to the producer of a television talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. Bob suggested that when my work in L.A. was done, he would fly out and we could take a sweet vacation.  We would drive the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco, visit the Hearst Castle on the way and end up with Leary. My mind, Bob believed, (and I had to admit more and more), could really use some expanding. It might be great for me. I liked the idea of joining the psychedelic cognoscenti. Who knew what might be next.

As always with Leary, there were rumors. We heard that he was in a bit of a jam, working with lawyers on the appeal of a thirty-year jail sentence for crossing the border from Mexico to the United States with marijuana in his possession two years earlier.  It was said that he had taken the fall for his underage daughter’s marijuana possession as they crossed the border together. 

I’m not sure how Arthur Steuer entered the picture but he was going to come with us. Art was many things to many people. At that time he claimed to be the manager of Dick Gregory, the comedian, social satirist and activist and, for all I know, he was. Steuer lived in a fantastically renovated house on Spring Street, at that time a shabby neighborhood off the beaten real estate track. Surrounded by rundown and dusty tenements, his house had a scarlet door with a polished brass knocker and gleaming windows. The place was the scene of long nights of wine, food, music, drugs and other adventures, some of which took place in the swimming pool. Yes, a swimming pool in a steamy enclosed glass solarium on the roof. There were leaks. The house reeked of a mixture of marijuana, money and chlorine. 

Arthur was a businessman and he took charge of organizing the trip. They would join me in L.A. when my work was done.  He would bring his girlfriend. We pilgrims would be four. The driving part of the vacation was going to be fun, but I was ambivalent about our destination. Silently.

We were, you’ve probably guessed by now, recreational drug users, and this was definitely going to be recreation. So along with music and a few clothes, we packed some recreational drugs. Bob, the radio guy, brought the music and Art, the rich and somewhat mysterious entrepreneur, rented the car, made the reservations for our stops along the way, and provided the drugs. The women, as was customary, went along for the ride.

“Somebody Finked to the Fuzz (And We All Got Busted)” is the title of a ballad written and recorded by the brilliant but obscure folksinger/ songwriter Fred Engelberg. It is a satirical song, its edge provided by our permanent state of anxiety about either getting stopped by cops if we were outdoors or raided if we were home. At home when the doorbell rang, either Bob or I would rush to the bathroom with the stash and remain poised to flush until the coast was clear. I came up with a useful but hardly original household hint; keep the stash hidden somewhere in the bathroom. We did. No more scrambling. It hadn’t happened to us yet, but friends were busted all the time and the sentences were fierce. Especially for those who were considered culturally or politically provocative. And on this trip, our little group of pilgrims was both. So on this drive, we would have to manage the paranoia of the era and hope not to attract so much attention that we, and our drugs, would be stopped.

Here’s what we looked like: Arthur Steuer was a hunchback. Tiny, gnarled and bent, he was also extraordinarily elegant, always sporting a white three-piece suit and a beautiful floral silk tie. This being sunny California, he also wore a wide brimmed white panama hat with a black satin hatband. His current girlfriend was a Vietnamese nightclub singer who spoke no recognizable English.  She was completely beautiful from tall top to tiny toe. Her strong thick jet-black hair hung sleek and long below her waist. She dressed in an assortment of silk Ao Dai, the Vietnamese national dress, in startlingly bright colors. Like Arthur’s money, we weren’t sure where she came from. We didn’t ask about either. 

Then there was my Bob Fass, all massive six foot two inches of him. His blond ponytail was still full and long and in some sort of self-conscious tribute to the working man, he almost always wore blue-and-white-striped Oshkosh coveralls over a denim work-shirt, complemented by a string of beads or two.  Sometimes they were beads I had strung for him, but more often they came from listeners, young girls who were staying up far too late at night for their own good to be part of his stoned late-night cabal. And then there was me. Ah, me.  

Inside my head I was part Mary Travers (of Peter Paul and Mary), and part the Julie Christie of Billy Liar. Outside my head I was in a constant struggle to get my hair to lie lank and straight. Experimenting within the confines of my miniscule budget to develop my own wardrobe style, I was aiming, I think, for something that I simply couldn’t afford and hadn’t yet been identified: Rich Hippie. I was neither. On this trip my favorite costume was a tiny bright-lime-green, five-panel flared skirt that barely covered my pubic area. It was made from some sort of synthetic knitted material with a slightly slimy-looking sheen. It might have actually glowed in the dark. I had bought it with a matching shirt-jacket with long pointy lapels that was almost as long as the skirt. Under the jacket, I wore a low silky powder-blue tank top. No bra, natch. “Blue and green should never be seen” dictated the dress code of the 1950s, which I defied as often as possible. That year, I was wearing row upon row, sometimes twenty or more, of beads that I strung compulsively on the thinnest of nylon threads with a curved needle.  Different lengths, different color combinations, teeny-weeny beads that I would buy by the ounce from a store called Teepee Town, a Native-American-themed tourist store on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  That’s also where I got my rust-brown, suede, over-the-knee scrunchy moccasin boots, loose and lightweight, good for all seasons.

There we were then, a truly weird-looking quartet. As if that wasn’t enough to make us what the insurance lawyers might call an attractive nuisance, by 1967, Bob Fass was also somewhat of a provocative public figure, at least on the East Coast. The phone in our place emitted telltale clicking when we picked up to talk. We would playfully address the anonymous government official we were certain was listening. It might have been the paranoia of the time, but as the saying went, “Even paranoids have enemies.” At that time the police and other forces of the establishment were getting more and more pissed off at anyone who looked like they represented the counterculture. We were undaunted, but as targets for harassment by the law, we were learning to be careful.

So, off we set from Los Angeles. Targets: A hunchback, a Vietnamese beauty, a big, blond, pony tailed hippie and, well, me. 

We had a nice, clean rented car from Avis (“We’re only Number 2; we try harder”) with that new-car smell and damp cardboard on the floor, arranged and paid for by Arthur Steuer.  I remember that the car had an eight-track cassette player which Steuer had proudly succeeded in demanding. Bob traveled with a state of the art reel-to-reel tape recorder, a Nagra, lumbering by today’s standards, but beautiful portable technology, a Rolls Royce. Whether we listened to playback tapes of his show on the Nagra or eight-track tapes from the dashboard of the car, I don’t remember.  But we had rings on our fingers, bells on our toes, and music wherever we went.

And we had drugs. Art had hash. A nice big walnut-sized lump of hash and a tiny pipe for us to palm and pass around in the car. The hash supplier was more than likely One-Legged-Terry, strapping and loud, an Israeli-American, muscular and strong like a professional football player. He had lost a leg in a horrendous agricultural accident on a kibbutz, the details of which he enjoyed recounting. He had turned this misfortune into profit, using his hollow artificial leg to smuggle all sorts of illicit cargo from the Middle East into New York. When he came to make a delivery, he would un-strap his leg with a flourish and fish around for the goods inside. I adored him. He once brought me a gift, an antique and richly embroidered floor length caftan.  He wouldn’t say where he got it.  Either it was hot or he had been across a border he wasn’t supposed to cross. As he presented it to me he apologized for its grubby condition and swore he had smuggled it in the usual place.

Should we be stopped on the road with this walnut of hash, we devised a plan that we hoped would protect us. We would pass the hash around every half hour. If we got stopped, whoever was holding it would swallow. Then we would drive, fast but safely under the speed limit, to the nearest gas station where the swallower would upchuck. We discussed the foil in which Arthur had wrapped the contraband. The foil would make it scratchy and painful to swallow. We thought of wrapping it in Saran Wrap, but that was off limits. Saran was made by Dow Chemical, Dow Chemical made Napalm, and Napalm was being dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam and killing and maiming civilians. That year, a series of devastating photographs of Napalm injuries had been published, resulting in huge demonstrations against Dow Chemical who recruited new employees on campuses all over America.  In October at the University of Wisconsin, the demonstration became violent. Tear gas was used. Both students and police were injured, fifty hospitalized, and the university was shut down in the first of what would become many violent campus protests.. . Dow Chemical was our mortal enemy. We boycotted.  So, we couldn’t wrap the hash in the hypothetically more swallowable Saran Wrap. If we were stopped, the driver would have to cause a distraction while the unfortunate possessor of the sticky lump unwrapped it from its foil shell and devoured it in the method of their choosing. My choice was to hold it bare in my hot hand and hope that as I gulped, I could lick my palm efficiently enough to clean off any residue.  

Maybe we would be lucky. Maybe we wouldn’t get stopped.

We were going to take it slow, making the trip to Leary last for three days and two nights. The first night Arthur had planned for us to stay at The Madonna Inn in San Louis Obispo. The following day we would visit the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, and then drive up to Big Sur where we were hoping to stay at the Esalen Institute, where Arthur, naturally, had a connection. The third day was a Friday and we would drive on up to San Francisco, to the realm of Leary. He would determine when and where we would complete our pilgrimage. I had to be back at work the following Monday so we would fly back overnight Sunday.  

On the advice of friends who had made the trip before, we drove the dull first two hundred miles, from L.A. to San Luis Obispo, on the highway, Rt. 101. As we handed the hash from person to person, I remember thinking that we were playing the game of hot potato from the dreaded birthday parties of my childhood. In that game, boys and girls stood fidgeting in a polite circle, all dressed up in party finery. A parent played thumpy nursery-rhyme piano. When the music stopped, the child holding the potato was expelled from the circle. The game was over when only one child was left. The winner. In our new version of the game the person holding the potato had to eat it.  There was no discussion about what might happen to the swallower and we made it to San Luis Obispo without having to find out.

I had always fantasized Hearst’s San Simeon, his dream castle, to be drug-inspired, like Coleridge’s Xanadu. Whether Hearst’s castle was inspired by an opiate, a hallucinogenic, or the triple-threat cocktail of power, money and ego, I longed to see it. We stopped on the way in a discreet spot to get a little high. Seemed an appropriate way to enhance our enjoyment of the stately pleasure dome. Sitting in the back seat heading north, it was my turn to hold the hash. I strained to remember the last stanzas of the poem “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! /and all who heard should see them there/and all should cry, Beware! Beware! /His flashing eyes, his floating hair…..” Red flashing lights approached us from the rear.  It was happening. We were being pulled over. I was holding.

“Shit. Who’s holding?” “Swallow it. Swallow it. Quick.” “Jesus. I won’t pull over till it’s gone.” “Hurry.” As the siren started to rev itself up I swallowed.

I gagged at first. But it wasn’t really that big. The walnut had been smoked down to about three-quarters of its original size. I gulped hard a few times and it was gone. I licked and sucked on my right palm. There would be no trace. I hadn’t thought about sniffing dogs, but these state troopers were tough enough without canine assistance. Big reflective shades, caps down over foreheads, low slung belts dangling cuffs, truncheons, guns. Big black boots. Hands on hips, close to their weapons. Lumbering walks, wide stances, hips and bellies thrust forward. Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.

Arthur was in the driver’s seat. They checked his license, the rental contract, the registration. They asked us all to get out of the car. They frisked Bob. They peered inside with flashlights. They opened the trunk. Luggage. As the four of us stood on the east side of the road waiting for them to arrest us for nothing, I saw us for what we were: a really really weird-looking group. Arthur answered the questions. He was charming, polite, direct, all business. Miss Ao Dai, he said, was a Japanese actress, a movie star in Japan, and he was her manager. She had been auditioning for producers in L.A. We were driving to San Francisco for her to audition for a film. He wanted her to see this beautiful part of the country. We were his friends, just along for the ride. 

At that moment Arthur Steuer seemed to me like the smartest man in the world. Vietnam? They might have thought she was a Commie. Night club singer? She might have been a hooker. But famous Japanese movie star? The California Highway Patrol wouldn’t want a scandal, now would they?

I was terrified. Not only could we be busted, but I would then be sick in jail, puke up the obvious hash and really be in trouble. Or, I would get busted, get really high from the hash. Being high and being in jail seemed like a very bad combination.

After what seemed like time measureless to man, they let us back into the car and waved us on. But as we drove north they followed us. We were silent, holding our collective breath, not at all convinced that our ordeal was over. Then, at last, brakes screeching, they pulled a fast U-turn on the road and doubled back, lights flashing, siren blaring.  Gone. After another prey. 

 I don’t remember who spoke first. It wasn’t Miss Ao Dai. She never said much. But we laughed and laughed and laughed, the laughter of dread relieved, the laughter of guilty children who had fooled the grown-ups, laughter that, for me, was close to hysteria, laughter tinged with the horror of the realization of what had almost just happened. It would take a while for me to stop shaking. 

First, I needed to throw up.

As planned, we stopped at the next town and found a gas station where I got the key on a big hunk of wood from the cashier and found the ladies room. It had been at least half-an-hour since I had gulped down the lump. I could feel something hard and heavy in the middle of my chest, right in between my bra-less breasts. I didn’t know if it was the hash or a lump of fear. I tried and tried, sticking my fingers down my throat again and again, gagging till it was sore, but nothing arrived.

 Maybe later I would actually get sick as my body tried to metabolize the stuff. If not, I would just have to get high and stay that way for a while. In a way, I told everyone, it would be ok to be high as a kite at San Simeon. I could channel Coleridge some more. 

In picture postcards, the two towers of the castle at San Simeon are photographed breaking through the fog. I didn’t break through mine. I didn’t throw up so I did get high. Higher and for longer than I had ever been, so high for so long that even now my memories of the next two days are all fuzzy and fantastic. Serene, thoughtful, mostly inside-the-head fuzz. I remember smiling so much that my cheeks hurt, a condition of dry-mouth that gave the dry word, thirst, and the wet word, quench, new and deeper meaning.  

I don’t know how much time we spent at the Castle but I was enchanted and wanted more. I begged Bob and Arthur to let us hide behind an arras until the place was closed to tourists and spend the night. It would be amazing. Nobody would ever know. The place was enormous. They dragged me out of there. I cried quietly and sulkily in the car and vowed to return some day. I will.

We had to get to Carmel and Esalen before the day was out. For Bob and Arthur, this was more exciting than Leary. The Esalen Institute had been founded a few years before on the site of natural hot springs in Big Sur. Its purpose was enlightenment of various kinds, philosophical, religious and psychological. The Institute held seminars led by intellectual leaders and supporters of the counter culture, Allan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Gregory Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, among others. There were rumors of naked shenanigans in the hot spring tubs, which was the big attraction for Bob and Arthur who, for some reason, hadn’t made plans in advance. I think Arthur assumed that conventional arrangements wouldn’t be necessary.

But we couldn’t get in. They didn’t take overnight reservations. It was an Institute. You had to sign up for a program of workshops and other self-actualization seminars. Another time. But we stopped at Ventana, and there was room at the inn, the fanciest and most beautiful place I had yet been to in my life.  

On the balcony at Ventana was the first free standing outdoor fireplace I had ever seen, burning red-hot charcoal deep inside a yellow metal space-ship of an object, emitting wobbly waves of warmth into the damp and salty night, pulsing with life. A fire. How many hours had I spent as a child staring into the open coal fire that had heated our house? How many elves and gremlins and fairies and forests and imps and princesses and ponies had I seen in those fires, as the heat turned my face red. “You’re too close to the fire, dear. You’ll spoil your skin.” My mother didn’t understand. I belonged too close to the fire.  

We left early the next morning, planning to arrive in Berkeley around noon. We got lost finding our way to Tim Leary’s borrowed house because we had a highway map of all of western California with no street details. We stopped and asked for directions a couple of times. Finally, after our first argument of the trip, we conceded to confusion and stopped at a pay phone to call the master himself. We assembled the change we needed and Bob made the call. Rosemary gave him directions. She didn’t know we were four, expecting just Bob and me, he reported, but it would be fine, she said.  

The house was perched high on a hill looking west over the Bay. It was beyond modern, almost futuristically simple, wood, glass, air, light, and in the lower main room of the house a beautiful oriental rug, reds and blues and everything in between. Rosemary was welcoming, beautiful, gentle, solicitous, quiet. Leary made his entrance, dressed in light white cotton, loose pants and an Indian cotton shirt, barefoot, thin, cropped, scrubbed, tight-skinned, calm, beatific, beaming. The Master indeed.   

It was early afternoon. We rested there for a while. I was still in the thrall of the hash for sure. Leary advised that we should wait until the next evening when he thought I would have come down, and he would be free to be with us. We left, found a hotel and wandered around a little.  I remember anxious anticipation.

I had been expecting some sort of soothing ritual. I wanted Leary to be the High Priest of my consciousness expansion. When the Bishop had placed his hands on my religiously obsessed 13-year-old shoulders at my confirmation ceremony, I had believed what I had been told. The Holy Ghost entered my body and changed everything. My piety had been short lived but an acid trip with Leary promised to be the real thing. That is how I had begun to imagine it in my hash-induced stupor, working hard on dropping my worry and preparing for my enlightenment as the time drew near.

We returned the next afternoon. Leary emerged from the back of the house and led us out to the deck that hung over the valley and the bay. Rosemary brought us little glasses on a tray. Just a swallow.  

He told us the acid was mild, that our trip would be very gentle. If we were worried about anything we should let him know. He would stay in the house, but we would be on our own unless we needed him.  Rosemary would bring us some things to eat that he thought we might especially enjoy. He left the deck. We raised our tiny glasses in a wordless toast and gulped the liquid. There was music. I like to think it was Ravi Shankar on the sitar, but that may just be because that music induces a meditative state in me to this day. I waited with the others.

After about a half hour, the deck emerged as a problem for me. It was as wide as the house and seemed held in place by magic. In my mind’s eye it was huge and open, in danger of becoming unmoored.  Wood planks were miraculously suspended reaching far out over a deadly abyss. It was a calm day, but I was light, a feather, a leaf, a speck in the universe, in danger of being blown away. There was a view in the distance of the bay, but I couldn’t keep my focus on the distance. Instead I was consumed by fear, by the ghastly spinning nausea of vertigo.   

I fought it. I hadn’t come all this way to wimp out, to get away from the fire. I remember backing myself slowly to the glass wall of the house.  Moving backwards, tentatively, one slow insecure step at a time, afraid to put my foot down hard in case the unseen plank behind me should give way. Back, back, back. It seemed like miles, hours. Finally I felt the cold hard glass. Leaned on it. Relied on it. For a moment. But now I feared that it too was untrustworthy, would slowly crack, then shatter, and that I would fall forward, and then down, down, down. Tears were dripping down my face but they weren’t mine, were they?

Rosemary came with a plate. She had made tempura, small fluffy crunchy hot pieces of something cradled in the lightest batter. “Come inside,” she said gently, and I took her empty hand. “Sit,” she said, and I sat cross-legged on the beautiful rug. The music came into focus. “Try this,” she suggested. I did. I stared at the carpet. It was alive. Beautiful.

Leary emerged from somewhere. “Good, Rosemary, good.” Was he a sorcerer? Was she his apprentice? Was I her practice student? Was I safe?

It would be good. I would make it good.

My hopes for LSD were the same as Aldous Huxley’s for mescaline when he wrote in 1954,  “I had expected to lie with my eyes shut, looking at visions of many-colored geometries, of animated architectures, rich with gems and fabulously lovely, of landscapes with heroic figures, of symbolic dramas trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation.” Like Huxley, “I had not reckoned, it was evident, with the idiosyncrasies of my mental make-up, the facts of my temperament, training and habits.” I didn’t want to close my eyes. I kept them open and stared at my still hands. 

I can’t describe what happened as a psychedelic experience. I have never looked at psychedelic art and said “Oh. Wow. Beautiful!” with a sense of recognition the way frequent travelers on acid seemed to. Josh White’s light shows were pretty, that’s all. I didn’t see wild visions, or leaves breathing, or into the inside of anybody’s body in the way that others had described to me. 

I sat motionless. Time tracked like a split second and forever. Intensity and calm merged. I touched the world inside my head. The touch electrified me. I breathed and was breathless. I saw myself from a distance, rising far above my body, leaving my anxious self behind. Part of me was flying but I was safe, sitting on the beautiful carpet. I could hear nothing. I could hear my heart beat loud, deep and hollow with a rhythm of its own. Or was that music? Rosemary left. Rosemary came back. She touched my brow. She smiled. Oh, her smile was so beautiful. I was paralyzed, but didn’t need to move. She left. She would come back, I knew. She brought a glass of orange juice. I drank it. “Good,” she said.  “You’re coming down.” It was day.

So that was it. I had hoped for real enlightenment, answers. Even though I didn’t know what the questions were. Huxley describes the opening of Doors of Perception under mescaline, and I had hoped for the same, I suppose. Similar sensations had swept me up, intensified visual impressions, a lessening of the will, a sense of an inner and outer world, distortions of time and space. But there the comparison stops. None of the profound insight that he describes. Not surprising. I’m no Huxley. I was just a young woman pushing myself for the courage to experience the adventures of my time. Back then, fifty plus years ago, the idea of taking acid had felt like a scary adventure. Like my life.

I smiled the Rosemary smile all the way from San Francisco to New York and I was back at work on Monday morning. Sometimes, if I try really hard, I can bring that calm connection back even now. Just for a fleeting moment. Then the world tends to intervene.

So, I did acid with Timothy Leary.

I don’t say this often, but when I do, I relish it. It’s a useful sentence for an occasion when I sit around with contemporaries who boast about all the drugs they ingested in the sixties and how wild they were and how great it was. If I blurt it out, I know conversation will turn to me. 

And when someone from my daughters’ generation asks winsomely, and they do, “What it was like back-in-the-day. The-sixties-and-all-that?  Were you at Woodstock?” No, I say. I missed Woodstock because of the weather. I was afraid I wouldn’t get back in time for work on the Cavett Show on Monday. But I had other adventures. 

I did acid with Tim Leary, I say. 

But then I also add, “It wasn’t quite what you think.”