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One morning in February 1971, six young Americans were departing El Encanto, a village in the Colombian Amazon, to trek four days overland to another sparsely populated village—La Chorrera. The group, comprised of four men and two women, had come this far in pursuit of something they called The Secret, but had met with frustration at El Encanto, The Haunted, when upon arriving they learned they would proceed no further until the teenage boys of the Witoto tribe, away on a protracted hunting expedition, returned to act as hired porters of the band’s jungle luggage. A coca-chewing Bogotan anthropologist - who, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, had come to see things as the natives did - broke the news, while glowering at these hippie interlopers. 

He and his guests were gathered in his hut with walls of woven fronds. The hut stood at the center of a village. The village was a clearing at the end of a red-clay trail. The trail reached one half-mile away, to an abrupt shore—a tiny white-sand beach lapped by the Rio Igara Paraná. The Americans had been transported to that secret beach in a speedboat steered by a sad-eyed Castillian missionary who lived in a downriver outpost named San Rafael, at which our wayfarers earlier had disembarked from a commercial vessel called the Fabiolita

In the end, they were confined in El Encanto for only a week. The Witoto hunters returned before many days had passed; two boys were chosen to bear the Americans’ provisions down the trail that ended at La Chorrera. And so on February eighteenth, the six travelers stood outside in a circle and passed around a joint as the sky turned from gray to peach to blue. An hour later, followed by the teenage Witotos, they began their long walk. The bearers carried food and necessities in baskets made of nutmeg vines, which they wore slung across their chests, like satchels. A bunch of crying cats and yowling monkeys, all so malnourished as to appear deformed, tailed the party. The air was so moist it nearly dripped. 

The Americans were student-intellectuals, not athletes, and being stoned (as they perpetually were) didn’t make their days of exertion any easier. But in their dress, at least, they were prepared for hiking in these climes: all wore matching white-linen pants and tunics.

The coordinated uniform was the doing of the expedition’s organizer and leader, Terence McKenna, who at twenty-four was the oldest and the best traveled of those present. Soon, a norm emerged: the Witoto boys would head up the pack, but next – hundreds of yards ahead of his team – would come Terence, tall and striding along the wide path that ran between walls of shimmering greenery. He walked with his butterfly net propped on alternating shoulders, as he had done two years before in Indonesia. Having traversed one rainforest already, he met the present circumstance with confidence. In Indonesia, besides, he had been by himself. Today he was not traveling solo, but he still was singular – apart.



Terence tended, from the first, to oppose himself to any stage he stood on. He was born in 1946 and raised, in the white-picket-fence fifties, in Paonia, Colorado—a dusty tract of crosshatched streets nestled in the Rocky Mountains; a town (as Terence saw it) of fifteen-hundred residents, forty-two churches, and zero choices; a place between places. Carved out of the seething surrounding forest, Paonia was insular and self-enclosed as a soap bubble. Sidewalks were lined with manicured trees, households filled with received opinions, and Terence as a boy stalked between his family’s bungalow, at Fourth and Orchard, and the few other town landmarks – itchy and dreaming of escape. In 1963, when he was sixteen, he would bust free and make it to California, but years earlier he already had the taste for departure.

So before he could leave in fact, he left in spirit: his first escape was in reading. His dad, Joseph, loved stories about starships and off-world civilizations, and magazines like Fate and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction were always strewn around the family home (left open, with front and back covers facing up, to some fantastic tale). Terence devoured them and then, before he turned ten, started discovering the giants of the sci-fi canon—Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, in whose novels he lost himself while splayed out on a window seat, one leg stretched before him and the other arced, his young brow furrowed, glasses having slid down his nose. As alien landscapes swam forward out of the words on the pages, Terence saw imagination’s sovereignty: the mundane everyday world would fade and be almost forgotten when a sci-fi story swallowed him up—meaning that virtual worlds could vanquish actual boredom, that a page-bound reality could supplant the other one by inducing in Terence a kind of altered state.

Some decades later, as a famously charismatic speaker on psychedelic drugs, the mind, and the quest to find patterns in life and nature, McKenna – burning-eyed and bespectacled, features flicking with mockery and wonder – spoke of travel as a psychedelic lifestyle, a means of constantly upending expectation and engaging the unknown. In travel and exploration, as in reading fiction, the self is a ferry that passes through and surveys successive worlds. The sojourner may be stirred by the sights ashore but, basically detached, continues upon his course. McKenna, in the lectures he gave as an adult, liked to cite the Rudyard Kipling story in which an animal’s credo goes, “I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”

In the children’s novels that Terence read before he knew any places other than Paonia—books by Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury—boys like him left their everyday lives behind, to meet and overcome daunting obstacles and fearsome opponents with the aid of only their courage and wit. (A Dorothy or an Alice succeeds by making and cooperating with new friends, but a Jim Hawkins or Jim Nightshade proves his mettle by going it alone). First, though, those characters have to be whisked away from their homes; fate must intercede.

Because nothing ever happens in the places they come from. The world of teeming events and disrupted rules, and of unknown actors, threatening and glamorous—these situations of color and excitement are happening elsewhere. So the aim, at first, is not to get to any particular somewhere, but simply to depart.

The lone figure traversing an alien landscape is the image at the heart of every adventure story, because it is the situation met with as soon as a protagonist steps across the threshold beyond which lies the unknown.

But Terence felt he was traversing an alien landscape even in grade school. “Culture is not your friend,” he would one day admonish his audiences. Terence did not play nice at school, where children go to learn manners and be absorbed into society. Rather, he was an agent of anarchy, whose graduations from and entrances into successive grades teachers learned to anticipate or dread. Delivering a book report at the front of a classroom, he’d reel off sentences so rapidly that when he blithely tossed in swear words, the adult in the room wouldn't notice—perhaps so spellbound by the anticipated progress of routine that the disruption just wouldn't register, or perhaps too distracted by Terence’s descriptions and associations, his edgy weight-bearing shifting between feet, his jabbing hand gestures and habit of punctuating his talk by accentuating syllables at unpredictably syncopated intervals.

His parents were faithful Catholics; he was the kind of kid who finds his way to atheism early and decides that the premise is worthier of close consideration the more outspoken and numerous are the pastors in town. He was a natural-born heretic, a cat who walked by himself, casting a curious, dispassionate, unconvinced eye upon the dramas and claims to truth of his given home, for which he felt no special loyalty or warmth. As an adult, he’d sometimes call himself “an extra-environmental,” “an alienated intellectual,” but really this was his lifelong station. From boyhood, he lived in his thoughts and dreams, in his spacious imagination.

Lying about in the bedroom he shared with his kid brother, he might be jarred from a reverie—a parallel dimension populated by disincarnate intelligences, a means for the body to be dissolved and then rematerialize far away—by his mother, Hazelle, calling him to set the table, a demand that Terence found grossly unjust and only carried out with grudging reluctance, plunking plates down heavily and intentionally miscounting silverware.

The compromises necessitated by society—accepting someone else’s conversation topic, or playing board games past the point when it was clear you wouldn’t win—were tiring to Terence, who would start to yawn a bored cat’s big yawns when anyone else was dictating an hour’s activity. (He was not an unassuming introvert – he was a confrontational one).

Churning inside, Terence would trek off to the ’dobes, a nearby arid site once covered by an inland sea. Rehearsing the role of naturalist-explorer, he would shovel up clods of dirt or drag a trowel through dust, to dislodge the ancient sharks’ teeth that were still littered all around. Sometimes he allowed his brother Dennis to accompany him, and the two would set out together for their afternoon’s adventure, a brief leave-taking of civilization, in matching safari hats.

Dennis, four years Terence’s junior, was more owlish and reserved than his brother and, if not himself a natural fit for Paonia, less indignant at the town for adhering to its self-image and staid values. Terence, callowly argumentative and one to jab a finger out rhetorically while lecturing an adult relative about the logical lapses of the Catholic cosmology, would always thrust himself to center stage; whereas Dennis was an observer by temperament, and not emotionally impelled to state and litigate all his differences of opinion with the world.

But he had any boy’s admiration for his older brother, and was one of the few people whom the young Terence deemed mostly tolerable company. They had moments of aggression and antagonism: Terence would torture-tickle Dennis or stick his pointy chin into his chest (the “Chin-ee Method”); Dennis would hit back by framing Terence for having been beating on him when he hadn’t been – crying and clutching his arm when a parent entered the room, and then shooting Terence a triumphant smirk when the castigating got started.

But underneath, the McKenna boys had a certain affinity that was quiet and intuitive and profound, and that allowed them (when they weren’t quarreling) to communicate in manners understated or coded.

They invented a shared mythology of Nobody People (No-body People) – ghosts who un-lived in an ever-restive state of inter-dimensional drift, flicking out of some chthonic elsewhere and into the semi-solid incarnations whose caresses made your skin go prickly when they brushed by you in the bedroom at dusk. They lay side by side on their stomachs on their floor, poring over photo-illustrated travelogue stories in old issues of National Geographic. In direct infraction of paternal decree, they built a sound-barrier-breaking liquid-fuel model rocket (basically a small bomb) and launched it down at the baseball diamond.

Table of Contents

Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter One

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