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Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines  (Chapter One)

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And Dennis was pleased to follow Terence’s directive to don and fasten his safari hat when they would set off on one of their afternoon expeditions to the ’dobes. Likewise, twelve years later when they were twenty and twenty-four, respectively, and reuniting in Colombia to seek the psychedelic potion oo-koo-hé in remotest Amazonia, Terence first led Dennis and the others to the door of a Bogotá tailor so they could all acquire matching white linen suits to wear on the jungle trek before them. 

For the captain of an expedition assigns his team members their uniform. Terence already did so when he was twelve, and also carried a compass when he and Dennis set off for the ’dobes, even if it wasn’t strictly necessary, since they knew the way there and back.

“If you set your life up as a quest,” the adult Terence McKenna said, “you will actually find something transcendental and unimaginable.” His quest’s trajectory started in a place of acutely prickling boredom, an almost intolerable discontent in Paonia that manifested as his cool irritability and urge to separate himself.  He had to move – to imagine and explore and travel.

The impelling question was where meaning would be found. A pleasurably tormenting hunch that this nameless and necessary quality was hiding elsewhere came to Terence, like an unreachable itch, in adolescence. His one certainty was that Paonia’s conclusions were bunk. The answer or thing he was after would only be found far from here, at the end of a journey through distant lands and the completion of an inescapably individual education. The discovered meaning couldn't be fast-forwarded to; the impulse to chase it was like a craving. Terence's seeking ultimately led him to philosophy and travel, drugs and the construction of all his mental sandcastles, but first it was an urge, an urge to go.

Every June, a fair named Happy Day Rides set up shop in Paonia Park, kitty corner from Terence’s family’s house; inside, splayed out across the living-room window seat, Terence would watch the tents and coasters and seat-spinning Octopus rise up out of the ground and would think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which the uneventful lives of two boys turn fantastic with the arrival in town, augured by eerie calliope tunes, of the Cooger and Dark Traveling Carnival. McKenna would one day give a talk in which his childhood memories blended with Bradbury atmospherics: “A circus coming to a small Midwestern town is an alien invasion. Children are told they can’t play out late at night—the carny people are in town! Every child worth his or her salt wants to run away with the circus. Of course, because the circus will take you to another world—a world completely different from the humdrum Kansas that you’re living in somewhere.”


In early 1971, Terence and Dennis met up in Colombia. Having last seen one another in 1969, in their humdrum-Kansas-of-origin, Paonia, they now were reconvening to venture into that emerald rainforest, the Amazon. They had come to South America in pursuit of something they called The Secret.

At UC Berkeley in 1965, Terence had smoked DMT – a molecule organically present in plants and brains that, synthesized in the laboratory, becomes a psychedelic compound – and for a few unforeseeable (and then irrecoverable) minutes, had gone to another place, if you could even call it a place: some dimension governed by an absolutely alternative set of laws, and populated by mischievous, intelligent, diminutive-incorporeal beings who carved self-animating objects out of thin air. And then Terence, gasping for breath, had slammed back into his body—he was lying on a couch in an apartment at Shattuck and Bancroft, and he had hardly been away.

In 1967, in Paonia, Dennis had smoked DMT in a pasture beside a creek, and had had the experience of riding this cryptic, existential roller-coaster, this vehicle in the guise of a drug, for himself.

And then in 1969, in Boulder, Dennis – a college freshman – one night was at the Colorado University library, poring over the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets, and came across an essay by the ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes, entitled “Virola as an Orally Administered Hallucinogen.” The piece described a psychoactive liquid that was prepared by members of the Witoto tribe, who lived near the village of La Chorrera in the Colombian Amazon. Their potion was called oo-koo-hé, and one of its components, the plant Virola, contained DMT. According to Schultes, this drink induced visions of “little people,” with whom one could communicate. Dennis wrote a letter to Terence (who was then teaching ESL in Tokyo), informing him that oo-koo-hé apparently unleashed a DMT trip lasting hours rather than minutes.

In 1971, the McKenna brothers met in a dingy hotel in Bogota. Since they had last been together, their mother had died. 

They were not huggy types and, when Dennis entered the room where Terence and the other members of their exploratory party were staying (drawn to the right door by the smell of marijuana smoke), they merely nodded hellos.

Both wore glasses, as they had since they’d been boys, and both were bearded—they’d passed in tandem from the tightly-sculpted haircuts of their upbringing to the unkempt, hirsute style of the day. Terence’s face was long, Dennis’s round. In a photo of the two as children, they both have on an expression that is quizzical if not cutting; as twenty-something men, their intense eyes looked out on the world and saw a puzzle—a challenge to their intellectual ingenuity and powers of imagination—a mystical riddle that they were equal to the task of solving.

What were life and death, consciousness, intelligence, the world?, they had been asking since their boyhoods when, impatient with the answers of institutional religion, they’d set out to tackle the big questions for themselves.

Life, Terence determined, was a creative act mirroring the individual’s deepest sense of purpose. Like Ahab, he sought to strike through the mask of appearances and discover a deeper actuality teeming beneath reality’s surface.

The DMT Space, the brothers had decided, was The Secret. An inside-out parallel dimension, or even a flashing-by revelation of the nature of post-death consciousness (as startlingly and stintingly conjured as a night landscape lit up by lightning), the Space was farther from the world’s familiar face than one could remember or imagine when not there. And yet Terence and Dennis felt deep down that somehow this trip was relevant to the question of humanity’s fate. They were young men jonesing for epiphanies. They would trek to remote, inaccessible La Chorrera not despite the demands of the journey but because of them. Their fervor for discovery fed on the presence of difficulty.

Dashing and quippy, handsome and rakish when he grinned and showed the gap between his front teeth—and at twenty-four, a veteran globetrotter—Terence had assembled a little band of fellow adventurers about him, all of them willing (or so they said) to plant a decisive foot past the farthest-marked bound of the known. There was his ex-girlfriend Sarah, independent-minded and academic; the woman he was seeing now, Kumé, who conversely was unhumorous and susceptible to suasion, though fluent in Spanish; and Michael, a Syracuse University-educated ethnobotanist and (in Terence’s words) “a gay meditator,” whom Terence had met several years before, while hitchhiking from Berkeley to San Francisco. Dennis – having said an ambiguous goodbye to a girlfriend he cared for deeply back in America – arrived in Colombia and at once found himself traveling in company with three people whom he had never met.

And that was before Kumé’s last ex, Sia – a wild-eyed fruitetarian cultist, whose diet had left his own teeth twisted and the bodies of the cats and monkeys he traveled with (and held to be the reincarnations of religious avatars) gnarled and mangy – popped up at the hotel where the McKenna party briefly was staying in the city of Florencia, insisting, for all the situation’s awkwardness, that he join the others on their quest for oo-koo-hé. (Sia had been tipped off as to the party’s whereabouts by Michael, who’d once heard the guy bragging about his skill at jungle-wilderness navigation, and had decided he’d be good to have around in case they all got disoriented while out in the Amazon – but who hadn’t consulted with Terence or anyone else before wiring Sia his invitation).

The group dubbed itself the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. To reach La Chorrera, they would trace a route previously traveled by Richard Evan Schultes – founder of the field of ethnobotany and student of the chemical structures of hallucinogens; by the Beat novelist William Burroughs, whose search for the legendary jungle intoxicant ayahuasca (which, like oo-koo-hé, contains DMT) had inspired his quasi-fictional The Yage Letters; and by the French explorer Eugene Robuchon, who in the early years of the twentieth century had vanished while seeking a course through the branching tributaries of the Rio Putumayo.

For it was a haunted land the McKennas were entering—the site, too, of atrocities committed against the Witoto people in the days of Robuchon, at which time England’s Peruvian Amazon Company and Peru’s crime syndicate, the House of Arana, had forced the natives to provide labor to a rubber drive, slaughtering those who would not cooperate and brutalizing many who did. Speaking of the region in 1993, Terence fell into a reverie: “We were actually moving through a landscape of ghosts and catastrophe,” he said, “and when you would walk those jungle trails in the afternoon with the sunlight slanting in, you would swear you could hear the footfalls of manacled feet, and low voices conversing—it was a very strange place.”


As a boy, Terence was always wandering off, making efforts to escape Paonia. He dug fossils up from arroyos. He went down to the jam-bottling factory at night, and watched colored moths go floating past the lighted windows and under the hanging lamps. He hunted for treasure in ghost towns; he left glinty soda-bottle caps in pack-rat nests, later to find them exchanged for tarnished but functioning stopwatches.

But there were no great destinations in the environs. And every night he would return to his and Dennis’s bedroom, as bored, once that day’s diversions were played out, as ever before.

In class, he’d summon the image of a butterfly or beetle to his inner eye (he could “hold the image of one insect continuously in mind for months, as almost a mystical epiphany”); after class, needing to save his skin from marauding bands of athletes, he’d jabber out observations about teachers and drop impressions until, having gotten his threateners distracted and giggly, he could skitter off to safety.


Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter One

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