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

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They dropped by the next day. The scientist wouldn’t hook them up with any drugs, but he told them which strain of Morning Glory seed contained a chemical analogue to LSD.

That Saturday, Terence and Rick took a train to San Francisco. In Golden Gate Park, on an empty stomach, they choked down pills filled with twice the amount of ground-up “Heavenly Blue” seed material as they had been advised to use. After two hours had passed and they didn’t feel altered, they assumed they’d been had and headed for a delicatessen.

Midway through their meal, the pastrami on their sandwiches started to glisten and glow, and the bubbles in their glasses of Coke took on the aspect of arising and perishing galaxies.

Market Street blazed with sensory stimulation: beautiful teenage girls with shopping bags, swooping birds, crying cabs, screeching streetcars. The boys ducked into a theater screening Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, quickly concluded the movie was pseudo-profound, and took to the streets again, babbling their way to North Beach, with everyone they saw blearing off to trace trajectories that ultimately connected up with every other point by tangent. Exultant, they got to City Lights Bookstore, the hangout of literary scenesters that was run by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the store’s basement, they found a live still life of green apples set in a brown bowl on a blue tablecloth and, in a sudden mutual transgression, started swallowing them practically whole. Books buyers stared as they bounded back upstairs, Terence chanting out, “I have seen the best apples of my generation eaten by madmen!!!!!!!!” [Footnote 1].

Rick would also be present for Terence’s first experiences with marijuana and DMT. First came weed.

During the Christmas vacation of ’64, the boys separately traveled to the Berkeley campus to interview for admission to the Experimental College. (Rick would get in, too). Terence was finishing high school in Southern California. Rick arrived, from Mountain View, with grass. To celebrate their reunion, they lit up.

Colors shimmered with new life and objects’ edges became extra-defined. Thoughts multiplied associations; whole mental circuits materialized at once. Terence rushed to say the ideas before they got away from him and in his own ears his voice had an unfamiliar softness—marijuana sanded down the roughest aspects of his personality as promptly as it bewitched his imagination. Soon, he learned to take pleasure in rolling generous joints with his long thin fingers. Releasing him from constant self-concern, into a more spacious realm of freewheeling speculation, cannabis made him less nervous and better socialized (though much of his heavy pot ingestion, over the remainder of his life, was practiced in solitude).

In college, he had a period of infatuation with LSD. In particular, he liked to smoke a lot of hashish as an acid trip was cranking way up, which became his technique for pushing the trip off an introspective, know-thyself course, and onto a weirder, more otherworldly track, a no-brakes torrent of writhing-insectile visions transforming themselves behind his eyelids.

That was nothing compared with DMT. 

In the fall of ’65, Rick came by Terence’s loft apartment, holding a tin canister that contained a half-liter of DMT, which he had lifted from the Stanford Research Institute. Terence had not heard of this psychedelic.


Well, did he want to try it?


How long was the trip?


Oh – five, ten minutes.


Terence scoffed: easy! So his friend spooned a bit of powder out of the canister and into a glass pipe. He handed the pipe to Terence, who casually hit it, managed a few huffs—and went somewhere.

First his head and body were swept by numbness, an uncanny and familiar sensation that whispered at him to let go – let go; then the pipe protruding from his lips, and the room behind it, leapt forward into hyper-clarity and objects emerged into cubistically sharp delineation before growing fragmented and disjoining, to drift apart like stained-glass shards descending measuredly. As his head fell back onto the sofa cushion, his eyes closed, and he moaned involuntarily as there appeared, floating forward magisterially, the red, revolving chrysanthemum.

The sci-fi buff heard a roar of ripping cellophane, and was vaulted through a spinning wormhole, into a great, domed, and apparently subterranean space, where he was surrounded by alien beings leaping into and through him, and speaking in a language that somehow came out seen—a language of gravity-defying, self-elaborating, punning objects.

Minutes later, Terence slammed back into his couch-bound body, gaping and sputtering and unmoored from any belief or orientation he had held before. He looked around, trying to reconcile the fact that he was here, in a loft at Shattuck and Bancroft, with the fact that he’d just been there—in that Space. It was as though DMT catalyzed a latent cerebral capacity to remake the form of the external world - as though the known appearance of reality follows upon a personal decision we cannot catch ourselves making.

Terence was haunted by the thought that biological consciousness was an anomalous phenomenon in a universe insensately, indifferently proceeding under the dictates of Newtonian physics. He feared that reality was material and mechanistic, that subjective awareness had no part in the great scope of things, and that any notion of meaning in one's life was a self-deluding consolation. Morning Glories and mescaline and LSD had never broken his philosophical skepticism: reality became majestic under their influence - one’s skin seemed permeable, indistinct from air and sunshine - but they were basically tools for probing the parameters of the familiar.


DMT was an ontological bomb. Was it a piece of practical instruction in reality construction? A transportation technology for visiting an alien embassy? A providentially given glimpse of post-death consciousness? A parallel dimension? 

Or was it simply some great, reverberant palace whose parquet floors, mosaic-adorned dome overhead, and mercurial, magic-practicing inhabitants, all could be summoned in the mind’s eye in an instant - and every detail rendered immaculately, the bones of the structure accounted for as thoroughly as that reflected gleam of light quivering over there, on the floor; a dream-world leaping responsively forth at the application of a certain gentle touch?

And if that was it – the experience was hallucinated – then what did that say about our quotidian reality, which is present to us more often, but is also a vivid representation within the brain of a world that one must trust is not merely virtual?

Terence was not used to crediting unverifiable assertions; he identified as a rationalist, a questioner and confirmer. But this was a magic trick that left no clue as to how it was done. He had encountered The Secret.



1: Specific factual details from this passage were first recounted in Patrick Watson’s memoir essay “Morning Glory.” Knowledge of these details is owed to the said essay. [Update: Nov. 17, 2023]. [Return].

Footnote 1
Final Paragaph Morning Glory

Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter Two

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