You can call me stupid, but there’s something hiding outside the frame of the picture-perfect scene in our American Dreams. Somewhere between white lines flashing over a dark highway stretching out to infinity, like Kerouac meandering in the rain, I was caught in a charade. With enough LSD to manufacture a hundred once-in-a-lifetime experiences, my friends Peter Pan, Cubby, Dago and I left Missouri for two months on the road crossing the American West, expecting the once-in-a-lifetime experience everyone talks about but misses out on. So before you call me stupid, just call me Nibs and know this story feels more like an acid trip than one down memory lane.
It was 2018 as I juggled a clusterfuck in one hand with the residual effects of a high-altitude acid trip in the other. All the while the land of orange sunshine toppled out of the sky and onto my shoulders, flattening my dreams under Kerouac’s footsteps and the shadow of Desolation Peak.
Cubby’s crammed into a pickle offshore two lakes and 10 miles down the trail of the only way out of the north cascades, leaving me to hike the last portion of a 55-mile trail alone with nothing left to believe but the word of Nibs, the lost boy inside my head.
We fucked up.
We tripped over the edge and crash-landed on the wrong side of the open road. But where exactly? I was trying to figure it out and with eight miles left sometimes I think I can still feel the acid, I just don’t feel the magic.
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Peter Pan and Cubby knew each other the longest, from a Catholic grade school leaving them more godless than religious. I knew Dago more from buying the weed he grew out of his old roommate’s closest. Cubby, Dago and I moved in together and started spitballing ideas for a trip. Dago mapped out the details from Missouri to Utah, Utah to California, up the coast to the border and back any way but the way we came. If the details were a lost cause, Peter Pan would still be shirking responsibility, never growing up and leading the charge forward. Not to mention with Cubby scoring a hundred tickets to the land of orange sunshine, the plan may have been drug-induced, but it seemed sound enough.
When we’d waited enough tables, striped enough parking lots and saved enough money to finally load Cubby’s truck and hit the road for I-70 west, we still believed we were about to do something great. Maybe it was the LSD, the stereo’s pot-scented rhythm or the fresh-cut summer jet stream making us believe the indescribable force under us could only be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The sun hadn’t risen yet as the hangover from the night before was shrugged off in Utah. Cubby, still too drunk to drive his truck, left it to Peter Pan. Peter wove through the canyons of Zion, headlights cutting through the last bit of night. As Dago and I passed a joint back and forth, Cubby was lulled to sleep by tires humming to the music on the stereo. I rested my head, imagining the truck as a firefly blinking off and on around curves, trying to elude a glass jar.
The truck stops, overlooking the Virgin River cutting through a meadow of sunburnt grass. We’d follow the river carving out the Narrows into Zion. The sun was already bright in an empty sky; we followed a trail sliding into the river. Cubby and I decided to slip acid onto our tongues before getting our feet wet. One by one, the boys stepped into the river, wading along short sandstone cliffs. The canyon began growing up around them, funneling them deeper into the narrows when the acid hit.
I stopped. The river’s currents rushed by, too busy sculpting red walls, dotted by green life in the cracks above, each bend a new hall from another portion of a never-ending dream. Spellbound and starstruck by the cosmic luck it took for a river to carve out another world within canyon walls, the Narrows swallowed the boys whole. Cubby ran his hand along the canyon walls, my oversized pupils snapped to Dago and Peter Pan splashing ahead, playing hide-and-seek in columns hollowed out by million-year-old eddies, stepping away from the current for a moment to themselves. I placed my hand against the canyon, my eyes sinking below the surface to my submerged toes, where the river meets the red wall. The shallow water pulled pebbles from their recess as the pebbles skipped and glided, tumbling against the canyon wall, leaving their mark on the world before being driven back beneath the millions that came before them and the millions that will follow. For a moment, the pebble escaped, its only contribution being the passing of time. That was the pinnacle of the trip. Not the climax. That came later.
I Stood Where Jack Kerouac Stood at the Top of Desolation Peak
From Zion to California, we chased that feeling, up the coast and kept going, following the plan as Dago recalled. In the North Cascades, the group divided. Peter Pan and Dago would float alongside the mountaintops. Cubby and I would trace Jack Kerouac’s footprints to Desolation Peak.
At the base of Desolation Peak, Cubby and I awoke, the moon resting in Lake Ross. We dropped acid around 3 a.m. before ascending the trail in silence. The moon drifting behind blueberry-shaded mountaintops, we climbed up a bluff and around a bend. Pausing breathless, we were blown away by a nuclear sunrise detonating across the mountains in orange explosions glittering through the morning dew and winking to us with a thousand morning suns dripping off a million pine needles, each one burning their treasure behind our watering eyes.
Well, I think the acid worked.
What answers did I want to find in my memories? An experience? Then what experience and whose? Would the memory feel like the acid? Would it ever lose its magic? Was it all the same? Bleaching our brains on LSD like lost boys gallivanting across a neverland culminated only in my mind with searching dead ends for answers.
Two miles left for Peter Pan and Dago. What am I looking for? I know the answer, I just don't want to admit it.
At the top of Desolation Peak, where Kerouac wrote and I spent an hour coming down off acid, I saw a land clouded by smoke from a dream caught in wildfires a thousand miles down the road. I don’t know what I chased. I thought I could almost see you, Jack Kerouac. In Desolation, I know that I saw you. You spoke to me as I’m speaking now and all I have left to say, Jack, is that I don’t know if you’re a symbol or just another lost boy looking for a home. I don’t think you’re a myth anymore, Jack. I just think you’re a human. And even without angels pouring me heart-filled cups, your mother can keep her rosary. You’ll get no qualms from me. You’re too tangled in her apron to see past angels. You can keep your Desolation Peak and the burnt-out view too. Because if Kerouac points to angels, I’ll point to his ass and tell him to fuck himself. Him and all the shells of human tropes talking out of their ass and chasing after his generation’s used nostalgia can eat shit. Fuck Jack Kerouac. Who the fuck am I pretending to be? I’m following you, Jack. Who are we pretending to be? Is Nibs some Dharma bum or just Neal Cassady’s sidekick? Is that all I am? I want my own story, my own life. I want to be the main character; don’t you, Jack?
Our Supporting Roles Broke Down In the Middle of Our Road Trip
Our feet were buried on the last day of Oceanside before driving up the coast to the Cascades. I wiggled my toes under the sand. I told Peter Pan I didn’t feel like the main character of the story. When Peter said he didn’t know how that felt, I kept watching the sand. Waves broke against an overcast day with neither Peter nor I having much more to say.
Leaving the beach, I was the only one sober enough to drive, which sparked Dago and Cubby to begin shit-talking over who’d sit where. Cubby said Dago is sitting bitch because it’s his truck. But Dago didn’t wanna sit bitch—he wanted to smoke cigarettes. And nobody’s gonna make Peter Pan sit bitch. So Dago sits bitch. Cubby on one side and Peter on the other when Dago began smoking his cigarettes, to which Cubby promptly rejected because Dago was sitting bitch and it’s his truck. That’s when nerves crack, and the surface tension breaks with Dago lunging, wrapping his hands around Cubby’s neck, choking him. Whatever magic was in the land of orange sunshine left with the air strangled out of Cubby. They struggled for a moment until I pulled over, Peter intervened, and Dago let Cubby’s head deflate from its purple balloon state.
That was the climax. At least how I saw it.
The Lost Boys were trying to paint reality into the orange sunshine, and this was the result. Cubby prodding, Dago snapping and me not caring until it spilled into my fun. That’s why the boys split up for this last hike. The acid and high-altitude sun fried Cubby, dehydrating him to malnourishment. They had tried to hike out, stopping whenever Cubby needed to rest. Each stop, though, meant being kamikazed by mosquito swarms, pushing Cubby deeper into a thousand-yard stare and me removing items from Cubby’s pack, hoping to keep moving. But when Cubby couldn’t go any further, I knew coming back for him was the best thing to do.
That's what I remember. I wish I were more focused. My knee was bugging me, and these thoughts made me think there was more acid in my system than I realized. Then again, maybe I just want there to be. Why? Isn’t this exciting? Isn’t this the once-in-a-lifetime experience everyone wants? Where’s the rush? The excitement? Am I being serious or dramatizing this to be more interesting? Is Cubby in danger or just lazy? What are Peter Pan and Dago going to think? I don’t know, but I wish I didn’t think so much.
Our Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience Ended With a Rescue Mission
Lucky for us, a bridge came into sight. I was almost to the parking lot. I began running. I could see the row of license plates through the trees as the hill flattened. The trees dispersed. I was off the trail and in the parking lot. Dago and Peter Pan were smiling back as they made coffee. I told them about Cubby, and they thought I was joking. “Seriously?” they asked. I nodded, “Seriously.” But no one knows how to take this seriously.
We’d been over the edge for so long, responsibility seems chaotic, and freedom is orange sunshine. We weren’t sure how we should act, even when the rangers radioed a rescue mission to recover Cubby. A ranger picked Cubby up by boat, taking him to a four-wheeler, escorting him to another boat that brought Cubby ashore where we picked him up. Afterward, we headed to the nearest McDonald’s. It was over. We all knew it and that’s where it ended, eating McDoubles and stealing blue Powerade in a plastic cup before starting back home any way but the way we came.
Now, you can call us stupid. But at least you know when we start tracing white lines into a never-ending sunset against the backdrop of a picture-perfect scene, we’re outlining a dream that may flutter but it’s always fleeting, like the sulfur after the firework show we all missed and leaving us to only say, “Aww.” Because the smoke’s the last glimpse of the real thing, before the green flash leaves us with a floating spot where the sun used to be and a spark that vanished before we knew it was there. A spark Kerouac saw, only to be missed out by generations trying to trap nostalgia in glass jars. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I tried catching fireflies in the land of orange sunshine, and it never added up to the once-in-a-lifetime moment someone else painted for me.