coachella 3 - getting high (in which I go to the circus, or rather the circus comes to me)

So now I'm in. I'm frazzled and sweaty, I'm furious at myself for not having been better prepared for security, but at least I'm in. And I'm glad I've come as early as I have, because in spite of lines that are choking the entrance, the grounds are still pretty sparse. The relatively clear expanse of the main field is relieving to see, and I feel like I can relax, catch my breath, and get the lay of the land.

And it doesn't take long to do so. When I walk the perimeter of the festival, mentally ticking off each of the stages, I'm shocked at how much smaller it seems than Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. I see immediately that this layout has a vastly better flow for foot traffic; stages are closer together and arranged in a way that makes sense and will be easy to navigate in the dark.

While it normally takes me some time to get my "festival legs", at Coachella I feel comfortable almost right away. Bonnaroo and Outside Lands are massive, sprawling festivals which felt intensely crowded, all the time. Coachella instantly feels different to me. Roomy, chill, not overly packed. There's plenty to see - art installations and sculptures and various structures for viewing and climbing - but it doesn't feel nearly as chaotic and jumbled as Bonnaroo, or as epically huge as Outside Lands.

Despite having taken the first shuttle, what with the first day security lines being so ridiculous, I've missed Lord Huron. But I'm okay with it; they're a new group, based out of LA, and I'm pretty sure I can catch them back at home sometime. Next up on my schedule, my first show of the festival, will be Youth Lagoon, in about forty five minutes. This is perfect, because it gives me time to sit down for a bit, take in the sights/sounds, and eat.

On my lunch menu: grilled chicken pita with rice, and a small handful of magic mushrooms. And lots and lots of water to wash it all down.

I find a shaded spot under a tent next to a string of food vendors, near the tented outdoor stage where Youth Lagoon will soon play, lay out my vinyl-backed sheet, and sit to have my meal. Music floods in from every corner of the festival, weighing heavily in the bright afternoon glare. There are small groups of people sitting all around me, and festival staff tending to the tables beside us. I'm completely alone, but surrounded. I'm anonymous.

The food is decent, but nothing remarkable, and I make to myself the only negative comparison that I'll log the whole weekend, between Coachella and the other fests: the food is nowhere near as good or as varied as the gourmet food trucks of Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.

This is the first time I've eaten loose mushrooms; I've only ever had them mixed into small bars of chocolate before. A. has warned me that they'll taste bitter and awful, and advised me to to tear them into tiny pieces to sprinkle on my food. They don't smell bad at all, I'd said, when he'd handed me the baggie and I'd held it under my nose. They'd smelled to me like tea, or herbs. Trust me, you won't want to eat them plain, he'd replied.

I glance around before casually reaching with both hands into my backpack, which sits open beside me. I carefully pop the lid of one small plastic cup and pick out what looks like a tiny, twisted twig. It's shriveled in a way that reminds me of something my mother kept all of her life, much to my horror and fascination, in the sewing box that now sits on my sideboard: a small section of my umbilical cord.

The stem is easy to crumble into smaller pieces, and I carefully wedge one into a lump of chicken before chewing the combination down to bits and swallowing.

I taste nothing but chicken.

I repeat my efforts with a slightly larger piece of the stem, but again I taste nothing unusual. I have a few more small bites of regular food, sans toadstool, again chewing fastidiously, and follow up with several large swigs from my water bottle. I'm aiming to eat enough to give the high legs, but not so much that it will be eclipsed by my body's digestive efforts.

When I figure I've had enough chicken and rice, I pluck the rest of the allotted shrooms from the container and cup them in my palm. I pinch a centime-sized cap between my fingertips and examine it. It looks like an acorn top, and smells earthy. Gingerly, I take the littlest of bites, careful not to let any flake off and be wasted.

It tastes bland and inoffensive, dry but slightly chewy; like a tiny leaf giving up the ghost in autumn.

I slowly eat the rest of the shrooms in this way, unbothered by the texture or flavor, which actually strikes me as strangely pleasant. This having been done, I pause for a moment - a deep breath, a conscious effort to take inventory of my senses, my surroundings. I've just eaten enough mushrooms that, if I've estimated the dosage correctly, will take me on a harder, deeper trip than I've ever gone before. I've done this on purpose. Today I don't want to experience just a happy, lighthearted and lightheaded tingling of my senses.

Today, I want to hallucinate.

Today I want to feel the full range of effects that this organic drug has to offer, for better or for worse. I've primed myself by reading and listening to the stories of other users. I have some idea what to expect, and I'm both excited and nervous. A tiny voice in the back of my mind has started chirping what ifs at me, posed less like questions than vague threats. What if something goes wrong. What if you react badly. What if you freak out. What if you have some kind of seizure.

But I'm not scared. I've done enough drugs by now to understand how important the mind-body connection is, despite being someone who once scoffed at such a new age concept. It's true though; I've learned that, as with much of life, attitude has a big role in the experience of a drug. Sure: there's only so much conscious effort we can direct into it, and at a certain point chemistry and biology are going to do what they're going to do. But fear makes for a terrible guide, because he just slaps a blindfold on you behind which you cringe and cower until the ride is over.

And I want to see everything today.

I gather my things, shake off my sheet, and slowly drift over to the Mojave tent, stopping to snap pics of some art along the way.

There's a bit of a crowd at Mojave, but nothing overwhelming. I check them out as I pick my way through groups and pairs, curious to see the sorts of people who are just as into the dreamy, trippy, shoe gaze sounds of Youth Lagoon as I am - to see who cared enough to get here early, and get a good spot.

For myself, I choose the back left section, where I'll have some room to myself but still be in direct line of a massive, angled speaker. It's important to me to find my concert "sweet spot" (that place where I have some breathing room, though not so far back as to feel left out of the scene ), but that's all for naught if I can't hear the music good and loud. Nothing I'm going to think or feel, nothing I'm coaxing my mind and body into experiencing will matter, if the moment isn't scored correctly. Because I'm here for the music, first and foremost. I put down my sheet, though folded up to only allow enough room to sit cross-legged with my bag in my lap. I know there's a good chance I'll want (need) to sit when the shrooms kick in, no matter who's standing around me, and I don't want to be a space hog. Once situated, I look around at the crowd. Young. Really young. Eager. Happy. Gearing up. I check the time. Five minutes until the show starts; twenty minutes since I've finished eating...

It starts fast.

Shockingly fast, in fact.

In my previous experiences with mushrooms, the effect settled on me slowly, almost imperceptibly. There would come a moment when the glint of sunlight would be especially golden and warm, or the tinkling sounds of a fountain would linger suspiciously long in my ears, and I'd know: something was happening. But that was a gentle intensifying of my senses - a teasing them into a state of extra wakefulness, and heightened capacity.

This is something different. This is what I'd seen mentioned on one forum online, in doing my dosage research. The phrase had jumped out at me from the screen, intriguing but a little bit scary, too: The only thing I don't like about shrooms, this poster had written, is the rocket ride up.

The rocket ride up. Rocket ride up. Rocket ride. 

When I'd read that, I'd dismissed it, based on my other experiences. Nah, I'd thought. That's not how they are for me.

Well. Amendment time. That's not how they were for me. Until today.

All of a sudden, it feels as if the air has thickened. That's the first thing I notice: the change in the atmosphere. In my atmosphere. The breeze that was playing across my bare arms is still there, but someone somewhere is squeezing a handbrake, and it h a s   s    l   o   o   o   o   o   o  w  e  d   d o w n. And it feels less like air than...water. The smoothness of water; the way the miniature tides of a heated swimming pool will caresses your skin, in subtle jets and waves - that's what it feels like.

And now it's above me. This water. This weight. I feel as if I'm being pressed to the ground, but not in an oppressive, uncomfortable way. Just a matter-of-fact way. Like, Hm. Well. There's absolutely no way I could stand up right now, even if I wanted to. But whatever, that's cool. I'm sitting. And it feels almost as if there's intent behind it. As if, while I'm obviously not in control, someone or something else is.

I'd shortly know who that someone was.

But for right now, I'm here. I'm sitting. In water. I look around. Whoa. The sun. Very bright. Ok. It's starting. And now color. Color makes itself known. Presents itself. Again - intention. The colors of things shrug off a dull outer layer, like when you run a fingertip down a foggy window. What was there on the other side is suddenly really there. Flushed cheeks are pinker, more alive. I can't see anyone's pores from here, that would be ridiculous!  - or the movements of their tongues behind their teeth...but that's what it feels like. Life, magnified. Life, coming to life.

And then I get the giggles. In a really, really bad way. Like, sitting-in-the-back-row-of-homeroom-with-your-best-friend-making-faces-at-you type giggles. Like, absolutely-cannot-make-a-sound-because-if-you-do-you're-getting-detention type giggles. And I'm fascinated by how it happened, because though I may be reaching, I think I understand the genesis of it.

From the moment I'd gotten to the festival, I'd been more than a little bit ... spooked, by how young the crowd was. It seemed much younger to me than Bonnaroo or Outside Lands. And it had challenged me somewhat, and made me more self-conscious than I usually am. And I'd realized when I'd been waiting in line, pressed up hot and sweaty with all of these kids, that I was going to have to work a little bit, to get past those feelings. And the strategy I adopted for the short term? Ignore them. Just blot them out of my sight. Look through and past them. Focus on the fest, on the sights and sounds, and on myself.

And that had worked great up until the mushrooms found out about it. But when they caught wind of what I was doing, they were all, Nuh uh, Ellie. Not so fast. Let's have a closer look at that, shall we? I found myself gazing around at everyone who, wait just a minute--what's going on with time??

And that's when things, heretofore a little bit weird, get really fucking weird. Because I realize, with what remaining shreds of lucidity are fast fleeing my brain, that I have no idea how much time has passed since I've been sitting down. I can't tell if I've been there for hours or seconds. I mean, I know the music hasn't even started yet, I'm aware enough to realize that. But it's as if I've blacked out during the minutes that all of this has been happening. Lost time, as they say.

At any rate, I barely have time to register this psychological development because I'm gazing around at everyone, at all these legs, bare and young, all these faces, bright and smooth. I can hear their voices, emerging into a cacophony of sound that just ... sounds ... so ... young. Like, b a b i e s.

Yes. God. T h e y  s o u n d   l i k e        b    a   b   i   e   s.

You know the dream where you're naked in front of a class, or a lecture hall? And it's the worst, most mortifying and embarrassing thing ever? Now invert that, in every way possible. You're not naked - everyone else is. You're not humiliated - everyone else is. Well, that's what happens. I am suddenly about to watch Youth Lagoon with a crowd of crying, naked, crawling babies.

My brain has seized upon this idea that everyone is so much younger than me, has thrown a jet pack on it, splashed in some nitro, and strapped it to a rocket ride to the fucking moon. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it but hold on tight. I'm not in the throes of hallucination - not yet. I don't actually think I'm seeing a crowd of diapered infants. But my brain is so complicit with the drugs in wanting to see this, in wanting to burst through this barrier I've subconsciously set up for myself, that I don't think I would have reacted much differently if I'd been fully hallucinating. The absurdity of my thoughts pins me down and tickles me until I can't breathe. I look around at these people - adults, all of them - and all I see are helpless, wailing babies.

Already sitting with my knees pulled up tight against my body, I stuff my face into the crook of my elbow, horrified. Oh my god. I'm giggling. I can't giggle. I'm at Youth Lagoon. I look around me, desperate for a partner in crime. Someone must surely see the state I'm in, and even if they don't see what I see, they'll sympathize with the poor girl who's clearly tripping, and smile at me, and wordlessly tell me that it's ok?

Yeah, no. No such comfort to be found. No nasty looks or anything like that. Just, no one's looking at me because, because, wait, what? Because...

...because the music has started. How long has it been going?? I don't know. I don't k n o w. I  d o  n  o t  - - -  w  h  o  a . . .

Down, look down. Dizzy. Heavy. Washing down. Don't look up. Nausea. Too much. Water. Water? On me. Around me? In me? Water? I slowly, slowly, slowly tilt my head down and see a water bottle poking out of my backpack. I take a sip, and in doing so, throw my head back. No. Noooooo. Not up. Don't look up. No. 

Grass. The grass. Focus on the grass. Yes. Just the grass. That little bit, right there, right in front of your legs. Yes. Ok. Ooooooookaaaaay. Grassssss. Green and yellow and you can breathe and yes. Grass. 





Oh. My. God. The music.

Stop reading this post for a minute. Stop and pull yourself out of it, leave the scene I'm describing and think of a time when you felt immense, jaw-dropping wonder. At some sight maybe, a breathtaking landscape or a beautiful woman - or your first taste of fois gras. Whatever. Some moment when life put out its hand, flat and hard against your sternum, and stopped you in your tracks.

That's what it feels like, when one part of my brain catches up with another part, like kids skipping together on a playground, who've dropped hands when one stopped short, and the other goes on ahead but then her friend runs to catch up - and I realize what I'm hearing, and it isn't just music, it isn't just the same collection of sounds I've been looping on Spotify for months. It's dimensional. It's layered, but not layered in the abstract way music is always described. It has actual, physical layers that I can feel, as if someone is throwing blankets on top of me while I sit there, then yanking them off again seconds later, and then throwing another back on, this one silky and cold, and now here's a quilt, lofty and light, settling s l o w l y and airily on me but wait now it's gone, oh here comes something thick and heavy, wool, on top of me, but now that's gone and here's just the whisper of a sheet and and and

This is what it feels like, but translated into sound.

And I'm staring at the grass, which has started to pulse, the tiny blades are moving, like a moving sidewalk, pulsing and swaying and and and now they're starting to breathe, oh my god, it's breathing, it's alive, the grass is alive and everyone is standing on it!! They don't know! THEY'RE GOING TO KILL IT THEY'RE GOING TO KILL THE GRASS I HAVE TO ---


I hear him before I see him.

Shhhhh, he says softly. It's ok. Shhhhh.

And I believe it is ok, because the voice is so sure and true and I trust it. I trust it completely, even if I don't know where it's coming from, even if ---

Oh. There. There you are. I stare down at my patch of grass, my safe place to direct my thoughts, my energy. I can see him there. He's in the grass. Was that you?

Yes. It was me. Shhhh.

The tiny blades of grass pulse and sway, some move this way, some move that way. And just in the same way you see shapes emerge from the clouds, I see the monkey in the grass. The shading of colors in the ground is just right; the bits of dryer, yellow grass form his two eyes, his nose, his lips. The slightly shaggier green edges of the patch form the fur around his face. His jaw is lean and angular. His features are sharp. His eyes gaze up and bore into me.

He's actually rather terrifying, but I don't have time to react because because because time is speeding up and slowing down, all in the same split second and and and

this is all too fast, and who's driving? are we moving? is this safe? please slow down (music music music), this water is wet, and the grass monkey said it's ok, because he's obviously not a baby, and is made of tiny yellow pasta noodles, like penne or or or what's that other tube? Macaroni? 

And he's (music music music) directing all of this, conducting it. He's rising floating should I close my or just keep them rising floating directing he's a puppet? No. No. He's a     ....    ringmaster conductor monkey. Just for me. He's just for he said it's ok I'm scared by I thought I was here for the music but Youth Lagoon he's at an organ in the back of the circus tent I'm at a circus for me just my circus the ringmaster monkey is above and floating, large just a face, it's ok, he's in charge, I watch soundtrack by Youth Lagoon and I h a  v  e    t   o   c   losemyeyes now. Now. Now.

But closing my eyes is exactly what he wants me to do. Because that's where the the the

the circus tent what's the circus who's in it animals? no.  people? no who who what is this circus, I can see a big open tent

music music music (I know, I know. It starts very, very weird. Give it until 2:30, if you're curious, if you're interested to know what the soundtrack was for this experience. Then just listen for another minute or two, and keep those crazy sounds in mind while you read the rest.)

Oh. Oh. Of course. I suddenly get some traction to my thoughts, to this whirlwind of nothingness and everythingness that's spinning me around in my own mind. It becomes clear and simple: just colors and shapes. That's the circus. That's all. I'm going to watch a circus in my mind, with my eyes closed, but instead of animals or people, it will be performed by shapes and colors. Easy peasy. I can do that.

And so, with my ringmaster monkey friend floating up in the corner, overseeing and directing, and Trevor Powers off to the side, working away at his keyboard and his computer, I watch a circus, my eyes shut tight for an hour, while I sit wrapped up in my own limbs. And what sucks is how predictable it is that I'll say something like And it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and heard, but I have to, I have to say it. Because it is. It is geometry and light, for an hour straight, behind the drawn curtain of my mind. It is planes and patterns, shrinking and growing, zipping and cutting, flexing and bowing. It is sound that oozes and drips all over everything, coating it and stretching it, teasing it or smashing against it. The mushrooms take the music and enrich it in a way that defies metaphor, and you guys know I love me some metaphor, but I can't even try with this. Just: rich, richer, richest. Enriched.

And there are other things that sneak in there, too. Faces, some scary, all foreign, all with intent that I don't understand. They're there when I open my eyes, hovering in the glow of the afternoon, flattened against the backs of people who don't know they're there. But I like it better in the dark, with my eyes closed, where they recede quicker into the black, and I can contain them. Sort of. All the while, though, I know I'm safe. The monkey figure is a guide and a guru. It feels like he knows me, like he's always known me. I don't know what part of my subconscious has projected him out of me, or what he represents, but I know he won't hurt me, even when his face contorts with the music, ugly and elastic.

It is probably impossible to convey these feelings and thoughts from my brain into yours, even if I spend hours describing them. Or maybe it's not. Maybe you get it. Or you get it enough, anyway. I don't want to sound mega hyperbolic or crazy dramatic or any more obnoxious than I know I already do with this hard-to-read stream of eyeball-stabbing consciousness. You could be sitting there like Lady, enough already, you tripped on mushrooms, we get it. 

If so, I'm sorry, because holy shit was it incredible to me, and exactly what I'd wanted and hoped for, so I can't help but be effusive. It was intense, but not overwhelmingly so. I felt like I went right up to the edge of whatever it was I wanted to edge up to, but I didn't fall off. I just leaned out over the abyss, anchored by some invisible thread, and surveyed the things I knew existed but had never seen.

tldr; Youth Lagoon on shrooms was amazing, and I loved it.

(Even though it didn't even remotely compare to the way I would feel two days later, when everything I thought I knew about the way my mind and body could make me feel would be turned inside out and upside down, taken from me and given back, a promise and a lie that I will tell you and tell myself and nothing will change except for the fact that it happened once, if never again.)

Two caps and two stems. That, I now know, is the going price of admission to the color sound circus in my mind, orchestrated by a macaroni monkey and scored by a genius with black curls and a heartbreakingly haunted look.

I just wish I could have bought him a ticket, too.