We were transformed into birds, beaks wide open… hoping to catch whatever might spill from her as she bounced across the room on a bright plastic exercise ball. Laura Archera Huxley was not a robust mother Robin, but instead she was built as an ant might be. You could tell from a distance that she was strong and in full control of her bodily limbs, however fragile looking. Dance naked first thing in the morning and do it to passionate, loud music, I remember her saying as she oscillated around the room on the ball. “The second wife of the late Aldus Huxley”… I had honestly known nothing more about her. It struck me as a little sad that I had not known what an interesting person she was, independent of his illustrious name. Among the many books, essays and lectures Aldus Huxley produced during his lifetime, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were two that helped to explain his idea of Mind at Large, he explains in The Doors of Perception:
“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”
Doors of Perception is an account of his experience while taking part in an experiment with the psychotropic drug, mescaline. Another famous author who has written about the mystical qualities of this particular substance was Carlos Cateneda. His books, originally published in the 1960’s while he was completing a bachelors and then doctoral degree in anthropology at UCLA. He described a companion whom he is reported to have met in the northern Mexican desert and with whom he ingested peyote, a naturally occurring source of mescaline. Castenedas’ books have been hotly debated. While the purely scientific value may be debatable, the cult following is not. Some hold Casteneda responsible for the apparently ceaseless flow of drug-tourists that continue to saturate the mountains and deserts of northern Mexico.
Nowhere more so than a ghost town draped over the bones of a forgotten silver mine in San Luis Potosi , Real de Catorce or the “Royal Fourteen”. The windows were down and hot currents flowed in off the highway, filling the car with the smell of asphalt and dried plants. We had left Guadalajara and were headed north towards Zacatecas where we planned on staying the night before continuing on. As if we had just been set free of our cages, the destination acted only as a star to guide our sails. So, with lyrics spiraling out of the speakers like pencil sketches, more than a week until anyone complained of our absence and a moderate level of Spanish we drove on, happy to be doing so.
We arrived in Zacatecas as the sun was burning holes into the horizon and after negotiating a miraculous parking spot on a steep cobbled hill, we walked towards the center of town to look for dinner. Expecting a sleepy mid-sized colonial town, we were slightly unprepared for a series of exploding stages, light shows and crowds. We had arrived at the beginning of a weekend-long international Jazz festival. It was… surreal. And then again, “why not?” I asked myself… surprised by my uptight expectations of spending the evening admiring colonial buildings and quiet plazas. Jazz was what was happening in modern-day Zacatecas, the Spanish were gone and the Mexicans were enjoying the excellent acoustics ricocheted off the cavernous buildings left behind.
After a simple breakfast, we were back in the rental, deciding what music to play and settling in for a long drive. Invigorated by the unexpected atmosphere of the previous night, Real de Catorce seemed to pull us even more strongly towards its mystery. Sometime around lunchtime, after a number of hours alone of the road, a group of people appeared in the distance and as we approached we could see they were military. Many places in the world the sight of the military does not engender a sense of safety but quite the opposite and this was most certainly one of those places. Alone, female, foreign… we began to rattle off the list anxiously as if we were taking an inventory of our mutual vulnerability.One of the uniformed men flagged us down and the gravity in the car suddenly amplified, turning off the music we pulled over. A young man, in his twenties, leaned into the driver’s side window and asked us to exit the vehicle. As a group of soldiers searched the car, we waited 100 meters away behind a line of gun crested men. We were interrogated coldly about our destination before being allowed back into the car, which had now become imbued with supernatural protective powers we had previously been unaware of.
Neither of us spoke and the rear view was filled again by desert and sky, the stereo remained silent. It is a difficult feeling, confronted with the very real dangers of a place, a sadness about the lost adventure we could all share, an understanding of the very real socio-economic divisions that create strife and the simultaneous desire to discover the special-gem-of-perfect-tranquility deep within a country; to be allowed access to its friendly places.
A glorious moon was rising and a dense sky of stars glowed down on us as we turned away from the highway and onto a gravel road lined by large Seuss-like cacti. In front of us the mountains took on a deeper and deeper hue with the fading light, growing larger as we neared them until finally blocking our view of the sky entirely. Gravel abruptly turned to concrete as we came upon a warmly lit tunnel. Rolling slowly towards the tunnel, unsure of our next step, A man appeared from the darkness and walked in front of the car. Our headlights shone across his ample midsection and his eyes looked tired. The tunnel only had room for traffic in one direction at a time and we needed to wait. Leaving us and making his way over to an old phone booth, he lifted the receiver and spoked for several minutes before motioning to us lazily and disappearing again in the shadowy cacti. Awash in a yellowish light we entered the tunnel, a mysterious universe unfolding just beyond our windshield.