E05: The Descent

DAY 59. 1,300 MI. TO GO

17 min read
Bastendorff Beach, Oregon.

On the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I arrived at a county park in Southern Oregon called Bastendorff Beach. As the late sun peeked out beneath the parting storm clouds, I made my way up a slight hill to the coastal campground. I chose a campsite surrounded by soaring spruce trees and muddy bluffs lined with ferns, then laid my tent out on the concrete pad.

I ate my dinner contemplatively in the still, evening silence.

Once the light was gone, I receded to the warmth of my tent to spend the rest of the evening reading while tucked in my sleeping bag. But I couldn’t keep my eyes on the page. Putting my book to the side, I switched off my headlamp and lay on my back, thinking about the next day—and the important threshold I was on the verge of crossing.

Thirty! There’s no use holding onto my adolescence. I made it! I am undoubtedly a man!

As my thoughts turned to how I would celebrate this important occasion, I switched my light back on and dug into my backpack, searching for what I had hidden deep, deep down beneath my clothing.

I felt the plastic of the Ziplock sandwich bag with my fingertips and pulled the item out so I could examine it beneath my electric light.

It was a gift I had received from Sam. I had seen her a second time amidst the chaos of evading DJ. This was up near Newport, Oregon—about a week after we’d met and slept together for the first time, and a few days before stumbling into DJ at the Oregon Dunes. We met up in a parking lot near Seal Rock and swiftly transformed her Jimmy into a bedroom. The plastic totes moved to the front seat, a foam mattress was laid down in the trunk, we made the bed and fluffed the pillows. Condensation dripped down the windows as the Jimmy rolled on its axels. Her dog, Maxwell, lay snoring a few inches above our heads.

Afterward, we lay naked sharing stories about our exes. Her Jimmy felt safe—even sacred.

I was consciously trying not to get ahead of myself. I didn’t want to presume that Sam wanted something—or not. But the next morning, while we picnicked on the beach, Sam kissed me deeply and asked whether I would come back with her to Corvallis. Immediately, I stiffened.

Corvallis? Corvallis was seventy-five miles from the coast. Was I allowed to take that kind of detour? What would my financial backers think? Could I afford to put my trip on pause knowing that winter was coming? But what if I never met another woman like Sam again? What if she was my soulmate? Had I healed enough to have a new relationship? What about Sam’s red flags? How did I know that she wasn’t codependent? Sam lived in her car!

There were so many considerations. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. I closed my eyes like I’d seen her do, and I tried to make sense of all the different options.

Then, I heard that familiar voice urging me forward. “Keep walking.”

I opened my eyes and hung my head. “I’m sorry,” I said.

She kissed me gently. “Thank you for telling me the truth.”

In my tent at Bastendorff Beach, I examined the item that she had given me as a going-away present. The item was about the length of my middle finger. It was bone white and bruised with splotches of dark blue. It was a single Psilocybe cubensis—a psychedelic species of mushroom. Even though I had told Sam that I was sober, she insisted that I take the gift anyway—”just in case you want to see things a little differently.”

My final encounter with DJ was still on my mind. That confrontation in the rain had come just a few days earlier. As I examined the magic mushroom, I wondered whether I would bend my commitment to sobriety for the second time in less than a week.

I heard footsteps not far from my tent, and I hurried to return the mushroom to its hiding place. The footsteps belonged just to passing campers, not the police. But still, my mind raced with new questions.

Did I make the right decision with Sam?

How could I explain what happened with DJ?

Why did I allow myself to smoke that pot at Tahkenitch Lake?

And what was I going to do about the mushroom? Was I acting like a “man” if I chose to trip out on ‘shrooms on my thirtieth birthday?

When I fell asleep that night, I had no idea what I would choose the next morning. I only knew that I would decide spontaneously.


The morning of my thirtieth birthday.

Around noon the next day, I secluded myself in my tent and spontaneously gobbled down the mushroom. It tasted so rancid that it nearly made me retch. Smugly, resolved to my fate, I gathered my valuables and secured everything else in my tent. I wandered down to the beach, knowing that I would be occupied for the next 4-6 hours.

Nervously, I anticipated the onset of the hallucination as I tried to enjoy the gorgeous late October day. Sun radiated off the waves and seals lazed on the rocky point in the distance.

I had experimented with ‘shrooms a number of times, but always with friends and not always with positive stories. Once, I became so paranoid that I was convinced that the darker denim on the inside of my thighs was evidence that I had pissed in my jeans. I spent the better part of an hour hiding from my teasing friends before I came back to earth to recognize that no, the denim on the inside of my thighs was really just darker. Other experiences were a similar mix between the playful and the paranoid. I wondered what direction this experience would take as I felt a familiar sensation bubbling up the back of my skull, like the carbonation in a freshly opened bottle of Coca-Cola. My sense of time dissipated as I got lulled into the present moment, observing everything with the wonder of a child.

The branches of the trees in the distance were waving in the light breeze; they appeared to beckon me. My footsteps seemed to be exactly in time with the crashing waves. I paused, the ocean paused. I stepped, the waves crashed. I was incredulous and giddy. I was in two worlds at once—experiencing everything and also watching myself. Then I realized that I was watching myself watch myself. Then, I realized that I was watching myself watching myself watch myself, and as I zoomed further and further away from my embodied experience, I understood that I was quickly becoming very high.

I needed somewhere I could lay down.

Bastendorff Beach was about a mile long from the jetty at the north end of the beach to the rocky point visible in the picture above. A low dune lined the high side of the beach, separating the coast from a sprawling sandy area of brush and dune grasses. Bastendorff actually marked the southernmost point of the Oregon Dunes; beyond Yoakam Point, the coastline transitioned substantially back to the dense forest and sheer sandstone cliffs that distinguished the last hundred miles of coastal Oregon. I was at a transition point in more ways than one.

I didn’t want to lie down on the beach—too exposed. The trees in the distance would have offered the greatest seclusion, but I was now so high that the paranoia had swallowed me. Making a drastic left turn, I crested the low dune and entered the wild grasses. Here, I was also exposed—there was an RV Park just a few hundred yards away—but at least I couldn’t be seen from a distance.

Feeling relieved to be on my own, I sat cross-legged in the sand among the grasses and placed my journal on my lap. My intent was to make a record of my experiences, to watch myself watch myself etcetera. But just as I sat there with my pen poised, ready to pierce the blank pages with the clarity of hallucinated insights, the wind sent the open pages aflutter. I had been diligently recording my experiences every morning since I started walking, following the advice from a self-help book to write three pages, stream-of-consciousness-style when I woke up every morning. As the wind flipped the pages backward, for the first time I reflected on my morning scribblings, noticing the same word that kept appearing endlessly: Sally, Sally, Sally, Sally.

Divorced from my current emotional state, I felt like I was looking down on myself from above, and I couldn’t help poking fun at myself. “Jesus,” I said out loud. “Jordan, you’re really fucking intense.”

In that moment, I was glad that I had eaten the ‘shroom. I needed some kind of holiday. I needed some kind of insight.

I returned to the blank page and tried to steady my vision enough to write something groundbreaking. But the whole world appeared to be spinning around me. I had underestimated the strength of the single mushroom stem; I was readying for blast-off.

Lying down in the sand, I held the garnet crystal and took deep breaths to try and settle my stomach. There were whirlpools in the sand all around me, and the greens on the brush and the trees seemed to glow with some inner electric light. I knew that I didn’t want to pass out—I had my camera and all my most valuable belongings; a stranger probably wouldn’t react calmly to discovering me lying prone among the dunes. But every time I closed my eyes, I was transfixed by the kaleidoscope of neon patterns on the back of my eyelids. The colors were moving, flowing, morphing, like a bad montage of Miami Beach.

Each time I blinked, my eyes became heavier. Soon, I realized that the end was inevitable. With one final effort, my eyes fell shut like a drawbridge. The outside world slipped away.


My hiding place among the dune grasses

I know the old saying about writing about dreams and drug trips, so I beg the reader to indulge me as I recount something that, at best, is what William James called “ineffable” and, at worst, is what Arthur Koestler called “cosmic schmaltz.” By retelling my experience in this form, I aim to communicate my sense of total surprise at the images I encountered, and also the feeling of vibrant lucidity. During the hallucination, I had almost no doubts that what I was experiencing was “really” happening, except for the one that I make plain. Skepticism only returned later once the effects had subsided, when I tried to fit my experience back into my existing perspective on how reality “worked”.

I’m including the hallucination here because it felt groundbreaking and fundamental, and the insights represented a major turning point on my trip. I leave the reader to think what she wants.

For some time, I watched the neon kaleidoscope in a pleasant state of giddiness, as placid as a child in a crib watching a colorful mobile spin in front of their eyes. I saw polygons, fractals, and the traditional psychedelic shapes. Even the Cheshire Cat appeared to smile at me. Then, the dancing patterns congealed into a physical space—a large circular room.

The circular room was a place I had never been before, and yet it felt intensely familiar. Its walls were constructed from stone, and it was lit by torches that were affixed to the walls. The room was sparsely furnished, with not much more than a four-poster bed. The draperies hanging over the bed looked ghostly in the flickering torchlight. I looked around the room but couldn’t see an exit anywhere. The only aperture was a narrow window. When I approached the window and looked outside, I realized that I was in an enormous tower; I could just distantly see the lights of a small village clustered far below me. It seemed like I was immensely high, and also that I was trapped. There was slow, low drumming coming from somewhere in the distance which just as well might have been the sound of the crashing waves. But in my hallucination, I somehow understood that it was the sound of an advancing army. There was a war going on, and I was involved in it somehow; I knew that the war was over me. But high in my tower, I felt detached and relatively safe. I knew nothing would disturb me.

I sat on the edge of the bed and waited, feeling like a figure from a fairy tale.

I was the bald Rapunzel.

Time passed. A minute, two minutes, a year, a lifetime. I sat there in my quiescent state, totally unable to act. There was no escape. I was trapped, I was sentenced to my fate until I could be rescued. Then, I suddenly noticed a part of the room I hadn’t seen before—a shadowy area on the far side of the room from the bed, just beyond the ken of the torchlight. When I went over to investigate, I discovered a staircase that spiraled downward tightly, as in a medieval fortification. Torches lit the way down here too.

I hesitated at the landing. I didn’t want to go down there, I dreaded what I knew that I would find.

Finally, I found the courage to take the first step. Soon, I was on my flight downwards.

The inside of the stairwell was remarkably consistent like the background in an old video game. It seemed to never change no matter how far I went down. The only way to gauge my progress was to count the torches, which passed by like mile markers on the side of the highway. Five, then ten. Ten, then twenty. Twenty, then thirty, then forty. I perceived myself to be walking for a long time, it wasn’t long before I felt like I had always been walking, that walking was my natural state of being.

In time, the torchlight began to diminish. The torches were becoming smaller, shadows were encroaching the stairwell. Soon, the torches were barely the size of a candle. I walked and walked, growing more afraid as I continued down the staircase. Would it ever end? What was down there? Was it what I knew it would be? The dread felt suffocating when I reached the final candle. Beyond it, the stairs continued into the darkness. I plucked the candelabra from the wall and held it in front of me as I progressed a few dozen steps. But then the flame disappeared with a sizzle, and the stairwell was pitch dark. How could I continue when I couldn’t see? But how could I return to the tower? The summit felt as distant as Mount Everest.

I sat on the edge of the stairs and dropped my head into my hands.

Why was it so hard? How much more effort would it take? I had been walking for two months—hadn’t I earned my redemption? When would Sally come back to me?

I heard a voice whisper in my ear, “keep walking.”

I felt a warmth emanating from my chest; the warmth was coming from the exact location where the monarch butterfly had landed. Rising to my feet, I slowly stretched my toes out until I felt the edge of the step. Then—slowly, slowly—I lowered my foot until I felt the firmness of the next step down. I repeated this process several times, steadily gaining confidence until I realized I could pick up the pace. Soon, I was walking at a regular speed; now, I was running! I was running at full speed down the staircase in the darkness. I didn’t need my eyes! I had discovered a different way of seeing! The discovery felt ecstatic until I tripped on the final step and fell face-first into the hard rock at the bottom.

Rising to my feet, I stumbled forward, noticing how each footstep echoed. I reasoned that I was in a cavernous room, in an enormous cave deep, deep beneath the surface of the earth. The floor was impossibly smooth, I could feel it beneath my feet. Finally, I had reached my destination.

Then, suddenly, light burst into the room from above. The light was so bright that I had to shield my eyes; when they adjusted, I saw that I was in fact in a cavernous room with an enormous circular cupola in the ceiling, three hundred or more feet above me, a little like the Roman Pantheon. The light entering through this cupola was impossibly pure, incredibly bright, and stunningly lustrous; it flowed into the room like a waterfall.

I stood there, gazing upward, watching with awe this extraordinary waterfall of light. It shimmered and shone as it poured into the cavernous room. Finally, I let my gaze flow down to where the light fell on the polished floor. There was a figure sitting there, alone, like a performer on a stage. Beyond the edges of the light, the room faded into darkness; I couldn’t see a wall anywhere.

I shuddered when I saw who it was. It was me. I recognized myself from photographs—my curly hair, my pudgy belly. I was looking at myself as a small child.

This was the moment when lucidity failed me.

I made a scene of rolling my eyes. Really? What is this, Psych 101? Paging Dr. Freud! Dr. Freud to the nuthouse in the basement!

From afar, I glowered at myself skeptically. My inner child hadn’t appeared to notice me yet. He was clearly agitated. He was turning nervously around the room, peering into the shadows and looking for—

I followed his gaze beyond the lustrous waterfall, half-skeptical and half-interested to see what my hallucinations would conjure next. My mother? My father? The Cheshire Cat? But the feeling in the cavernous room was very, very still and very, very sacred. After a couple of moments, I realized that no one else was going to appear.

My inner child looked like he was—the word hit me suddenly—abandoned.

Oh. Immediately, my skepticism dissipated.

That’s me with my Mom and my maternal grandparents.

I was shaking as I crossed the stage. I stopped at the edge of the waterfall of light, feeling momentarily transfixed by the shimmering, shining curtain. Did I really want to enter? I took a step forward and looked at myself face-to-face.

The boy didn’t recognize me. How could he, I reasoned, I must look like any other adult.

“What’s your name?” he asked. I introduced myself, and he replied with a name that was strange and Biblical. Then he pouted. “Have you seen her? Have you seen my playmate?

Immediately, I assume that he was talking about Sally. I let out a long, deep sigh before launching into the same story I had been telling everyone those days about Sally, the same boundariless overshare that dipped into private territory that I probably shouldn’t have been telling to a complete stranger. “Mental health…codependency…I tried to tell her, I tried to help…” As I spoke, I watched as the boy’s eyes glazed over. I could tell he didn’t understand anything that I was saying. His lip began to twitch, then suddenly he burst out in an ear-splitting screech:

WAAAAAAAA! I WANT MY PLAYMATE!

I covered my ears with my hands. My screaming was agonizing me.

The boy was throwing a tantrum. As it went on and on, I kept my hands on my ears. Frustrated, I began searching the shadows, thinking where are this kid’s parents? Why isn’t anyone here to take care of his emotional ne—

Then I was, like, Oh.

Ohhhhhhhhhhh.

Just like that, I had my insight.

I bent down and scooped up the crying boy. The lustrous light reflected in his tear ducts. “Sally has a new playmate now,” I said.

His expression was impossibly cute. “Is she happy?”

I thought about the dream I had had a few nights earlier. “Yes. I think she is.”

“Good.” The boy wiped his eyes. It seemed like the storm had passed.

I put the boy down on the ground again and sat cross-legged next to him, and we began to talk. We talked for some time about the boy’s home life. Before that moment, I had never seriously examined my childhood—I only knew it as I had experienced it, through the lens of the childish emotions that I had at the time. But suddenly, I found myself in a role that felt more detached and therapeutic. I could also “see” the future. I knew that in several years this child was going to experience his parents’ divorce and that the fallout would be difficult and traumatizing for him. I also knew that it was unavoidable. With that in mind, I tried to listen compassionately as he told me how lonely and isolated he felt. I’ll skip the details because they’re not important. What was truly important to me was the feeling, the gestalt of what the boy was saying. I was watching myself watch myself, and the layers and fractals all felt overwhelming.

Finally, it was time to go. I promised the boy I would come back and “visit” him.

When I opened my eyes, I was lying in the wild grasses. I sat up and wiped the sand from my cheek. The sun had arced across the sky; perhaps 90 minutes had passed, and I still had all my valuables.

More importantly, I still had the feeling of meeting me.

Gathering my things, I climbed back over the low dune and sprawled out on the beach, where I sat for a long time, watching the waves.


After “returning” to Bastendorff Beach

Something kind of strange happened that evening. After watching the sun set, I returned to my tent just as the ‘shrooms were finally subsiding. The previous day, I’d passed a seafood restaurant in nearby Charleston. I decided to return there and treat myself to a nice dinner. The sunset had been spectacular, and I was still feeling the radiant warmth and lustrous confidence. I couldn’t explain what had happened down there but I knew that it was important, that it would continue to resonate for a long time.

Pulling on my warm clothes, I walked down the highway shoulder for two miles to return to Charleston. I entered the restaurant and took a table for one. I was looking at the menu when my phone rang. I expected it was my mother, my father, or maybe Paul; all three had left celebratory messages while I was down there. But the voice on the other end was a man who I didn’t recognize.

Todd? “That’s right. We met a couple weeks ago,” he said, naming a campground a hundred and fifty miles up the coast.

I searched my memory. Oh, of course! “You were friends with the guy in the Raiders hat, right?” The three of us had had a very brief conversation in the campground. It was one of the dozens of conversations with strangers that I was having every day.

Todd told me that he had just found my business card. “So I decided to call you to see how you’re doing?”

“You’ve actually called me on an important day. I’m out for dinner on my thirtieth birthday.”

“Well, happy birthday.” We ended the conversation. Then, a moment later, my phone rang again.

“I thought you might like it if I treated you to a meal.”

Immediately, I panicked. Was Todd here? Did Todd know DJ?

“No, no, no. I’m in my house in Central Oregon. Just give the phone to the waitress and I’ll give her my credit card number.”

I had dinner on my thirtieth birthday courtesy of Todd.

When the waitress delivered my meal, I noticed that she had a tattoo of a monarch butterfly on the inside of her wrist.


Cape Blanco, Oregon.

It had been raining for nearly a week since my confrontation with DJ. The day after my birthday, the rain began again and hardly stopped for the next two weeks. Sure, every now and then there would be a spate of sunshine, a dramatic view of the rugged coastline, and the endless rolling waves. An hour later, the clouds would roll in again. The unshakeable presence of the rain, the way it worked its way into my clothes and under my skin, changed the feeling of my walk substantially. It slowed me down and made me more vulnerable.

As my trip entered its third month, I began to turn my attention to what was ahead of me. Soon, I would enter California and reach the dramatic old-growth redwood forest. I no longer believed that I would reach San Francisco by Thanksgiving—the holiday was only weeks away. At best, I hoped I would cross the Golden Gate by Christmas. Even that seemed like a stretch. I still had months of walking ahead. It no longer felt urgent to maximize the distance I covered each day.

With Sam gone, DJ defeated, and Jack fading into my distant memory, I felt more free and untethered than ever. Even my feelings for Sally were diminishing. Now, every time I looked back on our relationship, I was filled with anger and regret. I accepted that our partnership was truly over.

I still had hopes that we would find a better relationship, somewhere further down the road. But I decided it was best if I didn’t contact her until I reached the Mexican border.

With that freedom came a feeling of deep loneliness that seemed reflected in the wild landscapes I walked past.

At the same time, I needed people more than ever. Increasingly, I leaned on Couchsurfing to connect me with strangers in the places I visited; fortuitous encounters in general stores, cafés, and libraries often resulted in some Good Samaritan bringing me home. Though I was intensely lucky to be white and a man—I can only imagine how different the experience would have been for someone of a different identity—I began to realize that I needed to be more discerning about who I could trust and who I couldn’t. In hindsight, I could see how each of Jack, Sam, and DJ had taught me an important lesson.

So had Peacewalker. As I encountered these strangers, I realized that my story was an important asset; I was fascinating and trustworthy primarily because of the absurdity of what I was doing. For weeks I had felt humiliated and like I deserved to be the butt of a joke, but now I see that there was something noble and even brave about my decision to walk. It said something about me, it alluded to a degree of strength and determination that I was carrying inside. I had spent so much of my life terrified that when I looked inside I would discover the weak cuckold that I had always envisioned. This discovery buoyed me too.

Inspired by Peacewalker’s advice to sing for my supper, I began experimenting with novel ideas and taking steps forward on my idea to Tell A Story About the Universal Similarities Between People. Everything I did was a prototype, a creative experiment. I was a prototype, a creative experiment. Every step was taking me away from who I was, and taking me towards something I longed to be. “Mexico” was slowly becoming an arbitrary destination, a place inside of myself as much as a physical location in the real world.

At night, after the sun set early, I would sit alone in the quiet of my tent, reading, meditating, thinking—even praying.

I was like a caterpillar, dreaming up my vision for the butterfly that I hoped one day I might become.

Through all of this, I tried to make sense of what had happened down there on mushrooms. I tried to fit it back into my map of reality. But increasingly, I was realizing that the map I had been given was wrong. With new awareness, I was inquiring into my habits and patterns. My thoughts, my beliefs, my stories, even the way that I walked and carried my body—what if some or all of that could be different?

It was a remarkable time in my life, a transformative moment in my trip—a time when I could slow down, rest, integrate. I descended past Bandon, past Port Orford, and Gold Beach. I descended past Humbug Mountain. I descended through torrential rainstorms and jaw-dropping sunsets that were so beautiful that they brought me to tears. Most of all, I descended through people’s stories.

Something was happening inside of me, something I lacked the words to describe. Something beautiful and important and transcendent and terrifying.

Finally, I descended past Brookings and reached the California State Line.

I was on my way into the heart of the old-growth forest. I was getting ready to meet the redwoods