I am going to tell you a story today. The story of how I lost my backpack, and how it felt good to lose my backpack. And somehow everything is related to a cactus called peyote.
It all started in Real de Catorce. Real de Catorce is a small village in the middle of the San Luis Potosian desert in Northern Mexico. It was a long time ago a very prosperous mining town, however it got abandoned, and today it is home to occasional Mexican tourists and to hippies from all around the world.
And all these hippies are here for one reason: peyote. This little cactus that only grows in the Mexican desert. It’s spineless, so you can take it in your hands without problem. You can even eat it. And it’s when you eat it that the magic happens: hallucinations, psychedelic journeys, metaphysical introspection.
It was used since a long time ago by the indigenous Huichols living in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico in their religious rituals, which involve singing, weeping, and contact with ancestor spirits. The Huichols believe that it should be, along with the occasional medicinal use, the only reason to consume peyote, especially that today it is getting extinct. But peyote got really popular with the Beat Generation, and today travelers from all around the world want to try it for their spiritual quest or just for fun.
Anyway, back to my story. So I wanted to try it too, for my own spiritual quest, or something like that. And I made a trip to Real de Catorce.
It was a Sunday morning at the height of autumn. After a 2-hour ride from Matehuala, the car dropped me in front of a tunnel dug inside the mountain which led to Real de Catorce. I walked inside the tunnel, water was dripping from the ceiling, the dim lights created a spine-chilling atmosphere. It appeared like a long and dark teleportation tunnel from our modern reality to another world where magic still existed.
After 20 minutes I saw the end of the tunnel. Real de Catorce seemed like a ghost town squatted today by people interested in this particular kind of tourism. Yet I sensed the might of earlier times. I found myself a cheap room, dropped my backpack, and went to the streets to talk to hippie bracelet-selling travelers, since I thought they should be informed about peyote.
After talking to three of them, I got a bit disappointed. Every one of them wanted to take me to the desert for a peyote experience for 200 pesos or more, because you needed a jeep to get there, and it’s very hard to recognize the cactus. It felt like a tourist trap. The night was falling, so I decided to do something: do these 15 or so kilometers to the desert by walking, camp there for a night, and find peyote myself. I know what peyote looks like, I can fucking recognize it.
I ate a huge breakfast in the morning. Since all this involved a lot of walking, I figured it would be wise to leave desert-unrelated stuff in Real de Catorce instead of carrying it with me. So I left my computer, some clothes, and my ukulele at the doña of the guest house. I took my big backpack with all the camping gear, my warm clothes and my diary, then headed to the nearest grocery shop, and bought water, tuna and tortilla chips in significant quantity. I was ready.
And I walked. And walked. Three hours passed and I saw no one. No people, no jeeps, nothing, only the deep desert ahead of me. When suddenly, I heard some horse-steps at the distance. Soon after, the guy on the horse shouted:
“Hey amigo! How are you? Are you looking for peyote?”
“And you’re alone? Do you know how to find peyote? It’s not that easy.”
“I know what it looks like. I’ll find it myself.”
“Hey listen. I’m from a village 30 minutes walking from here, in the desert. We can go there together, and I’ll take you to a spot where you can find a lot of peyote by motorcycle. For 50 pesos.”
Oh, so he was a local guy. 30 years old, short hair. 50 pesos was not that much, and I’d be sure to find peyote, plus maybe I’d learn some stuff about how to eat it from a local guy.
That’s how I met Enrique. We chatted for 30 minutes on our way to the village, him on the horse and me by foot. The village was actually just merely 10 small houses and a tiny supermarket. Enrique tied his horse, and invited me with a movement of the hand to join him on the motorcycle.
We drove half an hour in one direction. He then stopped near a small tree, and ordered me to get down of the motorcycle. We immediately started searching for peyote. Enrique was shouting “Mezcalito! Mezcalito!” all the time, apparently that’s how the peyote finds you, so I started shouting with him. Then I heard:
And I ran towards Enrique. He pushed aside the leaves of a small shrub on the ground, and there lied, in the shadow, a small peyote. “We shouldn’t eat the first peyote we find, as it is the gate to the magic world. If you eat the first peyote, the gate will be forever closed.” Shortly after we found a second one. “Thank you, Mezcalito,” he said, facing the sky. With his machete, he cut down a branch from a nearby small tree, and sharpened it. “You can never cut peyote directly with steel,” he said. He then proceeded to cut the peyote with his new wooden knife, carefully leaving the roots inside the ground. “Like this, this peyote can grow again in the next couple of years.”
I took the peyote in my hands like an amazed kid. We then walked a bit more, found some other peyote which I cut myself, thanking Mezcalito each time, until I had a handful of peyote. We went back to the motorcycle, I handed him a 50 pesos’ bill, thanked him, and he took off.
And I started eating my peyote, alone in the desert. It tasted awful. I chewed, swallowed as much as I could, and washed down the rest with water. The bitterness stayed in my tongue. The first effects should appear in 2 or 3 hours, so I decided to prepare my tent for the night. When everything was set up, I threw my backpack inside the tent.
Then I heard some more horse-steps. But this time more than one horse. I saw a group of 4 people riding horses far away, so I waved towards them. They were riding in my direction. They were 3 Russians tourists in the desert for peyote with a local guide. When they arrived, they sat down next to me, the peyote effects were starting to appear on them. Two of them watched the sky silently, and I chatted with the third one. He was laughing a lot.
After an hour, they needed to head back to Real. Clearly, the peyote effect was still strong on them. We parted, and I felt the need to lie down on the ground, eyes wide open.
And I felt in complete communion with the nature. I felt part of the desert. The bushes, the small trees, the sky, the insects, we were all part of the same desert. The clouds were dancing above me, everything was slow, peaceful. I felt like I was the Nature.
I don’t know how much time I stayed like that, but when I stood up, the sun was very low, and I was getting hungry. I went back to the tent, took some tortilla chips and tuna with me, and walked 30m to a big rock nearby which served as table. The sunset was beautiful.
Suddenly, a young man appeared behind me and said “Hi!” He was Mexican, hippie-looking, with gauges. We started to chat, he was also in the desert for peyote, with his friend, and they were camping not too far on the other side of the hill. He said he saw my orange tent from afar so decided to come to talk with me.
We had an interesting conversation, very relaxed, maybe because both of us just consumed peyote. Every word seemed clear and important. Darkness was getting down, so he decided to go back to his friend.
He walked away. I had already finished my tuna and tortilla chips, so I headed back to my tent. I opened it. And I stood there immobile for two seconds. When I realized what had happened, I felt a jolt in my heart.
My backpack disappeared.
Cover photo credits Philip Light.