Trichocereus Bridgesii, Just South of Lima

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Image retrieved from on April 4th, 2014.

From Titicaca we crossed the mountains to the sea, passing salt flats colored with wild flamingos and dropping into the shadow of El Misti, an immense snowcapped volcano. At dawn we slipped through Arequipa, an old Inca town transformed by the Spaniards and built entirely with pearly white stone, and continued west to Camana and the coast. From there we sped north. It was the end of summer, and light fog hung over the desert, obscuring the sky and darkening the cliffs that ran along the shore. By evening we were drinking beer in Chala, a small fishing village that once sent runners into the mountains to Cuzco to deliver fresh fish for the table of the Inca. We slept by the roadside on the hard sand and woke before light. By early morning we were two hundred miles north, having passed through the ancient Nazca lines and pause for just a few minutes to rest in the orange groves of Palpas. Just south of Lima we pulled off the road once more. A flight of seabirds brought us to the shore, and we came upon a rocky bluff that sheltered an isolated cove, a crescent beach of white sand curled around a small island speckled with guano.
It was noon, and the sun had burned off the sea mist. We waited for an hour or two until the light softened somewhat, and then we ate several handfuls of the dried flesh of a cactus we had found in the mountains of Bolivia. It was a wild relative of huachuma, or San Pedro, the Cactus of the Four winds, a magical plant rich in mescaline used by curanderos on the northern coast of Peru. The species we had collected, Trichocereus bridgesii, had never been reported as a hallucinogen, but an old Aymara woman we had met on the altiplano had referred to it as achuma and said that it made one drunk with visions.
We sat quietly on the sand, watching the waves crash on the shore. Both of use soon felt queasy, a faint trace of nausea that could have been the first sign of intoxication or the onset of poisoning. This uncertainty slowly gave way to an unmistakable sensation, a warmth in the belly, a faint intimation of what lies ahead. The wind breathing in the air, a spitting up white froth. Suddenly the wave was within, the ebb and flow, pulsing, moving physically into the body.
We stood up and walked along the beach toward a headland where the ocean swell broke over a series of tidal pools, alive with starfish, urchins, and crabs. A surge of energy carried us up the face of a cliff, bare feet touching rock, dark stones bursting into blossoms, the wind blowing off the sea lifted us onto a broad promontory beyond which lay the entire desert. Every gesture brought forth a reaction in the dry air, a wave of color that ran away to the horizon. The air took form, became tactile. It was like swimming in a pool of soft pastel light. I turned and saw Tim silhouetted against the sea, overhead was the confusion of a dazzling sky. Around the sun were figures flying in circles, creatures with red breasts, blue serpents for hair, and eyes like saucers of light spinning in tighter and tighter circles. A cortex of memory. A song, a luminous spiral. Tim's voice, a vision of blinding light, a tapestry of pearls embroidered with gold and silver thread, a blanket to rest on.
The sky opened. A dome of the deepest blue gave way to black with small crystals of light flaring on all sides. I looked down and saw the brown earth receding. We were caught on the wings of birds, passing through space, through emptiness, over lands of purple sand and rivers of glass running to the sea. From the desert shapes emerged, castles and temples, enormous lizards draped over dunes, totemic figures etched onto the sand, a mere semblance of known things. Flying along the wild face of mountains, in the wind the touch of clouds on feathers. They were out feathers, sprung from the skin. The eye of a hawk. The beauty of water carving veins in the earth. The wind carrying us away into the night sky and beyond the scattered stars. Nothing to fear.
Suddenly, a distant voice came from far below. A well of darkness. The pail face of a smiling child. I turned and saw a raptor arched across a morning sky, flying on, its beak aimed at the center of the sun. There was no sound, just the image of a soaring bird heading for oblivion. And then a slow spiralling descent that seemed to draw the earth to my feet. And once again the ground. Slowly I stood up and walked to the point overlooking the sea. The sun was down. Hours had passed I looked back and saw Tim sitting on a stone at the center of a pool of velvet light. Pogo darted in and out of the shadow. We had no idea where we were, and for a moment Tim seemed uncertain.
”Are you okay?” I asked. The words came awkwardly. We both laughed.
”Did you see the sun?” Tim said.
In that moment all things seemed possible. A collective vision, movement through time and space, metamorphosis—these were no more illusory or wondrous than the beauty of a dry blade of grass sprouting from beneath a rock in that barren desert.
Tim followed me to the edge of the bluff. We walked blindly but managed to find a way down the rocks. The moon had yet to rise, and beyond the far side of the cove, headlights passed in the darkness. We rested on the beach and then continued up the shore, retracing our steps until we came upon a strange sight: an enormous whale bone stranded in the sand. I looked back and saw waves of color flowing from Tim's brow. I walked on, climbing slowly up a steep slope that rose from the sea. Pogo darted ahead, chasing a fox. I paused at the crest of the hill and waited. To the east the mountains lay bare, a dark ridge on the night horizon. Overhead stretched the Milky way. And here below, parked on the desert floor, was the Red Hotel.
The moon had turned slowly through the sky, and the desert was coming alive. Colors softened. The light changed, and silver traces flashed by in the rough wind. The surge of waves on the shore, the deep breath of exhaustion. We collapsed on the sand, with Pogo hovering by our side. Clouds rolled by, time was suspended. The smugglers worked throughout the night. Foxes yelped, the odd bird cried. Gradually the eastern sky lightened, and the first intimations of dawn took us both by surprise.
”Listen to that,” Tim said.
There was a low drown in the earth, deep, unmistakable. An impulse, resonant and complete.
”That is the sound of life,” he said. “I'm not speaking in metaphor. I mean the actual sound of life. The tone of energy within your cells.”
The dawn was fully upon us, and the clouds to the east took on a luminous tone in an empty sky. Every color of the sunset returned in an infinitely more subtle hue. A great rolling wall of mist swept over the shore, and by the time it dissipated, there were fishermen on the beach, combing the surf for bait.

pp. 451, 453 One River by Wade Davis (1996)

San Pedro