Forty-seven years ago this July, a week short of my 16th birthday Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to make history my older brother Oscar and I were still reeling from the effects of a self-inflicted nutmeg overdose self administered the day before. The 60's could be brutal when it came to seeking new levels of consciousness.
We spent that summer of love on Sundown Ranch, a working cattle ranch in northeastern Arizona. While most of our friends went to “camp” as campers or junior counselors in the Berkshires, Oscar and I were sent west by our parents to a remote area of Arizona, high desert country full of cactus and snakes with few amenities other then ones own curiosity and a horse that mostly knew its way back to the ranch. The flight out from Boston that late May morning was my first time crossing the Mississippi River.
One blistering hot summer afternoon after we finished our chores, and without much else to occupy our free time, we choked down a coke bottle filled with water and a full can of ground nutmeg...the effects of which has since rendered any taste of that Far East spice off limits forever.
Three days of Technicolor infused extreme sickness embedded in chronic confusion and near madness followed. The first day was all hallucinations, the second day was hallucinations and the feeling of being stone drunk, the third day was an overwhelming feeling that a small mammal had burrowed into our stomachs and just before dying clawed around for a few hours to amuse itself before taking a shit, throwing up and calling it a day.
On the second day of this thankfully once in a lifetime experience...the 20th of July, my brother was suddenly gone. He left me at the ranch while he and some older kids were spirited off to the Mexican border in the back of a pickup truck. It was a preplanned trip…certainly not one he would have agreed to feeling the way that he did at the time but there was simply no telling the cowhands on the ranch what exactly was going on with either of us.
In my case I had to play sick for three days and lay low…not something easy to do when you were expected to work. Instead I was left at the ranch reeling from sickness and hallucinating for the next two days unable to eat, speak, ride my horse or raise my head off the stone that pretended to be a pillow.
I do recall the afternoon one of the cowhands barged into my cabin to say a man had just landed on the moon in a space capsule. I did not know a space flight to the moon had even been initiated. We did not have a TV or a radio available to us in the cabins. I thought it must be a hoax. As my mind battled heroically between the spasms of nausea and bright flashing colors I tried to imagine myself leap frogging across the lunar surface 250,000 miles from where I laid prostrate on a lumpy cot in a hot cabin filled with flies.
I’m happy to say I survived the experience and have counted my many blessings ever since. For days thereafter I thought I had imagined the moon landing. I did not personally see any newspaper or TV video of the actual moon landing for at least another month. I caught up with the rest of the world a month later while waiting for our plane home at the airport in Phoenix after a 5-hour ride in the back of a cattle truck. Smelling like horseshit it was going to be an interesting reentry all our own back to life in New England.
A few weeks before going home we spent an afternoon in the dusty little town of Snowflake, Arizona, the closest settlement to our ranch. I was sitting on the steps of a old hardware store admiring my
newly acquired pellet gun that only a day later I would break across a tree after seeing one of the many birds I had killed or wounded succumb to a quick and merciful decapitation by a ranch hand who was disgusted with my plans to now care for an animal that I had randomly shot off a fence post.
Back in Snowflake a VW microbus sputtered to a stop in front of me at the only signalized intersection in town. Across the side of the bus in rough white letters was painted "Woodstock or Bust!" I recall yelling to the driver, a longhaired super happy hippie-looking fellow "what's Woodstock?" He called back...."We don't know...but there's something big happening in New York and we're going. Over a half million people going too!"
They drove off into the setting sun which I knew instinctively was in the opposite direction of the main event they were intending on joining 2800 miles away to the east but I guessed they would all figure it out eventually.
And so as my summer of 1969 came to a close mankind had just weeks before navigated all the way to the moon and back. Here on earth a VW microbus full of young hippies on a dusty rural road elected to take the long way to Paradise.
As was the case with Neil Armstrong and his crew, I always hoped those kids made it safely back home.
A few weeks later I was back at my own home in Massachusetts. My now long growing hair would not see a barber’s scissors for another 7 years, not until the day before my college graduation when a barber on F Street agreed to sheer it off for nothing when I told him I wanted to do something nice for my parents who had put me through College.
And so my worldview was formed that summer of 1969 like a sprig of mint muddled between mortar and pestle in sweet Brazilian Cachaca. Hard going but liberating and consequential just the same.