“Welcome to the SpringHill Suites, Mr. Hughes. What brings you to Pittsburgh?”
Well, Scott, that’s a great fucking question. I am here because I have lost my will to live. A darkness has been growing inside me for decades, and it has metastasized into every part of my mind, body, and soul. I used to be able to pretend everything was okay, but I have run out of places to stuff all this pain. Now it’s spilling out of me and hurting everyone I love. You are probably thinking, if things are that bad, then I should just kill myself, right? Unfortunately, I tried the whole suicide thing but chickened out at the last minute. It’s harder to pull that trigger than you think. Here is the crazy part, Scott. Just when I had finally resigned myself to eking out the rest of my miserable existence, I met a mystical octopus named Frank, who suggested, telepathically, of course, I should rent a car and drive eight hours to Pittsburgh to attend a hippie convention where they will be discussing the magical healing powers of psychedelics. My mission is to find a spiritual sherpa to help me navigate a big enough dose of psilocybin to shock my brain out of its funk. I sure hope Frank knows what he’s doing because it is only a matter of time before the darkness convinces me to put that gun back in my mouth. Oh, and I also have a reward certificate for a free night at any Marriott that expires at the end of the month.
While this was true, dumping my problems on Scott didn’t seem fair. He’s the receptionist, not a therapist. So I decided to lie and say I was meeting up with some friends. I was exhausted from the long drive, so I grabbed a quick dinner and went straight to bed.
I woke up Saturday morning, got ready, ate my complimentary continental breakfast, grabbed a to-go coffee, and requested an Uber with plenty of time to spare.
“You’re my third trip to that location this morning,” Jacob said inquisitively.
I intended to give him the same bullshit answer I gave Scott, but then the truth started pouring out of me. It was a short ride, so I went with the cliff note version; debilitating depression, too much of a coward to kill myself, “How to Change Your Mind”, glowing octopus, psychedelic conference. He even felt inspired to share a few of his own stories, mostly about tripping balls at Grateful Dead shows when he was much younger.
I enjoyed our short conversation but got sad when I found it easier to be my authentic self with a total stranger. I tried to imagine how different my life might be if I could be that honest around the people I loved. He dropped me off out front and wished me luck.
The conference was held at an old mansion in the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I imagined how beautiful this place must have been when it was built, probably in the 1920s, but now it looked exactly like a place where a bunch of hippies would gather to talk about plant medicine. I climbed the dozen concrete steps and followed the sidewalk up the small hill to the front porch, where they had set up the registration table. I checked in, stuck the name tag to my shirt, and went through the front door.
I was barely inside when this wave of nervous energy washed over me. I felt like Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, navigating my first day at a new high school. The experience even came complete with an intimidating school bully, but instead of Johnny Lawrence dressed up in skeleton Underoos, my ego was the one harassing me.
There were no metal lockers to be found, but if there were, he would have violently slammed me up against them, got up in my face, and warned me that I didn’t belong here. I just wished I had my own Japanese handyman, who was secretly a karate sensei, to teach me how to defend myself from this annoying asshole.
The first official session of the conference wasn’t scheduled to start for an hour, so I wandered around the house trying to make friends. I would introduce myself to the person, exchange pleasantries, and eventually get to the “Why are you here?” part of the conversation. As soon as I shared I was looking for a guide, the other person would immediately shut down and give me some bullshit response like, “I’m sorry, I really can’t help you with that.” After the fourth cold shoulder, I snuck a whiff of my armpits, wondering if I had forgotten to put deodorant on this morning.
Just as I was about to give up, a young man approached me and introduced himself as one of the conference organizers. He tried his best to make it seem like an organic conversation, but it quickly became apparent that someone had narced on me, and he had been sent to deal with the situation. He gave me some spiel about how this was an educational conference and that I shouldn’t be asking questions about finding a guide or anything else related to the personal use of these substances.
I considered telling him Michael Pollan told me to do it but decided instead to apologize and pretend I wouldn’t do it again. He pretended to believe me, thanked me for attending the event, and then resumed his hippie duties, which I assumed included making hand-crafted organic soaps to sell at farmers’ markets.
My first reaction was to try and figure out who snitched, but that seemed juvenile and pointless. I had been careful not to specifically solicit any services and never once mentioned any illicit substances, so why were people avoiding me like the plague?
I finally got my answer as I walked past a mirror in the hallway. I looked exactly like a federal narcotics agent who didn’t have time to change into his undercover disguise before trying to infiltrate a psychedelic conference. I didn’t have a single tattoo or piercing anywhere on my body. Instead of a cool man-bun, I had a standard-issue military buzz cut. Then there was my outfit. My khakis and short sleeve button-down shirt from Orvis might as well have been a shiny DEA badge hanging around my neck. Everything about me screamed outsider.
My ego was right. I didn’t fucking belong here.
“Hi, I’m Ali.” Her real name was Rachel, but her resemblance to Elizabeth Shue (from The Karate Kid) was uncanny. I assumed she decided to introduce herself when she heard me get fussed at by the school principal and saw I could use a friend. We spent a few minutes chatting and eventually got to the part that had ruined all the other connections, but to my surprise, we just kept talking.
After listening intently to my story, she smiled and told me she thought I was courageous and wished everyone who was suffering could also find their way to the healing power of these sacred plants. I got so lost in her presence that I forgot why I was even in Pittsburgh. “I think the first session is about to start. What do you say we go find a seat?”
I followed her around the rest of the day like a younger brother visiting his older sister at college while she walked around the sorority house, introducing me to all her amazing friends. It was so easy for her to connect with people, and whenever she met someone new, she would say, “… and this is my friend Hank.” She was the kindest, most compassionate person I had ever met.
We ate lunch together, and when we were finished, I snuck off for a quick bathroom break. The next session was in a large tent they had set up in the backyard. The sides were rolled up because it was still pretty warm for September, and they hoped the light breeze would help cool things down. As I made my way outside, I looked around for Ali and saw her near the back of the tent, signaling me to come over. “Hank, this is Mark, and I think you two might have some things in common.” We shook hands, and then Ali instinctively slipped away to give us time to talk.
Mark was a fascinating guy. He told me he was an Archetypal Astrologer, author, and artist. I had no clue what archetypal astrology was, but he seemed familiar with all the things I was interested in learning. More importantly, he was the first person willing to share any of the info with me, so I just stood there soaking it all in. The next presenter asked everyone to take their seats, so we quickly exchanged email addresses. He told me he would send me some links later in the week that might help me find a guide for my first big journey.
And just like Michael Pollan had suggested in his book “How to Change Your Mind”, I had found the secret door between the above-ground and underground psychedelic worlds, all thanks to an imaginary octopus, a gathering of hippies, and a beautiful soul named Ali.
I had planned on attending both days of the conference, but the sessions were definitely designed for mental health practitioners, and it all felt a bit over my head. Not to mention, I still had Johnny Lawrence following me around all day, reminding me that this was a huge waste of time, and we both knew exactly how this was going to end. He was relentless. I looked at the time and calculated that if I left now, I could be back in my own bed before midnight. Having already found the hole in the membrane, I decided it was time to pack up and go. But first, I had to say goodbye to Ali.
She said she would miss me on Sunday but respected my decision to leave. She gave me a big hug and told me she believed in her heart that I would eventually find the peace I was looking for, and for the first time in my life, I started to believe it too.
In my haste to catch my Uber, I forgot we had not exchanged contact information, but I figured I could connect with her on Facebook when I got home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember her last name or if she even shared it. Over the next few months, I used every nugget that Ali shared about herself to help build a proper Google search, but I never found her. I even contacted the conference organizer to see if they had her information, but they refused to share it, citing privacy concerns, but part of me wondered if they still thought I was a cop.
I guess the Universe thought our five-hour relationship was perfect exactly the way it was because that was the last time I would ever talk to Ali.
Whenever I think about her, I just remind myself… We’ll always have Pittsburgh.
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