We were standing on a 300-foot bluff along the edge of Raven Rock when the LSD began to take hold. I was three hours into my trip, and about an hour prior I had eaten a second tab, assuming that the first one had somehow managed to subside.
I was regretting that decision now, as the earth began to shift beneath me, and the arms of several trees began to twist and weave like vines. We had traveled two miles to get here, hiking through a rugged section of the forest known as Coopers Rock. The trek was exhilarating, save for an unsavory moment during which I doubted my ability to negotiate a leap. This was the drugs talking … talking so loud and convincingly that the only mechanism I could conjure to halt the grinding tension was to repeat the phrase, “Raven Rock is dead ahead. Raven Rock is dead ahead,” until it echoed off the edge of West Virginia. One false move and the entire mechanism might go kablooey, setting me adrift in barren darkness. Either that, or I’d somehow manage to pull it all together, easing down in flaccid layers until my psyche took control.
It was a Thursday in October when the four of us – Mike Higgins, Gerry Vessels and Camel Joe and me – set out. Our first stop was Ligonier, Pennsylvania, a mining town located 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. Ligonier was small, a town of 1,500, built around a modest square with a bandstand. The town was sandwiched in the Westmoreland Valley between Chestnut Ridge and Laurel Mountain. It was an area most commonly associated with Idlewild Amusement Park – voted Best Kid’s Complex in the World by the editors of Amusement Today Magazine two years in a row.
Our plan was to drive across Pennsylvania, set up camp, and then chart a course south for Morgantown, West Virginia, the following morning. We had settled on Ligonier because Mike Higgins had spent his childhood there, and he was familiar with the lay of the land. Whereas State College or Pittsburgh would’ve required a hotel room, Mike was fairly certain we could sleep beneath the stars in Ligonier for free. Yet despite that, we were still canvassing the area around dusk, desperate for some back-door entrance to an arboretum or state park. The four of us were high, and hungry, and more than eager to get our drink on, despite the fact we had no alcohol between us. Just after nightfall Mike doubled back along the Rural Route, hoping to ask an old family friend if he could direct us toward a place to camp.
We pulled up out front of a ranch-style rambler, set several feet back from the road. There was a rusty trailer anchored deep along the main house with a pair of “His” and “Her” toilets clamped down upon the roof. There were broken twigs about the yard, an uprooted parking meter leaning up against the shed, and very little otherwise in the way of any welcoming decor.
Gerry Vessels had been uneasy ever since we’d entered Ligonier, maintaining several of the same assumptions about country people that the majority of them maintained about him. To Gerry – a North-Philadelphia native – every cabin in the woods symbolized fugitives on the lam, clusters of in-breeding and redneck violence. “This is a bad idea,” I heard Gerry whisper. He was staring out the window with a stiff look of concern.
The man we’d come to visit was a Westmoreland native: Jim Wagner. Jim welcomed us with a round of Schmidt’s Bavarian beer, a case of which he kept on dry ice. Jim used a poker to shift the cans around. “That shit’ll tear your hands off,” Jim told us. He removed dark gloves, revealing appendages that were a gruesome mix of red and white.
All five of us sat huddled around a table, Gerry Vessels growing increasingly frantic. Jim Wagner had settled into telling us about a pack of outlaws who poached the crops from several nearby fields. “I ain’t got no problem with the outlaws,” Jim told us. “And they ain’t got no problem with me.” Jim got up and disappeared along a hallway. “You remember Old Yeller?” Jim yelled.
“I think so,” Mike replied.
Jim emerged a few seconds later, cradling a single-barrel rifle in his hands. “Here she is,” Jim told us. “Old Yeller … the best friend a man can have.”
With embers crackling in the background, Jim discussed the work he’d spent his whole life doing, how he’d been forced out of his job, how he felt old and injured and unable to keep on, how he drank a half-a-case of beer every evening, how he shrugged it off like jet lag come the dawn.
When it came time to leave Jim presented us with a case of Schmidt’s Bavarian. We followed his directions to a campground 15 minutes east. The following morning we headed south on 119, en route to Morgantown, West Virginia.
Our first night at the University of West Virginia was a blur. We’d been drinking since mid-day at our friend Kevin’s house, and a handful of us decided to smoke a bowl laced with hash prior to heading out for the evening.
Our first stop was a campus bar where two of us used the same ID to gain access at the door. From that point, we took a roll-and-tumble down a quarter-mile hill, I vomited on somebody’s lawn, there was an incident involving a lamppost and a running joke about the library. When I woke up on Saturday morning some dude in the living room offered me a hit of LSD and I took it.
After placing the tab on my tongue – a brand of acid known as Micronaut – I felt virile, unencumbered by Mailer’s assertion that LSD was a devil’s drug “designed to consume the love of the best, and leave them liver-wasted; weeds of the city.” By two o’clock, half a dozen of us were traipsing stoned through Coopers Rock, laughing at things that weren’t very funny, catching glimpses of light between our hands. The breeze set autumn leaves adrift, spinning like chips in a kaleidoscope. The vibes ran slow and easy, causing me to assume any risk of a bad trip had long since past. That is until I stepped out on the bluff at Raven Rock, and the earth gave way beneath me.
It was at that moment, as the trees began to plot against me and the air went still and violent, that I retreated into the brush, where I found myself sucked back into the confines of old Jim Wagner’s rancher. I was staring down the muzzle of Old Yeller, uncertain of whether it was Jim or me that had his hand pressed on the trigger.
Minutes later, I could feel myself thrust forward, fast and uncontrollably, through a continuum of time, past the bluff at Raven Rock and the slow, uneven hangover awaiting me come Sunday, past my return to the weary streets of Swarthmore, past a spate of violent clashes with my father, past November, then December, past a hard-sell negotiation which forced my re-enrollment at Penn State; past frigid mornings spent bracing against the cold; past a two-hour, two-transfer commute to and from the local campus; past writing papers as a mode of employment; past broken friendships and betrayal; past passing out in vacant fields; past the inauguration of Bill Clinton and the premiere of Monday Night Raw, thrust deep and true into the heart of winter, where I came to rest upon a fraying couch. I was in the basement of a North Philadelphia rowhome. There was a party going on, and some goon in Cavariccis kept wandering past me. He was offering to tase me for a dollar.
On the far side of the room, a punch-drunk behemoth named Mark sat perched upon a stool, catching steel-tip darts with his hands. Across from him sat Gerry Vessels, who had invited me to hang out in North Philadelphia for the evening.
Across the room, a punch-drunk behemoth named Mark was catching steel-tip darts with his bare hands. Mark was sitting alongside Gerry Vessels, who had invited me to hang out in Allegheny for the evening. It was 11 pm and the party was bustling. The cops had already warned us to keep it down more than once.
Just before midnight word spread that there was a gang of Puerto Ricans out front. These Puerto Ricans had been turned away twice, and they were angry. I was pumping a keg toward the back basement door when something resembling a fountain soda splattered hard against the glass. There were people storming in through the backyard now. I could see them through the curtains. “C’MON, MOTHERFUCKERS!” I heard one of them say. He was wearing stonewashed jeans, one hand covered by a leather boot as if it were a cesta.
That prompted the taser dude to toss his plastic cup aside, then go racing up the basement steps, screaming that the Boricau were coming. Some tall dude in ripped jeans cut a hard line to a utility closet, from which he emerged carrying a cast-metal toolbox underneath one of his arm. He assumed the role of sergeant-at-arms, speeding down a makeshift line of foot soldiers, handing out all manner of weaponry for them to carry into battle.
I was still watching from a corner of the basement when some Kenzo in a backwards cap slapped me on the arm, and said, “C’mon, man. Let’s get ’em.”
With that, I pulled the basement door wide open and tucked myself inside its shadow, standing in wait as the entire rank began to billow and shear into a frenzy.
Taser dude went charging forth into the yard. He ran head-on into a swarm of Puerto Ricans, one of whom drilled him across the head with a bat. Taser dude’s skull snapped backward. His body shifted at the waist. Through a crack in the door I could see fresh blood spurting out of his nose.
Several others came funneling out of the basement now in an effort to force that swarm into the alley. The Puerto Ricans held their ground. Rather than fall back, the infantry dug in, several of them wielding junk-pile appliances like armaments.
A unified front came funneling out of the basement now. The Puerto Ricans held their ground, several of them wielding junk-pile appliances like armaments. Gerry Vessels began tangling with a pair of banditos, one of whom kept swinging a three-foot ironing board within inches of Gerry’s face. Some dude in a bandana was slowly pivoting to Gerry’s left, piercing him with the butt-end of a broomstick. Gerry’s buddy Mark began cutting the air with a screwdriver, warding off the wolves with a torch.
The basement ran empty, save for a dozen weathered females, the bulk of whom stood staring at me from across the cellar. My cover was blown, and so I shimmied out from behind the shadows. When the action reached a climax, I hurried out into the fore.
One of the Puerto Ricans spun around. He dropped into a crouch, and prepared to up-end me. I came in tight, juked right, then left, at which point I sprinted hard and cleared a fence into the neighboring yard. That fucker gave chase. I could hear the chain links rattling. I made a right, and then leapt clear into the alley. I sprung to and made a break for the open road.
“Stray cat!” I heard somebody yell. “Yo! We got a stray cat out here, motherfuckers!”
Those assholes were flailing potted plants at my feet. I used my only advantage to break away, high-stepping through the alley. I had broken off from my platoon. I was completely on my own.
I hit the corner running, then cut hard around a row of bushes. I fell out of sight, then doubled back through the brush. I was clearing gates like hurdles now – one hand on every bar for leverage – and I could see a blur of jackets zipping past toward the road.
I made one final leap, passing drunk casualties in the yard. The basement appeared more like a MASH unit now, with first-aid, gauze and ganja being administered throughout. At some point during the skirmish, Gerry Vessels had let fly with a stream of pepper spray, dousing not only his assailants, but several of his cohorts, as well. I grabbed my beer. People were washing their eyes clean in a utility sink. A few feet away, some dude named Jay was going on about how those “wetback motherfuckers” would be lucky if the only thing Gerry Vessels was packing was pepper spray the next time he saw them.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or the lingering effects of pepper spray in the air. Perhaps it was the fact that all of this was taking place as I flashed forward. But the fact remained that I could see the white-picket lines of my existence incrementally cascading into gray. I found myself questioning the people whose side I was supposed to be on. It was becoming clear I held no interest in choosing any sides at all.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)