I remember looking down at the psychedelic mushrooms — inelegantly draped over American cheese on a dollar-menu cheeseburger — and wondering if this was really going to be my first foray into psilocybin. The taste was a little gamey, but the burger was gone in seconds; I was ready for my trip to begin.
Two weeks earlier, one of our fraternity pledges had proudly announced that he was growing the mushrooms in his dorm room closet and, eager to impress, offered to share with two of us. I was 21, a passable but not excellent design student with all the external trappings of a frat boy: boat shoes, a backwards cap emblazoned with my fraternity letters, some random T-shirt earned by getting chummy with the sororities on campus. In many ways, I looked like and was a parade of stereotypes about men, fraternities, and college life. I was expecting to spend the afternoon laying around and laughing at nothing. What I would actually find on my trip was altogether different.
My relationship with the avant garde, in fashion and in visual art, was that of a wistful observer. I always felt like I was admiring shocks of color, asymmetric silhouettes, and the surreally weird as though I were pressed up against a glass pane, seeing it so clearly but never quite touching anything myself.
My design work was restrained and minimal. I could never bring myself to lean in and allow myself to make mistakes, or pick weird colors, or think outside the drawing pad, and my grades reflected the abilities of someone who was technically gifted but conceptually tepid. Most of my work wasn’t especially memorable, and I ended up using my drawing ability as something of a crutch whenever possible. Every now and then, I’d get a flash of inspiration: a three-foot-wide pair of deep-red lips jutting from the wall, or a huge paper kimono covered in intricate seasonal detailing. In those moments, I always felt like a curious oddity: the bro in Sperrys with an eye for rich, feminine beauty who spent more time in the business school and the fraternity house than anywhere near the art building.
After we ate the burgers, we made our way out to Devil’s Backbone, in Canyon Lake, Texas. The high from the mushrooms was a slow burn, but I eventually realized that the nature around me had at some point gone from good to great and we were all having a wonderful time. Moving through some brush, we found a low river and started to walk along the dry, cracked clay of the riverbed. I moved a little more slowly, stooping down to touch rocks and feel the scratch of the dirt on my palms. It was then that I reached the edge of the water, where the river flowed and gurgled past. I looked deep into the riverbed and, dipping the toe of my shoe into the water, flicked my foot across the dry clay, watching the water turn the soil from dusty, pale gray into a rich, warm chocolate, glossy and smooth.
Why was this color so easy and so beautiful? What had I been missing this whole time? It’s a tough thing to explain — what life-changing trip isn’t? — but I never saw color the same way again. I’ve always been quiet and hesitant; in my art, this meant a very slow, uncertain approach to a blank canvas, with muted grays and soft watercolors. Here, with a splash of water, was something richer than I’d ever trusted myself to do before. Tears started to well up within me. I was transfixed, watching the water bloom in the soil and then evaporate into the hot air of a Texas summer.
All of this did not escape the notice of my fraternity brothers, who came over to see if I was okay. (I suspect, even when on mushrooms, seeing your friend staring sadly into a river is a red flag.) I shook off the tears, and we continued on. I remember little else about the rest of the trip, except for continuing to fixate on the water droplets even as we moved down the river and back to the car. As we were coming off the mushrooms, we drove down the overlook of Devil’s Backbone in time for a sunset over miles of hill country. I felt so present and so serene, as though I’d been gifted with experiencing color for the first time all over again.
In my art, I never went back. Slicks of jet-black India ink replaced hesitant, scratchy pencil marks in soft lead. Pure cyans and neon yellows supplanted lifeless, grayed skin tones. I started to take more risks, drawing what I wanted instead of what I thought other people wanted to see from me. Men appeared in my work more frequently; bodies and poses became more risqué. I loved my fraternity but realized I was losing myself by trying to look and act like someone else.
On that evening, looking out over rolling greenery and rich, orange earth, I broke through the glass I’d felt trapped behind for years. The things we experience on our trips can be deeply personal and sound outright comical out of context (yes, I cried over splashes of water on dirt), but the change they bring to us can forever alter the course of who we are. For me, that change just so happened to arrive atop a cheeseburger.