Loading…
0:00
42:22

Trevor had rented an Audi Q5 in Monsoon metallic, a luxury SUV, but smaller than it should have been, given the four of us and the camping stuff and the cooler, plus the costumes and the makeup and the snacks. After meeting the other passengers — Brooklyn roommates Diane, a real estate agent from Japan, and Aliya, a pharmacist and part-time actress — outside a Williamsburg Starbucks, he settled into the driver’s seat and studied the dashboard nav system with a boyish reverence for the tech.

Trevor was from London. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, flip-flops, and a ball cap. He was given to phrases like, “You make your own luck in life,” but he seemed like a guy for whom some of the luck had come baked in. A big fellow, maybe 6'4", and handsome with a gym rat’s physique, he resembled Superman, but a notch better, due to the accent.

Our destination was, let’s call it RISE, an exclusive three-day dance-music festival-cum-New Age spiritual retreat held on a 10-acre property in the wilds of New England, to which I’d wrangled an extremely hard-to-get invitation. (The name of the event has been changed, as have the names of attendees and organizers.)

Successful young professionals — many with a polyamorous bent, some bearing fanny packs stuffed with pharmaceuticals — were heading to the woods to party, and I hoped to join them.

The guests were a tight-knit bunch; many had been showing up every year since attending a wedding together on the property in 2008. Beyond a few rumors, I had little idea what to expect. I knew only that a tribe of more than 250 attractive and successful young professionals — many with a polyamorous bent, some bearing fanny packs stuffed with pharmaceuticals — were heading to the woods to party their asses off for three days in August, and that I hoped to join them.

The assignment would likely mean subjecting myself to nearly 50 hours, in aggregate, of deep house, tropical house, techno house, and drum ’n’ bass, but I’d manage.

Introduced via email to the organizer, an entrepreneur I’ll call Lev, I’d concocted a powerful pitch affirming my mission to write about the creation of “intentional community.” I would show readers, I promised, that what seems like little more than a party can actually “be therapeutic and even liberating, especially at a time when so much seems to be going wrong in the world.”

I cringe a bit to reread that email now. I won’t quote the entire thing, but let’s just say it’s ingratiating and overeager and a even touch disingenuous — because although I would indeed have been perfectly happy to write about a radical utopian experiment and the seeds of a transformative social movement, what I actually expected to find was a privileged band of naive but endearing pleasure seekers spouting New Age banalities.

But there’s another reason the letter makes me cringe. That line about the possibility of a party being therapeutic and liberating? What I didn’t understand when I wrote those words — what only became clear later, thanks to a lack of sleep, hours of dancing, and my willing consumption of a variety of pharmaceuticals and “plant medicines” — was that the therapy and liberation I was really after were my own.

Of course, I’d also have to file a story.


We have all read voyeuristic features about emerging subcultures. Appearing regularly in glossy magazines or the style pages of major newspapers, they are written from a certain remove and with an artful deadpan, offering their subjects up on the altar of parody and leaving them bleeding out in a quivering heap while allowing the assassin an airtight alibi. The trick is that you “show, don’t tell.” You “let people hang themselves with their own rope.” You lay it all out there and leave it to the reader to render judgment, knowing full well that, especially on Twitter, readers like nothing better.

There are techniques, of course, to help things along. You stay away from adjectives, which could be a giveaway of hostile intent. You layer on meaningless details, especially brand names, as a way of suggesting that such superficialities really matter to your subject, thereby making him or her seem unserious, when in fact they probably couldn’t care less. (For example: not a merely “a silver SUV” but “a Audi Q5 luxury SUV in Monsoon metallic”; not a coffee shop in Brooklyn, but a Starbucks in Williamsburg, etc.). And often, instead of quoting people directly, you paraphrase them, ideally in out-of-context run-on sentences that sound adorably silly.

I wouldn’t be mean, but then again, I wouldn’t have to. RISE was a soft target. A long weekend filled with mind-altering substances, flamboyant costumes, and neo-pagan spiritual jargon would provide an abundance of weird conversations and kooky little details.

If RISE is loosely aligned with a social movement, it’s one that dates back arguably to the glorious moment in the mid-1980s when someone set fire to the first Burning Man effigy. Aspects of the so-called burner ethos — radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and the emphasis on immediacy and lived experience, among others — have gradually made their way beyond “the playa,” as the festival’s site in the Black Rock Desert is known.

Numerous “regional burns” take place around the world annually, and a number of events, social clubs, parties, and co-living spaces with names like the Lightning Society, I Feel, JunXion, the Assemblage, the Hacienda, and Emerald Village have emerged in recent years. While they vary widely in terms of style and intention, they share the common goal of creating what are often called “temporary autonomous zones” in which certain rules governing social interactions in the everyday world are suspended or turned upside down.

Some of these groups are profit-making ventures; RISE aims merely to be self-sustaining. This year, attendees contributed $325 apiece, money that goes toward catered meals, a sound system so massive it would have cost $20,000 to rent for the weekend if a longtime participant hadn’t furnished it at a steep discount, and a seemingly endless supply of cordwood.

It also helps fund transportation for some of the DJs (17 sets were planned) and a pair of guest lecturers: Alexandre Tannous, a Columbia University ethnomusicology professor turned sound researcher and sound therapist, would be speaking and leading a sound meditation; Matt O’Dowd, a professor of astrophysics at Lehman College, would set up a telescope and talk about black holes and the tension between astrophysics and astrology. (Later, when people would tell me that “the universe brought you here for a reason,” as many did, I would be tempted to cite O’Dowd’s talk as a counterpoint, but then I’d just nod instead.)

As for accommodations, some guests would crash in the main cabin, grabbing air mattresses or giant beanbags, but most would bring tents, setting them up near a lonesome Porta-John on the other side of the property.

Attire would be an issue for me. My summer wardrobe consists of cutoff jorts, pocket tees, and “comfortable” hiking shoes, a look that seems more or less appropriate for a fiftysomething father of teenagers, at least in Brooklyn.

I think about my age a lot. Sometimes I imagine I can feel my cells decaying.

But apparently, elaborate getups were de rigueur. As the Audi crept through a torrential downpour in western Massachusetts, Trevor listed off his various outfits. It was his fourth year, and he seemed well prepared. He’d planned multiple costume changes, sometimes pegged to specific events on the schedule: serious rave wear like pearlescent onesies (I had no idea they made these in his size) or a whimsical animal-shaped rainbow hoodie with built-in paws.

I’d packed just two accessories: a leather cowboy hat a friend had liberated from the photo booth at a forgotten movie premiere (was it Wild Wild West?) and a sterling-silver pendant shaped like a Cheez-It that I’d given my wife, Emma, for her birthday back when I had money to blow on silver Cheez-Its. The fact that she’d never worn it — not even once — has irked me ever since. When I’d purchased it (from a little shop in Williamsburg, naturally), I still entertained the notion that a midlife crisis was something the two of us might share, as a couple. Turns out she’s okay with being in her fifties. Good for her.

Personally, I think about my age a lot. Sometimes I imagine I can feel my cells decaying. One way I try to slow them down is by swimming at the Y three times a week — ironic, because swimming at the Y is a very old-person thing to do. Another way is by occasionally exploiting my work as a journalist in order to go on absurd adventures. Which is how I could manage to sell the idea of attending a three-day rave in the woods with a bunch of sex-positive burners as “Dad’s job.”

When I asked about the Cheez-It, Emma gave it up readily, a little too readily I thought. “You should totally have it,” she said. “It was never really for me.” We’ve been together since high school. We know each other well, and our barbs rarely miss.


RISE takes place in a bucolic 10-acre meadow blanketed with lush grass, a babbling brook on one side and a country road on the other, all of it surrounded by low mountains.

The main building is a 5,000-square-foot wood-paneled cabin, which Lev usually rents out for an average of $563 a night. That seems like a bargain. Within an easy drive of several ski resorts, the house is spacious and well appointed and comfortably sleeps 25, though we nearly doubled that on the first rainy night. There’s a large fire pit, a teepee, and a hot tub. It would make an ideal setting for a corporate off-site, better still for a family reunion or a wedding, which is sort of what RISE is — “a wedding where everyone is marrying everyone,” as one participant put it.

I heard several other descriptions, all of them pretty accurate:

“It’s kind of like Thanksgiving, except you actually really like your family.”

“It’s like 250 X-Men in one place.”

“It’s an experiment in human consciousness.”

“It’s a clown car of awesomeness.”

The RISE crowd had a distinctly international flavor. I met people from Poland and Serbia, France, the UK, Italy, Lebanon, Japan, Israel, Brazil, Greece, and Iran, most of them in their late twenties and thirties. Many worked in marketing and product design. There were coders, entrepreneurs, lawyers, bartenders, a pediatric dentist. One guy said he was a creator and snowboarder.

I’d heard whispers about RISE well before pitching the story: that it was basically a sex party.

Lev and I had communicated only via email and phone, but as soon as I arrived, he strode across the field to greet me with a warm hug. At 46, he was older than most of the RISE members. He was about my height (5'5") but seemed taller, with penetrating blue eyes, chiseled dimples, and gray hair trimmed close to his scalp. He was wearing harem pants, and over his well-muscled torso he’d slung a leather holster with two pockets, in which he carried his phone and other necessities.

“I feel like you’re going to do something great,” Lev told me as he led me toward the bonfire. “I know we can trust you.” Clearly he hadn’t read a lot of trend pieces.

Lev looked a little like cult leader, but he didn’t sound like one. Instead, for most of the weekend, he projected parental concern. The group’s designated superego, he spent most of his time urging us to clean up after ourselves, marshalling troops to perform various tasks, and compulsively reminding us to remove our shoes before entering the cabin. “Hey, Lev, quick question!” a RISEr shouted at one point. “Should I take off my shoes before going in, or nah?”

These efforts were critical. Somehow the entire site remained more or less clean for the entire weekend. On Sunday, when someone fired up a bubble machine over by the “Love Matrix” — a modular structure strung with hammocks, which would be dismantled a week later and driven to Burning Man — someone taunted him, “Hey, Lev, shouldn’t somebody clean up these bubbles?”

Lev is also a stickler about smoking, and for good reason. He can’t be around cigarettes, even unlit. Just the smell alone is enough to set off a migraine, he told one guest who’d approached him with a fresh butt dangling from his lips.


On Friday afternoon, I made my way to the big tent for the Welcome Circle. After a few preliminaries, we began a series of exercises.

First, the guy leading the ceremony asked us, one by one, to describe our mood on a scale from one to 10 and to share a word that described us. The average mood was a seven. People were feeling Blessed…Grateful…Excited…Peaceful…Open…

After each disclosure, the group would say “Aho!” a phrase widely used in shamanic and Native American–inspired spiritual rituals, that is often translated as amen. One guy said he was an eight, and then added, to scattered giggles, “And I am not a ho!”

I thought about making a joke, too, picking a word that would let the entire group know, all at once, that I was there as a reporter. Agnostic? Duplicitous? Enemy of the people? Instead I went with the most generic thing I could think of: “I’m a seven,” I said, “and I’m feeling thoughtful.”

Kind of lame, but everyone said “Aho!” This was not a judgy crowd.

The leader then invited everyone who’d rated their mood as a three or less to step into the center of the circle and led the rest of us in a group chant (really more of a full-throated whoop) designed to direct positive energy and love their way.

Since my arrival, I’d been hugged by at least 50 people, some multiple times.

Next, he told us to find someone we didn’t know and to sit facing one another. My partner was Nanette. She appeared to be in her thirties and had a friendly face and a big smile and bangs, and she wore her hair up in a high ponytail. We settled in opposite each other. Then, as instructed, we proceeded to gaze, silently, into one another’s eyes. And keep gazing, long past the point of discomfort, past the giggles, past the careful study of one another’s features (Nanette wears a lot of mascara), past the terrifying moment when we knew we’d been seen, in all our innocence and childlike fear and deep existential sadness, past the next round of giggles, and even past the boredom and the moment when we silently agreed, “We got this. You and me. We’re killing this bullshit exercise.”

It was probably a minute, two minutes tops.

Finally, we were invited to whisper our intention for the weekend into each other’s ear.

Nanette said something about bringing love and openness and community. I nodded. Thoughtfully.

Then I whispered that I was a journalist, that I was kind of working, and that therefore my intention was twofold and compromised. I was there to be and share and commune, yes, but also to observe and evaluate and create a narrative and define the experience. I confessed that the idea was already making me queasy, and that I had no clue how I would manage to remain objective without betraying everyone’s trust and goodwill.

“I think you’ll do fine,” she said.


What went on in the teepee? On the second day, I became preoccupied with the question. I’d heard whispers about RISE well before pitching the story: that it was basically a sex party, an orgy, a safe space for polyamory and other forms of erotic self-expression and radical openness. But Lev hadn’t mentioned anything like that, and I hadn’t asked. “It will be quite an experience…,” he’d said, leaving it to me to fill that ellipsis with whatever my mind conjured up. What it conjured up was basically Eyes Wide Shut meets season two of Girls.

On my first night, I’d gazed over at the cone of fabric, glowing there in the middle of the field, and decided: That’s where it happens.

Participatory journalism was the point of the assignment, but just how participatory was a question I had left somewhat open. Drugs seemed somewhat essential, and over the course of the weekend, I would willingly ingest LSD, mushrooms, MDMA, ketamine, cannabis, Adderall, and booze. (The one thing I declined was cocaine, mostly because I’m queasy about the human toll of the trade itself.) As for sex, that was a tougher question. Yes, I am married with three lovely children. But if something was going on in that teepee, I figured it was my job to find out what.

That said, I wasn’t ready for an orgy, or even a cuddle puddle. In fact, though I’d been at RISE less than a day, I already longed to escape, if only for an hour. It was the hugs. Hugging was the standard greeting at RISE: bear hugs and clinches, double-sided shoulder rubs, affectionate “bring it in” headlocks, and gentle embraces accompanied by little fingertip caresses. “What I love about this community,” one woman told me, “is how much you see men hugging each other. I think more men need to do that, and a lot of things will change.”

Since my arrival, I’d been hugged by at least 50 people, some multiple times. It was getting to be a lot. A few hugs had been halfhearted, loose, seemingly obligatory, with a little bro-pat on the back. But the vast majority had been emphatic and genuine, stuffed with import. They were italicized, John Lassiter–level hugs, hugs that aimed for a new transcendent level of meaning. Yes, you’re sweaty, these hugs seemed to say. It’s okay. I’m sweaty, too. We’re people. People sweat…

I couldn’t help noting that all this hugging and positivity just so happens to be a well-documented mind control tactic practiced by all the big religious cults. They call it “love bombing,” and it involves, as one expert put it, “flooding recruits…with flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark.” Which isn’t to say I was definitively being love-bombed, just that a break from affection seemed prudent.

It was getting late. I popped a melatonin — this particular drug, I’d brought for myself — and walked barefoot out into the middle of the vast, freshly mowed field to be on my own for a while, hug-free, alone under a weighted blanket of clouds. It was then that it first occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t actually come for a story, or even a party.

Um, what are you doing? I wondered to myself.


It rained most of Friday, but naturally, nobody complained. The weather was temperate, and once you were wet you were wet.

Fretting about my lack of proper attire, I approached Lev. Was there perhaps a lost-and-found from last year I could pillage?

“I’ll hook you up,” he said, slinging an arm over my shoulder.

Lev’s bedroom was spotless — an oasis of hygiene. If anyone needed an emergency appendectomy, this would be the place to do it. In his closet, I took note of what looked like a collection of faux-fur Bamm-Bamm Flintstone vests in various colors. He bypassed those, however, and handed me some trousers. “Thai fishermen’s pants,” he said. They were black, festooned with a swirl of white paisley, and ludicrously flared in the leg. The waist and laced ankle cuffs were colorfully embroidered. To say that they were baggy in the crotch would be a gross understatement. They were billowy. They were like harem pants on ya ba, the so-called Thai madness pill. They were perfect.

“You will never wear jeans again,” Lev promised. “Those are a gift. I have tons. I just order them on eBay.”

I’d pitched my tent along the line of trees at the far edge of the temporary tent village that had gone up on Friday morning. I was dismayed to find that the air mattress barely fit inside, and I had to sleep with my head mashed against one wall, lying supine with my legs slightly bent and my feet splayed out in either direction. My backpack made a lousy pillow. It rained all night, and I shared the space with several slugs.


There was not a lot of talk of politics at RISE. The only reminder of what was going on out there — racists rallying in Portland, the president excoriating the media — was the occasional sound of gunfire echoing in the nearby hills and the sight of a biker gang rumbling by one afternoon.

A brief exception came on Saturday evening. A bunch of us were sitting on the porch, passing around a vape pen and eating grapes, when someone mentioned having encountered a certain batch of MDMA tablets molded to resemble Donald Trump. Apparently the stuff was very clean.

A guy popped a red seedless into a woman’s mouth. “Make America grape again,” he said.

“The grapest love of all,” she replied, doing the same to him.

“You know what the election proved?” someone piped up. “There are 325 million Americans in this country, and most of them are fucking assholes.”

A guy rose to Trump’s defense. “History will remember him for the North Korea deal,” he insisted. “That in itself is an amazing achievement. Believe me. Ridding the world of that danger is huge.”

The group fell silent, either too high to offer a response or simply reluctant to kill the buzz by bringing up the recent UN report about how they’re actually still cranking out nukes.

In line for a dinner of grilled chicken and salad, I met Susan, a project manager, who was wearing a costume that evoked Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira. I tried to engage her in a political discussion, but she said the subject didn’t interest her. “What interests me is the fact that 44 volcanoes are going off right now,” she explained. “So there’s a much bigger cosmic thing going on.”


The dance floor set up in the cabin’s great room was packed on Friday night. People wore glitter makeup, press-on gemstones, and temporary tattoos. Women layered diaphanous robe-like things over bikinis; men sported skintight pants in exuberant patterns. Professional lighting artists stood at a console controlling an array of lasers, projectors, and smoke machines, bouncing images off spherical paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Big dispensers of ice water were constantly being refilled.

A dance floor provides a sort of lab for examining what it means to be human.

As for alcohol, RISE was strictly BYOB. And interestingly, while drugs were freely shared, booze was preciously guarded and even afforded an odd respect. One night, I left half of a six-pack unattended for hours; nobody touched it.

A dance floor provides a sort of lab for examining what it means to be human. If you’re in a certain frame of mind (how many microdoses make a dose again?), you might find yourself noticing things — the way people’s bodies move, their gestures evolving over time; the way a particular mannerism can spread almost involuntarily from person to person; the way dancers connect for a moment, locking eyes, matching up their movements, often with a little ironic flourish, and then disconnect and move on so as not to send the wrong message. Or the way they sometimes keep right on dancing together, pressing closer, because in fact that’s precisely the message they are trying to send.

I danced and tried to discern what I could: the humor, the carnality, the competition, the play, the coded identities taken on and flung aside, the fleeting sensations of dance-floor dominance and submission, the roundelay of connections and flirtations, the sensation of simultaneously objectifying and being objectified, and the precious seconds when you finally quit thinking altogether before slamming back into yourself and losing your rhythm and your mojo and finally your nerve and fleeing the dance floor for a drink.

By midnight, the room was sweltering. Then it got worse. In part, that was because it was rainy and there was nowhere else to go, so nearly 250 people crowded inside at once. Partly it was because the windows had been sealed tight. To enter, one had to go through a side door that led directly down a flight of stairs to the basement — no shoes, please! — and then ascend via the central staircase. The goal was soundproofing. In previous years, neighbors had called the cops. This year, Lev wasn’t taking any chances.

Given the temperature, I soon found that my lack of costuming was less of an issue than I’d feared. The problem was not that I was wearing a V-neck from Old Navy but that I was wearing a shirt at all. Most of the guys were bare-chested. By 2 a.m., many of the women were, too, though pasties were available in a variety of colors. Eventually, a thoughtful soul danced over and peeled off my top. It sat balled up in my equally superfluous cowboy hat till the party wound down at 9 a.m.


On Saturday afternoon, I was on the wood line, among a dozen or so of my fellow RISErs, passing the firewood, hand to hand, from the neatly stacked piles to the fire pit. It was raining. In the pit, two guys were carefully building a tower of logs, standing in the center, the hole narrowing around their shoulders as the tower grew.

“It took a lot of trial and error,” Lev told me at one point, “but I finally figured out, if you want a great bonfire, light it from the top, like a candle.”

I doubted his technique would work in the rain. But then, with the ziggurat halfway built, the drizzle slowed and quickly subsided. A rainbow appeared. Then another. “I think I see a triple!” someone said. (“They’re rare, but they do exist,” the astrophysicist, Matt O’Dowd, told me later, “so either he got really lucky or his acid was really good.”)

Across the field, yet another dance party was going on, under a big tarp by the creek. At that moment, the DJ dropped a remix of the ’80s mega-hit “Africa,” not the Weezer cover, but something else. The crowd went wild. As we all looked on in awe, still passing the logs, I had a sudden epiphany. I’ve spent decades arguing that “Ninety-Nine” is the superior Toto song, and in that moment, I realized it just isn’t true.

A few glorious minutes later, the rainbows faded — first one, then the other.


Don’t get manic and panic when fear goes titanic.”

It was Saturday afternoon or morning or definitely sometime on Saturday, and a talent show was just getting started. A guy with long hair and a beard, a Jesus-like look, wearing a black shawl over his head, was doing spoken word, accompanied by a guitar and two female backup singers.

“Get active, get radical, get real and get magical…”

The act was good. They all were. A woman sang opera. A man did a satirical sketch about a phony guru. No ringers, just RISErs offering up their gifts. It was an ethos familiar to Burning Man regulars: generosity of spirit, radical participation. Some were performing for the first time, and the audience cheered them loudly, bathing them in love and support. Everyone felt good. Everyone was nice. I don’t even think I understood until I’d arrived how stressed out I’d been, how focused on work, how fearful, how desperate for control. How fundamentally unhappy despite having, by any standard, a perfectly good life.

Before the next act, the emcee asked for a show of hands. “Who here is a first-timer?” I raised my hand along with a few fellow virgins.

“Welcome,” he said, offering a slight bow, palms pressed together. “This is the cult you’ve been waiting for.”


I was walking to the corner store, a half-mile up the road, on a beer run, when my phone suddenly found a signal and exploded with texts from my son — 10 of them, then 20. An hour before, someone had given me a portion of Golden Teacher mushroom, ground into a powder and licked from a fingertip.

I took a deep breath and fished my phone from my pocket.

My kid and I had an argument shortly before I left for RISE. I had asked him to clean his room. He refused. I demanded. He rolled his eyes. He’s 16, closer in age to some of my new friends, truth be told, than I am.

I grabbed a cinch sack, barged into his room, and began frantically tossing out his stuff: parts from a dismantled computer, broken earbuds, candy wrappers. He could hear me from the other room, but my son is nothing if not cool. He did not come rushing in. He waited me out, knowing that with every passing moment, I was becoming the child, he the adult. I knew it too, but somehow I couldn’t stop, and so I kept going.

I’d managed to sneak in, using my credentials as a journalist to do it, and now I didn’t want to leave.

Eventually, once my fury was expended, he came in and calmly began fishing things out of the bag, including obviously important things (how was I to know that old Amazon gift-card tin was full of cash?) and silently putting them back.

In the end, I apologized, and we talked it out. Then Emma came home and jumped to his defense. A consensus emerged that Dad is a monster. I might have pointed out that she isn’t so perfect herself, you know? Or that everyone gets in moods. Or that it just might be a little more effective, in the long term, if we acted like partners for a change, instead of combatants, and formed a united front to set some basic expectations for our child and actually hold him accountable for once…

But I didn’t say any of that. Why bother? I had a party to go to.

In the end, the kid tidied up a little. I apologized again. Emma and I returned to our neutral corners. I figured it was over.

“It’s really nice here without your negativity,” his text storm began, two days later, as I made my way along the highway shoulder.

He suggested I go back to therapy. He said I should “just be better” and “don’t be an ass when you get back.” The two-lane roadway was empty and shiny from the rain. The sun was dipping toward the mountain ridge, and everything was bathed in tawny afternoon light.

“Stop getting involved in my responsibilities. Period.”

As I crossed a bridge, I stopped to take a picture of the creek below, then turned and grabbed another shot from the opposite side.

“You can’t do anything but make my life worse by being involved.”

On and on it went. By that point, I was at the store. I put my phone away, bought a six-pack and turned around, headed back to camp.

The road curved past a Mennonite church. A sign out front noted that worship would be held the following morning at 9:45 a.m. “All are welcome.” That could be good for the story, I thought.

Meanwhile, I’d composed a few solid tough-love responses in my mind. I’m your father, and I have a role to play…This is what parents do…You don’t have to like it…But then, I hesitated. It might have been the Golden Teacher, or the endless thudding of the music, the hours of dancing, the lack of sleep, the variety of other drugs no doubt still in my system, the guided meditation, the beautiful people who genuinely seemed to like me, or maybe the hugs. Or maybe it was that line of his: “Just be better.”

Finally I tapped out my reply. “Thank you for letting me see how angry you are.” This was a new approach. It didn’t sound like me. I read it over a few times, checking for hints of condescension. Then I hit send.


The mushroom tea ceremony had been canceled. Apparently, the beverage is ideally brewed two hours before serving in order to deliver the desired effects; some well-meaning soul had screwed up and brewed it two days early, and the tea had gone rancid.

Still, it wasn’t hard to procure a substitute, a square of chocolate, studded with bits of the psychedelic fungus. I nibbled away at it while chatting with a corporate events producer named Jeff. A former Air Force firefighter and Chippendales dancer, he was sporting a macramé scarf, a feathered angel-wing shoulder piece, a blue tie-dyed jumper, and wraparound shades.

As Jeff and I stood in the creek, the water flowing over our feet, he told me RISE was the closest he’d ever come to the sense of fellowship and shared purpose he’d felt in the military. “It sounds weird,” he added, “but partying gave me the confidence to be more than I ever thought I could be.”

The water was clean and clear, the creek bed perfectly slime-free, just a scattering of small stones. The mushrooms were kicking in, and some folks seemed to have taken more than I had. “Oh my god, these are so beautiful,” one guy said, lifting a handful of pebbles to show a woman who was bent over beside him fishing for pebbles of her own. “I know, right?” she replied.

Drifting away from the group, I lay in the shallow water for a while, gazing up the side of the hill at the light filtering through the leaves, trying in vain to remember a time in my life when I felt more at peace, wondering lightly why Emma and I fought so much and what the fights had even been about.

Everyone seemed to be smiling. Every single person was nice. “The thing is, fear is not allowed here,” Jeff had explained. “It’s an experiment in love.” RISE wasn’t a cult, really — you can’t very well run a cult just three days a year. But it was a kind of tribe. Somehow, I’d managed to sneak in, using my credentials as a journalist to do it, and now I didn’t want to leave — much less write a cooly acerbic takedown.

Twenty yards downstream, Lev sat curled up in the swimming hole, his head in his hands. The migraine had come after all. His girlfriend, Melissa, rubbed his temples. People looked over sadly. He’d done so much for us, and now he was suffering, and there was nothing at all we could do for him.

It was probably the mushrooms talking, but later, when Lev would miss the pizza dinner and the medicine ceremony and the bonfire, it would be impossible not to think about how Moses never reached Canaan and how Jesus had to die for everyone’s sins. Which reminded me, I’d totally blown off church.


On the bank of the creek, a massive sound system had been set up under a tarp, and DJs spun all afternoon. After an hour or so of lying in the current, I lifted myself from the water and went to join the party. As we danced, I watched my new friends and found myself beguiled. Having danced together for days now, we knew one another’s signature moves by heart: the mesmerizing “oh no you didn’t” fan dance one Israeli guy had turned into a private art form; the way the Brazilian woman would close her eyes, lifting her face beatifically to the heavens in a private reverie. Some of us took up space unapologetically; others pulled in. A number of women did a serpentine thing, weaving their arms through the air, awakening mysteries so ancient they may have predated language itself. Some guys bounced like prizefighters. A few played it cool, swaying like trees, while others sweated it out in double time for hours on end.

Me, I don’t know. I found a groove. When my plantar fascia acted up, I pushed through.

At one point, I spotted Nanette, my eye-gazing partner, sitting on a bale of hay on the other side of the area. Her face looked glittery. She waved me over, offering me a sip of water, and I gulped it like a blessed sacrament. Then she cupped a hand to whisper in my ear over the skittering dance beat.

“Now you know how to write your story,” she said.

What story? I thought.


That evening, after a nap, I resolved to finally visit the teepee. Maybe an orgy would be underway, I thought as I strode barefoot across the grass. I had taken some Molly. The tiki torches seemed to be sporting halos. The grass under my feet was cool and wet and probably teeming with life. My teeth felt bigger or smaller than usual. The universe had brought me here for a reason. I was ready for whatever purpose it had in mind.

It was eerily quiet as I approached and circled the structure, looking for the flap in the canvas.

Maybe all the new friends I’d made over the past two days would be inside, naked, limbs intertwined. Maybe someone would see me in the doorway— my eyes squinty and wounded-looking, just like Tom Cruise — and he or she would smile and wave me over with a beckoning finger.

It was dark inside the teepee. Several people were crashed out, napping. Everybody was fully clothed.

It turns out that although RISErs are indeed a sex-positive bunch, and people are loaded and half-nude most of the time, the culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to hookups. It happens, of course. But predatory intent is not tolerated. The community is tight-knit. The love is genuine. Members see themselves as bonded for life. Unwanted come-ons tend to break the spell.

On the way home in the car, Trevor would observe that “this was my first RISE where I didn’t have sex.” He wasn’t complaining, just noticing; in fact, he almost sounded pleased.

Meanwhile, tepees, I came to understand, are sacred spaces. Spaces for ritual. You didn’t want to defile the tepee.

On Sunday night, we assembled there — 20 of us, at least — for the medicine ceremony. The fire was going. Michal Scheffler, a DJ-turned-shaman, had gifts to bestow. “These medicines take you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “But if you never go out of your comfort zone, you’re trying to go against one of the biggest laws of nature, which is the law of impermanence.”

While another member of the group plucked an mbira, or thumb harp, Michal led us in a brief guided meditation, inviting us to close our eyes, place our hands over our chests, and imagine our heart-soul glowing with sacred fire.

“Please project gratitude toward your heart-soul right now,” he said. He was extremely handsome. He’d been a model and a brand ambassador before moving to Panama and becoming an apprentice shaman. “Gratitude for this moment, for this time, for a gift of receiving. For being a community. For being patient. For learning from our mistakes and errors. You feel the flame is growing and your palms are getting warmer…”

The first gift was rapé. A form of snuff used by indigenous groups in Brazil, rapé is a fine powder made from special tobacco and other ingredients. It’s administered by blowing it deep into the nose with a special pipe called a tepi. Michal went around the circle, blasting a pinch into each waiting nostril in turn. A few people flinched. Some coughed. “Don’t inhale,” he told me. Then, boom — he hit the right side.

It hurt. I was well out of my comfort zone. What felt like a river of tears poured from my eye and down my face. Then he hit the left.

People say rapé is mildly hallucinogenic. They say it can ground you, quiet the mind, provide focus and connection and realignment. It also burns the hell out of your nasal cavities. This will sound weird, but I think I had a vision. It lasted just split second, like when lightning flashes in a horror movie and you see the whole room and the doll has disappeared.

What I saw, in that millisecond, was a face illuminated inside my own face. Like a skull, an interior face. And then it was gone, and I shrugged it off.

Whatever control issues I have, for better and for worse, I got from my dad.

It was time to receive the second gift. Sananga is a kind of eye drops made from a root that is thought to enhance vision (native tribes in the Amazon reportedly use it to improve their hunting prowess), recharge one’s energy fields, and so on. It’s also said to hurt like a motherfucker. But Michal told us that was part of the point, to learn to “ignore the signal of the pain. Or just observe it. And breathe through it.”

We all lay on our backs like the petals of a great flower, our heads toward the fire, and closed our eyes. One at a time, Michal placed the drops in the creases of our eyelids, advising us to blink when we felt ready. I could hear the gasps of my fellow initiates as the sananga did its work. “And eventually, as with any kind of plant medicine,” Michal continued calmly, as my neighbor began squirming, “the love arrives…”

The sananga hurt, but it was manageable, and I leaned into the pain, blinking and even rolling my eyes around a little to coat them more fully.

Meanwhile, I kept thinking about the face in the face, something about it…Anyone who’s ever watched old cartoons knows that when a cat’s tail is plugged into an outlet and the cat gets zapped with electricity, you can see the bones inside its body. It was like that. But instead of bones, the face inside my face was actually deeply familiar. It belonged to my dad. Whatever control issues I have, for better and for worse, I got from him.

One by one, as we recovered and slowly rose, Michal offered some parting words. “As I always say during ayahuasca ceremonies, this is not the hard part,” he told us. “You don’t need to be brave to drink one or two cups or even more. The real bravery starts on Monday, when you want to change. And I really believe that we are not coming back tomorrow the same way.”


Writing a hit job on RISE would not be difficult. Some of the spirituality — “the woo-woo stuff,” as one attendee called it — struck me as silly, and it would undoubtedly be fun to join the dismissive pile-on that has been underway since the New Age movement kicked off in earnest decades ago. The group was mostly white and privileged, and so they’re a very ripe target, especially for a writer who’s also white and privileged and might therefore be especially tempted to draw a clear line between myself and them.

The lack of political engagement could appear egregious, especially given the horrors that have recently been loosed upon the world outside. To contrast three days of drugged-out partying with, for instance, the wails of toddlers ripped from their parents’ arms at the southern border, was admittedly a tempting approach.

But I already knew I was no longer the guy to do that story. Journalism can be factual and still be utterly false. The truth is it’s not easy to build an intentional community. Or even a tribe. The truth is it’s almost impossible. Just about every aspect of our culture mitigates against it. Even with our smartphones always charged and within easy reach, human beings are probably more isolated now than we have ever been. Releasing the kraken of Outrage Twitter would be a simple matter, but what good would it do anyone? If the internet has become a pool of bile, that bile is a sign that something is seriously wrong with us, deep in the gut. That stuff we’ve been coughing up each day, repugnant as it is, is critical evidence of an chronic affliction that is no less agonizing for being shared by everyone we know.

So although it would be tempting to be snarky about a bunch of people in costumes dancing around in the mountains, at least they’re trying to live.

RISE is a bubble. So yes, it’s exclusionary, as all bubbles must be; it’s also very fragile.


We spent Monday morning pitching in on cleanup, carting hay bales and loading sound gear. Eventually, we said our goodbyes and got our last hugs in. The cars departed one by one.

The drive home flew by, as drives home so often do. I wrote some notes, but mostly I napped. By the time I looked up, we were in the Bronx. “I had her up to 100 for a good stretch there,” Trevor explained, offering me a Swedish Fish.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the movie version of this story might end, the liberties Hollywood might be tempted to take. Like the horror version where the rapé turns me and the other initiates into zombies, and the final scene finds us stumbling pigeon-toed through the fog toward the corner store where the shopkeeper’s children are playing…

Or the shlock horror version where the Golden Teacher has triggered some sort of psychotic break, and I come home to my son, and he kisses me hello… shoving his tongue down my throat and right through the back of my skull, because of course he’s a demon.

Or maybe best of all, the NC-17 supernatural erotic thriller, wherein I visit the teepee one last time and it’s like a scene out of Caligula, and someone places a Donald Trump ecstasy tablet on my tongue and pulls me into the writhing mass of naked RISErs, and moments later, as we all approach a crescendo of passion, 44 volcanoes erupt at once, ushering in the End Times.

Cue dubstep track. Roll credits.

The truth is a little more prosaic. As I unpacked my soggy clothes, my tent, and my crushed cowboy hat, I took a moment to press a hooded sweatshirt to my face and inhale the leftover smell of the bonfire. I folded my fisherman’s pants and placed them a drawer. The silver Cheez-It was still dangling from my neck, and I resolved to keep it there for now.

Meanwhile, I promised myself to just be better. I belonged to a tribe now — at least it seemed I might, if I could manage not to betray my new comrades. But why do any such thing? I’d been shown love, or at least genuine kindness, freely and without reason. People with no sound basis for trusting me had opted to do so anyway.

So I resolved instead to embrace the burners’ principles of radical participation and gift giving, and make my own unique offering, such as it is, just telling the story as honestly as I knew how.

I emerged from my room to find my son, home from school, blasting away at something on his computer. It can be hard to hug a teenage boy, but I had practice. I went right in without hesitation and held on tight for a few solid seconds. To my surprise, he didn’t flinch. He may have hugged me back.

I regaled him with a few details of the trip — certainly not everything, but enough to let him know I’d been changed by it and that triple rainbows actually exist.

“You’re lucky,” he said.

“I guess so.”

It occurred to me to point out that, sometimes at least, we make our own luck. But he was a smart kid; he could figure that out for himself.