Peyote and Poisonous Spiders

Unavoidable Life Lessons

arrived in Portland, Oregon, in early September. While it was humid where I’d come from, nothing compared me for the wetness of Portland, even in its “dry” moments. Greenery popped out of sidewalk cracks, and in Portland, it wasn’t some sort of symbolic determination of life despite odds like it was back in New York.

Here, green stuff poured from every surface, as if the city had carved itself out a spot in the plant life, as if the two had reached an agreement to cohabitate.

Spiders were everywhere. Overnight, plump and speckled garden spiders would weave webs across the walk from house to curb; more experienced Portlanders kept brooms on their porches for this reason. As a New Yorker who’d seen more cockroaches than spiders, I screamed, jerked and hollered my way to the sidewalk every morning.

o, yes, the hole on my arm… I hadn’t been in Portland very long before a weird little spot appeared on my right arm. It looked like an angry pimple and then soon, a pus-and-rage-filled zit and then, eventually one day, I removed the band-aid to find a small but seething pit by my right elbow.

I started having weird nervous twinges, strange pains traveling up and down the right side of my body. I attributed all of this to the dampness of my new world — maybe I was sensitive to mold. Maybe I had a staph infection, but the hole never sent out the red tendrils that usually gave a staph infection away.

I finally went to the doctor.

It wasn’t a staph infection. “This looks necrotic,” the doctor told me, “like a poisonous spider bite — I’m going to bet you’ve been bitten by a hobo or black widow spider” and advised some incredibly strong antibiotics. I brought them home but, getting ready for my first ayahuasca ceremony, I didn’t take them.

ther amazing things happened in that ceremony, but so did this: at some point during the ceremony I sprouted not one but two huge sties on my right eye. I had never had a sty in my life, and I’ve never had one since. I didn’t realize they were there, either, until the end of the ceremony when one of the facilitators looked at me and asked if I’d had sties on my eye the whole time.

What? I went and looked in the bathroom, came back out and said, “well, wow, yes, there are two sties on my eye, which is crazy, but this is even worse.”

I pulled the bandage off my arm to show him the oozing hole.

We went back into ceremony. Ayahuasca heals physical ailments as well as spiritual ones.

A few days later, the sties were gone and the hole, while it didn’t stop being a festering wound, had stopped growing.

returned to the doctor who’d first looked at my arm. This was so far the grossest thing that had happened to my body, and these folks were familiar with nasty infections. Back in those days, this particular clinic was open to all — a volunteer effort to, first and foremost, serve street kids and the homeless population of Portland, but you could also go if you were just poor and/or uninsured. It featured a needle exchange, crates for street folks’ dogs while they came to the clinic, Western, naturopathic and Chinese medicine. I saw the same Western doctor, but he didn’t bat an eyelash when I told him I couldn’t take the antibiotics prescribed; they would interact poorly with the plant medicines I was working with.

He sent me to the Chinese doctor instead, who sent me home with medicine traditionally used for gunshot wounds. I followed his instructions, packed the wound with the powder given, took the little handrolled pills, and the hole closed within four days.

Other people lose limbs or lives when bitten by venomous spiders. Me? I spent two weeks twitching and gooey before a bunch of plants from around the world came together and helped me out.

went on to have a year of expansive growth and fun in Portland. A stroke of luck eventually awarded me six months’of unemployment, but from New York City, thanks to a last-minute tech gig through an agency before I left. Portland was a different place back then, full of artists, freaks and musicians because it was a cheap city to live in. My New York City unemployment checks were, weekly, what many people made in Portland in a month.

I took it upon myself to indulge: I went and frolicked with hippies on a permaculture farm, studied “tantra”, interviewed for Suicide Girls (and flaked out on my photo shoot), discovered what a time-consuming pain in the ass polyamory could be, wore a lot of crazy costumes, tried out shamanic journeying, ecstatic dance, and more yoga, rode a bike everywhere and started a garden in my little northeast backyard.

I left Portland a year later to go trim pot on a Mendocino mountaintop. When the season ended, I took the proceeds and left to explore Mexico and central America.

There are lots of spiders there, too.

I thought the spider population in Portland was excessive, Mexico and Guatemala, where I wound up spending almost all of my time, had something to prove.

There were spiders of all shapes and sizes, but the ones I seemed to encounter most could grow palm-sized. They were hairy and flat and liked to scuttle sideways, like a crab, and live behind things — furniture, pictures on walls, the like.

At one point, together with a couple of other travelers I’d met, I bought a backpacker hostel in Guatemala that had a little house built behind it where the three of us would live. On move-in day, I opened the door to my new bedroom to see one of these sizable arachnids crawling down the wall right where my bed was. Right where my pillow was about to be.

“Look,” I said. “We’re gonna share this room now. That’s my bed though, and although I know you’re harmless, you move fast and you make me a little nervous, especially when you’re crawling around where I’m gonna rest my head. How about you have that side of the room instead? I’ll come back in a little while so you have a chance to relocate.”

I swear to God, when I returned an hour or so later, there it was on the other side of the room — just hanging out on the wall there like “okay, I’ve moved, and this side works for me.”

I am going to continue to believe it was the same spider. Indulge me.

Seeing it there, having claimed its new space, I felt comfortable enough to settle in. Eventually, I hung lots of things on the walls and told my eight-legged friend I hoped she enjoyed all the hiding spots I put up for her — and also, please don’t crawl near my head. I proceeded to, and still, utilize this tactic of communication with all spiders. I’ve come along way from the squealing, oozing New Yorker I’d been back in Portland.

Ruins in Real de Catorce, remnants of a mining legacy — photo by Dori Mondon-Freeman. All rights reserved.

my time south of the border came to a close, I made my way to the desert of northern Mexico in San Luis Potosi. I wanted to check out Real de Catorce, an old mining town up in the mountains, but I also wanted to see what peyote, growing in its natural environment, looked like.

I stayed in a little house down on the desert floor; every once in a while I’d notice a black widow tucked into a corner outside, but I never saw them in my bedroom. By this time, I’d grown accustomed to sharing space with spiders; I wasn’t afraid anymore, but I was definitely fascinated — and these particular spiders could make me really, really sick, if not kill me; but god, they were so beautiful.

I spent nearly a month there, but it wasn’t until the end of my stay that I finally made my way to the peyote fields; instructed to leave the larger of the cacti for the Huichol people who traditionally used this medicine, the local man who took me out there said he would periodically take and eat one of the smaller ones when he was feeling hopeless, and that by the next morning he felt much better.

I know what feeling hopeless looks like. With a crazy amount of grateful tears, I took two of them from the ground. Not feeling comfortable spending the night out on the desert floor I returned to my little house, and as the sun set, I somehow managed to ingest the smaller of the two cacti and sat down to wait.

Eventually I felt my consciousness shift— but it wasn’t like ayahuasca, where one moment the air started to sparkle and the next, I was surfing through the cosmos. This medicine was different; I was still here, still able to walk (though up and down with nausea). Regardless, my previous experiences with plant medicine had prepared me for the realm I was about to step into; it allowed me to trust where I was going and enter without fear.

That night I was given the opportunity to examine myself from a few different perspectives — it was as if I held this multi-sided die in front of me and every time I turned a different face of it up to the light, it was an aspect of myself that needed looking at. These faces, they needed to be faced to be dealt with. It’s hard to explain, but it was loving, gentle and informative and eventually, I fell asleep, grateful for having had the experience. Some hope had been restored.

My daily walk from desert floor to mountain town. Photo by Dori Mondon-Freeman. All rights reserved.

he following morning I, and the second, larger cactus, made my way up the mountain to Real de Catorce, where I set out my manta for one last day of selling my handmade jewelry to tourists. I’d walked this mountain path daily for the past month. The walk itself took over three hours, but I had nothing else to do, and so every day at sunrise I’d begin the trek, coming back down four or five hours later. The locals living along the path had begun to recognize me, clearly a bit of a hippie, so every day as I walked past they’d see me, smile, and ask if I’d eaten peyote yet. No, I’d always tell them, no, I hadn’t.

That last day, for the first time since I’d arrived, I didn’t sell a thing. Closure had wrapped itself around me. The Huichol man I often set up near asked me if I was coming back and I told him it was my last day in town; I was headed to Mexico City to book a flight back to the states the following morning.

You should have some peyote, he said to me. He’d told me how his people would eat this medicine and walk across Mexico, every single year, to do ceremony and harvest more and so, as I began my descent down the mountain, I decided to take that to heart. I pulled over on a side path, got out my knife and, after a brief prayer and communion, choked down a large, mescaline-filled succulent. And then I began to walk. It seemed mere moments before I began to feel the effects.

This time, I could do no more than wave at the friends I’d made along the mountain path. I’d finally had some of the peyote and while I wasn’t incapacitated, my legs were a bit wobbly, everything had an aura and I was afraid I’d have difficulty talking while moving through this liquid world. I was walking slowly, no doubt with some odd look on my face; it was all I could do to wave, and I’m sure having seen it all, they knew.

ventually, nearing sunset, I reached the desert floor and began to wonder if, after all, I might be spending a night in the desert alone. At that moment, where the dirt road turned to pavement, a man on a motorbike sidled up next to me. Many locals used these to get to points up the mountain for work — at night, they’d coast down the mountain without even starting the bikes until hitting the paved, flat road. I didn’t even hear him until he spoke.

“Need a ride to town?” he asked. I nodded and climbed on the back. We rode the last several miles in silence as the night settled over us. He dropped me off at the edge of town and I walked the rest of the way back to my house.

ike the night before, I had rounds of nausea the sleepy, dreamy, body-floppy state that eventually sent me to bed to lie down. A little while later, I needed to get up again; I needed to walk, to go look at all the cacti and animal bones in the garden and all the stars in the sky. I turned on my headlamp, walked outside and went to sit in the little chair I always sat in during the evenings. A black widow spider had made itself at home in it.

Oh, okay, you can have the chair, I said, probably out loud. I’ll just walk around some more. I walked around the garden and everywhere I looked there were black widow spiders. There were hundreds of them in the garden of this little cinder block house I’d been living in for the past month. Hundreds.

I began to wonder if I weren’t having a vision of sorts. I chose a spot to sit on the ground in the center of the garden, where I spoke at length to the colony of black widows I’d apparently been sharing space with for weeks. I will not hurt you, I said. I will never intentionally hurt you. I see you and I respect you. I will leave you to your life and your space. Please leave me to mine, too, so we can co-exist.

Just a few hours later, awoken in the wee hours of dawn by my alarm, I cleaned up and prepared to catch an early combi to the nearest large city, where I could then catch a much larger bus to Mexico City. The spiders were still there. One of them had come to the corner of the bedroom where she sat in her messy web, facing me.

It had been a long walk together. What was she trying to tell me?

A family of twelve peyote cacti growing in the desert. Photo by Dori Mondon-Freeman . All rights reserved.

ome may laugh, and some may find offense. Either reaction is understandable. For those not accustomed to talking frankly with spiders while in altered states of consciousness, I feel you, and to those wondering what the fuck I thought I was doing, I understand you, now, too. I was crossing some boundaries by even setting foot in Wirikuta. Today, I would know better.

Despite the fact that I grasped, somewhat, the sacredness of where I’d stood, I had not been invited. I had set out to find this place with some idea that I had every right to be there, that I could go where I pleased, that the world was mine for the stepping on. There’s a chance I could have been seen as a soft-walker, a respectful one; but my motivations did not include the proper sort of respect. When a people pray in one place for thousands of years, their power, and the spirits they connect with, reside there. It is theirs to steward and protect.

I understand my offense more clearly now, now that I live at the foot of Mount Shasta, California where, high up on the mountain, sits a spring where the people indigenous to this place once bubbled up out into this world eons ago.

It is now Forest Service land, open to the public to wander through, this most sacred of places, and many people see fit to drop crystals and ashes into this creation birthplace. People close to me are members of this tribe, a people without federal recognition who, regardless, are very much existent. Their ancestors are dug up and shoveled aside on a regular basis. These things are deeply important to them, to who they are as a people and a culture; it hurts to witness this disrespect (and to know that I, too, have participated in it), but they are strong, lively people and despite physical and cultural genocide, they have survived and kept their traditions intact.

It’s a beautiful place, a place I no longer visit unless I’m asked to — and that’s generally if someone requests that I go up and keep an eye on my fellow white folks. Even so, I keep my distance from the spring. I know now who resides there, and they want their space.

Looking back, I do believe that the peyote spirit had called to me, but indeed, it had sent me home, away from a sacred place, to work with it. It was clear I needed this medicine and that the spider had something to tell me — whether it was as simple as getting to know my place in the ecosystem and my relationship to everything else in it, or something deeper, such as the symbolic messages a spider’s presence can bring, it was important. I’d walked away from my life in New York in hopes of finding my way to a better, truer me; I’d come through painful, potentially deadly situations more than once. I am a survivor, but it’s because I am learning, daily, how to walk more softly and with ever more respect.

Self-empowered, I am able to weave webs, to create home wherever I go, to feed, care for and protect myself intelligently. I can look wicked and dangerous, but it’s merely a peaceful, gentle self-defense, a warning to give me my space. Look more closely and you’ll see that I, too, am an example of nature’s perfection.

Dori Mondon-Freeman lives in far northern California with her wife, daughter, two old rescue dogs and a big Maine Coon cat. Writes for food, welcomes intelligent discourse.

Compulsive storyteller. Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College.

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