At the age of 16 I ran into Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg on the street in Denver. Our discussion changed my life forever
As the summer of 1967 started to wind down I found myself back in Colorado. It had been a wild summer swinging from the Haight Ashbury, Berkeley, Sausalito, Los Angeles, Denver, Boulder and various communes in between.
I had spent a good part of the summer as a mule running organic mescaline from a Texas consortium based in Austin to San Francisco to exchange for Owsley Acid then bringing it back to Colorado to be distributed. Only to find out years later Bear Owsley was no more than a mile and a half from the main commune that I was staying at in Denver. He had moved his laboratory to West Denver, producing his White Lightning there and then distributed it to San Francisco and the East Coast. Owsley had chosen Denver to get away from the heat/narcs in California (California being the only place in the US then to have outlawed LSD).
(As a side note I was never paid money for running the mescaline one way and the acid the other way. I was given ample amounts of mescaline which I distributed for free wherever I went. It was the spirit of the times, even then I had no business sense, or as I have come to recognize, I am just another boring anti-capitalist.)
My 16th birthday came and went in early September, and after a couple more trips back and forth I settled in for a little while in Denver, staying at one of those wonderful old granite mansions near Cheesman Park with some good friends. The rumor mill in mid September was that there was going to be a Be-In later on in the month. This was all pretty exciting for the local scene. As it so happened, it turned out to be true, that the Be-In was going to occur in Denver City Park. The Grateful Dead would headline along with Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg speaking. A multitude of area bands were on the bill as well. The local community was going all out for the event.
The afternoon before the Be-In, I was hitting my old haunts around the Folklore Center on 17th & Pearl on the east side, which then was a nexus point for the counterculture at that time in Denver. I hung out in the store for a bit going through the new records that were released that week and checking out the various stringed instruments, especially the mandolins which I was very fond of. After a while I meandered down the street towards the Green Spider Coffee House (where I had worked the previous summer) and to my great surprise standing in front of the coffee house was acid guru Timothy Leary and legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I was taken back for a moment, but then I put on my brave face and walked up to them as they greeted me with big smiles. I was feeling somewhat shy, saying hello, and they started to engage with me in conversation. What happened next changed my evolving viewpoint and trajectory in life.
Of course I was overawed at being in their presence, yet that quickly passed as they put me at ease. After a couple of minutes, what struck me then was that they spoke to me as if I were an equal. It was mind opening, as this was a new experience for me.
Over the course of 45 minutes to an hour, we talked about several subjects, beginning with the concept of Ahimsa. This was my introduction to the philosophy of non-violence and societal change. They would throw up questions to me and I would answer to the best of my ability, and they would take my questions and answer me with clarity and sincerity. I had been taking part in anti-war demonstrations since 1965, but to learn about the roots of the protest was clarifying.
I asked Tim about Millbrook and how it was there, and I told him that in the previous spring (of 1967) my friends and I had taken to calling Millbrook on Friday evenings (the telephone was our internet then) when we were all on acid and he just laughed and laughed. “Every time we called they said you were tripping!”
Allen brought up the connection between Buddhism and Psychedelics. I told them that I had stumbled onto Zen Buddhism before taking acid, and that koans had helped me through difficult transitions before acid. I brought up that I was interested in Tibetan Buddhism, as I found that the The Psychedelic Experience that Leary, Alpert & Metzner had put out in 1964 was based on the Tibetan Book of The Dead.
“What do you want to do with your life? Where do you see yourself going?”
They asked me what I wanted to do with my life and what my plans were. At the age of 16 I really didn't have an answer, at least a positive one. No one had ever asked me that. Quite the question to ask a 16 year old who was completely overwhelmed with sensory overload and a wild imagination. I had never had a lot of encouragement about my future, and Tim said, “You need to think about this,” and Allen concurred. I can't remember what I answered; it's been such a long time. But I do know that their question made me look at my sense of direction. Over the next few months I made decisions that have stayed with me ever since.
Allen was very sweet and he nudged me in the direction of personal philosophy and into what I thought my life path might be. “Do you write? Do you do art?” I wanted to do art but I thought myself not very talented even though I'd been working with mandalas and just beginning to discover pointillism.
I look back on that late September afternoon and realize that they were trying to guide me and to help me become more of myself… than I was at that point. Later, reading Tim's works in following years, I realized that he had a deep understanding about assumed societal codes and strictures, and that he was trying to get me to question the influences and programming shaping my mind.
We talked about the Be-In, which was to occur the next day. They could tell I was happy about the event —they were all smiles about the prospects of the next day. I was excited to see the Grateful Dead, who were the headliners. (They didn't disappoint!) (Side Note: The Dead's house in the Haight was 3 doors down and across the street from where I had been staying earlier in the summer. We used to go outside to smoke a joint in the morning and we'd see Pigpen and Phil out on their porch doing the same across the way. They would wave, we would wave.)
Finally, the time came to depart. Tim, then Allen hugged me and wished me well. In turn I told them I would see them at the Be-In. The next day, I dosed on the way to the city park of course, and indeed, there they were on stage later on. Allen led the crowd into a chant, then had us all perform the AUM/OM together. Tim talked about evolutionary change and how we were all a part of that, and ended reciting a couple of his poems. The Dead were wonderful. The crowd was loving, and I ended up in the Denver Post’s main photograph of the event the next day, dancing with a God’s Eye I had put together especially for the event. What great memories.
I have found that there are pivotal moments in one’s life where decisions are made, or a path accepted. The counseling I received that day was to question everything I had accepted previously in life. That practice has continued, it started that day, with that conversation, or maybe it was an intervention. Tim and Allen are gone now, but their influence on me and others lives on.