A Remote Arizona Church Offers Followers Peyote-Induced Psychedelic Trips
Anybody who has read Carlos Castaneda's books has an idea of what peyote is.
Andrew Pielage A close-up photo of a peyote plant growing at Peyote Way Church.
Castaneda, a UCLA anthropology student turned prominent mysticism author, documented his experiences ingesting peyote. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was published in 1968. At Peyote Way, visitors get a version of the experiences Castaneda wrote about.
But Kent warns that coming to Peyote Way with expectations is a recipe for disappointment.
"It's hard to come here without expectations, but the more you can tamp them down the better," Kent says. "When you read Carlos Castaneda, or hear about somebody else's peyote experience, well, that was their peyote experience. Your peyote experience is going to be absolutely yours."
Andrew Pielage The sacramental peyote tea used by church members for their spirit walks.
Each year, 120 to 140 people visit the church, which requires visitors to become members with a suggested donation of $200 to $300 each, including a one-time membership fee of $50. This qualifies new adherents for an eventual spirit walk (all this is outlined on the church's website, www.peyoteway.org). The church's annual income totaled about $60,000 for 2012, and the pottery business brought in about $30,000 more, Zapf says.
"Essentially, the way it's done here is that [people] make appointments with Anne, and they come here and fast for a day -- we sort of get to know them and figure out if they're ready for the experience," Kent says.
Kent says mentally ill individuals are turned away, and people with physical disabilities are required to stay near the compound's main house while taking peyote. Determining a person's physical condition is a judgment call by Zapf and Kent.
Their children had their first spirit walks at 14 years old.
"I figure if you're old enough to make babies, then you're old enough to know the truth of life and spend some time in reflection about who you are and what you want to be in this life," says Kent.
Those who venture into the middle of nowhere to find Peyote Way get a tour of its grounds, after which they are given a place to stay for the night so they can fast. The next day, they pick out one of the three spots on the property, each with a rustic lean-to and a fire pit, where they spend the second night drinking the church's peyote mixture.
"When it comes time for the spirit walk, Anne will measure 21 grams of peyote -- it's the reputed weight of the soul -- then boiling water is poured over it," Kent says. "The mixture really is more gruel than a tea."
In general, visitors report having three types of reactions to drinking the potion: They get sick all night and nothing happens, they are sick half the night and then the most amazing things happen, or it is wonderful from beginning to end, Zapf says.
"The first four hours are the most physical, as the tea has a challenging taste and ingestion of it can cause nausea," she says. "The next four hours are critical, as fear and nausea compete with the rational, curious mind. At this point, one can surrender to the experience or succumb to fear and fight it all the way."
The taste of peyote is notoriously bad, and drinking the mixture is a lengthy and arduous process. Most visitors don't make it through an entire pint-size container, says Kent. They typically vomit.
"Let's just get it straight from the beginning: Peyote is not a recreational substance, it's a re-creational substance," says Kent, who sees peyote as a medicinal plant that can be used for psychological and physical healing.
Church members who have participated in a spirit walk typically refer to peyote as "medicine" rather than a drug. One such member, Dr. Joe Tafur, an integrative family physician in Phoenix and co-founder of Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual healing center in Peru, says he learned of Peyote Way in an old article about the church. He subsequently decided to experience a spirit walk and since has participated in seven such psychedelic journeys.
"The average person can benefit from the spirit walk," says Tafur via e-mail correspondence from the Amazon, where he works at his Nihue Rao foundation. "The spirit walk offers an opportunity for profound spiritual healing."
Long-term, repeated use of peyote is safe, he says. He cites John Halpern's Harvard-affiliated study on it as evidence of the cactus' safeness.
"In my experience, it allows for healing of the subconscious and deep emotional traumas that often evade allopathic and psychological approaches," Tafur says. "Healing of the mind and spirit then allows for a number of physiological benefits through mind-body connections, primarily through psychoneuroimmunologic and psychoneuroendocrine connections."
Another church member, Robert McDermott, a former technology worker at University of California-San Diego, says he has experienced 15 spirit walks.
He embarked on one of his earliest in an attempt to overcome anxiety related to a "serious illness."
Says McDermott: "The medicine was difficult for me to take, and I became very nauseous. Then [after about an hour] I began seeing my anxieties and my fears of death associated with my illness for what they were. My anxieties were preventing me from being present with my family and friends. I found a place of profound gratitude for my life as it was."
McDermott says he wouldn't be alive today "if it were not for this sacred medicine."
The church's late founder and Kent's teacher, the Reverend Immanuel Pardeahtan Trujillo, started using peyote as a way to treat himself for post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from his combat in World War II, according to Kent.
Far-fetched as it may sound, Kent credits peyote with reversing his vasectomy -- after which he and Zapf had their three children.
A mound of stones and gravel draped with an American flag and surrounded by discarded cattle gates holds a prominent place in Peyote Way's dirt yard. It's the burial spot of Immanuel Trujillo, who died at 82 in a small room at the church in June 2010.
Andrew Pielage The grave site of Peyote Way Founder Immanuel Trujillo.
With little prompting, Kent dives into an extensive biography of Trujillo, who went from New Jersey to Europe in World War II to New York City to Texas and eventually to Arizona. It's clearly a story he's told many times.