On Taking Psychedelics with My Brother
When I was 18 years old I moved into an old surf shack a few blocks away from the beach in Santa Cruz, California. My housemates consisted of three college students and about three million termites. We had an unspoken agreement with our landlord. He would keep the rent low and we would never bring up our dysfunctional toilet, refrigerator or faulty central-heating system. It was a mafioso style, “I didn’t see nothin’ if you didn’t see nothin’” sort of relationship.
The house was sailboat themed, detailed with a burgundy wood-paneled floor and cabinet handles in the shape of miniature wooden steering wheels. When winter storms descended upon us, the house would creak and moan like a ship at sea. The central-heating system had been broken since I had moved in two years prior. Rather than try to fix it, I submitted to making breakfast in outdoor gear typically reserved for mountaineering expeditions. One morning as I was frying eggs wearing a down parka, my brother Toby, who is seven years older than me, stopped by and proclaimed, “It’s colder than a witch’s titty in here!” He pointed to the large heater that sat on the wall in the kitchen and asked why we weren’t utilizing it. I informed him that the heater was broken and argued that it wasn’t even that cold, as misty clouds huffed from my mouth. Toby knelt down, removed the grate, fiddled with a knob, clicked a button, and the heater ignited, warm air thawing our living room within minutes. Toby stood up and nonchalantly said, “Your pilot light was off, bro.”.
When it comes to fix-it skills, my brother and I are not unlike the stories of the twin babies who come out looking wildly different because one hoards all the nutrients in the womb. By the time I realized that being “handy” was valuable, Toby was already so far along that I decided not to enter the race at all. When a washing machine would break or a bed needed to be assembled, I adopted the strategy of a dog on the Fourth of July, spastically walking in circles then covering my head in a pillow until morning. I don’t mean to paint myself as a soft-handed man baby, but my talents were highly specialized. My ability to navigate my way along a wave or explain the concept of Universal Basic Income had little application in the real world, and I’ve always been just the littlest bit jealous of his general competence.
His influence over me had a kind of butterfly effect, passing comments altering the course of my life. When I was around 12 years old he mentioned that he didn’t do cocaine because that drug was for people with low self-esteem. To this day, I have yet to snort a line.
When I was 8 and Toby was 15, he and his friends built a monolithic half-pipe in our backyard. I quickly became possessed by a psychopathic determination to get good at skateboarding. More specifically, a determination to get better than him at skateboarding. I would construct imaginary conflicts, digging up any jealousy I could mine and using the energy to practice a new trick until the bloody sky dissolved to inky purples and blacks, resembling the colors of my swollen hip.
Although Toby recognized the conflict, he refused to participate. It didn’t seem to bother him when I eventually got better than him at skating. It was like a boxer following through on a haymaker knock-out, only to find out that his opponent was a hologram.
This summer I am traveling through Montana. Toby recently came out to visit me, along with our childhood friend Tighe. I envisioned my big brother awestruck by my new rugged competence in the outdoors. Perhaps I would pick him up from the airport on horseback, rifle in hand, wearing a coat made of bison fur. I stacked the deck in my favor and recommended that we begin the trip rafting down the Yellowstone River for three nights. I had rafted the same stretch just two weeks prior and was confident in my ability to outdo him as an angler.
By the end of the third day, Toby had caught all of the fish and Tighe and I had caught none. Toby also demonstrated an uncanny ability to captain our raft like a sharp knife through hot butter, while Tighe and I jerked and stabbed the oars like we were being electrified. I spent most of my time on the Yellowstone River not gazing up at the mountains in wonder, but down at a dizzying maze of tangled fishing line. In one moment of spiritual brokenness, I even handed the line to my big brother, who righted it with alacrity.
If Toby has a fault, it’s that he’s both aware of his competence and a decent storyteller. He often recounts self-aggrandizing tales of walking on hot coals or breaking four arrows against a wall, using only the power of his neck. This can rub people the wrong way, until they scratch deeper and learn that he tells these stories not to feed his own ego, but to share genuine enthusiasm, and he is likely recounting the story while assembling your fucking bed, or, in my case, draining my RV’s septic tank.
I am the proud new owner of an RV, did I mention that? I set out on the road with the plan to sleep in the back of my Subaru for four months. I quickly learned, however, that repeated nights of poor sleep in a car results in jittery psychosis, not rugged competence. So I recently upgraded to a 1997 Ford RV. Her name is Starflyght. She has a teal carpet interior, white polk-a-dot curtains, and silver dish rims that resemble a spaceship. Starflyght demands attention. Just the other day I was greeted by a passionate stranger on a cruiser bicycle. As he passed by my window he shouted “GO BACK TO CALIFORNIA!” He sped off before I could thank him, his fubsy belly jiggling along the bumpy road.
After fumbling Yellowstone, I was determined to prove my superior angling skills, so we piled into Starflyght and ventured north to Glacier National Park for a second rafting trip, a potent batch of psychedelic mushrooms in hand. The water in Glacier is as clear as glass. There were four of us in our raft, all sufficiently tripping. I manned the captain’s seat, but was relieved of my duty after I torpedoed us into a pile of fallen logs, which snapped Toby’s fly rod in half.
We all non-verbally agreed that it just “felt right” to have Toby row for the majority of the eight-hour day. I caught a few fish, but quickly learned that digging a hook from a gasping trout is not conducive to the sense of oneness psychedelics generally evoke. I pivoted, instead, to sitting off the front of the raft, closing my eyes like Rose from Titanic, and pretending to fly.
As the psilocybin turned the glassy river into vivid pastel blues and grays, I observed my big brother rowing the raft from a slightly different vantage point, as well—one that was free from self-reference. The idea that his skill set somehow undermined my own struck me as a form of mental disorder. For the first time, his competence no longer evoked competition, but love.
Jealousy and admiration, it turns out, are two sides of the same coin, one which I had finally flipped.
By Kyle Thiermann