Spirit Walking

A remote Arizona church, whose founder communed with LSD guru Timothy Leary, offers followers peyote-induced psychedelic trips

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 will spend the second night drinking the church's peyote mixture.

"The first four hours are the most physical," spiritual leader Anne Zapf explains. "The next four hours are critical, as fear and nausea compete with the rational, curious mind."

"When it comes time for the spirit walk, Annie 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, Zapf says, visitors report having three different 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.

Peyote takes years to grow and is considered an endangered species by some
Andrew Pielage
Peyote takes years to grow and is considered an endangered species by some
Leary in LA, 1989
Wikimedia Commons/Philip H. Bailey
Leary in LA, 1989

"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 quart-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 from an old article about the church. He subsequently decided to experience a spirit walk and has since participated in seven such psychedelic journeys.

"The average person can benefit from the spirit walk," says Tafur via email 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 UC 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 [nauseated]. 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."

He 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.

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 has told many times.

Kent's recounting of Trujillo's life can seem implausible, even mythic, but in many ways, the church's existence in the high desert of Arizona is just as outlandish.

As the story goes, Trujillo was born to a Jewish mother of French-American descent and a Mexican/Apache father. Trujillo's father had come to the United States from Mexico in 1917 and enlisted in the U.S. Army to gain American citizenship.

His father was exposed to mustard gas during World War I, resulting in ailments he suffered for much of his later life, Kent says. Trujillo was just a few months old when his father died.

Trujillo's mother, 14 years old at the time of his conception, gave him up for adoption. For the first two years of his life, he was raised in an orphanage. Then, an Irish-Catholic family adopted him and renamed him Jimmy Coyle.

« Previous Page
Next Page »