It all started to go downhill under the fluorescent lights of the Supermarkten in Amsterdam. I had eaten a mushroom ‘space cake’ about 45 minutes earlier. It was starting to kick in; I could feel the blossoming rush of awareness. But the setting was all wrong. I was supposed to have reached the Vondelpark (the central urban park of Amsterdam) by then. Instead, I was in checkout lane hell.
I had packed gourmet cheese and a nice bottle of red in my backpack. I just needed to get some good bread to compliment it. But it was Sunday, and learned only after I’d eaten the ‘space cake,’ that all the local bakeries were closed on Sunday. I was dead set on getting bread though, so I went to the supermarket. They only had stale bread for sale. But I could feel the wonder-clock in my head beginning to tick, so I made peace with the day-old loaf, grabbed it and tried to get out.
The checkout line was endless. The Dutch do not rush. They ask each other how it’s going and so on and overuse the word “Ok.” Panic began to creep into my awareness. If the trip hit me here, full throttled, I’d be doomed. I needed to be in nature!
The line inched forward. I started feeling little flames of fire flickering over my hands holding the bread. I looked down and imagined it was a cursed talisman, singeing my fingertips hot pink. I knew this was a crazy thought, and then I knew that I was heading for the deep trip, the one that would take me down n’alley whether I liked it or not. I had to take action. “Excuse me!” I blurted and shoved my way out of the store, leaving the stale loaf of bread God knows where on the floor.
I ran across four lanes of traffic to the Vondelpark, narrowly missing a bicycle in transit. My heart was thundering in my chest, mind screaming for solace. “Once you breach the barrier of the park, you will slip into the slipstream reality,” said a little bald man in my head. I was losing it.
I made it into the park. But I got trapped in a mob of people as packed as a Disneyland town square. It was Sunday, and it was perfect weather, and the entrance area of the park was overrun. I looked for a quiet tree to meditate under and calm myself down. I had to walk I’d guess a mile to find a spot. My backpack, loaded with cheese and wine which I couldn’t fathom eating anymore, felt like an albatross. Why hadn’t I travelled free and light?! Shame, blame, and “Say my name, say my name,” Destiny’s Child lyrics bobbed in my brain.
I couldn’t sit still underneath the tree I found. I was breathing too fast and couldn’t catch it. So I decided to try some yoga. Focus my efforts on physically balancing to bring my brain into sync with my body. But I kept falling over. The X-Y-Z planes of reality were sliding into new fourth-dimensional variables. I glimpsed infinite universes. I couldn’t tell which way was up and which way was left. “You are a professional tripper, Philip,” I said to myself. “You can take care of yourself!”
As I faltered to do yoga, a group of black hip-hop dancers practicing their moves nearby noticed me. They surrounded me and began showing off their moves. It was “Showtime!” from Hell, worse than anything I’ve since experienced on the L train since. I stood paralyzed in a poor man’s ‘Tree’ pose in the middle of their performance as they flipped and and did headstands making fun of me, the crazy shrooming American. I may have been out of my mind, but this was really happening. I wasn’t hallucinating it.
I grabbed my belongings, remembering my Passport was in my bag (for God’s sake, why had I brought my Passport with me?!) and that it was critical not to lose this thing that felt like a ton of bricks. I fled the hip-hop dancers and found myself running to the nearby stream, tears budding. I was nearing a full-fledged mental meltdown.
Then I saw the duck. It was just an ordinary female mallard, floating in the river, but I imbued it with importance. It was the savior duck, the magical duck, who would lead me out of my madness. I decided to surrender myself and simply follow the duck, wherever it went, for the next hour or so.
The duck took its time, free of my internal frenzy, meandering upstream. I began to slow my rhythms to match it. It was an independent duck, swimming all by itself. We journeyed North together, me walking on the banks and occasionally jogging across bridges to stay with it. Within an hour (which felt like a day) we reached the secluded bank under the weeping willow, where I collapsed into the grass and wept. There was no one nearby but the duck and I.
I recovered from my hysteria and pulled out a notebook to journal my feelings. This is what I wrote:
Some more time passed. The duck kept me company, feeding on food nearby. I tried to write again:
My writing was improving. So, I went on to compose letters to loved ones, burning ink to page, until I had melted back down to reality.
The duck swam away some point mid-letter-writing. I never got to thank her for saving my trip in the Vondelpark.
I gathered my things then and went to the Anne Frank museum. It was my last day in Amsterdam, and I didn’t want to miss it. By the time I arrived, I was the only one in the museum. It was minutes until closing time. I stood alone in Anne’s room, mildly tripping. This probably bordered on disrespect, but I found myself very moved by the experience.
I finished the night by performing some short-form improv comedy as a guest with Boom Chicago, then I went home and collapsed into bed. I hadn’t even touched the wine or cheese in my bag since I’d packed it.
The last thing I thought was: “When in doubt, follow the duck.”