On April 19, 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was riding home on his bicycle after a long day at the lab when the strangest thing happened to him: He was tripping balls. Earlier in the day, Hofmann had decided to test a new chemical he had invented called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
Later, Hofmann wrote about this fateful bike ride: "Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening, and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux."
As anybody who has ever taken acid knows, Hofmann's words fairly and compactly describe an LSD trip in a way that the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Timothy Leary's over-the-top declarations never could.
Inspired by an urge to erase the image of LSD that was created by John, Paul, George, Ringo, and all of the other flower-power acolytes of the Summer of Love, Martin Dockery decided to recreate the good doctor's bicycle trip in order to cleanse the doors of perception regarding acid.
His latest one-man show The Bike Trip is a pro-LSD manifesto of sorts that finds Dockery not only recreating Hofmann's trip, but traveling to India and the hippie-friendly Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, ground zero for the acid revolution.
"The whole perception of LSD has been frozen in 1960s amber," says Dockery, a well-regarded New York storyteller who brought his one-man show Wanderlust, about his own adventures in Africa, to Spoleto last year. "Everybody still has this hippie-drippy image of people twirling in the fields, half-naked with a flower in their teeth, and it completely diminishes and excuses people from ever trying to have that experience themselves."
He adds, "My idea for doing this is I would like to present my own personal story of this particular substance, LSD, and to talk about it in a way that's free from all that sensational stuff from back then and to be able to talk about it in a way that is articulate and humorous and is enlightening."
But the attempt to recreate Hofmann's bike ride home didn't turn out the way Dockery planned. At the time, he hoped he would be able to tap into Hofmann's original psychedelic experience, an experience that took place long before druganauts had determined exactly what someone on acid would see, hear, and feel.
However, Dockery's own expectations presented their own set of challenges. "I was very self-conscious of the fact that this is like the backbone of a show, and I believe in LSD to the extent that something amazing always happens, so I was sure something here will happen with me," he says. "But as often happens with any experience, not just with LSD, you can't just demand that the universe pony up to the bets you've made on life. So, I'm riding around, and I keep waiting for something to happen, but nothing is happening. It just keeps being me on a bicycle."
Although his efforts were thwarted, the experiment ended up being a profound moment for him once he let his expectations go. While resting in a field, he suddenly had to deal with painful issues that he had been avoiding — the primary being the fact that the relationship that he was in was over. "As it was happening, I was really overcome with the sadness of this relationship ending and the awareness of a friend of mine who had died. It was painful, but it was very cathartic. I hadn't cried in decades, and then all of a sudden, I did alone in this field, which makes it sound terribly depressing, but it's not."
He adds, "It was sort of a curiously wonderful experience to ultimately be allowed to deal with these emotions that I had been keeping under wraps."
Thanks to LSD, Dockery was able to let go. And that's exactly what he hopes those with preconceived notions about acid will do. For the storyteller, Hofmann's discovery is more than an excuse to throw on a tie-dye and do the hippie shag at a Widespread Panic show. It's a way to set your soul free and to discover who you really are, expectations be damned.