Wednesday, January 20, 2016


A pothead’s progress
by Don Stradley 


As much as Travels With Mary Jane is a travelogue, it’s also a memoir. The unnamed author, billed only as “The Old Head,” sets out to share his experiences as a 70-year-old stoner, a fellow who has embraced mind-altering substances since Rubber Soul was on the charts.  There are dozens of amusing anecdotes here, including some with a whiff of danger, but just as you feel you’re being taken on a dark adventure, ala Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, events seem to drift by with more humor than drama, allowing the author’s real agenda to emerge. You see, head trips are no match for nostalgia trips, and though it’s enlightening to read about changes in the pot industry since the Summer of Love, the author is at his strongest when rhapsodizing about the friends he made on his Candide-like search for the best of all possible highs. Unlike Voltaire’s naïf, our guide isn’t entirely innocent; he’ll dive right in for a night with a Mexican prostitute, or a brief stint as an international drug smuggler. 

Though he hasn’t exactly spent his life sittin’ ‘round the shanty getting a good buzz on, our humble narrator has seemingly maintained a steady buzz for decades. Fortunately, his lifestyle hasn’t left him addled. He’s downright erudite. But if insightful asides on Van Gogh and Wagner are not what you want from a drug book, his sections on marijuana, LSD, his travels throughout Europe in search of the good stuff, and his own living example of someone who has celebrated drug use (as opposed to drug abuse), should be enough for you. Even if you’ve never been to the quietly menacing Kasbah where everyone seems to be named Mohammad and carries a dagger, you’ve probably been high, or you’ve been to a party where someone revealed a small bag of mysterious powder. If you can’t relate to the author’s nail-biting stroll through customs, maybe you’ll enjoy his riffs on D.H. Lawrence and Quetzalcóatl, or John Wayne taking a bullet in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Maybe you didn’t land in London in 1967 as a 20-year-old art student, where a suave new friend introduced you to drugs, as well as something called ‘Mexican Magic,’ which allegedly involved digging up a corpse, cutting off the head, and planting a bean in its eye, but using his memory – amazingly sharp for a career stoner – and a writing style that veers from the casual to the elegant,  the author turns a trick known to all good memoirists: his experiences, somehow, will remind you of your own. At the very least you’ll realize the coke you snorted back in the 1980s that left you chatty and depressed was just cheapo street shit.

The expected weirdness comes early. A first acid trip results in some groovy hallucinations, including one where a friend appears to the author as a “giant groundhog walking upright and wearing clothes.” The Kenneth Grahame allusions sidle along with bits on other cultural heroes, from Charles Bukowski to Bo Diddley (“the fucking King Kong of guitar players!”), from Miles Davis to Tom Russell’s Hotwalker. But these references don’t simply bookmark the time period like a straw boater; they’re more like colorful bugs slapping against the windshield as the author barrels along through 50 years of shameless hedonism, even as he suspects he’s heading toward “a dinosaur graveyard, listening to the ghosts of the past and sucking on last night’s roach.” 

This sense of being “the last living hippie” isn’t a bad thing, according to the author. When gawkers gaze at him in the window of an Amsterdam shop, he’s happy to be part of the scene, even if he’s “just a human prop in a world of sin and laughter.” Identity and image are recurring leitmotifs, with the author continuously amused by his own conservative, non-threatening appearance. He asks at one point, “What difference does it make if your image is natural or contrived? If you wear it long enough, it will come to fit you.”

The author certainly has had his share of images. At various times he’s an only child, playing in the bombed out ruins of London, then a wide-eyed student, then a smuggler pretending to be a gay tourist, then an ex-hippie who finds himself the reluctant star of the Fort Bragg gun range, then a journalist, and now, a memoirist, not in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac, but more on the lines of Tobias Wolff. He could’ve called his book This Stoner’s Life, as he wanders through several countries, encountering a glut of interesting strangers, ranging from foxy waitresses to people who’d faced Nazi terrors during World War 2. He’ll pause to give you a pinch of French history, or recount the effects of some pharmaceutical cocaine shared by a friend: “Abandoned chicken coops, overgrown with old grape and honeysuckle vines, looked as beautiful as the ruins of antiquity. The meadow, with its clumps of roughly mowed grass turning dirty yellow, was an impressionist landscape come to life.”  

Such a rich, intelligent style makes me question the author’s nom de weed: The Old Head. It conjures up some tie-dyed Tommy Chong type, which is a slight disservice to such a well-written and thoughtful book. Then again, a theme in Travels With Mary Jane is that we’re looking behind the veil: a straight-laced army sergeant suddenly explains to a bunch of new recruits the proper way to get out of the army; a dancing boy in Tangiers removes his makeup to reveal his identity as a 40-year-old man; a rough army buddy turns out to be bisexual; a dashing drug dealer turns out to be as vulnerable to life’s changes as anyone else. An old head, then, careworn and quietly wise, reveals himself to be more than your standard Woodstock cliché.

True, there’s plenty of insider drug lingo here, but in the end, the book isn’t really about drugs. It’s not even about traveling. It’s about love. The author’s love of a good high, the love he has for his friends and family; it’s palpable. At one point he describes a dream where human figures sprout out of the earth and rise skyward, filling the author with a sense of excitement and wonder that carries over for several days. It’s a feeling of love, really, love for humanity, and how, despite our efforts to the contrary, we’re all in this together. This philosophy appears to buoy our author in several instances, most movingly when a swashbuckling friend from the past is found living in something close to depression and squalor. Love is all you need. Keep that idea in your pocket, next to your smokes. You’ll be fine.



Hey, Travels With Mary Jane is available through Amazon.  A link appears below.


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