It was Day 8 of quarantine for me and my family. My son had returned from his semester abroad in Europe, and so we were all hunkered down in our Brooklyn house, cooking, eating, working together and listening to music. Dean, 20, was mostly in charge of the soundtrack and had just put on Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” on Spotify.
Our family has a strong sense of humor, which was serving us well during this time of extreme anxiety and fear. My husband jokes now and then that we should write a TV show based on us called “The Sarcastics.” When I heard the opening to the Dylan tune, I had to laugh.
Throw my ticket out the window.
Throw my suitcase out there too. …
’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.
Dean, nothing if not self-aware, had chosen the song as a nod to our living situation. But the song sent me on a journey down memory lane, as most songs will when you’re 55.
It brought me back to Alaska, 1993, where I had worked as a news director at a radio station in my 20s. One weekend, my fellow D.J., Eric, and I lit out for Pilgrim Hot Springs, an oasis about an hour outside of Nome. My friend Tony, who was visiting from the Lower 48, was with us, too, and had brought three hits of acid.
I had never dropped LSD, but Eric and I had smoked quite a bit of marijuana that year and were ready to take it to the next level, as you are wont to do in your 20s. We had to get out of Nome, though, because it was so ugly, we were worried it would trigger a “bad trip,” as Eric explained.
Nome, a gold-mining town, was a collection of battered wind-beaten shacks on the edge of the Bering Sea, with dirt streets and a beach still occupied by desperate gold miners, men down on their luck — mostly with no teeth — who came up every summer from the Lower 48 in an attempt to strike it rich. Characters right out of a John Huston film.
Nome was above the tree line and was the opposite of what you think of when you picture Alaska. It was not pretty.
So we headed to Pilgrim.
Pilgrim Hot Springs had once been a “resort” for miners, with a saloon and dance hall. The Catholic Church had then taken it over, running an orphanage on the grounds. But the church had left and the buildings were now abandoned. We had gone out for day trips, but had never spent the night. It was July, which meant that this far north, the sun did not set.
The meteorologists referred to the area as the Pilgrim Ring. Clouds seemed to bounce over the surrounding mountains, forming a ring around the valley where the springs were located, ensuring it was always sunny. The ground was also warmer than in Nome, or anywhere else around, because of the thermal springs. So there were lots of trees. There was a small farm where a guy named Tim grew vegetables and fruit that he trucked into fresh produce-starved Nome.
It seemed like the perfect place to drop acid, which we did as soon as we left our bags in the vacant main house on the property.
I soon realized I had made a terrible mistake. The house, in my altered state, was filled with ghosts. There were old rusty bunk beds and ancient stained mattresses. You could feel the people who had lived here all around you. Tony, Eric and I looked at one another and practically ran screaming from the building.
We soaked in the crude hot tubs someone had set up there years earlier and basked in the sunlight streaming down through the giant blue hole of the Pilgrim Ring. We didn’t even mind the giant mosquitoes, the state bird of Alaska, calmly feeling them draw our blood and then buzz off.
We read Chekhov to one another and bonded in a way that is hard to describe if you are not dropping acid. I saw the story and connection between each of us, the deep connections, having worked with Eric all year, having known Tony for seven. The history played itself out in the moment and made me feel I was not only connected to them, but also inextricably to the world around us. We were one organism all traveling together on this spinning orb, in this greatest state, in this Pilgrim oasis.
We helped Tim harvest some strawberries and beans. And in those few hours I understood the evolution from hunter gatherer to agricultural man to Industrial Revolution as I had never been able to in school. Our history as a species suddenly became very clear to me.
We went back to the house to try and get some sleep for our overtaxed brains, but the ghosts were too strong. Later, after I had done research, I would learn that the families of those orphans who had lived there had died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. The orphanage had been built for them. When children died in Pilgrim in winter, the priests would pile the bodies and wait for the ground to thaw to bury them. Those were the ghosts we could feel all around us.
We went to the nearby abandoned church building to rest. Eric couldn’t sleep, though, and went back outside with his acoustic guitar. I lay there thinking of the orphans. But then I heard Eric’s guitar. Tony and I looked out the window and saw him standing there — the lush Pilgrim green all around him — serenading us with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”
Throw my troubles out the door.
I don’t need them anymore.
Tony and I smiled and joined Eric outside.
In front of us was a double rainbow, the likes of which I had never seen. I looked over at Eric and Tony and asked, “Am I hallucinating?” They were seeing the same thing, but of course they were tripping, too. So we asked Tim, the farmer, gliding by on his tractor, who told us that yes, the double rainbow really was there.
I had grown up in the city, where the big buildings sometimes allowed half a rainbow to peak out if you were lucky, a city where we were all crowded on top of one another. Where we lived separately, but were inextricably all linked together. One city, one world.
And I was back in that city, safe with my family, for now.
Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of “Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy.”