Recreating Albert Hofmann’s Basel Bike Ride On LSD

Or: The Failure of the Psychedelic Revolution to so much as Slow for One Instant the Incessant Gobbling-up of the Earth by the Moloch of Globalisation Considered as a Solo Uphill Bicycle Race through Basel

This story begins in November 1979 inside a spire made from gaping mouths stitched together by their lips – mouths screaming the negation of all of hope, all of love, and even all of existence in its manifold entirety. Our scaly tale lashes across the years, taking in an episode during which I was the Great White Spirit controlling everything by wires from the fifth dimension, another in which I held a tea party for Victorian ladies wearing florescent crinolines in a portable conservatory that happened to be the back of a Mini Clubman (the old, authentically mini kind – not those modern BMW imposters), and a more playful chapter during which I flew a miniature kite in the airstream from a household fan, much to the amusement of my future wife, who had just returned from the Last Night of the Proms and was as high as one (a miniature kite, that is).

Our narrative zigs in, and zags out of the months and the years, with no interest in the banalities of chronology. Sometimes it incorporates other people’s perspectives – disparate individuals, a handful of intimates, most never known – snuggling up behind their eyeballs like a hideous psyche-schlupping body snatcher, and everywhere this pinpoint of view pricks the thin skin stretched between what is and what-is-not, it draws blood: red blood, heliotrope blood, blood the thick-slick surface of which is patterned … like tweed. Yes, and when all is said and done, and we’ve pushed the rental bike to the top of the hill, freewheeled down, then returned it to the spotless garage under the Hauptbahnhof, so the ravenous monologue remorselessly returns us to the waking nightmare … Those screaming mouths stitched together – and did I mention the skeletons? You know the ones … they have shreds and globs of putrefying flesh dangling from their griddle ribcages, and they use carved fibulas and tibias to play upon glockenspiels the keys of which are other ribs, picked clean. Did I mention the skeletons? Because they’re the most loathsome things of all, not, you appreciate solely because in their number and their aspect they form an orchestra-sized memento mori (there are perhaps a hundred of them, and they each have a bony instrument to saw, pluck, beat or blow), but because of what they play: the rinky-dink, bang-crash-wallop, tin pan alley schmaltz that is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue … Christ! How I loathe it – how I regret putting the record on the turntable: when I dropped the needle into the groove, I pinioned myself to this undulating bed, where I lie staring up into that spire of howling orifices. I’ve been here for a while … I’m here now … It feels horribly as if I’ll be here forever …

In case you hadn’t bitten down on the bitter pill by now, this is a story about drugs – specifically about major hallucinogens, and in particular about Lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known on the street as acid. Although this is an idiomatic expression I’ve always found a little confusing; after all, which “street” does it refer to? Certainly not Lichtstrasse (“Light Street”), in Basel, Switzerland, where, on the morning of February 5 this year I found myself standing astride my stalled rental bicycle and addressing a pair of employees, who had quit the Novartis “campus” (as the HQ of this huge pharmaceutical company is styled) in order to enjoy a rather more mundane drug experience: ingesting nicotine. They were surrounded by a gaggle of heavy-puffing colleagues whose smoke and condensation rose up into the gunmetal sky. Beyond them the Mondrian-Modernist glass panels of the campus buildings formed a grid of rationality upon which to plot these billowy curves of self-harm. I’d picked this duo because they looked slightly younger and hipper than the rest. After establishing that this wasn’t the main entrance, and that I’d have to backtrack to Fabrikstrasse (yes, yes, I know you know what this means), I asked them if they’d ever heard of Albert Hofmann.

They looked blankly at me, as I spluttered: “Y’know, Hofmann, he was a research chemist with Sandoz – now part of the Novartis group …” the blankness persisted, “Hofmann, the man who first synthesised LSD …” the blankness intensified. “L-S-D,” even though their English was faultless; I spelt it out for them with trans-cultural emphasis, “acid – the drug, the hallucinogenic drug. It was first synthesised right here, on April 16 1943 by Albert Hofmann, surely you know that?” But they surely didn’t know that. Indeed, not only did they not know about Hofmann, I’m not altogether sure they even knew what acid was. That evening in the hotel bar, I struck up a conversation with a woman in her early 30s, and she wasn’t on the same street as acid either – cocaine and marijuana she admitted to having heard of (although she swore she’d never taken either), but LSD was a complete terra incognita to her; she’d certainly never lain on a writhing mattress staring up into a spire of full of screaming mouths – the very idea was preposterous, and quite at variance with the atmosphere of Basel; staid, moneyed Basel, where Switzerland, Germany and France nuzzle up against each other in a welter of banking accords and powdery profitability.

Thinking back on these episodes later, it occurred to me that mine had been the common error of my generation: a late baby-boomer (born in 1961), since the demographics have made me and my peers the greatest part of the Western European population, I/we naturally assume that the cultural foment of our childhood and youth remains zeitgeisty. Perhaps, if I’d asked the Novartis fag-smokers about K-holes they’d have opened up – but quite possibly not; after all, the last thing you want to ‘fess up to when you churn out licit drugs for a living is taking street ones. And Basel is a company town: there were adverts for Sandoz’s products ranged along the travelator at the airport, so that you reached arrivals feeling like a dissolving human pill, a bubbly effervescence streaming out of the back of your head.

Anyway, I’d had the same blank response from the PR flaks at Novartis and Sandoz when I got in touch with them to ask whether I could see the laboratory where the drug that launched a thousand trips had been synthesised: emails and phone calls went resolutely unanswered. If it hadn’t have been for the sleuthing of a an Anglo-German friend who lives in Cologne (and who spoke to both the archivist at Novartis, and to Hofmann’s own son), I’d never have discovered that the chemist’s 1943 laboratory is still part of the campus, nor the precise location of the modest suburban house Hofmann cycled to on that April afternoon.

At the main reception on Fabrikstrasse the man-in-black behind the marble desk nearly corpsed when I asked if I, a mere member of the public, could stroll around the campus. What a ridiculous notion? Then, in between issuing plasticised name-badges to pukkah drug-dealers, he took pity on me, and explained that the city council ran a tour on Saturdays. What a fool! This was what every acid-addled journalist should always remember: whenever you have to access the heavily-guarded corporate HQ of a multinational drug company simply go on the weekend tour. But it was Tuesday, so instead all I could do was to stare plaintively through the gates at the original Sandoz building – a smaller, calmer, beige stone cuboid set among all those scary tesseracts – then mount my 6 CHF-per-hour steed and head for the hills.

As I pedalled along the achingly prosaic Basel streets, the blood draining from my wind-chilled fingers, it seemed to me that never had life seemed more anodyne: the streets were grey – my thoughts were too. Normally the combination of a quixotic little excursion such as this, involving an early morning start from London, a bumpy plane flight and an unfamiliar city at the end of it, would at least induce a mild alteration in my consciousness – a disorienting sense of the expanding possibilities of the universe, and the dilation of my psyche as it struggled to encompass them … But not today, today I was dull and earthbound. How unlike this it had been for Hofmann, almost 70 years ago to the day. The then 37-year-old research chemist had been synthesising for the second time a batch of LSD-25. He’d already performed this task five years before – deriving the colourless, odourless salt from ergotamine, a substance that itself derives from a fungus naturally occurring on rye seeds. Ergotamine had some uses reducing blood pressure in women affected by preeclampsia during pregnancy – and Sandoz were interested in discovering new blood pressure drugs, but LSD-25, when Hofmann had tested it on various lab rats, seemed to affect them not one jot, so he discarded it and went on tinkering with different molecular arrangements.

In his charming account of the discovery, LSD My Problem Child, Hofmann describes the “peculiar presentiment” he had that led him to re-synthesise LSD-25 (the 25 refers simply to it being the 25th variant derived from ergotamine), and describes the very first acid trip ever “coming on” (as we say down my street), with this equally charming understatement: “I was interrupted in my work by unusual sensations.” Hofmann asked his lab assistant to accompany him home, and this being wartime (although Switzerland was a neutral country, there were still fuel shortages), they mounted bicycles, and as Hofmann pedalled across town he also proceeded into a parallel world. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Lance Armstrong! When the research chemist reached the nondescript house in the hilly suburb of Binningen he laid down “and sank into a not-unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.”

After a couple of hours of this, the colours subsided and Hofmann fell to considering what had occurred. He reasoned – rightly – that if it had been the LSD-25 that had affected him the substance must be highly potent: he had observed correct lab procedures and it could only have been absorbed through his fingers. But how could he be sure? And here comes the true loveliness of the story – if you’ll forgive an old hippy’s floweriness – because while almost any other dull Swiss research chemist would’ve exhibited aching caution, Hofmann became wildly abandoned, and decided to test the drug on himself. Three days later he ingested 0.25 milligrams of LSD, reasoning that this was the smallest amount likely to be an effective dose. His diary of this self-experiment is marvellously terse: “17.00, Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh… Home by bicycle. From 18.00 – circa. 20.00 most severe crisis.”

The “severe crisis” that began on the bike ride was a full-blown bad trip: “Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless my assistant later told me that we had travelled very rapidly.” At home, after collapsing on to a sofa in a swoon, Hofmann saw that “familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms.” Being a Swiss, he asked his assistant to borrow some milk from the next door neighbour (I love the idea of a dairy antidote), but when she pitchered up “She was no longer Mrs R, but rather a malevolent insidious witch with a coloured mask.” As if these external freakeries weren’t bad enough, poor old Hofmann was disintegrating internally: ‘A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind and soul… I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying?”

But far from dying, Hofmann lived to be 102, and remained to the end of his days a devoted father to his strange mind-child, believing that the LSD journey could be profoundly meaningful – if undertaken in the right, medically monitored circumstances. On this formative occasion a doctor was indeed called by the trusty assistant, but by the time he arrived, the peak of Hofmann’s Alp-sized bad trip had been reached, and the intrepid research chemist was gently coasting down the far slopes, transfixed by the characteristic synaesthesia provoked by LSD: “Every sound generated a vividly changing image with its own consistent form and colour.” But if Hofmann’s decision to test LSD on himself was remarkable, still more astonishing – and I think a major factor in the multicoloured mayhem that radiated out from the impact of that 0.25 milligram bomb – was his reaction; bad trip or not, Hofmann was a convert. In the words of the erstwhile Harvard psychologist Dr Timothy Leary – who became the pied piper of the hippies – Hofmann had turned on, tuned in, and, while he may never have actually dropped out, things were never going to be the same again for him.

The following morning he took a stroll in his pocket-sized garden, “Everything glistened and sparkled in a new light, I felt as if I had been reborn.” Within a remarkably short time Sandoz were offering the drug to responsible practitioners – mostly psychiatrists and psychotherapists – to use in practise, on the basis that by producing a “model psychosis” it enabled practitioners to both understand mental illness and treat it. There followed a long twilight period in the late 1940s and through the 1950s when acid, perfectly legal, could be obtained from Sandoz under the predictably dull trade name of Delysid. All sorts of people worked with LSD, notably the English-born Dr Humphrey Osmond, who had considerable success in Canada with the treatment of chronic alcoholism. But as time went by the semi-permeable membrane between psychological investigation and bohemian experimentation began to be penetrated by these super-charged molecules. Somewhere along the street, Hofmann’s problem child was waylaid by the egregious Leary, and introduced to the Eton-educated novelist and psychonaut Aldous Huxley, whose account of his own mescaline experiences, The Doors of Perception, had already become a handbook for the emergent counter-culture.

Leary and Huxley had very different ideas about what to do with this new and still more powerful psychedelic drug – Huxley favouring the initiation of a small group of influential adepts, Leary going for mass tripping with a vengeance – but by then it was too late. Those hipsters who experienced acid trips as portals into a mystical consciousness also saw something cosmically coincidental about Albert Hofmann’s bike ride. Noting that it took place at around the same time as the Manhattan Project was gearing up to produce the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they reasoned that God or gods had given LSD to humankind so that the turned out masses would recoil from the nuclear Armageddon. If any younger folk reading this require a couple of primers on what happened next, I can heartily recommend Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; between them these two books paint the 1960s up in the right Day-Glo shades. (Actually, even older readers could probably do with a re-briefing; after all, if you were there at the time you almost certainly can no longer remember what happened.)

For myself, I think I probably only really did the Hofmannesque bike ride once – by which I mean full-blown hallucinations, ego-death and rebirth. And that’s where you came in: with me lying on a bed in my college room in 1979, staring up at the interior of a spire stitched together out of mouths screaming my own annihilation – and everyone else’s. At the time it seemed that acid trips, far from being some avant garde voyaging, were already hopelessly passé: cheap day returns to the garden of earthy delights taken by already ageing hippies in Gandalf costumes. Illegal since the late 60s, acid was just another street drug. Or was it? True, I probably ended up taking it scores of times – perhaps as many as a hundred – but at an unconscious level I always ensured I didn’t ingest sufficient to return me to the spire of nothingness. Once was enough. However, every time I did take acid I had the same epiphany: I might’ve been getting pissed, smoking weed, and taking all manner of other intoxicants, but when my pulse began to accelerate, and my pupils dilated until their blackness smudged my pasty face, and the objects in the room became charged with an unearthly vitality, and the faces of my companions took on the aspect of masks either comic or tragic … Well, it dawned on me once again that this was what was meant by “drugs” – all the rest of it was mere doodling in the margins of consciousness, while this was shaking the Etch-a-Sketch of your mind until it disintegrated.

So, in answer to the question that I know is preying on your resolutely sober mind, no, I didn’t drop acid before I recreated Albert Hofmann’s famous bike ride. LSD and paternity don’t mix (what if you had a head full of it and began to see your children as malevolent demons?), and apart from a brief re-immersion in the psychedelic maelstrom in between marriages – hence the miniature kite flying incident above, which took place around 1996 – I haven’t messed with my head in that way since Thatcher was off her own in Downing Street. Besides, I didn’t need to: like Obelix in the Asterix comic series, the druid Getafix has long since dunked me in the cauldron of magic potion; so that nowadays, even on cold and dull mornings in Basel that seemed to betoken not expanded consciousness but a pitiless shrinkage of all mental faculties, it only took a few pumps on the pedals, a few squints at the pollarded trees along the boulevard – which writhed like the severed limbs of giants – and a couple of whacky conversations with elderly Swiss (“Do you know where I can find the house of Albert Hofmann … y’know … the man who discovered LSD?”), for me to peel away the transfer of my psyche from this cardboard backdrop and begin to fly.

By the time I reached Albert Hofmann Weg (or “Way”) the tiny, stepped alleyway named in honour of Basel’s most influential 20th century inhabitant, I was as high as a miniature kite. The house where he’d laid supping milk and staring at phantasmagoria was a shuttered box that gave nothing away – but what about this bush? Why if I squinted at its leaves closely enough I could make out tiny cellular worlds in them. And what about this electricity junction box with its cryptic graffito – surely it was telling me something? And as for the airy-fairy sky, mounting up above me, surely if I got back on my rental bike and pedalled hard enough I’d soon be up there eating fondue with the Swiss mountain gods and Heidi’s uncle …? So I got on the bike, and pedalled for all I was worth, and shot back down the hill then along the boulevard to the Hauptbahnhof, and down the curved ramp into the bicycle garage, which was so insanely clean and orderly that I could barely stop laughing long enough to return the bike. As for the spire full of screaming mouths – it was nowhere to be seen.

I suppose the moral of this story is: kids, don’t do this at home – do it first of all in the past … and then in Basel.

A version of this article first appeared in Esquire magazine.