By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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By Sean Pendergast
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Still, he went back in. Morales, who had spent the majority of his life working around peyote, had never used it. Now, with his Indian friends praying over him, he took the medicine.
"I've only taken it when I've been real sick," he says. Days later, Morales started gaining weight. He got off the couch and was able to walk without pain. He's not sure how it worked, but he's convinced that the medicine — along with the Indians' prayers — healed him. Now, when they come back to Morales's place, he cuts them a deal, selling them bags of peyote at $200 a piece, which amounts to a significant discount from his regular price of $350.
"You've got to have faith in the medicine," he says. "Without faith, it won't work."
Morales says he's seen the medicine work for others as well. The most miraculous case he's seen happened when his brother was dying in the hospital. A doctor called Morales to tell him the brother had two days left. Morales started calling his family. At the same time, a group of Indians were visiting him to stock up on peyote before heading back to Arizona.
"One of them told me to write my brother's name on a piece of paper," he said. Morales wrote the name — Ajeo — and the Indians left. He didn't ask the Indians' names because he didn't believe it would work. "They told me not to worry because my brother wasn't going to die."
The family gathered at the hospital, thinking that it would only be a matter of hours. Days passed, and Ajeo held on. He didn't die for another six months. Weeks after the Indians left, one of them called Morales.
"He asked how my brother was doing," he says. "I said that he was still alive. He said it was the medicine. They were praying for him."
Other terminally ill people have turned up at Morales's door, looking for medicine. He would like to be able to help them, but if he deals to the wrong people, Morales's license to sell peyote could be revoked.
"One woman drove here from San Antonio," he says. "She had been taking chemo and it wasn't working. Nothing had really worked for her and someone had mentioned the medicine. But she didn't have the papers, so I had to turn her away."
"If you don't have papers, I can't sell to you," he says. Then, with a little smile, he adds, "but I can tell you where you might find it."
As Morales explains the magical power of the medicine, he inspects his supply. So far, business has been slow for the winter. It was still deer season in early January and Morales couldn't harvest much peyote if he wanted to. He sold about 5,000 buttons for December, which means that he netted around $1,750. Subtract wages for his handful of part-time workers and it becomes clear that Morales isn't making much money, even though the price of peyote has more than doubled in the past ten years.
He keeps thousands of buttons ready to sell. Stored in large wooden trays behind his house, some of them are covered by tarps and others by a makeshift roof. There's little security to protect his supply, but he says he's never had a problem with theft.
Morales bends down to demonstrate his technique for cutting the plant above the root so that it will grow back. He puts a button on a table and cuts a slice open. He offers it to me to smell. He gives me a little nod as if to indicate that I should try it. Without asking permission, I take a bite. Morales smiles. It tastes like a dirty, raw potato. The little button seems to suck all the moisture right out of my mouth. Suddenly, it starts tasting spicy, like a raw jalapeño. The feeling is intolerable and I spit it out.
"Maybe you just don't have the faith," he says, winking at me.
Humberto Fernández — known universally as Don Humberto in the village of Real de Catorce, Mexico — eats peyote for breakfast. One button — it's just enough to get him going for the day.
Don Humberto was a young Mexican hippie bumming around California in the 1970s when he heard about peyote growing wild near a ghost town in the mountains of central Mexico. As it turned out, the ghost town — Real de Catorce — was close to his hometown in the state of San Luis Potosí.
"I was hanging out in the esoteric sections of bookstores in California and reading about the Huichol Indians and peyote," he says. "I said, 'wow, that's where I'm from.' I didn't know anything about it growing up."
On a whim, Don Humberto moved to the town and started renovating a colonial building a few blocks from the cathedral. He turned it into a boutique hotel that catered to Europeans who had heard about peyote. About ten years ago, primarily through word of mouth, peyote tourism in the town boomed.