In late August 2006, having just completed a long field season of bird research in the high desert of Nevada, I boarded a bus to San Francisco, from which point I would depart for a month of adventuring in the jungles of Indonesia. Somewhere in northern California, a man with a long white beard boarded the bus and sat down next to me. He seemed to emit some strange energy, bringing instantly to mind the character of Tom Bombadil from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954). He was giggling about something, and his bushy white eyebrows bounced up and down when he spoke, emphasizing the most humorous points in a cartoonish fashion. It didn’t take us long to slip into easy conversation about a topic now gone from memory, and over the next 3–4 hours, we told each other our life stories, his being much longer than mine, being 52 years my senior.
His name was Waldron Vorhees, and Walt to those who loved him. He was apparently a handy individual, good at working with his hands and with machinery. In 1968, he teamed up with a small group of chemists who had been manufacturing LSD in small quantities in Santa Cruz, and the equipment he built for them enabled production to be ramped up significantly. With Walt’s help, they built and operated a new lab in an office building in North Beach, California, that from 1970–72 apparently produced over 200 million hits of the drug. Their LSD was sold as clear gelatin squares, which became widely known as ‘Clearlight’ acid, and lauded for its high quality. There is no doubt that its use facilitated the counterculture revolution that was occurring in California at that time, a fact that Walt repeated often during his rambling, but otherwise mostly coherent stories. During that time, he apparently took LSD every day for about five years.
As his beloved California countryside passed by in the bus window, Walt’s pride was palpable. However, it was also measured, to some extent, by descriptions of later years spent in prison, and frustration over the loss of his privacy. He and eight associates were arrested by the DEA on LSD manufacturing charges in 1977, and then again in 1979, for which he would serve four years at the United States Penitentiary at Lompoc. When he got out, he (rather stupidly) implicated himself again in an interview for High Frontiers (1987), a counter-culture magazine published in Berkeley, which put the DEA back on his trail. A sting operation took him down again in June 1991 and he admitted guilt, agreeing to return to the Haight Ashbury scene with a hidden microphone (wire), with the goal of gathering incriminating evidence on his former accomplices.
In a piece for SFWeekly, Boulware (1996) wrote: “It’s no surprise Vorhees was targeted [by the DEA] again. He can’t help talking about the old days. Clearlight is his Achilles’ heel. Hubris has made him a natural magnet for narcs. Old acid acquaintances avoid him like the plague, one saying simply, “He’s too hot.” His name is as familiar as a box of doughnuts to the local DEA office, and is increasingly popular in the federal penal system.” Thus, Vorhees proved to be an incredibly ineffective informant. The government kept a close eye on him in later years, but as he got older and eventually suffered from prostate cancer and other health issues, the DEA realized that he was not a threat to anyone. He would live out the rest of his life on his farm in Ukiah.
Walt looked at me with a sparkle, as we shared some snacks and admired the passing hills. I talked about birds, which delighted him, and he reciprocated with wild stories of the San Francisco bay during the 60s and 70s. He wrote his contact information on a scrap of paper for me, and invited me to visit him in Ukiah, which I never did.
Walt ‘Captain Clearlight’ Vorhees was born on September 25, 1930 and died Wednesday, February 6, 2013.