This is a big week in the altered-consciousness universe. Tuesday, April 20, is, of course, 4/20, the date “cherished by pot smokers around the world as a reason to toke up with friends and massive crowds each year,” as a 2019 Vox article put it. The holiday pays tribute to the afternoon hour, 4:20 p.m., when a group of stoners at San Rafael High School, in the San Francisco Bay Area, would gather in the early 1970s to get high. (The shift from time of day to calendar date works only in the U.S.; everywhere else in the world April 20 is 20 April. But I haven’t heard of anyone trying to make “204” work.)
I’d known (and written about) “420” for years. But until very recently I hadn’t known about the week’s other big event: April 19, Bicycle Day. It commemorates the day in 1943 that the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann took some LSD and then rode his bicycle home from the Sandoz laboratory in Basel, where he was employed.
Bicycle Day blotting paper via eBay
Hofmann, who was born in 1906, accidentally discovered the psychoactive properties of lysergic acid diethylamide on April 16, 1943, when he absorbed a tiny quantity, probably through his skin, during an experiment. (He had synthesized the compound in 1938, while researching an improved circulatory stimulant.) He experienced “a remarkable restlessness, combined with slight dizziness,” and was forced to stop working. Three days later, he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of the novel substance—considerably more than he’d absorbed on the 16th—and within an hour noticed changes in perception. He asked an assistant to accompany him home; because of wartime gasoline rationing, both rode bicycles.
It was not a pleasant journey. As Hofmann succinctly put it in a 1996 speech to the Worlds of Consciousness Conference in Heidelberg, Germany: “It was a horror trip.” Andrej Abplanalp, a historian with the Swiss National Museum, has written about it:
Although he thought he was going slowly, he was actually cycling at breakneck speed. Everything he saw was distorted, as though in a curved mirror. He later described his neighbour as looking like a “witch with a colourful visage” – thus documenting the first LSD trip in history.
Hofmann died in 2008, at the age of 102. I haven’t been able to determine when the first public Bicycle Day was celebrated, although I did find posters from 2000. In 2007, three Italian filmmakers made A Bicycle Trip, a short animated film about the original Bicycle Day. In 2019, Brooklyn-based illustrator Brian Blomerth published Brian Blomerth’s Bicycle Day, a vivid graphic novel about the events of April 19, 1943. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Dominic Umile wrote that Blomerth’s book “imports Hofmann’s riveting yarn from the annals of medical history to comics with busy panels and rampant anthropomorphism.”
Although I’d known about Hofmann, Sandoz, and LSD, I hadn’t heard of the bicycle trip and Bicycle Day until I read the latest issue of Rusty Blazenhoff’s excellent “inbox zine,” Electric Dreams. Rusty is brilliant and funny and curious about all sorts of things—her clients include Pee-wee Herman, Children’s Fairyland, and Burning Man—and every issue of the newsletter is full of wonderful stuff like this. Subscribe—it’s free!
And if you ride a bike today, please wear a helmet and observe local laws, OK?