It was 2014 and I was conspiring with a group of Internet friends to travel across the country and lure my best friend into the desert. I can’t remember now who came up with the idea, but I remember why we did it. One of the perks of modern social media is that you become friends with people you never would have met otherwise, people who live in radically different situations and locations than you do; but this distance also contributes to a problem those of us with cyberfriends are not unfamiliar with, namely that when disaster strikes or something is not-quite-right, there isn’t a lot you can do outside of the confines of the Internet.
My friend, who I will call Billy, was one of a number of people I was communicating with around 2009, on pagan and occult forums. There were a handful of us, and most of us are still in communication to this day. We even split away from the forums we had met on and created our own, forming a small, tight-knit group of variously practicing alt-spiritualists. There were Discordians, Chaotes, Wiccans, Satanists, Pagans and so forth, and we would do lucid dreaming experiments, write zines, participate in “Operation: Mindfuck” type shenanigans, among other things. We formed a community, and looked out for one another the best we could given our medium.
Around 2010, I left everything I had behind and began to hitch-hike and walk across the country, living out of my pack. I had dealt with a near-death experience at work before this, and had a bit of an epiphany dealing with how I should approach the rest of my life. The thought that I could die doing something I hated unnerved me, enraged me, and pushed me into an itinerant, transient lifestyle. I lived out of my backpack, outside or on the streets, in search of something worth living for, in search of adventure.
The entire time, I kept in touch utilizing library or borrowed computers across the country with my Internet occult friends, a group we gave the name “The Infinity Network”. I ended up traveling with various people at different times, and for a majority of the time with a dog I had rescued in one of the Carolinas (which one, I cannot recall). My Internet friends were extremely supportive, and I ended up physically meeting most of them at one time or another, circumstances permitting.
One of the people I ended up traveling with was Billy, an esoteric Discordian apostle of Eris and Sub-Genius reverend. It was a bit of a life-saving endeavor for both of us (all of us who went out and traveled, I think). Hitch-hiking, walking, scrounging money and busking on street sidewalks for bus fare. We became very close friends, and eventually both returned to our respective home states when the lifestyle was starting to wear us down. All in all, I was out in the world in this way for about two years. The two of us stayed in touch online afterward.
So you can imagine how it felt to find out that he was seriously depressed. After our adventures, Billy had moved away from his home state to Nevada, where he shacked up with a woman he had met, of all the fitting places, online. But things were wonky, and our group of friends knew quite concretely that Billy was in a bad way, mentally-emotionally. We were concerned, and so we came up with a plan to travel across the country and essentially manipulate him into an Alternate Reality Game. For those of you who don’t know what an ARG is, Wikipedia defines it as “An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions.”
Years later, now, I’ve often considered the ethical ramifications of doing such a thing to someone who has not given their consent, and at the time it was a constant weighing of different options. If he realized what we were doing, the magic would have been lost. If he didn’t, we’d have to be very careful. I’m still not sure that we did the ‘right’ thing, but I think that ultimately it was a well-intentioned attempt to save a friend from the melancholic despair he had found himself in. We were sort of flying by the seat of our collective pants. The way we saw it was that surprising him with an uncanny adventure and with a surprise visit from his longtime Internet friends (who he had espoused desires to meet for a long time) was…at least something. Something in the right direction.
I had gotten the inspiration and ambition to try my hand at an ARG-esque scenario from a 2013 documentary called “The Institute”, which followed an extensive ARG that had been set up in San Fransisco. Definitely check it out, if you get the chance. I’m still not sure entirely how much of the documentary was part of the ARG, but I suppose that was probably at least part of the point of it.
We enlisted the help of his girlfriend who was our “agent on the inside” in Nevada, she ended up being a key player in the ARG. We set up a private Facebook group, and started to plan things out meticulously. None of us had ever done anything like this before, so a lot of early suggestions were shot down for safety or feasibility reasons; one such idea included fake-kidnapping Billy’s girlfriend (with her knowledge) in front of him and shoving her into a vehicle, which I personally talked the group out of though I won’t say that it was an entirely serious suggestion (nor will I say it was not a serious suggestion).
The first step was to coordinate with Billy a trip, in which I would come visit. He had invited me to come and stay with him and his significant other a few time previously (after hitchhiking around, I had developed a serious case of chronic wanderlust), and Billy was excited when I took him up on the offer.
Next, we had to decide what exactly the climax of the ARG was going to be. I believe it was others who came up with the idea to hold a ritual in the desert and to lure Billy there. We later decided that the ritualists would wear masks, and hashed out the details of the ceremony on the way.
My role would be that of ‘damage control’ (making sure our plans wouldn’t lead to anyone getting hurt) as well as being the ‘man on the inside’ along with Billy’s girlfriend. I had to take a bus to New Hampshire where I met up with my other friend, who I will call Amelia. Another of our group, a geologist from the U.K. who was in the States for school reasons, was also there, a man we can call Rodrick. Last but not least, was our friend Graham from New York, who we picked up on the way.
Around this time, or just before it, we arranged so that Billy’s girlfriend would put up fake ‘Lost Dog’ posters around their neighborhood, posters which I had designed and sent to her using dog pictures from Google. This would be our “Rabbit-Hole” or “Trailhead”, ARG terminology denoting the first piece of media that would draw him into our machinations.
Then, a few days later, we had her go and deface the posters with cryptic sigils, symbols we would use again later in the ARG. Billy ended up showing me the posters online, was confused and tripped out by them.
I originally took a bus to New Hampshire, as I said before, and took photos of myself while on the bus, sent them to Billy and told him I was on my way; I had told him I was going to take a bus into Reno, which was near where they lived. I sent him other bus pics I had saved, about halfway through the road trip, to throw him off.
It took days of driving for the four of us to get to Nevada, and then the nerve-wracking phase of the ARG began for me specifically. I was to be dropped off at the Reno bus-station, I would call Billy and his girlfriend for a pick-up, and before they got there I had to photograph a poster we had made earlier in the adventure and send him a picture of it. Being occultists, I told him I found this crude poster in the bathroom of the bus-station, bearing only a strange symbol, a date, the word “NOX”, and an e-mail which I had set up separate from any of my actual e-mails.
I can’t recall whether Billy figured out they were the same symbol, or whether I had to prompt him, but either way we connected the two events, the vandalized dog posters, and the strange poster “I found in the bathroom”.
When they arrived to pick me up from the bus-station it was nighttime and I was flooded with adrenaline. I had never had to play a part like this, or lie to a friend so pervasively. I was glad that his girlfriend was in on it. While I was doing all of this, Amelia, Roderick and Graham were busy setting up the desert ritual in preparation for my deliverance of ‘the payload’.
It was stressful, when we got to their apartment. I was utterly convinced that I would fuck it up, that he would figure it out or already knew and was humoring me. I told the two of them that I needed to take a shower after so many days on a (fictional) bus- though to be fair, a road trip of equivalent days was not exactly conducive to hygiene- and I used the time to call Amelia and coordinate our next moves. I still remember speaking into the phone while the shower ran, my voice hushed and heart beating. The connection was spotty, which would later foul our other plans, but I was able to get into contact with the ‘ritualists’.
I brought up the poster to Billy, and he said it was “probably some Wiccans or goth kids or something”, and I had to pretty actively push him into inquiry, as did his girlfriend. I was sure that this would give us away, but he relented, willing to go out of the way at that time of the day for his friend and guest. I handled the actual e-mailing of the sham e-mail address, and had to quickly make something up to tell Billy; we had originally planned on using cellphone based GPS to pinpoint the location, but again, the cellphone reception was majorly spotty where they were setting up. They couldn’t get me the coordinates.
Instead I pretended as though I had coordinates, feigned finding it on a map, and showed Billy’s girlfriend a blank phone without any sort of map ( thankfully we had talked briefly while he was in another room, and she was forewarned) and she said she knew where the ‘coordinates’ led.
Everything was going relatively smoothly, and after packing up some occult materials (Billy was a fan of finding other people’s random rituals and joining, which had actually happened before on our hitch-hiking adventures) we headed towards the spot in the desert. The only hiccup was when Billy whipped out a knife and said something about it being in case they were whackjobs. I had to think quickly, and told him that since he was so much bigger than I was, he should let me have the knife. Billy relented, and handed it over, and I pocketed it giddily. Damage control and prevention was my job after all. In addition to the knife, he also handed me his “Bob” Dobbs consecrated tobacco pipe, for good luck and mucho slack.
When we got to the spot, driving down a narrow dirt road in the middle of the night into the arid wilderness of Nevada, we had to leave behind the vehicle and continue on foot. From a distance we could see figures moving and swaying, seeming to dance around an intricate ritualistic arrangement. One of the three had a musical sort of bowl-like drum, and they all wore masks and had cloth wrapped around them like cloaks or scarves. Battery-powered pseudo-candles ringed the group, casting ghostly artificial light. A table was set up in the center, with various ceremonial and symbolically important arrangements.
They beckoned us to join them, and we all began to dance around the table. Words were spoken, but the others would remember perhaps more clearly. Time has blunted the edges of this memory for me, and I remember it most vividly in terms of sensations and impressions. The dancing eventually ceased.
Standing around, all of the participants removed their masks and there was an awkward moment in which Billy failed to recognize any of them; his brain was not psychologically primed to recognize the people before him, most of whom he had never met in real life. When the recognition finally set in, he was flabbergasted. Excited greetings followed, and we hung out and smoked out there in the sand and rocks.
Over the next few days we drank, we partied, and we performed geomantic divination rituals in the desert. All in all, it was a pretty good trip, and the ARG was at least somewhat successful, I think. All I know is my friend is still around, and that’s good enough for me.