Help, I'm tripping and I can't get up

An exploration of psychedelic mushrooms in Alachua County

Published April 1991.

By Colin Whitworth

Each little Dixie cup had a different question or puzzle imprinted on one side. Mine asked: "What color do you get when you mix red with blue?" The answer was so easy, the question obviously begged a much younger mind than mine. However, the purple sha de to the tea in my cup made me stop and wonder: coincidence or what?

The sun had set, leaving a bright half-moon smiling overhead and a huge camp fire as our only light. I didn't know too many of the 30-or-so people lounging around the fire, so I rested on a corner of someone's blanket, sometimes listening to the roaring f lames, sometimes to the conga drumming, sometimes to the bugs buzzing in the darkness. Our rastafarian medicine man stirred the fire, spraying embers into the sky, while in my mind I replayed the mantra we had chanted earlier in a circle around the fire. I was comfortable. The starscape, wilderness and spring weather had erased all my stress.

The preparations were complete. Everyone had a cup. Pondering the possible shapes reality might take in the next few hours—expecting unparalleled weirdness—I took a deep breath and drank the medicine man's tea.

In the 1970s, a book titled "The Key To Psilocybin Mushrooms" listed Alachua County as one of country's premier spots to find psilocybe cubensis, the largest hallucinogenic mushroom found in the US. More likely, Gainesville's sub-culture, always eager to experiment with mind-altering substances, had just discovered the hidden treasure in cow manure earlier than people in other areas of Florida.

It doesn't take a John Lombardi to figure out that, two decades later, psychedelic mushrooms are still a staple of the drug users' diet. They are, however, a delicacy item, because few people know where to find the mushrooms, and even fewer can distinguis h psychedelic from poisonous mushrooms.

March and April's rains, combined with the warming spring weather, kicked-off mushroom-picking season, so I decided to do a little digging. Why were so many people risking arrest by trespassing in someone's pasture just so they could pick a fungus from dr ied cow manure and eat it? What was behind the mystique of mushrooms that led New York banker and mushroom pioneer R. Gordon Wasson to write: "The sacred mushrooms of Mexico seize hold of you with irresistible power. They lead to a temporary schizophrenia , or psuedoschizophrenia, in which your body lies, heavy as lead...while your soul flies off to the ends of the world and, indeed, to other planes of existence....In my case I experienced hallucinations. What I was seeing was more clearly than anything I had seen before. At last I was seeing with the eye of the soul, not through the coarse lenses of my natural eyes."

After talking to some local mycopharmacopiasts, I decided that asking questions would not be enough. The only way I could describe the magic mushroom would be to experience them myself, and report the events. Indeed, the encyclopedia entry titled The Scie ntific Method begins: "In science no one path to discovery exists." There you go. In the interest of science, I would conduct an experiment, using myself as the prime subject—in essence, take Wasson's journey to "other planes of existence." Just call it g ood investigative journalism.

Luckily I was already sitting down, because the string suddenly left my legs. I rubbed my eyes, feeling tired and even more relaxed. Maybe it was all that highway driving I had done that morning. I rubbed my neck, but it wasn't really stiff. It couldn' t be the mushrooms already, could it? Everyone else in the campfire circle, who likewise had taken the crazy communion, was sitting down, so I deduced I was just feeling some effects. No big deal.

I figured the one cup of tea was enough for me. I felt slightly queasy, but I blamed my stomach rumbling on the fact I hadn't eaten in a few hours. The guy next to me, who had chugged down three of the tiny but potent cups, quickly disappeared off into th e woods. How could he walk? I was way too tired to walk anywhere, and the ground was becoming surprisingly comfortable. I decided to lay back on the blanket and stare up at the all-too-cheerful moon.

Sssssssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh.... Wow. Something was definitely happening. Now there were two shining grins above me, and the constellations were slowly rotating across the sky. Or were they? All at once my mind felt like it was been hit by an hallucinogenic freight train. I took a deep breath and sat up, thinking that a little air would ease the rushing, reeling feeling between my ears. The drummers had stopped. In fact, most of the 30-or-so people reclining around the fire looked a lot like I felt, including our rastafarian medicine man. The fire kicked intense orange ashes up toward the happy twin moons. I think I was grinning about as wide.

Law enforcement was unhelpful in learning about Gainesville's mushroom market, or the level of use in this community. The US Drug Enforcement Agency, however, provided one of the best resources on psychedelic mushrooms. Much of the history and results of tests on humans and animals in this article were taken from a 1986 report by the Los Angeles DEA office. Put another way, this article is brought to you in part with the help of federal drug agents. Your tax dollars at work.

Teonanacatl ("food of the gods"), the sacred mushroom, has been used by Indian cultures of Mexico and Central America for centuries. The practice of incorporating a divine mushroom into a semi-religious ceremony dates back to 1500 B.C., based on stone art ifacts believed to represent mushrooms.

The first recorded use of hallucinogenic mushrooms occurred during the coronation feast of Montezuma in 1502. However, with the introduction of Christianity to the New World, the advocates of the mushroom rites were severely persecuted, and the practice w as driven underground.

In 1953, Wasson and Valentina Pavlovna rediscovered the ancient mushroom ritual of the Oaxacan Indians, which a priestess performed whenever a serious problem arose. They acquired some specimens and gave them to Roger Heim, a French mycologist, who was su ccessful in cultivating sufficient material for chemists to isolate the active principal. Albert Hoffman, who invented LSD, isolated psilocybin and psilocyn as the active ingredients in the mushrooms.

Psychedelic mushrooms require three things to grow: dried cow manure, rain and warm weather. Psilocybin spores transform into mushrooms only after a complex, if not revolting, process: the mushroom releases psilocybin spores into the grass, which cows the n eat. The spores travel unaffected through the cow's acidic digestive tract, and land in its top soil, a cow pattie. It takes about six months for the cow manure to compost enough that the spores grow into mycelium; at that point the manure no longer ree ks, and it feels like sod. A good rain, and weather around 74 degrees, and the mycelium fruit into magic mushrooms.

If you have to travel out of Gainesville, almost every road will take you past a few cow fields. It's best to go picking with an experienced guide. Most likely you'll be trespassing on someone's land, and you can't make the mistake of eating the wrong kin d. Some veteran mushroom pickers say there are thousands of acres of potential mushroom fields in and around Alachua County. They also say the fields are dwindling, and the mushrooms are getting smaller. The reasons: overpicking, farmers putting fungicide in cow feed, and development. From the mouth of local law enforcement itself, police are doing little to actively supress the collection, possession or ingestion or mushrooms. Lt. Sadie Darnell, who does the talking for the Gainesville Police Department, sa id they concentrate their crime-fighting efforts on crack, and that psychedelic mushrooms are not a problem in Alachua County. She said there have been no recent arrests or convictions for any mushroom-related offense.

Darnell added: "It may be happening out there and we're just not aware of it."

Unlike most of my fellow travelers, I could no longer sit up. I resumed my prone position and covered myself with a blanket left by the guy who was off in the night somewhere tripping in triplicate. There were several smiling moons now.

I closed my eyes and concentrated on the reggae music someone had mercifully put on. I started seeing technicolor patterns that reacted to the music like a laser light show. I opened my eyes, only to be confronted with the multiple moons again. I realized I could no longer distinguish faces anymore, just cubist visages and interchangeable dredlocked rastas. The medicine man, who I knew best, was too far away to see, and I wasn't sure I could say anything coherent enough to get his attention.

I laid back down and closed me eyes. That's when things got really weird.

The most surprising aspect of the DEA report was its tone. The 8-page, single-spaced report had an estimated 3,000 words, but nary a bad thing to say about psilocybin. In fact, the report had a lot of good things to say about it.

The DEA cited several experiments conducted on humans, who were either observed by the scientist or given some sort of intellectual test to see how the drug altered perceptions, etc. One report showed that the mushrooms increased artistic creation. Anothe r reported "no lasting psychopathological changes." The DEA even downplayed the significance of the hallucinations, saying they are really drug-induced illusions and not true hallucinations, like those experienced by schizophrenics.

At least one Gainesville mycopharmacopiast disagreed, saying he knows several people who he believes have been driven "completely nuts" from too many mushroom trips. I consulted an official source, Dr. William Chen, who teaches drug education at the Unive rsity of Florida. He said there have been no documented cases of people being driven crazy by extensive mushroom use, but the mental states caused by the hallucinogenic psilocybin can create panic, which can lead to accidents, or depression, which can lea d to suicide.

Psilocybin turns into another drug called psilocyn after it enters the human bloodstream. The drug then begins to interact with the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter serotonin. Neurotransmitters make the electrochemical connections between the brain 's nerve synapses; serotonin is the transmitter to the senses, our perceptions. Psilocyn can both block the serotonin from making connections and mimic serotonin to make connections where normally it would not. Hence hallucinations. Colors seem brighter. Surfaces lose definiton. Your mind dwells on subjects it may normally ignore. Three to six hours later, your liver filters it all out of your blood system.

Long-term use can cause flashbacks, Chen said. Flashbacks can be emotional and scary. Because mood is an important factor in tripping, some people have bad trips, because they were already unhappy, or bothered.

Chen also said that mushrooms can have the effect of increasing creativity, and can help some obtain spiritual insight. LSD was first used to aid in psychotherapy, he said. Mushrooms and LSD have similar effects on the mind.

"If it's used right, it could be a good thing," Chen said.

Thank heavens for this blanket. I guess the guy who left it here could probably care less right now, because if I'm so floored on just one cup, he must be levitating and drooling tie-dye. Lying there, watching the rainbow and black-light patterns perfo rm on my eyelids, I couldn't imagine drinking three cups of mushroom tea. Well, like I always say, experimentation is good for the soul.

I could no longer communicate with anyone, which worried me at first because I heard other people talking, laughing and acting like everything was normal. I convinced myself that it would be best if no one tried to talk to me. For the moment, I was happy just lying there, and I figured that life would be peachy keen as long as no one mistook me for one of the pine logs fueling the fire.

I was melting into the ground. What time is it? How long have I been here? While I couldn't talk or move much, I could understand what was happening around me. Well, mostly. The hallucinations, which included a repeating series of wraiths dancing across a multi-colored energy field, and a collection of eyes staring at me from all directions, had to be peaking. If it got any more intense, I might not be able to distinguish from reality anymore. Obligatory tripping cliche: What is reality?

There are two philosophies of mushroom use. One involves mantras, holding hands, isolation from civilization, praying and meditation. Those users may smoke marijuana but probably don't drink alcohol. Their primary goal is personal and spiritual insight. T he other, larger camp stresses the recreational use of hallucinogenic drugs. According to the DEA report, the mushroom "trip" is determined largely by the set and setting: the personality, mood and expectations of the user, the environment, situational factors like music and presence of friends.

I conducted two experiments, one in the woods around a campfire, the other in my living room. The camp fire experience was more profound and seemed to embody the ritualistic, religious mushroom experience, whereas the living room experiment was more easy going. The tea at the camp fire was more potent, because I hallucinated, in a very pleasant way, for at least an hour, and then lay in solitary, clear thought for another. The tea made at my house affected me more like a pain killer, basically making me h appy and mellow. The differences mirrored my set and settings.

I am neither religious nor ritualistic, so I sought out the advice of a local mycopharmacopiast, who together with a few dozen friends regularly practice mushroom rituals. He explained that he moved to Gainesville 17 years ago because he had read about it in The Key To The Psilocybin Mushroom. For a while he lived off the mushrooms, using them as currency with local merchants, trading them for food, clothing, marijuana...whatever he needed. He said every person has a different way of getting closer to God ; his involves psychedelic mushrooms. "If it's up to me," he said, "they'll always be in my life."

Others take mushrooms for the stoney, hallucinatory experiences. It's part of the mind-altering eagerness of young people. In Gainesville, there is always ample numbers of people wanting to experiment with strange, far-out drugs. And then there are seriou s scientists, like myself.

I am not sure of the dose I took either time, but that is the way with mushrooms. Each one is a different size, and a small one is as likely to be twice as potent as a large one as not. It doesn't take much—two or three big mushrooms. You can eat them pla in or with honey or peanut butter. Commonly people make a tea out of them, mixing the rather pungent tasting mushroom tea with Kool-Aid or some flavored tea and maple syrup. Good and good for you.

Eventually, my mind did stop racing, and I was able to tune in. The Man Who Drank Three Cups had returned from orbitting the planet and was now sitting near the fire trying to make sense out of everything. I had become very introspective, thinking abou t my faults, about my direction in life, about my personal relationships, about sex, about writing, about drug use...afterward, some of the insights stuck, but many faded with the rest of the night's memories. But that's OK. I didn't go into the night exp ecting salvation for my sins, just to relax, think and have a little fun. That much I remember.