"Astoria Death Trip": Magic mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest

from The Stranger, Dec 14-20, 2006

Astoria Death Trip

Hunting Psychedelic Mushrooms in Astoria, Oregon, Means Risking the Elements, Arrest, and Death.
A Tale of Stupidity, History, and Survival.

BY CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

There is plenty of time on the drive from Seattle to Astoria, Oregon, to wonder about how you’re going to die.

Will I be standing up when it happens? Will I be outside? Will I be in these clothes?

The drive is three hours, give or take. Robert drives us in his truck. He has tattoo sleeves on both arms and builds houses for a living and is learning how to build wooden ships. We take Interstate 5 to Highway 8. It’s raining. We pass fluffy dark trees, unusually bright yellow trees, rusting metal, mossy boulders, propane tanks, satellite dishes, white shacks, wet logs, a neon rooster on the roof of a restaurant, a Curves, meadows that winter rains have turned to shallow lakes, low banks of funereal mist. Twice we pull over and reassemble the busted windshield wiper so we can see the road.

Will I die on this highway, before we even get there?

Eminem, on the CD player, is rapping about meeting “a new-wave blond babe with half of her head shaved” at a rave, feeding her mushrooms (“I just wanted to make you appreciate nature”), and watching her die:

She said, “Help me, I think I’m having a seizure!”/I said, “I’m high too, bitch! Quit grabbing my T-shirt!/Would you calm down? You’re starting to scare me.”/She said, “I’m 26 years old and I’m not married!/I don’t even have any kids and I can’t cook!”/”I’m over here, Sue. You’re talking to the plant. Look,/we need to get to a hospital before it’s too late./’Cuz I never seen anyone eat as many mushrooms as you ate…”

Robert and I listened to Eminem when we were in Amsterdam with friends last year. Robert proposed to the woman he’s now married to on that trip, and I tried psychoactive mushrooms for the first time. In Amsterdam, psychoactive mushrooms are sold in “smart shops,” in clear plastic produce containers with stickers on them that tell you where they’re from and what they’re going to do to you.

I was intensely afraid of seeing things that didn’t exist. Will I jab a fireplace poker into my stomach, thinking I’m a marshmallow? I bought a mealy clump of truffles called Philosopher’s Stones (Psilocybe mexicana) that were supposed to give me a cerebral high without any visual gobbledygook. All I felt was loopy, starved, and sick. The next day, Robert and I got a different variety, Psilocybe cubensis, these ones floppy, cute, and mushroom-shaped. The container said they were from Astoria, Oregon. Practically home! I ate one or two and Robert ate a handful and we walked around after the sun went down. I was expecting butterflies in leotards or swirling fractals or whatever, but the visual effects were subtle. Everything (buildings, water, colors) looked like a better, happier version of itself. That’s it. Everything seemed as unsullied and promising as a hypothetical, as if we were walking through an architect’s drawing of the real world, rather than the real world itself. Plato would have been blown away by it—everything in its ideal state, right in front of you—and actually there’s evidence that he did love it, or something like it: The consumption of ergot, a fungus that grows on barley, was involved in ancient Greek ritualism. Plus, the mushrooms put my thoughts on shuffle, which sounds awful but is actually fascinating, not to mention useful, especially if you’re generally a stubborn thinker.

I pointed out that we’d flown halfway across the planet to eat something that grows in our backyard. Robert said he knew someone in Astoria who could show us how to find these suckers in the wild. So that’s what we’re doing, finally. We’re driving to Astoria to find these suckers in the wild.

* * *

A bunch of anxieties—dying, not finding anything, getting busted, dying—are twisting around in my stomach. And Eminem’s goofball death ballads aren’t helping. Soon we’re going to be standing in the wilderness, staring at something dirty and penis-shaped growing out of the ground, something that might kill us if we’re wrong about what it is, and then we’re going to eat it—and that’s the best-case scenario; that’s if all goes well. I decide to share my terror with Robert, because he currently seems pretty un-terrified, by reading him some articles.

On my laptop I have a few pages from a website done up in psychedelic blues and pinks called Mushroom John’s Shroom World. One page is titled “Poisonous Look-a-Likes” and has several photos of Psilocybe mushrooms (the genus we’re looking for) and Galerina mushrooms (which are deadly) side by side. They look exactly the same. There’s also a photo of a whole bunch of Psilocybe mushrooms with a Galerina growing in among them.

Fuck.

Another page reports the story of a 16-year-old girl and two teenage guys on Whidbey Island in the early 1980s who ate what they assumed were Psilocybe mushrooms but were in fact Galerina autumnalis. “Both boys survived the ordeal, yet both have permanent damage to their kidneys and liver. The girl died.”

Fuck.

The other pages contain warning after warning not to do what we’re about to do. “The author suggests that it would be dangerous for a novice mushroom hunter to consume even the most minute part of any wild mushroom without having had said mushroom properly identified by someone knowledgeable in the field of mushroom identification….” “I do want people to enjoy what they are searching for and not end up on a slab at the local coroner’s morgue….” “Many of the deadly poisonous species of mushrooms macroscopically resemble some of the hallucinogenic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe….” “It is very easy to make a mistake….”

I also have a book I bought in a convenience store called Guide to Western Mushrooms, which says on the first page: “Don’t—under any circumstances—experiment by eating strange mushrooms.”

Robert takes a deep breath, lets out a nervous laugh, and says, “Well, Joe knows what he’s doing. We’ll make him eat one first. Then we’ll wait 20 minutes.”

Joe is going to be our guide. We’re about to pick him up.

Not a bad idea.

At a bend on a stretch of Highway 107, just before we get to the 101, there’s a cloud break. The silver car in front of us shines insanely. The highway shines like silver. The silver car’s wheels are kicking up water in a blinding spray.

We drive into the light.

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