The Reluctant Curandero - Part 1

The day before I was to board a bus from Austin, Texas going South… deep into Mexico… I called up a local hatter who I’d done  some photographic work for, Manny Gammage, owner of Texas Hatters in Buda, Texas at the time. 

Manny had been around the block a time or two, pretty gruff, but  he also had a peaceful, monk-like demeanor. We chatted off and on about my Mexican backpacking adventures off the beaten path. Manny to let on too much, but you got the impression he was very familiar with the strange experiences one can have if they dive deep enough into the interior.

We hadn’t chatted in a good while, so I gave him a call to let him know I was once again wandering South. 

His daughter Joella answered the phone:

“Texas Hatters, how can I help you?”

“Oh hi Joella, it’s Skip, is Manny in?”

Joella’s was quiet for a few moments, then answered low:

“Skip… I guess you haven’t heard…”

“Heard what?”

“Manny was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. Not doing well at all. They’re not even sure if he’ll make it through the week.”

You could tell she was fighting pretty hard to be strong and not get choked up, but she was mostly failing.

“Oh no! No… I hadn’t heard… I’m so sorry Joella. Where is he?”

“We’re just grateful for the time we’ve had to say our goodbyes. He’s down at the San Antonio VA hospital… you could try to call but today wouldn’t be a good day… he’s hurtin’ pretty bad.”

“I’m actually bussing it to Mexico early in the morning. I just wanted to call and let him know before I left. He always seemed to get a kick out of my Mexico adventures.

“Yes, he did… I’ll tell him you called.”

We said our goodbyes as Joella gave up trying to hold back breaking down. 

Before the call, I’d been elated to be about to embark on another adventure. After the call, I tried to get some of that back, but couldn’t get the sad news out of my head. I mean, there’s nothing I could do and we weren’t really close friends or anything. Just a couple of people who shared some similar interests and had enjoyed swapping stories a few afternoons over about a years time. 

The bus trip down was a little brutal. I’ve since learned it’s not worth it to knock out long distances in one shot. Much better to take little breaks along the way. Back then it was all about powering through all of the miles at once… then suffering the overwhelming fatigue for a day or so after you get there.

I remember leaving Austin, a layover in San Antonio where I was once again reminded of Manny’s lousy luck, then a bus change with all the border hassles, long layover in the Monterrey, Mexico station… even longer layover in the Mexico City station… then an all-nighter on a rough 3rd-class bus, just to get to the foot of the mountain below Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca. 

Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca is known for a strange indigenous practice of consuming a particular hallucinogenic mushroom that only grows at high altitudes. There’s a name the Mezatec Indians call the mushroom, that roughly translates to “God’s Meat”, but most just call the mushrooms Derrumbe, or “Mud Slide” which is where they grow. They have very powerful psychoactive effects and the Mezatecas believe that consuming them allows them to commune with God. Even the little children eat them on certain birthdays, with a guide, as a rite of passage. 

The main mushroom priestess Maria Sabina was visited by a fellow  named Gordon Wasson who was doing research on the drug referred to as “Soma” by the ancient Indus people (their texts are what Hinduism is based upon). Nobody knows what Soma actually was, but it was allegedly brought here from the heavens by Vishnu. It was supposed to make the poor man feel rich, and the sick man feel well, etc. Many speculate this Soma substance, depicted in Vedic texts as a tree shape, was possibly a psychoactive mushroom instead.  

The Indus people dwelled in the mountains, and the Derrumbe mushrooms only grow at high altitudes. The idea that the drug Soma was possibly a mushroom, and possibly the same species that was imbibed by a Oaxacan, Mexico indigenous mushroom cult was also speculated by Gordon Wasson.

After Mr. Wasson had journeyed up into the mountains to verify this mushroom cult real did exist, and partake in ceremonies with Maria Sabina, he had several of his papers published by a friend who was the head editor at Time magazine. This was round the late 60’s and early 70’s I believe… right around the time that the article would inspire many hippies of the day to make a bee line for this mystical mushroom cult in the mountains of Oaxaca. 

Many popular celebrities in the late 60’s like Donovan, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, and even the Beatles… all visited this mushroom priestess named Maria Sabina as well. And then even more hippies flooded in. The trouble was, that this was a spiritual ceremony involving a fungus the Mezatecas believed to be God’s meat… given to them in order to commune with the great creator. Unfortunately, the hippies didn’t get that memo and all hell broke loose, with deranged young people fighting each other, running around naked, and… well, you can imagine what else! And, that it didn’t go over so well with the Mezatecas. 

There’s more to tell of this incredibly exotic and magical place… and I’ll tell you more about it too, but this is just to let you know what some of the backstory of the place I was headed to.

(To be continued...  Next Post: The Reluctant Curandero - Part 2) 


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