Flashback Friday: Stalking The Wild Shroom

An inspiring saga of the search for chemical enlightenment.
Flashback Friday: Stalking The Wild Shroom
Illustrations by Craig Shannon

The mission? Find Florida’s fabled psychedelic shrooms. The odds? Not good—it’s the wrong time of year and you’re lost in a strange land. From the October, 1986 issue of High Times comes Jerome Creek’s engaging psychedelics-inspired travelogue about stalking magic mushrooms in the Sunshine State.

It was a misty morning, with a blood-red sun rising off the eastern coast of Florida. Tired, hungry and road weary, I was nearing the end of a ten-hour drive from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Hippie Hill, as it is known to the locals), to the land of the magic mushroom.

As the sun rose, I listened to a conversation on the radio between a deejay named Big John and a displaced valley girl from California. Most of the local radio stations were playing country music, but these two were discussing male strippers and porno queens. “This is certainly an interesting change of pace,” I thought, while carefully scanning the passing roadside for cow-pies.

It was August, a time of intense heat. I knew I was a little late to capitalize on the wet spring weather. Mushrooms need moisture to fruit, so I was hoping for afternoon thunderstorms.

I figured my karma was good. Shortly after leaving North Carolina, I’d encountered Jim and Kurt, two slightly frazzled hitchhikers on their way to the sunny beaches of northeastern Florida. After loading their packs into my VW camper bus, the three of us had enjoyed an informal ceremony I hope will withstand the test of time: we shared a joint between strangers. Georgia had sped by while Kurt and Jim related their hitchhiking experiences. They’d started in Syracuse, New York, and now faced the culmination of a three-day, roadside burnout: white sand beaches, browned beauties, and cool, splashing surf. But as we navigated the bridges of Jacksonville, guided by Jim’s fuzzy memories of a previous visit, I showed little interest in the beach. I was on the threshold of my first solo shroom hunt and my mind was on mushrooms.

Many people are surprised to learn of the many different varieties of magic mushrooms. Menser’s Field Guide lists 24, but, of course, not all of them grow in Florida. From past experience, however, I knew of at least two that did, and, like William Hurt in Altered States, by god, I was going to find the fuckers.

I was looking primarily for Psilocybe Cubensis and mushrooms of the genus Paneolus, both of which are dung inhabiting. Not all Paneolus mushrooms are magic. Those that are, however, are easily identified by their blue stain. Two ways to score—double your pleasure with magic spores!

Somehow, we made our way to a 7-11 familiar to Jim. It was late and ten hours of driving had taken their toll. Since I had an early appointment with a cow pasture, I said goodbye and pulled into a trailer court to crash. My bed was the back of a VW camper bus, a trusty though somewhat cantankerous vehicle that had traveled the Alaskan Highway three times (going up the inside passage on a ferry once), and had been as far south as the Panama Canal.

As I lay on my back, I felt sweat running off my chest and down my sides, soaking the sheets beneath me. There wasn’t much of a sea breeze, just 85 degree midnight air and a slow drizzle of rain through 100% humidity. Within minutes, my body was covered with a slick, sweaty film.

I rose early and headed west—inland—in search of an inviting pasture. Seven years earlier, I’d scored with friends by simply cruising back-country roads and investigating unposted cow pastures. The three of us had consumed a pound of shrooms, mashing and boiling them with water to form a mushy broth, which, when strained and mixed with Tang and ice cubes, made an excellent substitute for fresh orange juice. Mmmmm…lots of vitamin C and SOOO good for you! We’d barely made it into Disney World before coming on. Considering our madly grinning faces, we were lucky to get in. The hallucinations I remember from that night were aural as well as visual…the roar of the wind, the melting faces in the crowd around me.

…But this was another time and another opportunity. By noon, I’d pulled over and investigated three fields, finding a grand total of three mushrooms—each one a pure white Amanita, the angel of death.

Because such extremely poisonous mushrooms exist, no one in their right mind eats a mushroom they cannot key-out in a good mushroom guide with color pictures. Two of my favorites are Mushrooms of Northern America by Orson Miller, and The Encyclopedia of Mushrooms by Dickinson and Lucus. Menser also includes color pictures.

Fortunately, not all mushrooms are dangerous. One of my favorites for casseroles is Lactarius Deliciosus. While others of its (milky sap) genus can cause acute gastrointestinal upset, Lactarius is easily identified by the color of its cap (orangish with green tinges), its milky latex (carrot-colored, staining green), and the color of its bruises (green). It looks horrible, but tastes great and has a fine texture.

As I continued inland along country roads, I had to admit my luck was sadly lacking. I didn’t know if I was too close to the sandy, salty seashore, or if the time of year was wrong. With only limited understanding of the habits of friend Cubensis, I could only wonder why all these otherwise beautiful and grassy cow-pied pastures held no shrooms for me.

Even though it’s a long way back to the idealism of the ’60s, there remains a certain magic connected with the use of psychedelics. Mushrooms have always encouraged me to believe help comes to those willing to help others. Who knows? Maybe just looking for them puts one in the right frame of mind. Maybe that’s why I was led to the next pair of hitchhikers. Was it a fortuitous accident? ESP? Shroom lust? Or was it just pure chance? Sometimes I wonder.

At any rate, after passing through a small town nestled among tall, green trees, I met Mark and Kathy. Mark was standing by the side of the road, his long brown hair covering a sun-darkened forehead. Kathy was resting near a row of cottonwoods. When I stopped, Mark approached the van; Kathy jumped up and pranced over next to him.

“Thanks for stopping,” said Mark with a friendly smile. “How far you going?”

“I’m just sightseeing, with no particular destination,” I replied.

They piled into the bus and took an immediate interest in my cooler. I soon found out why. Earlier in the day, they’d bought a five pound roast and side of bacon at a good price. However, hitching back home had been slower than expected. They’d almost decided to give the meat away before it spoiled. We covered the meat with fresh ice and started off down the road.

When I learned my riders were from the general area, my pulse quickened and I whipped out a friendly joint. After we were favorably altered, I mentioned the real purpose for my trip. I also inquired as to whether they knew of any good mushroom fields.

I’ve always been fascinated by the attitude of Florida residents to shrooms. In general, I believe they grow up with them as a common experience. By the time they reach high school, they have gone out collecting bags of them. Mark described such experiences, relating how they boiled buckets of shrooms down to a small pot of bluish, honey-like liqueur. One shot of this nectar is a potent dose. Mark described poker games where this stuff was passed around like whiskey.

Perhaps because of their easy availability (combined with the obvious burnout factor), mushrooms eventually lose their appeal for Florida teenagers. The attitude I’ve encountered most often from Florida heads is: “Shrooms? I’ve done them, but not for a long time. They’re no big deal.” Many locals find it hard to believe people in other states actually pay money for shrooms.

Fortunately, the idea of finding a field appealed to Mark and Kathy. They had nothing planned for the weekend, and, in fact, had wanted to go camping near the Suwannee River for some time. They told me about a good swimming hole we could visit. That sounded good to me, so we decided to spend the day sightseeing and checking out possible shroom fields.

We continued west, traveling along winding country roads. Before long, we drove past some monster shrooms growing by the side of the road. There was no mistaking them, even though they flashed by at 50 miles per hour. I braked, turned around and we got out to investigate. Unfortunately, they turned out to be Amanitas—pure white and at least ten inches tall. Mark and Kathy knew they were poisonous, which pleased me.

Mark said he knew of a field in a federal forest nearby. As we passed through his hometown, Mark thoughtfully pointed out the local landmarks. “There used to be a really good field in town,” he said. “The owner let people collect shrooms, but people began trashing his land. He let everyone know the field was closed by firing a shotgun in the air.” According to Mark, however, these events had transpired several years ago, and nobody used the field any more, except, of course, the owner. “What a dream it must be,” I thought, “to own such a plot of land.”

On our way out of town, we drove by the field and I noticed a number of cows grazing peacefully by a wooden shed. The owner lived in a house trailer set far back from the road. The land wasn’t posted, so there wasn’t much the owner could do if he caught us collecting. He could call the police, however, and they would certainly search the van for drugs. We agreed the field would be held in reserve, and used only as a last resort.

On the outskirts of town, we passed a cattle-guard and sign that informed us we were entering a national forest. “The local ranchers keep cattle in the forest,” explained Mark. This meant, of course, that the forest was full of cow-pies. I really didn’t think a pine forest was going to be the best place to find Cubensis—a mushroom usually reported in grassy pastures. However, Mark assured me he’d found some fantastic shrooms growing around the banks of slow-moving streams in the forest, places where rich deposits of cow shit had decomposed and merged with the wet, sandy soil.

“Some of them are amazingly potent,” said Mark, his eyes practically glowing. “They have an incredible blue on their tops like the color on the wings of a moth.”

We pulled off the main road and headed deeper into the forest on a dirt access road. Mark navigated while I became helplessly lost. We passed a clearing where a tower had been built for sighting forest fires.

Eventually, we came to an overpass over an interstate highway. Grass covered both sides of the road. I drove slowly. On the other side of the overpass, we discovered a small lake bordered by a field of grass. A stork was perched in the reeds in the distance. We pulled over to stretch our legs and admire the view. We were soon dismayed, however, by the sight of a dead cow. “He was probably hit by a pickup speeding over the overpass at night,” explained Mark.

I walked over to take a closer look and unexpectedly found my first magic mushroom. Solitary but proud, its perky cap poked a good six inches in the air. It was a Paneolus, as I recognized immediately by its shape and by the brownish-purple coloring around the edge of its cap. As I bent to examine it, I saw that portions of the stem were stained black from spore deposits.

But god, what frustrations…it was the only one. We must have spent an hour or more searching the grass for another. I followed wet jeep paths several yards into the trees without any luck. I looked across the road, carefully searching through the grass. We found a few more mushrooms, but they weren’t quite right: the gills within the caps were light brown and lacked the black spores I wanted to see.

We got into the van. By now, my solitary find was quite droopy, limp and ugly, and no longer the proud specimen of an hour ago. But the blueing was pronounced, so I stuck it into a small paper sack and placed it where the wind would help it dry. We thought briefly about doing the shroom, but were more interested in finding a cold beer. One mushroom wouldn’t get us off anyway.

We were still hoping to score at the riverbank where Mark had found super-potent shrooms. But as we approached the site, it became apparent that PROGRESS had struck. Someone was building a bridge over the river and the entire area had been recently bulldozed. Mark and Kathy were genuinely grieved to discover their beautiful hideaway destroyed.

“A lot of people used to come here,” said Mark. “Not only to look for shrooms, but to swim in the river.” The construction was obviously a recent development. “Why couldn’t they have waited until after my visit?” I thought.

Disgusted, we drove on, unanimously agreeing it was time to find a camping spot. It was getting late and I was feeling defeated as we drove back to town. Mark, however, was just starting to rise to the challenge.

“I’m going to find some shrooms for you,” he said with determination. “We’re going to have to check out the field in town.”

Although Mark was eager, I was somewhat more reluctant. Hunting mushrooms is not illegal, but neither is police harassment (a fact I’d learned on a previous trip). However, I decided to follow Mark’s judgment. I just wanted to make sure none of us were holding drugs during the hunt.

We drove through town on our way to the Suwannee River, passing the field again. This time I saw it was actually a series of fields—about 15 acres in all—protected from the main road by trees. We decided to come back early in the morning, around 3 a.m., when the owner would surely be asleep. Mark suggested we use a dirt road at the back of the property. He knew of a vacant lot where we could park. After formulating this plan, we drove to a store and bought some chicken for dinner.

The camp site was quite a drive away and we passed over numerous small, meandering streams, most of which were filled with bathers. Apparently, the country people in the area prefer the local rivers to swimming pools.

By this time, I’d come to the realization that most of the people around here didn’t have much money. When Mark and Kathy talked about hunting for game, it became clear a large portion of their diet came from whatever they could catch or kill. Back in the federal forest, Mark had shocked me by saying it was too bad the cow had not been killed more recently, or he could have cut off some steaks for us. Although I hadn’t said anything, the thought sickened me. Later, after seeing an armadillo run across the road, Mark remarked how tender the animal’s meat was.

We turned off the main road and drove down a sandy, unmarked trail. Mark explained this was an access road to a fishing site. A sign wasn’t necessary if you lived here, and if you didn’t—tough shit—you’d never find the place. We came to a boat landing, complete with picnic area and firepit. However, Mark instructed me to drive further up the trail. The van barely fit, but we soon arrived at a beautifully secluded clearing on the banks of the Suwannee River

I parked and we jumped out. Moss-covered cypress trees lined the river. Mark and Kathy wanted to swim, and the boat launch was the best place, so we took some towels and walked back down the trail.

I was scared to get in. The dark, murky water was forbidding and I thought anything could be hiding in there. But the heat and humidity, combined with the sight of Mark and Kathy confidently entering the water, proved inducement enough. I followed. The water was cool and the bottom was sandy. I collected some water in my hands and noticed it was the color of tea. I dunked my head and the heat of the day evaporated.

The Suwannee River begins in the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the Georgia/Florida state line. The river water, I decided, must have been slowly seeped in swamp leaves. No wonder it looked like tea. It was wonderously relaxing, like a visit to a health spa.

After our swim, we returned to the bus. I set out lawn chairs in the grass. We lay back and passed a joint around. It had been a fun day, even though I’d only scored one measly shroom. With a camping spot like this one, however, I didn’t care if I scored at all. As it got on toward dinner time, Mark’s thoughts turned to fishing.

I had some hooks with me. Mark decided to set a trapline for catfish. I watched him bait ten hooks with cheese and rest them in the water close to shore. In less than an hour, Mark caught four good-sized fish. Due to our hunger, we decided to cook the fish, the store-bought chicken AND the bacon. We were going to have a feast.

The chicken was cooked to perfection on a camp stove, but I paid little attention to it. I’d never tasted catfish before. Mark breaded the fish and fried it in bacon grease. It was so tender, I just sucked it off the bones. After dinner, we sat in our lawn chairs and lazily listened to the sounds of insects and bullfrogs as evening came on.

We had a few more beers and got really wasted on some primo hash I’d brought with me. While making plans for the next morning, we heard thunder in the distance. I knew what that meant. I pulled a tarp out of the van and made a makeshift lean-to for Mark and Kathy. Since we had an early morning appointment with a cow pasture, we crashed early. I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m. Considering the volume of jungle sounds around me, I was lucky to fall asleep. It seemed like only a matter of minutes before the alarm went off.

It was drizzling slowly as Mark and I drove back to town. We left Kathy asleep in the lean-to. We were lucky: a half-moon was rising, which meant we’d be able to see without flashlights.

We parked in the open lot and found a trail leading back to the field. We each carried an empty grocery sack.

It soon became apparent we were at the right place at the right time. Yes, the field was covered with mushies, my friends, and my adrenalin was pumping wildly as I ran into it. Light-colored mushroom caps were everywhere! Giggling, we lurched from one cluster to the next, our feet soaked from the wet grass.

Slowly, as our bags filled, we became aware that the cow-pies were dotted with tiny little buttons—new mushrooms just beginning their flowering stage. Morning was coming on and we had to leave, but we were already thinking of coming back in a few days to pluck the results of these new fruitings. There was no need to get greedy. We worked our way back to the van, finding many more shrooms along the way.

We parked at a 7-11, and waited for them to open. Cinnamon rolls and orange juice sounded good to us for breakfast. There seemed little need to hurry out of town. Kathy would appreciate the extra sleep. We drank coffee from a thermos I’d prepared. I would have loved a joint, but the van was unfortunately “clean.” Instead, we busied ourselves checking out our sacks. It was a nice haul. I took out a needle and thread and began stringing up shrooms like popcorn on a Christmas tree.

Since we’d gathered in the dark, I found a number of Amanitas and other undesirables in the sack. For the most part, however, we’d plucked pure Cubensis. We hung them in the top of the bus and couldn’t resist a few nibbles as we worked. We didn’t overdo, however. We wanted to remain straight for the drive back. I think neither one of us really believed our luck and we wanted to remain in control of the situation, if at all possible.

About the time we had the mushrooms strung up, the 7-11 opened. We ate breakfast and headed back to our camping spot. By the time we arrived, the small amount of shrooms we’d eaten had come on, and we felt a pleasant floating sensation. But we were also very tired, so we decided to take a nap. We smoked a joint between us (Kathy was still sleeping soundly), and crashed.

I lay down with a happy vibration in my head and fell asleep almost instantly, sleeping soundly until around 10.

We rose together and decided we were famished. We decided on a brunch of bacon, eggs and grits. Tonight we planned on having our five-pound roast. What a party this was turning into! Without my contributions, the camping would not have been possible (at least, not in such comparative luxury), but, of course, without Mark and Kathy’s expertise, there would not have been any mushrooms. It really was getting late in the year, and I never would have found that particular field by myself.

We proudly showed Kathy our haul, which had already begun shrinking as it dried. The sight of all these shrooms drying in the ceiling of the bus was a real rush. After brunch, we went for a swim in the river. It was going to be another scorcher of a day.

We could have called it quits, but Mark and I were haunted by visions of the baby shrooms we’d left behind. We knew we might be pressing our luck but we also knew that if the next few days brought afternoon thundershowers, with warm and humid mornings, we would be going back.

In the meantime, we spent the next few days seeing more sights and staying high. We went back to the Interstate overpass where we’d found our single first specimen, but found nothing. We drove out in an entirely new direction to visit an underground spring. It was a popular spot, filled with cool water and happy people. The water was remarkably clear, without a trace of color. I held my breath, plunged in and swam along the bottom looking at bright, multicolored pebbles.

That afternoon, there were spectacular thundershowers, just as we’d been anticipating. The next day was wet too: it drizzled off and on all day. According to Mark, this short period of wet weather was following a period of dryness. If things worked out right, we might be able to multiply our mushroom stash tenfold. Mark noted how most of the mushrooms we’d picked had been fully grown and dry at the edges. They’d already released their spores. In the interval since they’d grown (probably during the last big rain), the next batch had been biding their time, absorbing energy and waiting for rain to unleash them. Those cow-pies were probably bursting with energized mycelia. In fact, we’d seen the start of an explosion of growth the other night.

This meant a whole new crop of shrooms were being raised for us. They would be fresh, plump, medium-sized, and incredibly numerous. Were we being greedy? Or just innocently open to the opportunity at hand? It didn’t matter. We knew we were going for it. We had to.

The final morning came. We rose early, just as before. The moon was higher in the sky and fuller. Things could not have looked better. Although it had drizzled earlier in the evening, the sky was clear.

The drive into town was interminable. After I parked the van, we looked into each others’ eyes. This was it. I think we both knew that if it was greed that was animating us, we were going to get popped. We might be making a big mistake. We grabbed our paper bags.

Thousands of budding shrooms surrounded us, clustered in miniconstellations. They were exactly as Mark had predicted: medium-sized and fully formed. It was a magical sight. Collecting went quickly.

All too soon, we noticed a slow brightening in the east. Our hunt was over but the field was still dotted with shrooms, like a field of wild flowers. As I returned to the bus, I tried to hold this beautiful vision before my eyes, so that I might never lose it.

We had come close to filing our sacks. On the drive into town, we whooped and hollered like a couple of redneck hillbillies.

We woke Kathy and she joined the celebration. After breakfast, we decided to cook up a mushroom broth. We put dozens of mushrooms into a pot of boiling water After our morning swim, we sipped the broth and tripped wonderfully, settling into a peaceful pattern of sky-watching, river-dipping, and mushroom-stringing. It was midafternoon by the time we came down, and the mushrooms were strung neatly up and down the length of the van. I’d decided to be moving on, but left the tarp for Mark and Kathy, since they wanted to continue on for another night.

We parted with hugs all around. The mushroom hunt had brought us close together and we knew we probably wouldn’t meet again.

Driving back to North Carolina, I kept awake by drinking mushroom broth. I could almost see that shroom-filled pasture glowing in the moonlight. It was close to 3 a.m. when I arrived at home and pulled into a parking space in front of my apartment. The mushrooms were dry. I detached the strings and put them in some grocery sacks. Fatigue was getting to me, but I paused one last moment to look at the moon above and remember my incredible adventure and the warm, fun-loving couple who had made it possible.

  1. Those were the good old days here in Central FL. Before they started feeding the cows anti fungal crap. So many great memories of camping out and eating shrooms we found nearby. One time we found these ultra potent ones that that sent us to the moon. We were camped by a little pond and spent hours kicking a football into the pond and laughing hysterically as the wind would slowly push it back to shore. We would pull it out, kick it again and laugh. Over and over for hours. Good times!

  2. I was going through some things and started to read some old HT mags I had. I came across this story in the 1995 Psychedelics Special Issue. It really was different times. Reminds me of when I get to talk with my uncle and all the hitchhiking stories he has from the 60s and 70s. You know… I hope they all meet again some day somewhere.

  3. Being a native of Tampa and growing up and coming of age during the mid to late nineties in an area that was predominantly orange groves and cow pastures, I can relate. Change the Suwannee to the Alafia, and the VW Bus to a Nissan Hardbody, and I could be the one telling this story. There was most definitely a magic to the whole era. An innocence that wasn’t always so innocent, and forever friendships that, sadly, didn’t last forever. Although, the memories do.
    I feel bad for the bulk of today’s youth. I feel like there are many experiences they will never experience. Bonds never forged, kisses never kissed, and lies never told. Perhaps the information age has one fatal flaw; too much information.
    I’d give anything to be that 17 year old kid again. Traipsing through the pasture at that surreal spot on the clock just before dawn, with a jug each of water and grapefruit juice. The water to rinse the ‘shrooms, and the juice to mask the taste. With the trip about to really commence, we make our way to Lithia Springs. For that little slice of heaven on earth holds the only thing missing, our anxiously awaiting girlfriends. No matter how many caps you ingest, a Florida girl in her cutoffs and bikini top is always a welcome sight.
    Like I said, I’d give anything to go back.

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