The Unexpected Trip

When I graduated from the Air Force Academy, it was George W. Bush who handed me my diploma. The playful side of me gave him a hug after we traded salutes; the more serious side of me wanted to tell him something but couldn’t decide what to say. By this point, I had started to question the virtue of war and any semblance of truth in the notion of a “Christian nation.” In the haze of that moment, I found myself saying, “I’ll pray for you,” without being totally sure about what I would be praying for or if I would even pray at all.

Rewind 14 years earlier: I’m seven years old, secretly perched at the edge of my home’s roof with a deeply felt belief that if I jumped with enough faith, I would fly. As the years progressed, my day dreaming about flight matured into a full-fledged ambition to attend the Air Force Academy—a motivation that was entirely my own, yet also greatly encouraged by the evangelical Christian context around me.

Oddly though, it was my religious upbringing—and specifically the impulse to defend my beliefs—that led to my military undoing. During my last year at the Academy my roommate and I designed a hazing event for the freshmen final initiation week: we would transform our dorm room into a coffee shop and take on the personas of hyper-aggressive anti-war baristas. Our plan was to welcome the freshman into our room in groups of two, kindly serve them espresso, and then blindside them with every anti-war argument we could think of—all as a way to test and strengthen the thoughtfulness of their military commitment.

To help me play this role, I emailed an outspoken anti-war professor at Colorado College with a request for every anti-war perspective that he could think of—and he gladly obliged. One of those views was entirely new to me, yet hit surprisingly close to home:

“What if Jesus actually meant what he said about loving our enemies? What if most Christians make theological interpretations that conveniently cordon-off this message to the safe zones of life? What if you drew no such lines? What if you made no such exceptions? If your identity as a Christian was primary to your identity as an American, would that not lead you to embody a radical sort of love toward your enemy? How could killing someone ever be loving them? Were you not first loved by Jesus while still an ‘enemy of God’? And as follower of Christ, is that not the sort of redemptive love you’re called to extend to your enemies?”

My experience of inhabiting this perspective during the hazing event left a seed in me that would later sprout through the brick and mortar of my worldview. The works of MLK and John Howard Yoder deepened my understanding of a non-violent perspective rooted in Christian theology, and I began to see less and less resemblance between the Christianity that I was a part of and what I saw in Jesus and his early church.

After graduating from the Academy, I went to pilot training, where my inner-dissonance only intensified. The tipping point occurred while I was in an auditorium full of pilots viewing nose-gun video of an A-10 jet performing an air-to-ground attack. As we watched people run, get shot, and then try to crawl their mangled bodies to safety there was laughter throughout the room. My hands started to sweat. I felt sick and angry, and I wanted to stand on the stage and yell “what are you thinking?!” But I didn’t—I just walked out. And I knew in that moment that the only authentic move I could make was to request an early separation from the military.

Six months later I was out of the Air Force, and the seedling continued to grow and break open fresh lines of inquiry within other domains of my worldview. Yet however expansive this exploration became, it seemed to be propelled by a singular thrust—a theme—the idea that the enemy isn’t to be conquered, but understood, that fear and trauma aren’t to be avoided, but faced and processed, that death isn’t to be overcome or masked, but honored, that ego isn’t to be beaten or shamed, but integrated like the autumn leaf whose time has come, that the dark places we avoid or try to smite are precisely the only way through to that which we hope for. Whatever words we use to describe it, and however cliché or clumsy they may be, there seems to be this paradoxical stage of going into darkness/dissolution/uncertainty, which represents an essential place in the narrative of flourishing that animates what we call “life” in any categorical realm by which our minds parse existence—physical life, mental health, spiritual life, life of community, etc.

This is when psychedelics entered. The most compelling descriptions of this stage that I encountered were within people’s psychedelic trip reports. After reading hundreds of personal accounts in online forums, the DARE program’s thin story about psychedelic drugs cracked under the weight of direct experience, or rather, my reading of others’ direct experiences.

So, fast-forward 10 years after I left the air force: I’m happily married, with kids. I have an MBA, and I’ve been working for one of the world’s most respected businesses for eight years. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, or pot, or had any other interest in drugs. By most accounts, I’m a responsible, hard-working, stand-up sort of guy with “family values” and yet I really, really, want to trip. I want to directly experience what I’ve been reading and thinking about for years. But I know very few people who could relate to my desire, let alone anyone who could supply the goods.

Then things changed. When I knew that my wife and kids were going on a vacation to see her family, I saw a unique window of time. Assuming that I could buy mushrooms on the street, I texted an old and trusted friend to ask if he’d be interested in flying 600 miles to join me. I had no idea if he had experience or interest in psychedelics; I just knew that he was the sort of person that I’d want by my side. We talked irregularly and hadn’t seen each other in years, so I was a bit shocked when he texted back immediately and simply said, “I’m in.” I later told him that I hadn’t yet figured out how to get the mushrooms, and he assured me that he had a “trusted source.” It turns out that he had recently started to grow his own, and that my text arrived a few hours after their first fruiting.

We ate the mushrooms on the bank of a river flowing through an old growth forest. It’s difficult to put into words what I experienced and how it has changed me, but I’ll offer a few things. I was brought to tears by a newfound depth of love and gratefulness for my wife. I saw that my feeling of day-to-day melancholy was real and true but also a thin layer of sediment above a colossal geology of gratitude for the life that I am living. I felt a relaxation that was both visceral and cognitive that allowed me to look at myself with greater honesty and compassion. I felt more grounded and clear-minded than ever before in my life—but most of all I felt a poignant yet comical absurdity about the fact that what I was experiencing was illegal.

I was curious to know if psilocybin mushrooms grew in natural habitats in my local area, and I soon found multiple locations of hundreds, likely thousands of mushrooms within two miles of my home. I’ve tripped a few more times, at increasingly higher doses, and each experience has seemed to surpass and yet build on the others in how it impacts my everyday life.

My second experience was alone in a coastal forest. I was overcome with the feeling of being indigenous, not in the Native American sense, but in that I was literally “of the earth.” I became hyper-aware and appreciative of the life around me as I lay on my back under the trees. I felt the presence of a woman (embodying nature) lying down next to me (embodying humanity). The feeling that emanated from her was one of sadness at our separation and a longing to be in closer relationship with me, not simply for our survival, but for the thriving and joy that our symbiosis could create. She was at once other than me, and me. As someone who felt like they had often been duped and misled by religious teachers and texts, I had become skeptical of devotion to guru-types…and I was hit with an epiphany and felt the urge to write:

Nature is your teacher.

You are nature.

Mushrooms are a fun,

productive,

healing,

and creative way to meet HER.

I then buried a dead insect, rose to my feet, and walked for hours along trails with tears welled up in my eyes from the beauty that I was witnessing all around me. I eventually came upon a secluded ocean cove and hiked down to the beach where I saw a deer standing 50 yards from me. We looked at each other in total stillness for about 10 minutes, then we spent the next hour walking around the cove together. As I started to leave, she walked onto a rock outcropping, and I decided take a photo.

Describing any trip experience is difficult, and therefore a bit frustrating. It feels impossible to describe these experiences. It’s as though each one has given me a tome of meaning for my every-day consciousness to unpack and incarnate for the rest of my life. What’s easier to describe is how it impacts my life after the trip. As interesting and insightful as the trip experience can be, the primary interest of mine in the psychedelic experience is to ask, “how does this help me show up in my everyday life?”

What I can say is that I stare longer into my kids’ eyes. Instead of rushing them to sleep, I enter into their imaginative worlds. Instead of fighting an epic inner battle to wake up early (which I’ve had to do my entire life), I look forward to greeting the day with intention at 5:30 am. Instead of trying to galvanize motivation to eat well and exercise, I find that I actually experience a craving. I also have a greater impulse toward daily integrity: to own my feelings, to align my words with my actions, to be honest and open. I’m filled with new ideas and energy for how to be myself in the world.

Most of the people in my life have negative and highly suspicious views about psychedelics, so I feel a strong desire to come out of the closet. I want to embody a counterpoint to the stereotypes and reframe the basic ways in which we think about these substances. The challenge for me is this: my wife is concerned about the impact of me coming out the psychedelic closet. Will it hurt my career? Will it put me at risk of going to jail? These are fair concerns that I want to respect, so I’ll continue to search for ways to anonymously share my perspective—and perhaps live my day-to-day life in a way that brings others to privately ask, “what grounds you?”


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