Sometimes, rebels end up alright.
Years away from becoming a star on TV, Steve Hupp was just a redneck who was being bold and open about his psychedelic use. A legit rebel — maybe the kind of revolutionary we need right now.
And he was helping out random strangers. Like me.
In violation of most interpretations of the drug laws, Hupp mailed me ayahuasca, then taught me how to brew the psychedelic drug on my own. More than helping a dude out, he taught me a lesson that's stuck with me ever since: you can find your own way.
"I believe that everyone can fly their own soul," Hupp told me back then.
Now, Hupp — a blunt-talking spark plug of a dude in his 50s — is the subject of the Viceland show "Kentucky Ayahuasca," about a regular dude who's helping folks take the ancient and trendy medicine — in keeping with the unwritten law that says you should do what you think is right.
When I encountered Hupp, in January of 2015, he was just a dude with a rebellious attitude. A "trailer park shaman," he was later called.
I'd found his name on Craigslist, the only hit for "ayahuasca" in the whole country.
Hupp was upfront with me about his past, how he used to be the wrong kind of rebel: a serial bank robber who got caught after one of the getaways went wrong.
Hupp met, in prison, a shaman. After they both got out, the shaman mailed Hupp ayahuasca, in a bottle labeled "dog shampoo." Hupp tripped for a week by himself in his garage with blackout curtains. Hupp emerged like a caveman who'd discovered fire, and decided he would be a shaman himself.
When I found Hupp, I wasn't a prisoner or a convict, but I was, in fact, semi-desperate. See, ayahuasca had helped my depression and addiction. And I'd been drinking ayahuasca for eight years at that point. But I took it with a legit cult. And I didn't dig their uniforms or the gender segregation or the anti-gay teachings or the ludicrous brainwashing dogma. Hupp felt where I was coming from.
"When people start telling me what The Truth is, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," Hupp said then. There's no dogma in Hupp's church. As he told me years ago: "I show you where to look, I don't tell you how to think about what you see."
A week or so after that conversation, Hupp's ayahuasca mix landed in my mailbox; a reddish powder packed in a few tea bags labeled "incense, not for human consumption."
I faithfully typed Hupp's advice back then. First, his instructions on how to brew the drug; add two quarts, add vinegar, cook eight hours, and so on.
I cooked the dank sludge on my stove and gulped it in my basement, alone. I tripped extreme balls. This set me down a path of mixing up my own ayahuasca conconctions, stronger and wilder batches. Steve taught me how to use plants from the regular internet, shipped from Hawaii or South America.
Second, I transcribed what Steve told me about the world.
One of Steve's messages is simple: you don't need permission from the government or your elders or your parents or anyone. If you think it'll help you, do it.
This echoes the great Terence McKenna's advice: no gurus, no shamans. Follow plants.
Lots of folks say that's a dangerous piece of advice; they say only trained shamans from long lineages ought to dispense psychedelics. Or they say that psychedelics should be medicalized, prescribed by doctors and taken with therapists — this is what they're going to do with MDMA (molly, ecstasy).
Hupp's rebellious attitude gets lots of hate online. "This is very hard to watch," says a popular comment on the YouTube version of the show. "Ayahuasca requires a specific diet prior, proper facilitators and being led by shaman."
In fairness: a good guide is not the worst idea. You could lose your mind or your compass if you do it alone.
I know. Within a few months of becoming my own shaman, brewing up the strongest ayahuasca I possibly could, nuclear-feeling stuff that I turned into Jell-O shots so I could stomach more of it, and light up my brain like an IMAX movie, it all went sideways. My mind spun off like a hubcap that fell off the rear wheel of a car. Like Steve, those huge doses made me decide to start my own church. One day my very rational girlfriend found me trudging barefoot across busy streets, daring traffic to hit me, wearing prayer beads and ranting about god. This felt awesome — at the time. Later this was uncomfortable; I needed a visit to the hospital and some brain meds.
So … was guiding myself a bad idea, with something as powerful as ayahuasca? It was perilous, for sure. If I had it to do over again, I'd keep looking for a better, less culty teacher. But I've also skied a bunch of terrain above my ability and had a grip of risky sex and done a buttload of drugs folks said would kill me. I'm a gambler. Maybe I'm just a dumb kid. It's not right or wrong (I hope) it's just who I am.
Terence McKenna also went loco during his first big mushrooms trips. "Bonkers," as his brother Dennis says. But both McKennas ended up having rich, full lives.
The McKennas and Hupp are true rebels. The authentic kind, not the fake kind you see in car commercials.
Hupp told me you can fly your own soul, and he gave me my first jet fuel. He sent me down a weird path, for sure. But I guess I'd rather fly my soul wobbly and off-course — and maybe into a mountain — than let someone else pilot me toward their personal nirvana. And for that lesson, I'll always be grateful to the redneck shaman of Kentucky Ayahuasca.