Terence McKenna’s Last Trip
The “altered statesman” emerged from Leary’s long shadow to push a magical blend of psychedelics, technology, and revelatory rap. He had less time than he knew.
By Erik Davis
In May 1999, the psychedelic bard Terence McKenna returned to his jungle hideaway on Hawaii’s Big Island after six weeks on the road. He was relieved to be home. Since claiming the mantle of Tripster King from Timothy Leary, McKenna has earned his keep as a stand-up shaman on the lecture circuit, regaling groups of psychonauts, seekers, and boho intellectuals with tales involving mushrooms, machine consciousness, and the approaching end of history. Weird stuff, and wonderfully told. But the teller was getting tired of the routine. A recluse at heart, McKenna wanted nothing more than to surf the Web, read, polish up some manuscripts, and enjoy the mellow pace of Hawaii with his new girlfriend, Christy Silness, a kind young woman he had met the year before at an ethnobotanical conference in the Yucatán.
Soon after McKenna arrived home, however, he was hit with ferocious headaches. He’d long suffered from migraines, but nothing in his 52 years could match the ice picks now skewering his skull. On May 22, after dragging himself to the john to vomit, McKenna’s mind exploded. Hallucinations cut in like shards of glass; taste and smell were bent out of shape; and he was swallowed up by a labyrinth that, as he later put it, “somehow partook of last week’s dreams, next week’s fears, and a small restaurant in Dublin.” Then his blood pressure dropped and he collapsed, the victim of a brain seizure.
When McKenna came to, he was flat on his back, staring at the ceiling as his extremely agitated girlfriend called 911. Then he swooned again. In addition to being much younger than McKenna, Silness is also much shorter, but somehow she managed to load his lanky, 6’2″ frame into their truck and drive down the mountain to meet an ambulance. To keep McKenna awake, she coaxed him into reciting a poem his grandfather used to chant, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” But then a grand mal hit, and McKenna was out cold.
The ambulance guys knew McKenna’s rep and were convinced he had OD’d. But a CAT scan in Kona revealed the presence of a walnut-sized tumor buried deep in McKenna’s right frontal cortex. The growth was diagnosed as a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most malignant of brain tumors. To McKenna’s amazement, his doctor described the thing as a “fruiting body” that sent “mycelia” throughout the surrounding tissue – mycological lingo straight out of theMagic Mushroom Grower’s Guide that McKenna had published in 1975 with his brother, Dennis, an ethnobotanist. The rest was less amusing: Without treatment, McKenna would die within a month. With treatment, the prognosis was six months. “No one escapes,” said the doctor.
McKenna was facing something that no shaman’s rattle or peyote button was going to cure. With barely time to breathe, he had to choose from among chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and the gamma knife – a machine that could blast the tumor with 201 converging beams of cobalt radiation.
At the same time, friends and comrades were stalking more ethereal treatments. On the Big Island, Hali Makua, a Grand Kahuna of Polynesia, hiked up the side of the Mauna Loa volcano. He meditated about McKenna and was illuminated with a handful of Hawaiian power words, words that he later phoned in to his ailing friend.
From the wilds of Nevada, paranormal radio jock Art Bell was planning a different kind of intervention. Bell went on the air and asked his 13 million listeners to participate in “great experiment no. 8.” At 2 pm Pacific time on Sunday, May 30, Bell’s listeners sent McKenna a mass blast of good vibrations. “It’s not something I really believe in,” says McKenna. “But I am much more sympathetic to the idea of a huge morphogenetic field affecting your health than the idea that one inspired healer could do it.”
Even after he went under the gamma knife, McKenna couldn’t quite believe what was happening to him. “There are only about 1,000 of these GBMs a year, so it’s a rare disease. I never won anything before – why now?” Like everybody else, he suspected a lifetime of exotic drug use may have been to blame.
“So what about it?” he asked his doctors. “You wanna hammer on me about that?” They assured him there was no causal link.
“So what about 35 years of daily dope smoking?” he asked. They pointed to studies suggesting that cannabis may actually shrink tumors.
“Listen,” McKenna told them, “if cannabis shrinks tumors, we would not be having this conversation.”