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The Chronicles of Tom Lane: A Psychedelic Hillbilly

From sitting in ceremony with Maria Sabina and knowing how to conjure the Quetzalcoatl, Tom Lane is the keeper of psychedelic lore.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Tom Lane has a sharp reaction to modern-day tripping methods. “I think it’s insane,” he says from his home in Florida. “This stuff of people lying on the couch with blindfolds over them and a pillow, listening to canned music, putting headphones on, and taking a pill. I think that’s satanic.” 

Lane, who is 77, believes that anyone who wants to experience psychedelics for the first time needs to be in nature. “You should be seeing the vibrations of the trees and seeing their emanations,” he says, as his thick Tennessee drawl punctuates his passion. 

After all, Lane has devoted much of his career to the environment with his work in solar energy. He earned his degree in forestry from the University of Tennessee and later became a ranger on a Hupa Indian Reservation in California after serving in Vietnam. But before professional or scholarly ambitions, and before mushrooms “found him” in a jungle in Oaxaca in the 1970s, the self-described brash hillbilly grew up alongside a mountain in Appalachia. 

“I was always outside. Nobody had fences or anything. We just played outside. I never saw a TV until age 10,” Lane says. “And then I thought it was boring as hell,”

READ: Shamans Are Going to Jail for Ayahuasca Possession

His connection with nature isn’t just physical, it’s spiritual. He spills this and other boundless reflections in his nonlinear and often unwieldy book, Sacred Mushroom Rituals: The Search for the Blood of Quetzalcoatl. The work, which Lane self-published in 2018, chronicles— among other tales—his experiences taking part in sacred mushroom ceremonies, or veladas, in 1973 in rural Oaxaca led by acclaimed shaman and oral poet Maria Sabina. 

In one passage reflecting on the ceremony, Lane writes, “Your skull becomes pure light that resonates beyond death.”

It’s the same type of mind-bending ceremony native to rural Oaxaca that ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson wrote about for a 1957 Life magazine cover story that is largely credited to introducing the American public to “magic mushrooms” for the first time. And the same “divine mushrooms” (as Wasson coined) that drew a horde of hippies, scientists, and adventure-seekers to the remote region along with—rumor has it—the likes of rock legends like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Keith Richards in the 1960s.

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“It took me almost three and a half years to write my first book. I wanted to do a quality job like Wasson,” says Lane. “It was difficult, a lot of time had passed, close to 40 years.” This time also served him. He reflects in his book that the curanderas and curanderos who gave him knowledge about the ancient mushroom ceremonies do not risk “mushroom seekers” upending their communities as so much time has passed. 

It’s worth noting that Wasson is now largely criticized for publicizing Sabina’s ceremonies. He did not entirely conceal Sabina’s identity or location in his writing, which led her Mazatec community to become flooded with Western magic mushroom-seekers, many of them disrespectful of ancient traditions. This attracted the attention of the police, who believed Sabina was a drug dealer, and led her to become ostracized by her village. Her son was murdered, her house burned down, and she served a brief stint in jail. Sabina has been given a saint-like status by psychonauts today, and she is beloved among Mexican countercultures, but she died in poverty marred by illness and malnutrition. 

His Sabina-led mushroom experience in Huautla de Jimenez—a small village in the mountains of Oaxaca—was not Lane’s first foray into psychedelics or drugs. Prior to his ranger work in California, he was drafted into the Vietnam War in combat infantry in the 1960s. It was in the army, Lane says, that he first started dealing drugs, and he recalls being given a tablet of Orange Sunshine LSD outside the barracks. 

 “All our officers left and they brought all these ROTC lieutenants and everybody wanted to go home. Nobody wanted to play soldier,” Lane says. “It was really crazy because we stayed stoned on pot, hashish, opium, and LSD the whole time, and we would go out patrolling the jungle. And guys would be there lighting up bombs. Our first sergeant would come around and we’re supposed to ambush, and we’d be laughing. You just couldn’t get anybody to play fucking army anymore.”

Lane’s book doesn’t mention his time in Vietnam, but perhaps his time as a soldier led him to Mexico to seek peace or meaning in the world. Sabina’s veladas gave him something even more concrete, albeit elusive—love. He met his wife Shelley at a velada. They were married two weeks later, now have three grown sons, and have been married for more than 50 years since their sacred beginnings in Oaxaca. Lane writes in his book, “I felt we had found each other after being centuries apart.” 

Lane initially went to Mexico to help work on geodesic domes with some friends seeking to build an artist commune, but he quickly became enamored with Pre-Columbia Mexico after visiting the ancient pyramids—according to Lane, he even secretly spent the night atop the renowned Temple of Kukulcan at ChichénItzá to watch the sunrise, and he embedded himself for hours at the National Museum of Anthology in Mexico City. He writes, “I spent nearly two days by myself trying to ‘feel’ the exhibits in this museum as if it was like a temple to the Aztec and Mayan cultures.” 

His interest in  Mayan and Aztec cultures persists. In his second book, which is in process, Lane shared an early version exclusively with DoubleBlind where he set out to further explore ancient healing mushroom ceremonies in Mexico. He shares, “The Spanish Franciscan missionaries tried to destroy all records and evidence for these physical religious healing rituals. Americanized Eurocentric Scholars of Pre-Columbian Mexico—have distorted the ancient metaphysical reality of Mexico.” He adds that many modern scholars have glossed over the sacred mushroom and other psychedelic iconography found in ancient Mesoamerican codices—painted manuscripts that documented Indigenous daily life. As a result, they do not fully understand the nuances of the spirituality of Mexico’s Indigenous people. Lane writes, “The reader today in the 21st Century needs to be conscious by ‘rereading’ the texts, we are joining the ancient Mesoamerican sages as participants in an ancient ritual.”

In Lane’s writing, he aims to examine the Sacred Mushroom Cults of Quetzalcoatl/Kulikhan and reveal how the ceremony of the deified heart, which involves mushrooms when utilized in a specific way, can summon Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl, or the “Plumed Serpent” is part rattlesnake and part bird, and was regarded in ancient Mesoamerican culture as the god that summoned wind and rain—and created humanity. 

READ: The Sacred Cacao Ceremony: Is it Healing or Culturally Appropriative?

Kyle Buller, host of the Psychedelics Today podcast, tapped Lane to speak about the history of Quetzalcoatl for an episode. He first met Lane at a conference in Oakland and was intrigued. “I thought what’s this guy who works in solar doing at a psychedelic conference?” says Buller. He found out Lane had fascinating stories about spending time with Maria Sabina, and they stayed in touch. 

The episode, which aired several years back, Buller remembers as polarizing among listeners. Lane is loquacious and talks fast, and suggests people eat honey-covered mushrooms two at a time—to represent the male and the female, and chewing and chewing until you feel like there is a snake up your spine, and then, he says, Quetzalcoatl will appear. 

One YouTube commenter wrote, “Fantastic eps man. I’ve met Quatziquotal during an Ayahuasca ceremony. It was so bright and blinding, I couldn’t even look at him. I didn’t feel worthy to look at him at the time…”.  But other listeners contacted Buller and asked him why he didn’t challenge Lane more, ask more questions, or back up the episode with more facts. 

“But for me here’s somebody with this lived experience, and I take what he’s saying as true to his lived experience… is it 100% true? I have no idea,” Buller says. He adds that we tend to be so focused on facts in our information age. “But to hear someone share a story, who is a storyteller, can you tune into the emotional response of that?”

Quetzalcoatl remains one of Lane’s obsessions. When the demi-god appears during a mushroom ceremony, he says he looks like a jeweled rainbow serpent, and he embodies pure light, pure energy, and pure love. 

Lane writes that Quetzalcoatl “reveals that pain and love are the natural cycles of life on Earth, and we should find joy in these cycles.” 

Consider it well-earned wisdom to live by.

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