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On the Toad Road (Part 2)

In the first part of this two-part series, Chris Kilham visits the Sonoran Desert to investigate the sustainability and collection of Bufo alvarius toads by Mexico’s indigenous Seri people for the harvesting of 5-MeO-DMT. To read part one, click here.

Estacion Torres

Under a bright moon we follow our armed escorts for a few miles, spotting toads hopping about here and there and avoiding glistening puddles of great size, eventually arriving at a colorful and brightly lit sign announcing their village, Estacion Torres. In the early 1900’s, the village became an important center for mining gold and other minerals. But the mines ran out and today Estacion Torres is mostly a forgotten, lonely place along the Sonoran railroad. Approximately 135 people live there now, unemployment is high, and toad medicine is currently their biggest economic activity. We are apparently an exciting development, thanks in no small part to the presence of Ivette and Martine. It’s obvious that not a lot goes on at Estacion Torres, so we get their version of the royal treatment. The four-wheeler has a large compartment filled with beer and as soon as we stop and pry ourselves out of the Mitsubishi we are offered some. Cans pass around, tops pop, and bright street lights hum with electricity. Dogs wander about, sniff us and lick our hands. They are relaxed and happily take scratches and rubs. They seem well cared for. I take that as a positive sign.

One of the three men who rode on the four wheeler wears a balaclava and dark sunglasses, even though it is night time. He looks like Subcomandante Marcos, the enigmatic leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. He sits still and quiet on the curb. and because his face is obscured it is not clear whether he is brooding or just observing. The smallest of the three men, the one who drove the four-wheeler, is bursting with energy. “I’m Servando,” he tells us.

From a small backpack, Servando produces numerous bags of amber dried bufo secretion. He passes them around, inviting us to handle and smell the medicine. “You see for yourself, it is very good.” The material possesses a sweeter aroma than the secretion we have collected. When I comment on this Servando says that the sweetness owes to the mineral content of the soil in the area. “We have lots of toad medicine. You want to smoke some?” It seems an absurd proposition under the glare of street lamps in the middle of the night while drinking beer on a stretch of road with dogs wandering about among us. The rule of setting is taking a pounding. Before we can even suggest that it’s not the best circumstance, Servando has a glass pipe containing flakes of toad secretion and a small blow torch. He fires up the pipe until the interior roils with cloudy smoke, offering it to us. When none of us take up the offer  he shrugs, sucks in a bit of the smoke and lets the moment pass.

The third man from the four-wheeler has disappeared, to return only minutes later with a sack half full of wriggling toads. Now it’s getting interesting. “Here,” he goes, handing the sack to Martine. Ivette is quick to retrieve the glass microwave plate which she sets up in the hatchback of the SUV, and in a flash we have a milking station. The toads squirm in the bag, climbing atop one another. Ivette goes into focused toad milking mode, squirting goop from toad glands, letting each of the hoppers go when she is done.

After a moment of observation Servando says “Hey watch this. You want to calm them down, so the best way is to give them a massage.” He plucks a fat toad from the sack, and holding it in one hand begins to stroke it gently from head to tail with the other. The effect is almost immediate. The toad relaxes, passive and calm. Servando lowers the toad down to the glass. “So now when you squeeze them, they don’t mind.” It appears to be so. The toad doesn’t squirm or wriggle, but just hangs out while its sebaceous secretion is squirted onto the glass. When Servando releases the toad, it hops away a couple of feet and settles in to observe us. The rest of us are pretty impressed, even Ivette, and we all nod approvingly. “That is really very cool,” Gabriel comments.

“I sell a lot of medicine,” Servando explains with pride. “Sometimes we milk as many as nine hundred toads for big orders. This whole area is filled with them. They’re everywhere. During the rainy season you don’t need to go far to find lots of toads.” He explains that he ships large quantities of toad medicine to New York, L.A. and Europe. A kilo of bufo toad medicine will sell for as much as $50,000, a lot of money. Meanwhile, Subcomandante Marcos has disappeared into the night to return with yet another sack half filled with toads. He still says nothing, just hands over the sack. It’s now toad Woodstock, hoppers galore, and the milking gets intense, with Ivette and Martine working by the glass, massaging toads and squeezing them one after another. The glass quickly gets gloppy with toad goo. Servando and his friends want nothing for the toads. They appear happy just to contribute to our cause. There is a camaraderie in this medicine, at least among the fine folks of Estacion Torres.

“We get reports of people going off crack,” Servando says with pride. “And too much alcohol, and even fentanyl.” He appears excited by the healing power of the medicine. “Some people here in the village have been helped. This is a good thing. It is a real healing medicine”  We will remark later that what seemed to turn Servando on the most was the healing that toad medicine brought to people.

Servando then begins to talk about other medicines, especially rattlesnake oil, which he says treats hemorrhoids. Omigod, snake oil! “I can show you how to make it. You want to see? We have some rattlesnakes.” We kindly turn down the offer, happy to just hang out, enjoy the company of the men and the dogs while milking toads. It’s just not our time to watch the skinning, defatting and cooking of  rattlesnakes.  “You come back tomorrow or any time and I’ll show you. It’s really very good medicine. We have lots of medicines out here, many plants. I will share them with you.”

We spend a couple of hours in Estacion Torres drinking beer, milking hoppers and listening to Servando, who is quite charming. Lono wanders about and finds a few toads in nearby grass. Ina and Justice take turns milking toads and getting goo all over themselves. Nirvana, who is conked out in the hatch back of the SUV, never stirs. She is like a little sleeping buddha. Eventually we say our goodbyes and cram ourselves back into the SUV, promising to return at some point and thanking the men for their hospitality. They insist on taking photos by the brightly colored Estacion Torres sign, and they ask us to pose with their rifles for the shots. We hoist the weapons and take dozens of photos with all of our phones. After the photo session and with friendly waves from our newfound friends, we roll off into the quiet desert night toward Hermosillo and Toad Hacienda.

Ivette’s Medicine

The following day, we all enjoy a relaxed morning. Justice and Ina and Lono disappear to a vegan restaurant for takeout, while Gabriel, Ivette, Martine and Nirvana and I hang out at the house enjoying omelets and toast. In the afternoon, Ivette performs ceremonies for the two women. She pays careful attention, explaining the medicine and looking at them as though she is also looking into them. As the women go deep in, Ivette seems to track them through their journeys, like she’s peeking through trans-dimensional keyholes. She moves around, shakes a rattle, keeps close watch undistracted while Martine manages Nirvana, who is fully awake.

Justice and Ina each land safely from their respective psychedelic excursions, reporting wonderful experiences. They remain very excited about the medicine, soaking up every good moment. Then Ivette sits down, fills a pipe with what looks like a lot of medicine, hits it with a torch and takes in a succession of large hits. I am fascinated by her high consumption and want to see what will happen next. For a time she rests on her stomach and elbows, moving her head around slowly. After a few minutes the medicine overtakes her. Ivette appears only minimally present, gazing off into faraway lands, flopped out on large pillows on the living room rug. She stays gone for nearly half an hour. Lono sits outside on the veranda smoking on his own, looking as though he is trying to solve something, brooding and alone. I check on him, he says he’s fine.

That night the group heads off back to the road by the stadium across town for more toad collection. I stay at the hacienda to go through images and video and to get a night’s sleep. Sometime around 2:00 a.m. I hear the group return. Some dogs bark in the street. Then everything goes dark and still.

Where The Wind Blows Through You

The next morning we get ourselves together around 8:00 and head off on a hot two hour drive to the coastal Seri town of Punta Chueca. Ivette,Martine and Nirvana do not come with us, so we have a bit more space in the Mitsubishi. Gabriel drives and we head west for about an hour, meeting up with Moises Romero and Luis Barnett, who are waiting for us by the side of the highway in a pickup truck. As we follow them, the landscape changes from vast fruit farms of oranges and melons to scrub and towering saguaro cactus. The roads are dirt and dry and Moises’ truck throws spumes of dust. For about half an hour or so it feels like we are in a Sergio Leone movie, riding past thousands of the largest cacti on earth in a landscape of woody shrubs and rocky hills. I expect to see Jay Silverheels cantering toward us on a pinto, Winchester across the saddle. Eventually we espy in the distance the glistening aquamarine Sea Of Cortez, the body of water between Mexico’s west coast and Baja peninsula.

A couple of miles later, we ride over a rise and along a rutted dusty road into the coastal village of Punta Chueca, main home of the Seri people. My heart sinks as we arrive. Garbage and trash are strewn everywhere in piles around poorly kept houses, and mangy starving dogs struggle to stay on their feet as they root for anything at all to eat amidst piles of refuse, soiled nappies, broken glass. Overall the town is heartbreaking. The poverty is desperate and the sheer squalor of the place clashes with the magnificent beauty of the Sea Of Cortez and the promise of a marvelous psychedelic experience.

We park in front of a small community building. On the porch, three women place small sachets containing white sage around our necks. It’s a lovely gesture of welcome. Then we file inside and within minutes about twenty women bustle in with bags of trinkets and crafts to sell. Young men come through the door with tables, swiftly setting a full market up for us to buy things. Moises is there with his wife, Luis too. They stand back and watch the scene unfold. It’s a bit of a trap, the women peddling everything from beaded necklaces to carved turtles and dolphins, spirit catchers, paintings, keychains, yarn bracelets, a broad variety of touristic knick-knacks and little sachets of white sage with embroidered dolphins, saguaro, birds. I buy a few little sachets and leave it at that, while Ina and Justice go big and buy a full basket of gifts. Lono picks up several items and Gabriel buys a few as well. We are the latest potential source of revenues to wander into the village. The women want us to open up our wallets wider and buy more, but at a certain point we’ve had our fill and they are evidently disappointed.

On the wall of the community center a poster promotes Punta Chueca as an eco-tourism destination, which I find wholly unrealistic. There’s nothing eco about it. But my perception is incorrect, as Punta Chueca has received busloads of people who have traveled there to experience toad medicine, regardless of the sad condition of the place. Some of the five hundred residents fish for crabs, but what do the rest do to eke out a living? What would it take for the people who live there to organize a real and thorough cleaning of the place, collecting and getting rid of all the garbage and trash and broken bottles? The only reason people will venture to Punta Chueca is for the toad medicine ceremonies offered on Isla Tiburon, which is about twenty minutes by boat from the village. To get to the ceremonies, you must run the town gauntlet of trinkets, trash, starving dogs. Once again setting takes a pounding. 

When our brief buying spree is over, Moises, his wife and Luis lead us to the waterfront and to a boat. Starving dogs with diseased skin pick at shells in fishing nets and the merciless sun gives no refuge. We load onto the boat wearing life jackets and toting a pop-up tent, and head across the water. The Sea of Cortez is one of the most bio-diverse waters in the world, a place of startling beauty. Our destination, Isla Tiburon, is Mexico’s largest island, sitting verdant and royal with mountains and sparkling beaches. It’s a splendid sight, as beautiful as any.

When we arrive on the island, Luis and the boat man quickly set up the pop-up tent. Voila, we have a ceremonial space. It’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s roasting. But at least the tent offers a bit of shade. “Who wants to go first?” Luis inquires, referring to a toad ceremony. I volunteer and sit down on a blanket. Luis prepares a pipe with a small wad of toad secretion and asks me if I am ready to go. I say yes and he fires the pipe with a torch. I draw in a huge and deep hit and hold it for about twenty seconds, slowly letting it out. This time I sit up yoga straight, cross-legged and immobile as my cells and all the infinitesimal energetic bits that compose who I am blow away in all directions. Luis is shaking a turtle shell rattle and chanting, his voice high and soft. I am simultaneously fully present and gone baby gone. A steady breeze blows along the beach and right through my tissue and bone and soul. I am so immobile that Luis stops chanting a couple of times to ask if I’m okay. I reply with an almost imperceptible nod. Roger that, I am fine.

For about twenty-five minutes I am riveted upright and still, energy flowing unabated, the wind passing through all of me. I am soaring, ever-expanding, permeable and very high, at full amplitude. Eventually I reincorporate and open my eyes to a crystalline world, an even brighter day, anodized colors and a majestic aqua sea. Good ride!

Luis Barnett conducts a bufo ceremony.

Ina and Justice also journey with the medicine while the rest of us shift about and broil in the unforgiving heat. When they are finished we do not linger. We take down the pop-up tent, don our life jackets, load back onto the boat and return to Punta Chueca. Minutes after landing there we part from Moises and Luis with thanks all around and say goodbye. We drive off into the desert inferno with its thousands of towering saguaro.

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It’s a Wrap

On our last day in Hermosillo, Ivette and Martine and Nirvana come over to Toad Hacienda bearing a large amount of toad medicine. Ina and Justice are openly questioning why they each spent eight hundred dollars each for an “official” certificate as toad practitioners back in Punta Chueca, and I admit that I can’t come up with a good reason. They shrug, lesson learned. Lono and Gabriel each buy around one hundred grams of medicine, enough for a year’s worth of ceremonies ahead. I buy only a small amount, and for some reason Ivette gives me more for free. “You need more,” she tells me with a warm smile. After hugs all around and best wishes, we all head off to our respective destinations. Lono heads to the Pacific Northwest, Ina and Justice and I fly to Phoenix for other flight connections, and Gabriel heads back to Cancun. The toad collection trip is officially over.

I have had plenty of time to go back over our journey to Sonora, to read my notes, look at images and footage and think about this scene. Bufo toad medicine is a djinn that issued out of the bottle a while back and it’s not going back in. That is a sober fact, regardless whether you are an advocate or critic. On our trip to Sonora I witnessed small, humane and sustainable collection of the medicine. Gabriel’s remark about it bearing a similarity to sheep-shearing actually seems a pretty decent analogy. The toads wouldn’t choose it, but they don’t get hurt the way that Ivette and Martine and Servando do it. But I am also well aware of greedy and inhumane collection going terribly wrong in many ways. There are plenty of collectors treating the toads poorly and causing them to suffer. It’s an E.F. Schumacher equation – small really is beautiful. You could rightly point out that Servando’s collection is not small. Still, he apparently catches the toads right around Estacion Torres, does not move them from their natural habitat, massages them, milks them once and releases them in good condition. People feed their families from the income. As a privileged person with plenty of means and a comfortable life, it’s hard for me to quarrel with that.

Bufo toad medicine lives up to much of the hype that surrounds it. It is fast, powerful, revelatory and fully immersive, though it has a bit of a nasty acrid flavor. It’s a brilliant concoction of natural compounds so exquisitely assembled by nature that it opens portals to the infinite. Remarkably its potentially lethal toxins are largely incinerated while the mind-blowing 5-MeO-DMT in the secretion remains intact and profoundly bioactive when smoked. People are healed of addictions, traumas and more. Some merge with the infinite and come away profoundly changed for the better forever. It’s a first-rate psychedelic medicine. You can’t deny its powers. No wonder it has made the news and drawn so much attention.

Bufo is also perfect for our very rushed times. It’s the fast food of psychedelics, a mind-bending Big Mac, rich in gooey, luminous calories. It’s perfect for those with little time. You can experience a full journey on your lunch break, no need to strap in for hours like on a brawny 270 mcg of Blue Cheer acid or more than four grams of Golden Teacher mushrooms. People want everything fast and easy these days. What’s faster and easier than inhaling a big blast of bufo and tripping for twenty minutes? May the force be with you. 

I do understand and appreciate that ceremonial centers and retreats enwrap bufo in a full itinerary of activities designed to support the medicine experience. This unquestionably extends thoughtful time around the brief journey. A mystical experience on bufo will promote a proliferation of new neural networks, greater insights and a broader variety of personal behavioral options. But engaging in bufo does lack the commitment of time, energy and endurance involved with more classical forms of tripping. There are good reasons that peyote-based prayer ceremonies and ayahuasca ceremonies go on all night. Committing yourself deeply to a long and profoundly powerful excursion into the spirit world just plain gives you more to work with. The time matters. It also imparts tremendous psychedelic stamina and helps you to develop navigational skills. I believe that the long duration of a powerful psychedelic journey offers great advantages. On the other hand if you want a brief yet very powerful experience, toad will give it to you.  

I do not want this article construed as an endorsement of toad medicine, or as an exhortation to smoke toad. This is simply a fair account of what I have seen for myself in one small corner of the bufo toad scene. I’m casting a vote for the toads – less use of them. Go smoke synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, even though it isn’t the same thing. Yet this recommendation is swimming against a tsunami of toad medicine cheerleaders. The din and cry that this is the it psychedelic, the real cosmic delivery system, the burnished and shining one, is in many ways a repeat of what we have experienced for more than seventy years or so. 

This isn’t our first rodeo down a similar path of exhilarating claims. When LSD burst upon the popular scene, it too was heralded as an agent of cosmic enlightenment. It would deliver humanity to a new era of peace. Many millions of high doses of acid flooded the market. This went on for years, and LSD’s popularity continues to this day. Ditto for magic mushrooms, certainly the most popular of all the psychedelics, collected and grown by thousands of people all over the globe, and consumed by millions. The same is so for ayahuasca, which has been experienced by hundreds of thousands of people. These are all agents of revelation and real healing when employed with care and in the right circumstances. And when they become popular, they are heralded as the one. Everybody wants the one, even though there is no such thing. It is a high fantasy.

I like to say that when it comes to field research, plans change as soon as you hit the ground. In my medicine hunting around the globe this has been almost unfailingly so. You can make plans, carry certain expectations, and even show up with a nifty itinerary – and then reality comes loping out of the woods looking like Green Man, and it goes differently than the way you had imagined. At the onset of this project I imagined that I would take a much dimmer view of toad collection, that I would be a harsher critic. I was skeptical of any claims of sustainable harvesting. But I wound up with the right people and that resulted in an experience I did not expect. Ivette, Martine and Servando demonstrated real care for the toads, the medicine, the value of its healing powers. I must admit that if people are going to smoke bufo toad, then the collection methods I witnessed are in fact sustainable and humane. I have also spoken with some other collectors who also go out into the desert during the rainy season, collect secretion from a very few toads, release them and leave it at that. Still, does any wild creature want to be captured and manhandled?

If you insist on smoking toad, then be sure that it was obtained sustainably and with real care. That may prove very difficult or impossible. How can you be sure it doesn’t come from the Sinaloa cartel? If you are contributing to harm, then there is no true healing. Choose another medicine. In some circumstances, you may know where your toad medicine comes from, but in others you don’t. I wish that all the nasty and vile collectors who are harming toads will blow away in a great storm of angry opposition. May they be hounded out of business and sent back to their woods. With the great swell of toad popularity, that’s not a likely scenario. For those dedicated collectors and ceremonial leaders who treat the toads well and honor the medicine with dignity and respect, may they prosper and enjoy happy life, and carry on as agents of goodness. Remember Hippocrates, who sagely advised: first of all, do no harm.

Featured photo of Gabriel Epis scraping bufo secretion by Chris Kilham.

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