In the summer of 1963, Carolyn Adams was just 17 and recently kicked out of high school when she caught a ride with her brother as he headed to Stanford University from their family home in Poughkeepsie, New York. She arrived in Palo Alto, California where her destiny became intricately entwined with multiple threads of nascent psychedelic awareness. She had no idea she was heading to ground zero of an emerging culture that would have so much impact years later.
In the Stanford labs scientists were studying mind-altering substances at the behest of the U.S. government. This secret CIA-sponsored research project, known as MKUltra, was driven by the idea that the military could weaponize LSD and other substances to impose conformity and develop techniques for mind control. The research revealed instead that people under the influence of LSD were actually inspired to question authority and very difficult to control and predict. These studies let the genie out of the bottle and ultimately introduced LSD to a wider audience.
Among the paid test subjects at an MKUltra-sponsored research project at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby Menlo Park was Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and a creative writing student at Stanford. Kesey and his compatriots were curious about the transformative potential of psychedelics, and acquired some still-legal LSD for their “Acid Tests” – large experimental gatherings that wove together psychedelic music, light shows, art, and theater created and hosted by Kesey and his crew, the Merry Pranksters.
The Pranksters teamed up with a local Palo Alto band of young ragtag musicians whose freeform musical explorations complemented the Acid Test energy. Briefly called The Warlocks, they renamed themselves The Grateful Dead in 1965 and embarked on a musical journey which remains synonymous with psychedelic culture.
Adams got her first job in a Stanford organic chemistry lab which was studying the psychedelic plant ibogaine that researchers were just then beginning to examine. She is still surprised that the scientists would have entrusted a 17-year-old to run the gas chromatograph machine to analyze the ibogaine sample. They hired her because “I’m from a scientific family” says Adams looking back. “Right!? What were they thinking?”.
She met Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters right after their return from their cross-continent bus trip to the 1964 World’s Fair which was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Koolaid Acid Test.” The Merry Pranksters nicknamed her Mountain Girl, and she had a daughter with Kesey in 1966.
Adams later moved with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia into the band headquarters in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco and had two daughters with him. In 1977, she published “Primo Plant,” a seminal book on outdoor marijuana cultivation. Adams also co-founded the Women’s Visionary Council in 2007, the first women’s nonprofit psychedelic organization. Today she helms Mountain Girl’s Botanica, a line of CBD products derived from Oregon grown hemp.
Few people have had such a front-row seat to so many elements of psychedelic culture. Today, Carolyn Adams Garcia, AKA Mountain Girl lives in Oregon, where psilocybin therapy was recently legalized by ballot measure. We asked her about the present psychedelic renaissance. Her warm, intelligent, curious and openhearted nature came through as she shared her thoughts by phone on a cold Oregon evening. Here are some highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity.
How do you think people benefit from psychedelics?
Some people benefit from psychedelics more than others. I think that if you are a person who does a lot of thinking and loves to explore various new ideas, psychedelics are easier than for folks who have had a heavy religious upbringing and are going to have a little bit more trouble freeing their mind. However, that’s always a good search to be on, to free your mind.
I was brought up in a solid Unitarian free thinking family. It made it fairly easy for me to grasp psychedelics as a useful partner. But it really hasn’t made me any different from anybody else. I think there’s a great deal of normalcy lodged in psychedelics, where you realize that your personal foundation in life is something that you have to maintain and manage and that it’s actually a relief to get back to it after you’ve been flying high for a while.
So it makes you honor your home and your family in new ways, and think all of that kind of work of self-relativity – relationships between yourself, and both your milieu and the general world. That work is fundamental. And we all need to attend to it at some time or another to solidify who we are as a person.
I feel like everybody differs on psychedelics. It all depends on the type of person you are. If you’re a solid citizen, not easily flapped, you’re going to love psychedelics. If you’re a very nervous, lightly-held-down person who thinks about their dreams too much, it might be too much for you.
So we [the Merry Pranksters] seemed to be a pretty solid collective of enjoyers of all these things. And we kind of clubbed together, but all around us were people who were fragile and, you know, there was always somebody that you kind of had to look out for. And so as responsible elevated personalities, we had helped ourselves to all this lovely elevation. We sort of tried to help our buddies who really never got it. Some people just never get it and it’s kind of sad that they miss out on a lot of the fun.
And so, it’s really a matter of your personality traits and your ability to deal with peculiarity in the middle of mayhem. Some of us enjoy that. I think the psychedelic renaissance is great, but we’ve got a whole new set of young people coming up here with little fresh brains. And I just want them all to be cautious. More is not better. It really isn’t. That’s my biggest message.
Certainly no one’s going to stop people from experimenting, but the egotistical lunge toward mega doses is not a good idea and you will not have fun. It just doesn’t work that way. The quieter you can keep your mind and the calmer you can keep your body, the more fun you’re going to have.
People need to be aware of the trickster also, in psychedelics. People with strong minds do well.
Do you feel like psychedelics have benefitted you?
I would say the benefit has been a deeper understanding and compassion for others. I think my vision has improved as far as my way of viewing how people react and are. And it also gives me tremendous appreciation for creativity.
And it was also the fun of discovery. There’s nothing like discovery to make you feel good. I felt we were all discovering each other and that we could be safe and joyous, you know, in this psychic development of having a little bit of psychedelics. And nobody was really maxi dosing in those days. First of all, there was never enough to go all the way around.
Any cautionary advice?
I do want to always err on the side of caution and treat it for what it is. It’s something that can – that’ll change your mind. I’m very certain that my early adoption of LSD set me free in a way that alarmed people for a while, and took me a while to settle back into acceptable behavior. And so, you know, the psychedelics can release you from the norms in a pretty appalling way….
Your behavioral envelope needs to be maintained. Otherwise you get in a lot of trouble, you could wind up in the back of a police car and you’re not gonna like it. It’s wise to be sensitive and perceptive and just not hang yourself out there too far. We really do have to respect our neighbors and our system of government and our parents and all of these things. But these are behavioral issues, which I explored and caused trouble. It caused trouble for me and others, and my mom and dad never quite got over it, although they were very smart and forgiving people. They always looked at me kind of warily after, you know, what’s she going to do next.
So you could hurt yourself socially with overly changed behavior. Who we are as persons, as people in a social group – we want to maintain that, you don’t want to blow that off. It’s too important. So I also think that psychedelics are tremendously helpful in helping you become more adult and more sensitive as a person. Certainly I’d say sensitivity is one of its biggest attributes.
How have you engaged in psychedelic culture over the years?
I’ve been part of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conferences and spoken at them and so on, which is a huge privilege. There’s been panel discussions, there’s been Q and A.
I actually had to give the opening speech at this big psychedelic conference in Basel like 10 years ago (2008 World Psychedelic Forum presented by Gaia Media Foundation) where I actually met Albert Hoffman a few days before he passed away, which was a colossal and amazing thing. That’s one of the great honors of my life. I’m very happy I got to meet him. What a lovely gentleman. There he is at hundred plus or something when I saw him. And he’s chatting away in Italian, German, and Swiss dialect, and English. And he’s translating for everybody in the room. Okay, can we all be this smart please?
Here in Oregon is a different story from everywhere else. And the Center for Ethnobotanical Services or edelic.org is this nonprofit that I’ve been partnering with for a couple of years here in Eugene. They are specialized in psychedelics, they have a daily newsletter, and they are doing a lot of outreach as well, with tremendous online resources. And I support it as much as I can.
Getting good information out to the people is so important. Because like what we’ve just seen with the attack on poor Congress and all. There’s a lot of disinformation out there and it must be called out, especially when it affects something like our whole scene, because bad information there can really hurt people. I feel like there’s a concerted effort to screw things up coming from people that we don’t know. We have to be careful where we get our information from and who to believe.
Tell me about creating the Women’s Visionary Council.
Well, the Women’s Visionary Council was an idea that I had with two other ladies, Mariavittoria Mangini and Annie Oak. So it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. We had been going to Burning Man and realizing that there was a kind of organizing that really needed to happen around some women’s issues that weren’t being addressed in the greater psychedeliverse that really were pertinent and important, you know. And they had to do with personal safety and our differences in biology, biological expectations of each other. Just to try to bring the conversation around to something a bit more earthy, and on the ground.
What do you think about using psychedelics therapeutically in clinical settings?
I think this is terrific and this is what has needed to happen now for a long time. I met these early therapists, Jim Fadiman and John Lilly,and actually realized what they were up to, that Lilly was really wanting this to be the perfect drug to use for psychotherapy. That’s kind of what he was looking for, but meanwhile, he got sidetracked onto ketamine, which was not really good for him. And so even these great minds have a little difficulty navigating some of the riptides here.
But I feel good that psilocybin especially has come around. It’s such a friendly drug. It’s so nice. And it really does help you find the lovelier parts of yourself and then the good parts of life. So I think that that’s going to be a real winner for everybody.
I think that some of these new therapies that are showing up, it means a great deal. I think it’s going to be especially helpful in therapeutic situations where folks really need help. We’re pretty excited about the ability to have psychedelic therapy here in Oregon, which is obviously coming.
You know, we had a lot of war vets who had been so hurt by their experiences in the armed services overseas. And they used a lot of psychedelics to sort of bring themselves back to something that would be acceptable for American culture, because they felt so altered by their experiences. They were just lost. And I think that folks who feel lost can really do well with some psychedelic therapy because it warms you back up and stimulates the spirit in a good way, handled properly.
I have a lot of excitement about the future here. The rollout is coming. We don’t exactly know how it’s going to shape up, but I know a lot of therapists are pretty keen on giving this a try. So I think we’re going to see a difference, a different psychological adventure coming here pretty soon.