Losing your friends, and maybe your mind, in the Pinelands

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People dance around a campfire. (Vadim Rimakov/ AP Photo)

People dance around a campfire. (Vadim Rimakov/ AP Photo)

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey is home to just about as many myths as it is trees. From ghost towns to interdimensional portals, if it’s a thing that scares people on the internet, chances are that thing is rumored to be lurking somewhere among the conifers.

That’s why when a couple of my friends asked me if I wanted to take LSD with them during our annual camping trip a few summers ago, I declined. We were deep inside Jersey Devil country, and although my sober brain didn’t much believe in that kind of stuff, who knows what might emerge from my subconscious while on acid in the woods. And I didn’t want to find out.

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey is home to just about as many myths as it is trees. (Grant Hill/ for WHYY)

I’d heard that psychedelics could change a person’s outlook on life forever; that conditions had to be just right for a good trip, and something about the possibility of a hircine winged demon eyeing me through the brush didn’t seem like a promising vibe.

My friend, let’s call him Kevin, wasn’t as worried. Kevin didn’t want to use his real name for this story because, well, it’s about LSD.

“I did it on a previous camping trip with a different group of people and had a really good time,” he said.

Up to that point, Kevin had had nothing but positive experiences with psychedelics.

“I would sit down, listen to [a] song just deep in my head with my eyes closed, and it just all kind of made a lot more sense to me,” he said.

But this time, Kevin and another friend upped their dose.

“We’re sitting there by the fire for a little bit, and then it finally starts kicking in. I’m kind of looking around — the leaves are kind of starting to blur around a little bit and the colors are starting to pop,” said Kevin. “Then all of a sudden, we’re really not feeling the rest of the group vibe, so we decided we’re just going to go this way.”

Before the rest of us knew it, the two were gone — out wandering around the Pinelands alone and tripping, with neither direction nor drinking water.

If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it’s because it could have been.

“What we’re seeing is that so much of what is traditionally considered a bad trip is so often around set and setting,” said Ryan Beauregard.

Beauregard has a degree in psychology and now manages the Zendo Project, a group of professionals and volunteers that set up facilities at concerts and festivals to help those having bad experiences on psychedelics.

Though in the past bad trips were frequently attributed to “bad” acid, Beauregard said, his team finds that nascent, low-level anxiety and trauma are typically to blame for the negative experiences with psychedelics that the Zendo Project helps manage.

“Have you cleaned your room and have you done your homework before you go down the rabbit hole? Because these are some big and powerful substances that are going to bring up a lot,” Beauregard said. “If you haven’t taken the time to just simply declutter your space, it can take up a lot of headspace in these psychedelic realms.”

How cluttered were my two friends’ psychedelic realms out there alone? Had they done their homework? Would that be enough keep the devils inside their heads at bay?

Just as all of us back at the campsite were going to go look for them to find out, they returned.

At the edge of our seats we inquired: How was it? What did you guys do out there?

Kevin told us about their journey.

“We both just sat underneath a tree just kind of looking up, kind of moving around the tree side, kind of making this kaleidoscope thing happen. And that was cool. So we called that Kaleidoscope tree.” he said.

Grant Hill and his friends take an annual camping trip to the Pine Barrens, on this one occasion, his friends decided to drop acid. (Grant Hill/ for WHYY)

“And then there were a couple of smaller trees also on that same path that were dead on the grounds. We called them our fallen brothers.”

Then finally, the big one.

“We get to the end of the path and we see, boom, out in the middle of the woods up on the right, just this one very tall tree a good 20 feet away from all the other trees. We just look at it for a couple of minutes and then we finally look at each other. And we’re like, this is the God Tree.”

They showed us how they transferred energy from the God Tree to a smaller one named “Baby Energy Tree.” They made us kneel before it and pray. We didn’t know exactly what we were praying to or for, but whatever it was, it was good.

From an outsider’s perspective, this spiritual transcendence looked remarkably like it was made of the type of stuff that could change someone forever: a one-way ticket to Zen, courtesy of two tabs of LSD and a forest filled with otherworldly projections.

But for Kevin, that sort of lasting impact wouldn’t come until he dropped acid again a few months later, on a different camping trip with another group of friends.

“I wanted to listen to music. So I go into my car, I grabbed my headphones, then I just laid back down on the grass. And then the next three hours were just crazy visual,” he said. “Some of them were pretty terrifying.”

Every time the bass dropped, Kevin felt the earth violently rotate 90 degrees.

“I was just kind of getting lost. And then all of a sudden they hear an airplane or helicopter or something kind of go overhead. And then for whatever reason, I just envisioned, like the military coming. I just imagined missiles striking down on this one point in the ground,” he said.

Then Kevin said he saw one of his friends set a section of grass on fire.

“I could just feel the heat. I just felt like everyone was burning. I would just see plastic cups kind of just melting and then like people on fire,” he said, “and then I thought, ‘Oh no, what have we gotten ourselves into?’”

Kevin had gotten himself into a bad trip. It took him hours to return to a normal state, but once he did, he was different — in a good way.

“I just feel like it kind of put the world in a different perspective,” he said.

Beauregard, from the Zendo Project, said that while complex reactions to psychedelics and bad trips like Kevin’s aren’t uncommon, they’re not for everyone and not always without consequence.

In 2008, Beauregard traveled to Peru to take part in a psychedelic ritual. There, he suffered what he described as a psychotic break that lasted for three weeks.

“I had, you know, created an internal reality, that at some point, it was like I dove through a wormhole. Man, it just felt really scary,” Beauregard said. “I think there’s so much about this idea that psychedelics are the magic pill, but the reality is, I think they make more work for us. Like once you’ve pulled those veils away, you can’t unsee those things.”

Kevin is still doing that work.

“I feel like I learned to appreciate life and just not really worried about things. I did kind of burn alive for a couple of minutes, so I feel like I’ve already experienced some bad things, so nothing probably would come close to that,” he said.

He even returned to the God Tree.

“I’ve gone back there a couple other times, I’ve also done other acid or other things and then just kind of went on the same path. But it really wasn’t the same thing.” he said.

And that’s OK with him. That dead tree may live in our imaginations forever, alongside the other legends out there in the Pinelands, but at the very least Kevin avoided becoming one himself that day.

As for what this all means for the next camping trip, I don’t know.

If one of my friends decides to explore their inner wilderness – God Trees, Devils and all – in the actual wilderness, that’s their choice.

All I can do is make sure they don’t stray too far from camp.

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