Keeping the hippie dream alive
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Keeping the hippie dream alive
Festivalgoers at Mycologia, a weekend event staged by DoubleBlind in Cuyama Valley, Calif., June 25, 2022. Sound baths, cannabis prayers and sunset howls: DoubleBlind, a California media company, tries to revive the psychedelic spirit for a new generation. Michael Tyrone Delaney/The New York Times

by Sam Kestenbaum

NEW YORK, NY.- The guide stood before a small group in a dimly lit tepee.

“Do you want to be entertained, or to go deep?” he asked.

The answer came in giddy unison: “Go deep!”

“Good,” he said. “That was a trick question.”

The people got cozy on the pillow-strewn floor as the guide went to his keyboard. Gentle synthesizer music filled the tent. The ceremonial sound bath had begun.

Nearby, men and women in flowing white garb and fedoras sat around a fire, munching on mind-altering fungi. Others convened for a cannabis-puffing prayer session, during which helpers passed out joints and rang singing bowls.

These ethereal scenes took place at a gathering last month in the Cuyama Valley in California, where some 200 people convened for a weekend of tripping and glamping hosted by DoubleBlind, a new media outlet for the psychedelic set.

In addition to its biannual print magazine, which its founders say has a circulation of roughly 5,000, DoubleBlind is tapping into this market of therapeutic and spiritual seekerdom with a website and instructional videos bearing titles like “Ego Death: What Is It?” and “Smoking Weed While Tripping.”

There are also online courses that range in price from roughly $75 to $170, on topics including “How to Use Psychedelics,” “How to Microdose” and “How to Grow Mushrooms.” Class materials promise to “teach you everything you need to know to get the most out of your journey with these powerful medicines.”

The weekend event, called Mycologia, was DoubleBlind’s first curated gala of this sort. The price was $450, which included meals and swag, and attendees could bring their own tents or pay more for deluxe lodging. The company promoted the sleep-away gathering with ads touting the chance to “connect with fellow psychonauts at our first psychedelic festival!”

DoubleBlind was started in 2019 by two journalists, Shelby Hartman, 32, and Madison Margolin, 31, who overlapped while getting their master’s degrees in journalism from Columbia University.

Hartman, DoubleBlind’s CEO, has written for Vice and LA Weekly and worked as an editor at the cannabis website Herb. Margolin, the editorial director, has published in outlets such as Playboy, Tablet and The Village Voice. Both said they were shaped by hallucinogenic episodes before their journalism careers took off.

“As a kid, I had such a hard time focusing,” Hartman said. “Ayahuasca actually reached into my brain and showed me.

“I heard the ayahuasca say to me, ‘This is what it’s like to focus,’” she added.

Margolin grew up in Los Angeles amid the first generation of hippies: Her father, criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin, represented LSD proponent Timothy Leary and was close with Ram Dass, the New Age guru formerly known as Richard Alpert. Hartman had a more conventional upbringing, in Orange County, California.

The idea to start the publication came to Hartman in 2018 after a period of bouncing among cities and backpacking overseas. She pitched the notion to her friend Margolin, who was receptive. The enterprise was financed primarily by Hartman’s family (not trippers, but pleased to underwrite), with smaller donations from venture capitalists.

From the start, Hartman and Margolin had in mind the kind of upscale magazine that might sit comfortably on a Silver Lake or Park Slope coffee table alongside Kinfolk and Dwell.

“We wanted these meaty stories with a really high-end aesthetic,” Margolin said.

A friend of Hartman’s, designer David Good, gave the publication a chic, minimalistic look, with warm pastel tones and retro serif typefaces.

“We said, ‘No fractals allowed,’” Hartman said.

At the Los Angeles launch party in 2019, Hartman quieted the cheers with a mantra — “Ommmmm” — and said, “DoubleBlind is one very small sliver of a massive movement that’s spreading around the globe right now to wake up.”

Its feature articles have some gravitas. In addition to a thoughtful remembrance of Ram Dass soon after his death, DoubleBlind has covered topics like sexual assault at music festivals and what drugs might be beneficially administered to those with brain damage.

Magazines also carry interactive portions, including guided meditations and soothing playlists for a trip, available via QR code. In the fourth issue, readers sent in their own psychedelic testimonies. “Growing up an atheist, I now have an unshakable belief god is real,” one read, “and it’s everything.”

The DoubleBlind merch section has some kitschy items, like vials of sacral balancing oil (sold out), but the brand ethos, by and large, is more do-good than Day-Glo. Service-style articles have the tone of an experienced, good-natured pal lending a hand: “Being outside on acid is generally a delight”; “Do you think it’s time for mom to trip?”; “Don’t talk to trippers like they’re children … that can really send people into a negative place”; and, more practically, “Don’t forget the sunscreen!” Other stories have elucidated terms like “microaggression” and “white fragility” and instructed readers how to “implement anti-racist practice as a form of psychedelic harm reduction.”

DoubleBlind belongs to a California media tradition that goes back at least to the 1960s, when the artsy underground paper The Oracle of the City of San Francisco carried contributions by Leary; ads for early Grateful Dead shows; and helped organize the city’s Human Be-In, in 1967, the event that sparked the Summer of Love.

In the 1980s and ’90s, a similar spirit animated Mondo 2000 (tagline: “will fry your circuits”), which published cyberpunk tales and highlighted the work of dolphin-whisperer John C. Lilly and Terence McKenna, the author known for his eclectic writing about magic mushrooms and prehistoric human evolution. In the 2010s, books like Michael Pollan’s “How To Change Your Mind” put forth a scientific and sympathetic take on mind-altering substances for the farmers-market crowd.

The use of psychedelic drugs is now teetering on the edge of respectability, with about one-third of American voters professing a belief in their curative effects. Psychedelic-focused pharmaceutical companies have grown in recent years, coinciding with successful decriminalization efforts in cities such as Oakland, California; Denver; and Seattle. As the movement goes on, DoubleBlind is making a bid for the psychonaut mantle.

“I could see that they really got it,” said Pollan, who appeared in a DoubleBlind webinar last year. “They’re trying to invent and reinvent the culture of psychedelics for a different generation.”

During a recent staff meeting on the patio behind Hartman’s Echo Park apartment, the DoubleBlind team discussed the pleasures and pitfalls of psychedelic entrepreneurship.

“We are part of a system that is inherently problematic,” Hartman said.

Heads nodded in agreement.

She added, “But we’ve got to do our best.”

Someone lit a joint. After it had been passed around and smoked to a stub, the group stepped inside. Maxwell Josephson, a 33-year-old web designer, led a meditation session, with singing bowl accompaniment. “Purse your lips as if you are sipping through a straw your favorite beverage,” he said. “Imagine the breath nourishing your heart. Taste some fruity flavors. Maybe a nice rosé.”

At last month’s festival, attendees carried duffel bags into luxury tents or pitched their own on a dusty hillside. DoubleBlind did not provide hallucinogens, but festivalgoers brought their own and shared provisions. Several bands played while the visitors lounged by a pool in various states of undress, sipping kombucha.

Hartman and Margolin strolled the grounds. A participant in bangles approached and said, “What is happening here is just so special.”

“Thank you,” Hartman said, with a little bow.

Stacks of DoubleBlind’s seventh print issue lay here and there. The guests included a real-estate-agent-turned-death-doula and a shamanic healer who dispensed bags of shrooms with a business card. In addition to a medic, two psychedelic coaches were on standby in case someone’s trip went south.

Mark Abraham, a barista from Redlands, California, swapped reminiscences over cups of wine with Kate Joosten, a nurse’s assistant who had come to Mycologia from Las Vegas. Abraham said he believed that Jesus was a plant shaman whose original wisdom had been lamentably lost to time. At one point, Joosten said, “Psychedelics have more uses than the government wants you to think.”

Gloria Park, a lawyer who was wearing flowers in her hair, stood near the dining corner, where charcuterie boards had been arranged among other offerings. “This is that kind of life-blowing-up experience that will ripple out into the world,” she said.

One guest sat among friends at a picnic table with her eyes scrunched, sniffing a bundle of sage. Georgia Love, a DoubleBlind staff photographer, snapped pictures of people against the high desert backdrop, to be used for future promotions. “We’re getting such great moments of community,” Love said as she peered through a viewfinder.

As the afternoon wore on, pairs and trios split off to wander the hills.

One woman offered a companion a psychedelic from her bag: “Do you want a little DMT?”

“Oh, yes.”

“It’s life-changing.”

At sunset, campers stood on a hillside with views of the darkening valley. Someone improvised a squealing tune on a saxophone as three women unfurled long silken scarves and did a languorous dance. A voice, speaking to no one in particular, sounded out, “Thank youuuuuuuu!”

The moment the sun dipped below the ridge, the assembly let out a feral chorus of yips and howls.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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