The Ayahuasca King’s Last Tour

Author and journalist Peter Gorman was at home with the jungle, its people, and its mind-altering drugs.

by

The ayahuasca king is dead.

Peter Gorman didn’t die in the Amazon rainforests he loved and that made him famous among a certain group of folks worldwide, someone worthy of magazine articles and film documentaries.

Instead, he died at a hospital just south of Fort Worth in late April. It was all too tame a leave-taking for this audacious raconteur and writer, who barreled through life like a bulletproof character from fiction, clad in baggy shirts and short pants.

Just back from his final jungle trip, Gorman was 71, his body worn out by decades spent seeking mysteries in the wilds.

Filmmaker James Michael McCoy plans to update More Joy Less Pain, a documentary film about Gorman that he directed and released originally in 2019. His old friend was most comfortable while traipsing through thickets or wafting down a river.

“Even though the trips were hard on him toward the end, he was just so happy to be there,” McCoy said.

A New York native, Gorman made Texas his home base about 20 years ago, and the Lone Star State has rarely produced a more outrageous character on its own. The “ayahuasca king,” as the Guardian dubbed him in 2017, was among the first Westerners to use and document the hallucinogenic potion now touted by celebrities such as Will Smith. But his relationship with the Amazon went far beyond ayahuasca. He lived for a time with the Matsés people and created an English-Matsés dictionary. His future wife helped him fight off river pirates there. He studied the jungle’s plants and animals and loved its people. His last trip was about research on jungle plants and the same Matsés group he had observed decades earlier.

In 1986, two years after his first trip to the area, Gorman traveled to Peru to detail ayahuasca’s mind-altering effects for High Times, the first magazine in the United States to feature an in-depth look at the brew of boiled jungle plants. He wrote similar articles for Omni in the United States and magazines in several other countries. Eventually, he would author two books about his trips to Peru and another on India.

Sapo was another early discovery. He was the first to write at length about the concoction culled from South American frog secretions. When ingested, sapo makes people vomit, shit, and collapse from exhaustion for a brief period before they rebound suddenly with a rush of adrenaline and enhanced senses.

Indigenous people use sapo to hunt better. Gorman used it to do life better. He said sapo allowed him to see, hear, smell, and think more vividly. The elimination of toxins made him feel light and free. Ayahuasca, he said, allowed him to travel through time and space at supersonic speeds.

Gorman’s childhood in no way presaged his later life. Born in 1951, he was sick with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis by age 5. The pain kept him hospitalized for weeks, and cortisone shots caused him to blow up to 180 pounds. Classmates ran backward while racing him at recess. Even then, said friend and former High Times coworker Malcolm MacKinnon, “He always dreamed of having an adventurous life.”

His health improved by age 10, and Gorman embraced the world. He delivered newspapers to build strength and endurance. During summers in high school, he hitchhiked around the country and sold stories about his trips to magazines and newspapers.

The trips were tougher and longer after he became an adult. He drove taxis and managed restaurants in New York City for many years, but would take off for long periods to visit faraway places.

In 1980, on his first international trip, to collect mushrooms in Mexico, he fell in love with the jungle. A few years later, on an early trip to Peru, he hired a woman named Chepa as a guide and deckhand. At one point she picked up a machete to help dissuade a pack of pirates threatening Gorman’s boat.

Watching Chepa, ready to fight and die with him, the wanderer was hooked. The couple married, and Chepa and her two sons moved to New York. Gorman and Chepa soon had a daughter of their own, Madeleina.

Marriage didn’t change Gorman’s roaming ways, and he and Chepa split up before long. She took all three kids to Texas, where she had family. Gorman followed to remain close to his kids. He bought a modest home in Joshua, south of Fort Worth, and filled it with mementos of his life.

In 2002, the alternative paper Fort Worth Weekly hired him as a freelancer and in 2006 took him on as a staff writer. Ayahuasca and the jungle remained favorite topics in his own writings, but for the Weekly, Gorman wrote in-depth stories on topics like natural gas drilling, border wars, drug trafficking, and the Keystone pipeline controversy, winning several national awards.

His articles appeared in publications from the New York Times to the Earth First! Journal. The Houston Press Club twice selected Gorman as Texas Print Journalist of the Year for his extensive coverage of fracking in the Barnett Shale. He wrote three books, including Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming; Sapo in My Soul: The Matsés Frog Medicine; and Magic Mushrooms in India: And Other Fantastic Tales.

When he wasn’t in the jungle, Gorman hunkered down at the house in Joshua, cooking meals that became famous among his friends, raising kids and chickens, and blogging about all of it.

As interest in ayahuasca and sapo grew across cultures, the house became a mecca for those who wanted to learn about those drugs and other jungle flora and fauna. People would fly into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport from around the world to take part in sapo ceremonies in Gorman’s leafy, isolated backyard with a creek running through it. The visitors let Gorman guide them into psychic unknowns for days at a time.

He preferred to hold ayahuasca ceremonies in the jungle, however, since the brew contains DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is classified as a Schedule I illegal drug in the United States. He led groups of people into the Amazon several times a year to allow them to experience ayahuasca on its home turf.

“I love introducing people to ayahuasca in the same circumstance in which I was introduced to it,” he said. “You go out to the middle of the deep jungle.”

Those trips were dangerous, and Gorman began to suffer from a long list of ailments. Bites from monkeys, snakes, and assorted critters such as botflies meant that he required antibiotics frequently. He came close to losing a leg to flesh-eating bacteria. The last couple of years were especially hard. Turning 71 is tough on lots of people, but “you’re talking about a man who had dengue fever, malaria more than once, flesh-eating bacteria in his body that was constantly flaring up,” said Matthew Haddock, who helped organize Gorman’s final trip to Peru.

In January, Gorman flew to Iquitos, Peru, for a 40-day boat trip down the Amazon, Javary, and Galvez rivers. It wasn’t an ayahuasca tour. His final trip focused on discovery and documentation. He wanted to collect plants and to continue recording the region’s changing culture.

Relatives, including Gorman’s older brother, Michael Gorman, tried to dissuade him.

“He was a stubborn guy,” Michael Gorman said from his home in New York City. “He knew his health was failing. He wanted one more chance to see where his adventures had taken him.”

Haddock, a Fort Worth resident, said the boat and crew were much larger than usual—about 20 people, mostly Peruvian, on a three-decker vessel.

They noted various cultural changes. Over the decades, missionaries had filtered into the area. Some villages had been converted. Others had become more isolated. Cocaine trafficking had increased.

“Peter wrote every day,” Haddock said. Gorman filled hundreds of pages with notes. He planned to publish a compilation of what he had learned in four decades about the evolution of the area and its people.

The crew, including a botanist, collected more than 200 plant specimens and preserved them in alcohol and silica. The plants are in Iquitos currently, being prepared for shipping to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, Haddock said. “It’s the kind of expedition people just don’t do anymore. It takes a lot to put something like that together with people who know what they’re doing and getting money behind it.”

The trip was planned for 2020, but COVID-19 delayed it. Gorman’s health grew worse after he battled COVID and pneumonia in 2021. He fought back with exercise. Haddock said Gorman knew this was probably his last shot.

Finally, in February, they launched. Swollen legs—scarred by the bouts with flesh-eating bacteria—kept Gorman confined to the boat, but he reveled in his surroundings.

“Peter comes alive in the jungle,” Haddock said. “If you fall in love with it, it’s in your soul.” His friend lived in Joshua, “but it’s like having a plant that’s in the wrong soil, and then you move it and put it in the right soil for a little while, and it just blooms.”

Gorman’s perch was on the boat’s top deck, like a windowed crow’s nest. Covering about a third of the 80-foot craft, it provided an elevated, near 360-degree view of the Amazon.

“It’s not where you drove the boat—that was at the front end—but this kind of operated as a command center,” Haddock said. Gorman had a bed, a big chair and table, and room to entertain lots of visitors.

Word of the trip spread, and indigenous people walked from miles around to visit the ailing explorer, including some who had met Gorman almost 40 years earlier.

“We would go collect plants with the botanist, but generally, the indigenous people would come to Peter,” Haddock said. “We had 25 people up there sometimes, women, children, and men.”

The visits were filled with mutual respect and appreciation, laughter and emotion, Haddock said.

Gorman survived the trip somehow and was back in Joshua by March 25. But his health problems and pain increased, and he entered intensive care at Texas Health Huguley Hospital a few days later.

“An infection was the cause of the problems, but he had a number of physical problems,” Michael Gorman said. “His heart, liver, kidneys—they were all going at once. He was too weak to bounce back.”

The writer lapsed into a coma and died on April 24. His remains were cremated.

McCoy, the film documentarian, accompanied Gorman on Amazon trips in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Like others who traveled with Gorman, the filmmaker was seeking physical, spiritual, and mental relief for himself. A hardcore booze habit had troubled McCoy for 17 years, and he was “just going nowhere fast” when he discovered psilocybin mushrooms. That led him to research plant-based medicines, which led him to Ayahuasca in My Blood.

At the end of that book, he noticed Gorman’s address listed in Joshua, which was about an hour from McCoy’s home. He contacted the author who, in typical fashion, invited him for a visit.

“I went down and met him and almost instantly I was like, ‘I’ve got to make a documentary on this guy now,’” McCoy said. “This guy had more stories than anyone I’d ever met in my life.”

The specter of death was ever-present around Gorman.

“He almost died every year that I knew him, and I met him in 2015,” McCoy said. “Every year, we’d come back from Peru, and he would go to a hospital for a long period of time.”

Gorman’s last work to see print was a rambling story pitch about his early days driving cabs in New York City. He’d sent it to the editor of the Weekly before that final trip. Three days after the writer’s death, the Weekly published it under the headline “Peter Gorman’s Last Ride.”

The proposal painted a fascinating picture of a Big Apple cabbie’s life, including the wild people he’d met in those feral urban jungles. Then it grew wistful.

He wanted the piece to show everyone that he was still alive, not quitting yet, Gorman wrote. He told readers, “Revel in who you have been and what you have done. … Even if it isn’t perfect, it is still a past to grab on to, to keep from sinking.”