If I were to tell you just two or three years ago that there would be a reality show about an ayahuasca shaman in Kentucky with a church in a trailer park, you’d probably laugh me out of the room. But lo and behold, that day has come, and it’s far stranger than we thought it would be. It’s also as beautiful as we had hoped.
Steve Hupp is the owner and facilitator of Aya Quest, a Native American Church branch in Kentucky that is featured the new Vice series Kentucky Ayahuasca (watch the premiere episode here). In this first interview, Steve talks about his colorful background and what led him from a life of crime to a life serving Mother Ayahuasca.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Steve. I watched the first episode of Kentucky Ayahuasca and it was great! I was wondering if you could start by sharing some of your personal background. I know you used to be on the wrong side of the law…
I was a career criminal. In my teenage years I got steered towards the military, and the day I turned 17 I was in the army. Next thing I know, I’m in Europe and got in with a kind of drug cartel— back then you didn’t even have the word cartel; we were just a group of guys who started running hash from the east side of Germany, which was the Soviet side, to the west side of Germany and selling it to the GI’s. I was just a teenager— the others were a little bit older than me, and one was quite a bit older. Long story short, I finally got busted on a drug test and got chaptered out of the army under honorable conditions. I came back stateside, and away I went.
I always had jobs and businesses, but behind the scenes I was always doing dirt. That’s how I lived my life. On front street I coached Little League ball, I was Mr. Dad, I was at PTA meetings— but behind the scenes, yeah, I was always looking for a one-man show. I was never really into gangs or things like that other than my time in the military, and I was pretty much a lone wolf if you will. That’s what got me going.
Then I got into bank robbery. What got me into that was that my parents’ prescription bills were getting really high. My mom and dad were old, I was a semi driver, and I had to come off the road to help them. All this led into starting to rob banks, but then I started to like it— and I went on robbing banks until I got caught. Glendale, Kentucky was my last successful robbery, and Meade County was the one I was caught for. That all culminated in me getting locked up in prison with a man named Guadalupe.
Guadalupe and I weren’t buddies at first, but I started watching him. I thought he had some pills, some drugs, some kind of stash because, you know, he had a different perspective on prison. He had a different way of looking at things, and at the time I thought he had an easy way out. I was going to rob him and get his stash, because drugs are worth a lot of money in prison.
Eventually I figure out he doesn’t have any drugs, so I started interacting with him more. We get to talking, and he has a totally different viewpoint on life. It’s not like I was his student at this point; we were just associates if you will, brothers in bondage if you want to call it anything. But the more I talked to him, the more I realized he had something special. He would point out these little things to me that would just drop bombs in my brain later on. It would be days and weeks later that I’d figure out what the hell he was talking about. This caused me to want to listen to him more. It wasn’t like he was teaching me; he was just showing me flaws within myself and doing it in ways that made me stop and think. And he was doing all this in a high pressure environment— we were in the house of pain.
Everything was exactly as it should have been. When I look back, I can see a path here that is clear, but going through it I had no idea. To me, I was just Steve fighting my way through life. There was nothing at the end of the gate, so you might as well have a good time while you’re here: that’s pretty much how I operated.
Guadalupe’s paperwork came down so he got shipped out, and we parted ways. But before we parted ways, he gave me his sister’s address in Iquitos, Peru. Now, the reality of it is, a lot of prisoners exchange information, and no one ever makes contact because you kinda get spooked contacting people out of prison because you may get caught up in their spiderweb of illicit deeds, if you will. But Guadalupe… I don’t know why, but one night I’m looking through this Bible that I carried with me through prison because it was a religious text and no one could take it from me. I happened to come to his address, and just on a fluke I reached out.
I have no clue why I stopped on his name and sent that letter, but I did. It wasn’t because the word “ayahuasca” was burning a hole in my mind or Guadalupe was such an outstanding figure that he just burned an indelible presence in my mind— it was nothing like that. I don’t know why I stopped and mailed that letter, I really don’t.
Some months later when I’m out of prison, I get this package at my house with a bottle marked “Dog Shampoo” and a 2-word note: “Be careful.”
Well, you know, what else are you going to do when you’re sending dog shampoo through customs?
So long story short, I’m sitting there in my garage. I told my wife: “I’m lockin’ this door, don’t open it no matter what you hear.” At this time I’d done a lot of psychedelics. I was 12 or 13 when I did my first hits of LSD. I didn’t even know what I was doing, and I’ve done a lot since then. So it’s nothing new for me to sit down with a psychedelic and explore it all on my own. But I’m not gonna lie: when I poured that cup, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know how to spell the word “ayahuasca”, ok?
So I pour me a coffee cup full… and man, this shit is just black as tar, and it’s foul. It tasted horrible. I’m sitting there, no music, all I got is my candle, and I got my garage blacked out with some black plastic. The next thing I know is… well, I could talk to you for hours about those six days, but let me give you an overview of it. The first thing I had to face was myself, and I had to do that with some really brutal honesty. This was Mother showing me everything I’ve done in my life. She made me come to terms with why I had done it, all my selfish decisions, all the times I tried to blame everyone else for why I was doing what I was doing. The reality of it is, I was liking what I was doing. It was feeding my dark side, my shadow self. But I had never learned to embrace the lighter side of myself, and that’s where Mother Aya brought me back to “You’ve got to find balance.”
Now up until this point, I’m a stone cold atheist. I’m an atheist in a bank robbery, I’m an atheist while getting shot at by the police, I’m an atheist walking the border wall, and I’m an atheist after many LSD trips. But after this, I’m not an atheist anymore— because man, what I just interacted with interacted right back with me, and when I went and drank another cup, it was still waiting for me to come back. It was a totally interactive experience.
Can I tell you that when I stumbled out of that garage six days later that I was a totally changed man? Absolutely not. I was raw, I was confused, but I knew one thing: I had just had a spiritual experience, one that I could not deny. There was no way that I could write it off as just coincidence, or just a drug, or anything like that. It took me a while before I could even tell my wife what I had just went through and what I’d just seen. Imagine her— she fell in love with a guy that was kind of a hardcore dude, and now I’m sitting here telling her “Baby, I just had a spiritual experience, I’m gonna learn how to brew this stuff, it’s gonna make people puke, make ‘em sick, but people are gonna love it. It’s gonna smell nasty and taste nasty. Will you ride with me?”
Imagine that conversation with your wife, ok? Especially quite a few years ago, when ayahuasca wasn’t well known. It took a lot of faith for my family to allow me to do this, because I had to have them behind me. Even if I was out there on my own in the beginning, they were still supporting me and living with me. We were always waiting for that knock on the door with the battering ram and the SWAT team, but fortunately that never came. This wasn’t easy for them; everybody here was taking a big risk at a time when all we had were some legal theories.
So I’m beat up spiritually, and I’m beat up emotionally, but something has touched me, you know what I mean? I am interacting with the world and the energies around me in a totally different way. My vibration has changed, and I have to recognize that I’m a vibratory creature like everybody else in a vibratory universe. I’m being touched by emotions, thoughts, feelings, guilt— these are things that I didn’t have to deal with how I operated before; I either repressed them or didn’t have them. Now all of a sudden, I’m being touched by them and it’s powerful. There’s times that I’m breaking down crying because I’m having emotional breakthroughs and I don’t really understand where they are coming from.
I realized I kept my criminal side as a kind of security blanket, telling myself “If I can’t make it, I’ll just go hard.” I think everybody thinks that coming out of prison. And that was one of the first things Mother Aya took from me. She was like, “You either have to do that or do this, but if you do that you can’t do this.” I had to make a decision, and I think we all come to crossroads like that in life. Maybe not as dramatic as that, but that’s what was laid out in front of me. And I didn’t want to go back to prison— I was really done with my life of crime, I hated where it had brought me, and I knew that I wasn’t doing anything to make the world a better place.
And so these were some of the mechanisms and forces at work through my journeys and experiences up until this point.
That’s incredible. Working with aya in a group setting presents a whole new set of challenges, and I’m sure that deciding to start Aya Quest has also presented a slew of challenges. Now it’s not just your own personal evolution at stake, but also how to hold the medicine and hold space and integrity for others. I know that logistically, financially and spiritually it’s challenging to do this kind of work. How did you get from your own awakening to where you are today?
Well, first I had to learn how to brew it. There were times I didn’t have it right, and I would go to bed frustrated and pissed off because I just made a brew and tested it and all I got was this terrible headache and upset stomach and a bad case of diarrhea. I would ask myself “Man, am I sure this is what I want to get into?” And I would wake up with answers. Mother Aya would help me pass challenges.
And that’s kind of how I learned. Because I was in the court system, I learned how to look up other court cases and findings of fact, so I was able to go through and see other ayahuasca cases and see what they were using and working with. That kind of helped me along too. Then once I finally started getting my brew consistent, I started sharing it with other people.
During all my journeys, the other side is saying “Steve, we need you to do this. We got your back!” The whole time I’m screaming at ‘em, “There’s no way I can do this! Do you realize I’m a convicted felon? Do you realize they’re going to slaughter me? The last person who was a convict and played with psychedelics was Charles Manson. They may come at me with tooth and dagger.” And they were like, “We got your back just please trust us, trust the universe one time.” That’s what kept coming through at me in my journeys. I’m struggling with it because I’m not sure this is what I want to do. Do I really want to hold a lot of people’s hands while they’re puking and shitting everywhere? I’m not sure this is my path in life! I’ve got no guide, there is no book to read, there’s nobody to fall back on but me, the spirits, and whoever I’m working with.
Jumping ahead a few years, I worked with some alcoholics and some hardcore junkies. I had some good successes and a few I would call not successful because you can’t just do it for them. That’s the one thing I’ve learned through all my years of doing this: the person has to want it, and the person has to want to be there. There’s times I’ve had family members just about shackle people and drag them to me, wanting me to pour ayahuasca down their throats. I have to tell them— look, this isn’t how this happens man, you’re in a free will universe and this has to be by your own free will. You can’t make somebody do this, you can’t sell them on it— they have to be called to it.
Now we jump ahead to Aya Quest. In Kentucky, you had the gay marriage law enacted a few years ago. Well, Kentucky wanted to make sure their ministers didn’t have to marry gay couples, so they enacted a religious freedom act that mirrored the federal government’s freedom act that allowed the UDV (União do Vegetal) in 2006 to win a supreme court ruling that ayahuasca could be used as a sacrament. That ruling, which set precedent for the rest of us, was pivotal. That ruling only applied to the federal government and didn’t apply to the states, but when Kentucky rushed that bill through and pretty much copied the federal government’s language, they opened the door for us. And when they did, I planted our flag.
I found a building here in Campbellsville, Kentucky, which at the time was a junked-out laundromat. We cleaned it up— and yes, it is in a mobile home park, but I’ll be honest with you— I’m so proud of that little building. I’m not sure I would leave if I could, and the reason is that I love people being confronted with their own judgements. Because really, the people living there are the working poor and retirees. A lot of people come in there and you can see their nose wrinkle a little bit, but man when they leave they realize that none of it matters, not a bit of it matters. This is about us becoming whole. And not just whole as a person or a spirit or a soul, but also becoming whole as a people, getting back in touch with each other. That’s what we’re about, people helping people.
We are very grateful to Steve for sharing his story with us. You can watch Kentucky Ayahuasca here and check out Aya Quest here. Stay tuned for a future conversation with Steve about neoshamanism, cultural appropriation, and community self-regulation.