After suffering a brutal accident while on a kite-skiing expedition in Patagonia, Jim Harris’s painstaking recovery took a sudden leap forward when he had an experience with magic mushrooms. The adventure photographer had been pushing hard with his rehabilitation efforts and making impressive progress, but when he took mushrooms while at a music festival to have some fun, something very unexpected happened: suddenly, muscle groups in his legs that had been unresponsive since his injury started firing. Thus began a fascinating journey that offers insights into the emerging science of psychedelics and physical healing.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
In the world of outdoor sports and adventure, injuries happen. It's just part of the deal. Which is why, over the years, Outside magazine has published numerous stories about injury recovery–everything from how to train yourself into form after taking a spill, to inspiring features about elite athletes who've clawed their way back to the podium after truly devastating accidents.
But none of those articles is quite like the one we published recently on a man named Jim Harris. What's remarkable about Jim's story was his discovery of an ally in his healing that was unexpected as it was powerful: psychedelics.
Producer Paddy O'Connell spoke to Jim and Outside contributor Rachel Mabe about what Jim went through, and what it could mean for other people trying to recover from the kind of accidents that can end an athletic career and transform a life.
Paddy O’Connell: Yo dude, how are ya? Big hugs. Good to see you dude.
Paddy: This is me greeting my pal Jim Harris in the parking lot at Sunlight Ski Resort near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on a very snowy morning in early January.
Paddy: What do you want to do? Walk uphill.
Jim Harris:Yeah, that sounds good to me. What do you wanna do?
Paddy: Yeah, exactly. Have you been skiing a lot?
Jim: This is the first time. This is day one.
Paddy: This day one. Really?
Jim: Oh, yes.
Paddy: Even though I understand why, It's surprising to hear that Jim has waited this long into winter to ski. Not so long ago, a little uphill jaunt on the local ski hill would have been pretty commonplace for Jim, who has been on a number of jaw-dropping ski expeditions while snapping photos for magazines like National Geographic, Powder, and Outside. But in 2014, Jim suffered a brutal spinal cord injury and his life was flipped upside down.
Paddy: So was there ever a time, in the early stages of your recovery where you were like, ‘I'm never gonna be able to do this again, like skin uphill ski downhill.’
Jim: I think I was pretty decisive from early on that I was going to, Make a really strong effort to do something like this–
Jim: –again. but, one of the biggest struggles with a big injury accident like that is just dealing with the uncertainty, right? It's like, I don't know what's gonna happen, and there's just not gonna be a satisfying answer.
Paddy: Over the course of his rehabilitation, Jim has leaned into that uncertainty–and he has made a habit of trying anything and everything that might help. This includes eyebrow raising, often criticized methods, like fasting, cranial sacral massage, reiki energy healing and...magic mushrooms.
Paddy: Have you just fully embraced the like woo woo?
Jim: I've got more space for mystical thinking. And like kind of metaphysical thinking it's more fun to kind of leave with curiosity. And it's definitely non-rational and also, like there's a saying I like that's, um, all maps are wrong, but some maps are useful
Paddy: Today, we investigate Jim Harris' very weird and very inspiring road map to recovery.
In November of 2014, Jim Harris was in southern Chile for an outlandish adventure.
Jim: Two friends and I had planned this about 350 mile ski and pack raft Traverse, across the ice caps, down the length of Patagonia.
We had these small snow kites, these traction kites that kind of function like a sail for a sailboat except, you know, for like a skier on flat snow and ice.
The idea was that if we just had a handful of days with favorable wind, that we could cover an enormous amount of ground in a relatively short time with our really heavy backpacks versus, you know, walking at a mile or a mile and a half an hour with, you know, 80 or 90 pounds of gear.
None of us had a lot of experience with these kites. Like I'd used them like maybe a dozen days in my life. So I wasn't like a beginner.
But, also far from being an expert.
And this day had started out really windy, and then it had died through the afternoon. So it was like a pleasantly breezy afternoon. and so we were out just like messing around with them in a like a cow Field
And, I was harnessed to this kite, with a climbing harness. At one point this large wind gust came and picked me up and it wasn't very far off the ground, but my feet weren't touching either. And then it was, it accelerated me really quickly. I was moving in a pretty good clip over the grassy field.
But, the ground was so lumpy, so bumpy, so like full of like these, you know, foot deep depressions everywhere that I couldn't put my feet down to stop the speed that I was, I was gathering. And that's really the last thing that I remember. I'm not sure how I impacted the ground, but whatever I did. I did it hard enough to knock myself out and then to fracture nine vertebrae.
So I came to a few minutes later, and realized that I'd been concussed. And then also realized pretty quickly that I couldn't feel or move anything black past my ribcage.
I wasn't particularly focused on a long-term outcome at that moment. It was more like, I need to, I, I need to get to a hospital.
Paddy: Jim's friends got him to hospital in Punta Arenas within a few hours. That is where Jim's improbable road to recovery began. The first major hurdle was time. Just like traumatic brain injury, the speed at which people with spinal cord injuries get into surgery can determine long term effects.
Jim: The more time that goes by, the more likely it is that whatever disability is brought about by the spinal cord injury is permanent. In the spinal cord world, beyond 24 hours, like there's not a lot of hope for recovery.
Paddy: But while Jim had to move fast, he wasn't confident in the surgeon that was available at the hospital. It just wasn't clear that the doctor had any experience with the kind of procedure Jim needed.
Jim: Without really knowing it, I changed the course of my recovery probably to some degree by declining to go into surgery there in Patagonia.
Paddy: Jim lay in a hospital bed for a week in Chile, thumbing out emails on his phone in an attempt to cut through a tangle of bureaucracy and arrange for a procedure in the US. Eventually, he booked a flight to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he'd grown up and still had family, and upon landing immediately went into surgery at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Doctors there were able to decompress his vertebrae and fuse five together. Within a few days, Jim regained slight feeling in his lower extremities.
He wanted to immediately build upon the success of the spinal fusion, but his surgeon in Ohio advocated that he remain immobile for several months.
Jim: His philosophy was that you, a patient, is like an object of care and not an active participant in their own recovery. And kind of everything about the way I'd lived my life for me, like my orientation was so strongly towards like self-efficacy and like if I hurt myself through being active, like the only way to undo this is going to be through being active also.
Paddy: So Jim took the reins of his care once again and got in touch with Craig Hospital in Denver, an institution devoted to rehabilitating spinal-cord injuries through exercise-based therapy.
Jim: They were like, oh wait, you started wiggling a toe. Oh wait, you started to like move a quad muscle. Like you should be doing that as much as you can every single day. I transferred to Denver and spent the next six months as an inpatient and outpatient at Craig Hospital.
Paddy: By the summer of 2015, remarkably, Jim had gone from being in a wheelchair without functional use of his legs, to being able to get around with the help of a walker and canes. He was ecstatic...and self conscious.
Jim: I feel often like walking into a room that I look like an adult size toddler. I'm like a man-sized two year old. There's a lot of like side to side sway in my walk. My right hip collapses as I stand on it, like that hip pokes out to the right side. And then my right leg is kind of swinging out and around versus like coming straight underneath my hip.
Part of it is neurological disability and part of it is like compensatory patterns, things that I have like learned and have a really hard time unlearning.
Paddy: To amp up his physical therapy, Jim moved again, this time to the Sierra Nevada, to work with the Truckee, California-based High Fives Foundation, a non profit that provides resources for outdoor folks who have experienced a life-altering injury.
In California, Jim saw miraculous physical improvements. But he says unexpected new challenges arose there.
Jim: I'm eight or nine months into being a paraplegic and my life has been really solely focused on rehab. It was really hard to find ways to be social because all the ways I knew how to be social involved doing like activities outdoors with friends.
One of the few things I could do on like a weekend that felt like being fun and social was to go, like, get food with friends.
But it became really evident really quickly that even just a couple beers would seem to like set my nerve healing back a day or two or three. And so that didn't feel worthwhile.
Things like too much coffee would make me like involuntarily piss myself. And then experimented with cannabis some, and cannabis helped with some things.Like I'd get all these pretty intense muscle spasms. And cannabis could be really helpful with alleviating those, but made walking and standing and ambulation way harder.
So there are all these things that just felt like real disincentives to doing the things that we kind of like as a society do recreationally. In some ways I felt like an outsider, is what I mean to say.
Paddy: Some friends could tell that Jim just wanted to feel like an everyday thirty-something, so they invited him to the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California. Jim says he was equal parts excited and concerned.
Jim: For most people it was like a music event and for me it felt more like an athletic endurance event. Like I was walking with a walker or with, um, with canes but I couldn't walk very well, and would just sort of like drag my right leg around behind me. But also I felt this really self-conscious.
And at this concert, listened to like jam bands and a field full of people who are almost universally pretty stoned. Like the amount of substance use at this venue was very high. People were having a very merry summer afternoon. And that was another reason I felt like an outsider, like, cool, I can't even have a beer because I'm not gonna be able to like walk back to camp later if I do that.
Paddy: Right. And you're like sober guy. In a field of people who are total space cadets, you're like, well, I am even more on an island right now.
Jim: Exactly. Yeah. So that was kind of like the head space that I was coming to it.
At this concert, get offered part of a mushroom chocolate. It wasn't like the first time having mushrooms. But it wasn't something that I had a ton of experience or didn't have a lot of like expertise or like a personality built around, um, built around it.
Paddy: You weren't Jim the shrooms guy.
Jim: I was not.
Paddy: Though not much of a psycho-naught, Jim ate that small piece of the chocolate because he just wanted to feel a part of. He started to feel buzzed; things got a little fuzzier, colors were a bit brighter, sounds were more lyrical. All a normal response to chomping on the funny fungus.
But, then something very unexpected happened.
Jim: In the midst of that, discovered that I had some muscle groups that hadn't worked up until that point that all of a sudden started firing.
Like, I couldn't roll up on my toe and I couldn't pull my hamstring to like pull my foot off the ground. It was something that was like had been really clear for some time, that it was just a really weak nerve connection. And then all of a sudden in the midst of this altered state, it started working again.
Like all of a sudden I have found this connection where I could, with a lot of kind of mental focus and effort, like flex my heel up towards my butt. And that was a huge change. That was like a, a really rapid change. And most of these nerve changes that I was experiencing were just like small gradations like day over day, week after week. And so that felt really unusual, too, to have like such a, like this kind of like instantaneous change.
It felt like a little bit of a quantum leap in my ability on that particular day, in that particular week.
Paddy: Intrigued, confused, skeptical, all of the above? Well, you're not the only one. Those were journalist Rachel Mabe's initial reactions when she first heard about Jim's magic mushrooms inspired hamstring firing. She smelled a potential story, but needed proof.
Rachel Mabe: Is there research to support this?
Like, is this happening?
I do think like that is actually the thing that is exciting to me about this, the evidence is really there and like we just keep adding more evidence
Paddy: More on that, coming up after the break.
Paddy: After ingesting a psychedelic mushroom bathed in chocolate at a music festival, Jim Harris felt his hamstring move for the first time since his spinal cord injury eight months prior. Unless, of course, he hallucinated the whole thing, right? But, days later, his hamstring still worked. He was shocked and excited. His pals in the spinal cord injury world were...well, they laughed.
Jim: Going back to like high Fives community after this concert and being like, so I ate, ate mushrooms and like some muscles started working again. Has anybody else had this happen? And people are like, what now they just were like, yeah, like o okay, bro. Like, yeah, you go, we, we'll buy you the tie-dye kit.
Paddy: I mean I even, even when I first heard this story, I was like, well, I don't know, like isn't this just like maybe your body's like flight response trying to like get away from like hippie jam band music, you know, as quickly as possible. You know.
Paddy: To be clear, I was incredibly skeptical when I heard about this. And my skepticism is partly informed by my past. I've been in recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism since 2013 and any time I hear news of the so-called positive effects of party drugs I can't help but roll my eyes. Jim himself insists he was brow-furrowed about mushrooms doing anything other than making someone goofy for a bit. But he told me that when it came to his rehabilitation he had to shed doubts about all kinds of approaches to healing.
Jim: I think my kind of personality tends to be a little bit more sciencey and cerebral and like rationalist. And I have a university biology degree.
Like, I'd never had acupuncture prior to spinal cord injury and was a little bit skeptical of the Chinese medicine explanation of chi being cycled through my body. And also was like, I don't know if this helps, like because it's chi cycling or because this is pinging some nerves that I can't, feel, but there's some like small partial connection and this causes that connection to become stronger than I am absolutely down with more acupuncture.
And so I think I really dove into a lot of different modalities that I wouldn't have probably been that interested in.
Or just like, I don't know if it's working because the reasons they think it's working, but if it's helpful, then I'm gonna go for it.
I started talking to other spinal cord injury folks about it, and then started hearing other interesting stories. And it's not like everybody who's had a traumatic nerve injury and then uses psychedelics at some point, has some sudden change in their sensation or motor function, but also like a somewhat significant portion of people really seem to have in the midst of one of these altered state experiences, have either some immediate sensory changes or motor function changes.
I got quite curious about this.
Paddy: As you might expect, Jim is not the only person intrigued about psychedelics and spinal cord injury. Journalist Rachel Mabe heard about Jim's story and immediately wanted to learn more. Rachel knew that in the past two decades, researchers have found overwhelming evidence that psychedelics can improve mental health, and that studies had been conducted measuring how psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in mushrooms, might help people manage PTSD and depression.
But she hadn't heard about any science on the ability of these drugs to promote physical healing.
That's because these kinds of studies are just starting. What she did learn in her reporting is that researchers believe that psilocybin promotes the brain’s ability to change and adapt through new neural connections and the formation of new neurons.
Put another way, mushrooms can rewire your brian...which Rachel told me while holding her very new to this world baby, who you may hear cooing in the background.
Rachel: In the like immediate aftermath of a trip your brain is like actually more malleable. And so like changes you experience, you are like probably more capable of putting into practice because your brain isn't so set in the grooves that it's established already.
And so you're like more capable of like creating new pathways.
What happens in the brain can also be happening in the spinal cord it's strengthening, repairing, damaged pathways.
I talked to this researcher, David Darrow. He does electrical brain stimulation research for spinal cord injuries.
And he talked about how even in like the worst spinal cord injuries, like sometimes it happens at you completely sever connection, but it's usually that it's like 97%, you know, there's like three to 4% left ability to sneak through. Like, is that enough?
Like, could we strengthen that over time?
Paddy: Researchers believe that it's very possible psychedelics could make that slight connection stronger. And because the cells in the brain are the same as the cells in the spinal cord, taking mushrooms could theoretically enable neural rewiring and strengthening that supports physical functioning the same way they help with mental health.
That might seem like a leap, but Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Nolan Williams told Rachel that the physical and psychological worlds are not as separate as we may believe.
Rachel: Everything is physical in the body, right?
We talk about like mental stuff or emotional stuff as different than physical stuff. And he said that it's all physical, so even when there's something like emotional going on that there's a physical manifestation of that
Paddy: Williams explained to Rachel that our emotions and physical movements all work using the same circuitry. Think of it like this: if you have a stroke that affects emotional regulation, depression could be an outcome. If you have a stroke that affects motor regulation, paralysis could be an outcome. In both cases, according to Williams, it's a physical aberration. And psychedelics seem to affect the way the circuits work both in emotional mood regulation and motor function.
Rachel: There's still so much more research that needs to be done. Like people are just starting to really look at this. I think it's pretty exciting.
There's something that's happening with psychedelics. And I think there's like hope in this space of physical healing.
Paddy: Late last fall, Rachel published her story about Jim's healing journey on Outside Online. It was titled, "Jim Harris Was Paralyzed. Then He Ate Magic Mushrooms."
Predictably, it garnered a lot of attention. But while Rachel says that psylocibin's positive effects are promising and fascinating, she is quick to say that everyone should not rush out and eat a handful of mushrooms.
Rachel: Most researchers you talk to caution against believing that psychedelics are just gonna like, cure everything, gonna cure the world.
I think it's important to remember that the, the headline of this story is like, Jim walked again because he ate magic mushrooms. And the truth is much more complicated. Jim had the, like, worked really hard, also had surgery, was like walking with the help of a walker by the time he took psilocybin.
The psilocybin trip at the music festival, did something for his body he wasn't able to do without the physical therapy. And so in some ways it like unlocked the door.
Without continuing to strengthen that muscle, he wouldn't be where he is now.
Paddy: Jim seconds that.
Jim: The people I received pushback from, like from the, within the disabled community who were like, I took mushrooms and nothing happened, or I took mushrooms and I just had these terrible spasms for three hours.
Just because it worked for me doesn't mean it's gonna work for someone else. Just because it worked for me doesn't mean it's working because of the reasons that I think it's working.
I think one of the potential pitfalls of the conversation we're having right now is people who are really desperate for their own healing are gonna hear this and think that there's some magic bullet cure.
And I, unfortunately, I don't think that's probably the case. I do think there's probably, there's likelihood that this could be an impactful tool. And also, I don't think this is like a magic bullet. Like all of a sudden somebody who's completely paralyzed is able to like miraculously recover overnight.
Paddy: Jim also stresses that mushrooms are still very much illegal in most places, that intentionality and forethought with their use matter as much as your setting. He cautions that having a bad, upsetting trip is a very real possibility. Even he waited several months after the concert before trying them again. And today, they are only a small piece of a very large recovery tool kit.
Jim: I've had a really tremendous recovery, which is, it's certainly not unprecedented in the spinal cord injury world, but it's also not super common.
My gut sense tells me that, that like psilocybin, that these mushrooms have been, had a significant role in my recovery. But, I mean, the really, the most kind of truthful, accurate answer is like, that feels unknowable.
Paddy: Today, Jim takes mushrooms a handful of times a year. He says that they continue to help his emotional and physical healing. He has also participated in ayahuasca ceremonies to deal with depression. And Jim has been to traditional talk therapy, taken antidepressants, started a business selling his art, and spent as much time mountain biking and skiing as he can. In order to stay happy, healthy, and continue to progress his rehab, Jim will do it all.
Rachel closes her article with an interesting quote from Jim: “Psychedelics both are the way and merely point to the way." I asked him to explain what this means.
Jim: I think psychedelics are the way, in the sense that there's some really tangible, positive effects that they can have. I think they merely point to the way in the sense that they're not a panacea, they're not a one stop shopping answer. That they maybe work in conjunction with a lot of other things and maybe in some situations and not in others.
And that like most things in life, like the answer that's closest to like a Capital T truth ends up being something that's really complex.
Paddy: Even with my skepticism about the more, ahem, granola aspects of Jim's recovery, it's plain to see that whatever he's doing is working. In November of 2014, my friend Jim couldn't feel anything below his chest. And in January of 2023, we went skiing
Paddy: Do you want to go make some really kickass turns right now?
Jim: Let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go. Shred down This.
Paddy: Yes. Yeah.
First turns, Jim. Alright.
Jim: Oh, that was good. This was like,
Paddy: That's some soft turns.
Jim: didn't even cross my tips. I think it's gone well so far. That was awesome. That was really good.
Paddy: Oh yeah, dude, that was great. Skiing. Yeah, it was fun. It was really fun.
Michael Roberts: That was producer Paddy O'Connell, speaking with adventurer and artist Jim Harris and journalist Rachel Mabe. You can read Rachel's story about Jim and the new science of psychedelics and physical healing on Outside Online.
This episode was produced by Paddy and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music and scoring by Robbie Carver.
This episode was made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.