Respite in the cottonwoods

Though several of the buses needed to stay behind in Rawlins, the rest of us were free to find our own spots to wait out the repairs to Stephen’s bus. Given that all of the disabled buses were 15 to 30 years old, finding replacement gearboxes and differentials would take some time.

We drove a few miles beyond Rawlins, surrendering some elevation to gain warmer weather, and found a nice deserted park near the North Platte River, close enough to the highway that we’d be sure to notice when the Caravan drove by. I’d bought a roll of masking tape to lay out a straight edge along the fuzzy trim job that I’d painted. With nothing else to do for a while, we spent time entertaining the girls, and laundering and airing out the blankets, sleeping bags and sheets while learning more about one another.

Over the several weeks of this leg of the Caravan we’d gotten to know a few other four marriages, all identified by the names of the male members. Besides Peter and Gerald there was John and William, Peter and Thomas, David and Richard, Phillip and Warren, Richard and Michael and others. We’d also become familiar with most of the named buses, some of them called by the town where the bus had been bought and some by a feature of the bus itself. There was the Stockton Bus, the Santa Rosa Bus and the Manteca Bus. Then there were the Screen Door Bus, the Pear Bus, the Loft Bus and the Raised Roof Bus. Mixed in with the full sized buses were a few shorty buses, bread trucks, delivery vans, VW microbuses and one creative rolling object called the Cadillac Camper, which fused a cab-over camper meant to sit in the bed of a pickup truck with the front end of a late-50s Caddy.

Shades of Blue was a relatively new and well maintained vehicle with a strong engine that allowed it to pull uphill grades faster than most of the others. It was fast enough that it almost got me in trouble once as I pulled into the passing lane on a long climb and began advancing beyond the magic place in line beyond which only Stephen and the four marriage buses were supposed to be. Rudolph calmly called that fact to my attention and I pulled my foot off the gas until I could pull back into line at a proper place.

If you were heavy enough to be in a four marriage, you were demonstrating what Rudolph referred to as “thunder yogi” commitment. It was one thing to suppress your own ego. It was a higher commitment to marry someone and give over to that person. But to make a marital commitment between two couples represented a level of surrender that earned you at least a position near the front of the Caravan. I suspected that it also gained you a certain level of trust with Stephen since you were following his example, not just his teachings. Rudolph had been around Stephen longer than the rest of us, but he couldn’t explain the phenomenon of four marriage.

Not understanding that mystery was fine with me. At least we could talk about the principles that Stephen taught and how they applied to real life, because that’s what it was all about. In essence, what I’d joined was a community that believed in telepathy, or at least a community that assumed that it shared some telepathic connections. And by that, I understood that Stephen taught a blend of spiritual stuff and advanced physics, which together defined individual humans as electrical beings generating fields that intermingled. When we referred to vibrations, which we did quite frequently, we were talking about our sensitivity to those electrical fields. Bad vibes, good vibes, happiness and grief – you didn’t have to say anything or be looking into each other’s eyes to communicate them. You could feel them and react to them, sometimes without knowing their origin.

But words, too, carried more than their literal meaning. Truth – absolute truth – was supposed to be the minimum standard for our verbal exchange. Untruths became all too visible in Caravan conversation. All those little white lies that I’d assumed were OK because, well, everyone else relied on them, too – they didn’t pass the test on the Caravan. This old habit could make me uncomfortable s when talking with Rudolph or visiting veteran students on other buses. I had to recalibrate “my zero” to be meticulously honest about my feelings, my history, my attitudes. It wasn’t so nerve wracking on Shades of Blue where Kristin was pretty loose about things and Rudolph was naturally gentle about telling me that I was taking liberties “on the subtle plane.” But some folks – especially, I noticed, some of the single males from the bus families – would call me on stuff I wasn’t even aware was happening.

On my first day on the Caravan I was busted for sarcasm. My attempts to bring humor and levity to conversations often stirred remarks about “subtle plane anger” or uptight or “clenching up the vibes.” And my becoming more self conscious wouldn’t make things any better, bringing accusations of “looking in my rear view mirror” or being “self-other.”

With experience, I became more familiar with the players and which ones were considered to be the “astral conservatives” of the community – the ones who most carefully watched behaviors for violations of Stephen’s teachings. I gravitated toward the “astral liberals” who – it was said – tended also to be more conservative or meticulous on the “material plane.” Were people actually neater if they allowed others to get away with sloppy spiritual practice? I couldn’t tell. Caravan life was not for neatniks.

There was a lot to figure out in those rare minutes when we’d get to hang out with people during our overnights in the rest areas. Our extended stay alone in the cottonwoods by the river allowed me to tap into Rudolph’s experience about the social dynamics of Stephen’s flock. It had been less than a year since I’d earned my bachelor’s in psychology, but I could not, for the life of me, map Stephen’s social system using the tools, theories and practices I’d learned.

“You’ve got to get into Buddhism,” Rudolph suggested. “Stephen’s into Suzuki Roshi, who founded the Zen Center in San Francisco. He cops to him as his teacher and a lot of what he talks about comes out of that, along with psychedelics. You gotta dump your ego to understand it. If you do, you won’t care so much what people tell you and you probably won’t be so self-conscious about what you say.”

I’d never felt like I had that much of an ego. My friends and I were all about self-effacement – making light of the flaws in our own personalities and presumptions. Was I supposed to think even less of myself? Was I supposed to not have a viewpoint?

“Suzuki says you should just sit. That’s the Zen way. You’re probably thinking too much about it. I’d just cut loose and read your mail.”

Read my mail?

“Yeah. Pay attention to what other people and the Universe are telling you. That’s your mail.”

One morning – we’d lost track of what day it was – Krissy called out, “The Caravan! There goes the Caravan!” Through the trees we glimpsed the signature white shape of Stephen’s bus rushing by with its trail of colored blurs. We packed swiftly, then pulled onto the pavement with the accelerator mashed to the floor. The governor didn’t allow us go exceed 55 mph, but we kept the speedometer pegged there for over an hour before we caught up with the slowest bus in line.

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Crossing the Divide

The legal matters settled, Stephen was free to rejoin us and lead Caravan Part II to Tennessee. A considerable amount of our collective stash had been comfiscated by the local sheriff’s department, but no one had been arrested or charged. We’d earned enough from the azalea gig to pay for our gas and then some. At about 20 cents per gallon, getting a little under 10 miles to the gallon and with a couple thousand miles to drive, we were cool and able to help other buses with their fuel buys.

We drove all day to reach Clear Lake where another dozen or so buses and vans would join us. For the first time, along the lake road, I could see the entire caravan in a line. It was damn impressive. But looking at Shades of Blue, I feltCaravan at Clear Lake there was something missing in its paint job, so I decided I’d embellish it with a narrow strip of white trim long the bottom edge of its body and around the wheel wells. With its white roof, that would make a handsome frame for the three broad bands of blue.

The next morning we drove over another range of low coastal mountains, hit Route 5 south and then turned east on Route 80. We overnighted at Donner Pass, the high point of the Sierra crossing. It being March, there was still plenty of snow and we piled on the sleeping bags and blankets for a cold night. Stephen didn’t come through banging on bumpers the next morning. There wasn’t a driver’s meeting. It was understood that the first order of business was to start the engines and get the heaters working. We cooked breakfast on the road, with all of us huddled in the front of the bus within range of the blowers.

The practice of caravaning continued to be one of “stoning the squares” by “givin’ ’em some” – smiling and waving at every car that passed us heading west. The reactions were so effusive that we never tired of hamming it up. The Caravan was not merely a means to get us to a destination; it had a purpose of its own. We wondered about the conversations we stimulated as people described their experience of us to their friends and families. “I swear, Gladys, there was A HUNRED of ’em. All full o’ these happy hippies!”

For us – with no music playing – the road beyond our windshield and our mutual company served as our entertainment. For me – never having been to California, Nevada or Utah – the great American West was a feast for the eyes.

At a gas stop in Nevada  I picked up a can of white spray paint. The next day at our overnight stop I sprayed, freehand,  a narrow strip of white all along the lower border of the bus’s body. From a distance, it looked like an improvement. But the fuzzy boundary of the spray pattern – applied unsteadily in my rush to get the job done without others noticing and commenting on it – left a decidedly unprofessional impression.

We’d stocked up pretty well on bulk foods back in San Francisco, but some items began to run out and the occasional shopping trip was required. Not wanting to take the entire caravan through towns to take over the supermarket, one bus would be assigned shopping duty to fetch food staples, and other basics, like paper towels and toilet paper, to be distributed at the next drivers’ meeting.

The vital sanitation issue of shit disposal needed to be dealt with by each and every vehicle.

There may have been a bus or two with a holding tank or some other more sophisticated means of collecting the products of human alimentary elimination, but Shades of Blue and all the buses I knew of used the simple, though primitive, technology of the plastic snap-lid food products bucket – a five-gallon plastic container that could be obtained for free from just about any burger joint. A toilet seat, secured from a salvage yard or hardware store, would sit atop the bucket and, depending on how many people were using it, the bucket – affectionately called “the shitter” – would fill up – or become intolerable – every day or two.

Because we would drive for 6 or 8 hours every day the Caravan had to make a daily fuel stop – an operation that might, in itself, take over an hour and would usually blow the minds of the service station attendants sufficiently that they didn’t notice the line of us carrying buckets toward their restrooms. And naturally, on occasion we caused major toilet malfunctions, yet somehow we always managed to unload enough to keep our onboard shitters functioning.

On our seventh night after leaving Panther Flat, we stopped in a roadside parking area on the high Wyoming plateau some miles east of Rock Springs. We’d been noting the intensifying cold all day and wondered how bad it might get during the night. In preparation, we brought out everything we could find to pile under and on top of us and wore several layers of clothes as we settled in for a long night. Someone told us that the thermometer in another bus was reading 15 degrees before sundown.

The next morning, as we’d feared, it was not just cold, it was fucking cold. A thick layer of ice coated the entire inside of the bus, including the windows. It was bitter getting out from under the warm pile and scamper to the driver’s seat to start the engine. But the engine wouldn’t even turn over. The starter motor wouldn’t even click.  I could only hope there was enough anti-freeze in the radiator, because I never would have guessed we’d see such temperatures.

Rudolph and I confered from under our covers. It was plain what we needed to do, or so we thought.

“We gotta chip the ice of the windshield ’cause we’re gonna need to get pushed to get the engine started. Rudolph, I’m going out to get some help.”

I added a sweater and my warmest coat from back east to the shirts, jeans and sneakers I already had on. I stepped out into a stiff wind that was so cold that my first breath seared my lungs and nasal passages. It was ungodly. My fingers went from shock to pain to numb to useless in the space of a minute. I wasn’t alone. Men were emerging from buses up and down the line, and all of them looked like I felt, running in place with looks of shock on their faces and wondering how and when they’d be able to get their engines to crank over.

Spontaneously, we found ourselves all heading for a central meeting spot out of the wind in the deep freeze. A guy named William from one of the four marriage buses spoke.

“I guess we’re all frozen here. A couple o’ buses have been able to start up, but I think we’re gonna need for us monkeys to push a few and see if they can get going that way. So let’s all of us start up in front with Stephen’s bus, then work back through the line.”

Huffing and puffing, slapping our hands together, desperately trying to withstand the cold, we marched as a stiff-legged gang to the white bus with the narrow red and blue horizontal bands around its middle. Twenty of us put our shoulders against frigid steel and dug in our feet. William signaled the driver – either Stephen or Michael – to release the brake, put it in gear and engage the clutch. The terrain was flat and level – there was no slope – and we could only get the bus going to trotting speed before the driver released the clutch pedal. The bus jerked to a halt. We tried again. And again. No go. Our panting created its own cloud above us.

So it was back to the second bus, Peter and Gerald’s – actually Peter and Kay Marie and Gerald and Priscilla’s bus – another of the four marriages and, significantly, always the second bus in the Caravan. It, too, had a nice loft appended to its rear quarter. Now a bit warmed up on the inside – though inviting frostbite on the outside – we heaved into the bus and got it moving. The driver popped the clutch and the engine caught, reluctantly at first, but then roaring to life. We all cheered and felt triumphant.

“Take it easy!” yelled a frizzy-haired Hispanic looking guy named Jose. “Let it warm up before you gun it like dat!”

We tried a few more buses with mixed results, then agreed to go inside to warm up, or at least to get out of the wind. I managed to recruit five guys from buses near ours to go in on a “co-op” deal, out of which, our bus and three others were successfully jumpstarted.

The idea went ’round that the running buses would push those that monkey power hadn’t been able to start. If the problem was in the buses not reaching a high enough speed, this would be the solution. It made perfect sense.

The first beneficiary of the idea would be Stephen’s bus, with Peter and Gerald’s blue and yellow bus doing the pushing honors. Shades of Blue had pulled into a position where we could watch the attempt while our interior emerged from the ice age.

Creeping up ever so carefully, the blue and yellow bus made gentle contact, bumper-to-bumper, with the white bus. Accelerating slowly, the coupled buses reached a much higher velocity than we frail humans had been able to achieve. The blue and yellow slowed to separate from the white, which then, quite obviously, popped the clutch. It appeared to take a massive jolt, then it jerkily came to a halt. It hadn’t looked good. Rudolph and I looked at each other as if to say, “oooh shit.”

“Something busted. Maybe the tranny.” Rudolph knew about such things, having grown up around farming equipment, tractors, trucks and all.

Stephen got out of the white bus, bent over and looked underneath. He walked around to the other side. Michael got out. He looked around underneath, too. Other people from the blue and yellow bus and other buses did their own quick examinations. There was a short meeting in the cold. Lots of shoulder shrugging. Some guys ran off, apparently to get tools. Rudolph went out to ask if they needed help. He was back in a minute.

“They blew their rear end. It was so frozen, when they put it in gear, it just cracked.” It seemed to amuse him just a little a bit, given our predicament and the ridiculous weather. “So Peter and Gerald are gonna have to tow Stephen to the next town, Rawlins. About 20 miles ahead.”

As it turned out that morning, Stephen’s was not the only bus to have metal failure. Several other buses needed to be towed to Rawlins. The Caravan would be based there for over a week, with some of its buses waiting for parts and repair for much longer. Nobody applied wind chill factors in those days, and it was damn windy, but the guy on the bus with the thermometer told me it was minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit when he woke up.

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(Photo: Gerald Wheeler)

Panther Flat

It was still dark when we pulled into a large unpaved parking lot overlooking the Pacific. Below us I could make out the skeletal ruins of the old Sutro Baths, where San Franciscans had once gone to swim in ocean water captured to fill large indoor pools. Many other buses had already arrived and continued to lumber into the lot as we followed a stream of people walking across the road and into a park. Dozens were standing silently in a group, all facing east. We joined them and soon the crowd had doubled in size.bluebussutro

Gradually the sky brightened and the faces in the crowd became recognizable. In my brief exposure to the Caravan and the class at the Family Dog I’d had some of the longtime students of Stephen pointed out to me. I noticed some of them, but the regimen that morning was to look straight ahead. This was a standing group meditation, and when the glow of the rising sun yielded to a flash of brilliance piercing through the fronds of a palm tree, Stephen raised his ram’s horn and blew as the group took up the OM – an extended, resonant drone that pulsated in waves for several minutes. I joined in and felt it  reverberating in my head, throat, chest and belly, leaving me inebriated in the following silence.

Stephen stepped up on a cedar stump, turning to speak to us. He described that morning as the beginning of a great and heroic quest. We were going to drive north, not east, at first. We’d be in northern California for maybe two weeks while he made a court appearance and resolved a bust  from the original Caravan’s entry in to Oregon. Once that was done, we’d drive south again, hit Route 80, cross the Sierras, then the Rockies and then make our way to Tennessee where we’d search for a suitable piece of property to buy.

It all sounded good to me, though I had no idea how we’d end up buying that land. Like, who, in Tennessee, would sell land to us?

We’d agreed not to leave immediately, to give time for people without a ride to find a bus to ride with. Anita and I had been looking forward to travelcaravansutroing alone, to at least get used to the idea that we were a couple rather than a two single folks. But we were also part of this formative community, and we had to do our part to get that community to its final destination. We accepted two people into our bus family. Rudolph was a soft-spoken fellow who seemed to be about my age. He was smart, kind and had been part of the Monday Night Class scene for while. He would be our third driver. Kristin was a young girl with a lot of energy who impressed us as being helpful and having a pixie-ish sense of humor. Others came to the door, but with four adults and two kids we felt that we were at our limit. We would consider taking on another one or two people occasionally, depending on the vibes.

Then, with Stephen’s big white bus in the lead, we hit the road again. We wound through the northwestern corner of San Francisco, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed up Route 101, the Redwood Highway. We were a smaller version of the Caravan that had returned to San Francisco. Not everyone could pick up and leave again on such short notice. Some buses needed repair and outfitting. Some people needed time to make up their minds or settle affairs.

One of the members who’d been a major dealer for the group had bought some acreage a couple hours north, and our plan was to land there to spend the first night. It was an undeveloped property, and after negotiating narrow, unpaved roads, we slowly and carefully maneuvered our big vehicles through a gate and into a field. We’d barely parked when a local sheriff’s deputy drove up.

“You people can’t stay here. This isn’t a legal campground.”

A small powwow ensued, including the land owner, Stephen and the deputy. It seemed that the neighbors – on witnessing the arrival of some 30 busloads of longhairs – had serious reservations about their parking en masse in the neighborhood. And without a permit of any sort, we had to decide if it was worth it to argue the point all night long. Wanting to preserve our good karma, we chose to avoid the hassle.

So it was back on the road, slowly circling the buses to exit the narrow gate, heading back down the narrow road and resuming our route north. We stopped over in a public rest area that night and continued up along the coast through Mendocino, then Humboldt and finally into Del Norte county in the extreme northwestern corner of the state. We headed inland from Crescent City and parked in a campground called Panther Flat, next to the Smith River, the most gorgeous run of water I’d ever seen.

It was late January, the midst of the rainy season in the rainiest part of California. A mountain road led from the campground across the Oregon border to Grants Pass where the legal proceedings would take place. On our second day in Panther Flat, word went around that there was a paying job for some of us who needed to raise more gas money. We could help transport and transplant azaleas from one commercial greenhouse location to another. The growers needed manual labor and the services of one bus whose family was willing to convert it temporarily into a big truck.

We did need gas money. Rudolph and Kristin had no cash and I was still waiting for my brother to liquidate my possessions, which amounted to a motorcycle and an electric guitar. So Rudolph and I became azalea transplanters and schleppers for a week. This was an opportunity to meet and owrk with some other characters. Our campground became a social scene where you’d spend as much time visiting other buses as you’d spend in your own, entertaining visitors.

One evening as I was alone in the bus, there came a knock on the door. I opened it and found myself facing four men wearing shiny stars on their chests.

“Pardon the intrusion, sir, but are you in possession of any illegal drugs?”

I was so taken by surprised, I did not feel cool at all. I knew we were holding. One reason we were short on cash was the half a pound of boo under the front bunk, part of a group purchase made during our last days in the city. But did I have to admit it?

“Do you have a warrant?”

Instantly their folksy approach was gone.

“Sir, we can be back here with a warrant within a half hour. We’re gonna watch you in the meantime and we will search the premises; you can bet on it. So why don’t you just answer the question and, if you have drugs on you, hand them over and we’ll leave you alone.”

I could picture the scene if all of the buses were busted and we were all hauled off to the slammer. I reached under the bed and found the coffee can. With some regret and fear that I was blowing it, I handed it over to the deputy. “Thank you, sir. You’ve made the right decision. Now have a good evening.” And with that, he and his partners were gone.

Half an hour later, Kristin returned from visiting friends. I told her I’d turned over our stash, that I didn’t feel like I’d any choice in the matter.

“Oh, that’s cool,” she said with not a hint of irony. “I got a few lids stashed in my bag.”

For such a young girl, she spoke like a seasoned veteran.

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San Francisco, here we go…

As Donald put it, we had “made closure.” It was time to drive the bus back over the mountain. Stephen would be holding a class at the Family Dog, a large rock hall at Ocean Beach where the Caravan had disbanded. It wasn’t a Monday night – it was later in the week. I’d lost track of what day it was and time in general.

It felt good with Donald. Whatever he’d had going with Anita, he seemed content with the new arrangement and he described his growing up in Michigan as we negotiated the tight bends of the narrow mountain road. I stuck my head out the window and craned my neck at the redwoods along with Krissy and Janine. Back in Maryland, I’d spent countless hours roaming the local hardwood forests as a young teenager. I looked forward to roaming among these soaring trees.

As to my future with Anita on the bus or wherever we were going to live post-bus, I was trying to figure out in my head, just what were we in our relationship? We’d been intimate roommates on and off before, but there’d never been a commitment – verbal or even understood. She’s shone no hesitation when she picked up and split for the Caravan, and just as casually I’d chosen to stay behind. My deciding to join the Caravan had only partly been keyed to rejoining her. But I had to admit, I was attracted to her spunk and her impulsive nature.

She’d jumped at the Caravan as an adventure. I’d remained behind out of caution and uncertainty. But now, I was all into the adventure, seemingly on the same page with her. And though I’d been OK being on my own for a week in Paris, I just wasn’t that into setting off alone in San Francisco. If there was going to be a continuing connection with the Caravan people, I wanted to follow that for at least a while, and with Anita. One week had only whetted my appetite for the spiritual, the nomadic lifestyle and what seemed to be a community with some cool ideas, this in spite of the discomfort I’d felt in the sorting out process.

When we reached the Family Dog, the Caravan appeared to have reconstituted in the parking area. In fact, there were more buses than I’d remembered from our arrival. People milled about, and for the first time I was introduced to many of them who’d come to know Anita between Nashville and San Francisco. We drifted with the crowd into the ballroom where the milling continued until we, along with everyone else, sat on the floor. The room was packed, just like the pictures I remembered from the book.

When Stephen took his seat on the raised platform, the room went silent. His voice was deep, reminding me of the character actor, John Carradine, but his accent had a movie cowboy flavor to it. He spoke in phrases,Stephen and a Monday Night Class - photo by Robert Altman strongly declaring an idea, then leaving a long space of silence as the idea penetrated through the audience. I couldn’t pick up on half of what he said, being distracted by the scene itself. This was a remarkable – a far out – gathering. What must this guy have done and said to bring so many people together just to listen to him?

He described many of the experiences of the Caravan and what had been learned along the way. And how the Caravan had become a community on the road, taking on new people, delivering several babies en route – with his wife acting as midwife – and with the people who’d voluntarily followed him on his tour demonstrating talents and competence that had amazed and gratified him.

Then his lecture took a turn. He wanted to take this rolling community and settle somewhere, putting his vision to work in a place where it would stand out and not be confused with the rest of what had evolved out of the hippie scene in San Francisco. He said he wanted to settle on a piece of land where he could have a “loud microphone” and where people would be kind enough to allow “folks like us” to move in with them. And he wanted to find a place with cheap land where enough could be bought that the community would have room to grow and have some privacy.

Then he made the big announcement. He was headed for Tennessee. The American South. The region whose reputation, as the Caravan headed there, had caused people to ingest or otherwise dispose of all their contraband as a security measure. Aside from the cheap land (and I knew nothing of land prices beyond what my parents had paid in Maryland a decade earlier) I was not able to reconcile the plan in my mind. All these hippies, moving to Tennessee? The Tennessee of the Grand Ol’ Opry? The Andrew Jackson Tennessee? The Smoky Mountains Tennessee? Home of Jack Daniels and Porter Wagoner?

Anita and I looked at each other with a mixture of puzzlement and amazement. This guy was bold if nothing else. I was thinking, “Good luck, Stephen. It’s gonna be a small community.” That’s what was in my head. But the buzz going through the audience had a different feel to it. The meeting ended with Stephen proclaiming that the Caravan would reconstitute the upcoming Sunday at sunrise services, and would pull out immediately afterward. He then raised a ram’s horn to his lips, blew a long blast and the crowd joined in a long single-note chant that vibrated my body to its core.

The post-class chatter was full of excitement and concern. There were the people who, without question, were headed for Tennessee. And there were those who felt betrayed – that they were being challenged to give up a future of living in spectacularly beautiful northern California. There were loyalty issues – to family, to plans, to established living arrangements and jobs. Give up your pad, your family, your income, your connections here in San Francisco and move to the unpredictable and alien environment of a state where, not a decade before, civil rights were being denied to black people. I had no investment in California except for a sudden and deep infatuation with the land and the sea and, a sense that this was liberated territory where new ideas could take route. I had not yet identified myself as a hippie, like many of the Caravaners who’d been soaking in the culture for several years.

I’d just arrived and was just beginning the transformation into a vegetarian, bus-dwelling, pot-smoking, hair-growing, sort-outing surrogate father. Not only that, but I’d just become an “old man” with an “old lady.” This was the first week of my total immersion crash course in hippie acculturation.

I knew zip about Tennessee, except that it had no ocean next to it. I assumed, there in the parking lot, that we’d be part of the stay-behind group.

During the next few idle days, parked mostly on the Panhandle, we mixed it up with many of the Caravaners who were also tripping (both literally and figuratively) on the impending migration. We sat around in buses, on the ground under trees in Golden Gate Park, on the beach, on Mount Tam. The topics of our conversations followed the themes Stephen had expressed in the final Class.

The San Francisco scene was degenerating. There was less here to hold hippies who wanted to do something real in the world. Any news of good works and projects could be drowned out by the news of hard drugs and commercialization of the hippie scene. Besides, it was impossible for people like us – non-rich people – to buy enough property anywhere near San Francisco to really stretch our legs and build a village.

And as the vision of a village, built from scratch, began to implant itself in my brain, the promise of such a revolutionary project gradually displaced my desire to become a Californian. My internal rebel was urging me to abandon my mainstream destiny. My nature had its rebellious side – often suppressed by my surrounding culture and upbringing, but encouraged by teachers, movies, music, comic books and political heroes.

I’d long yearned, in my gut, to do something defiant and demonstrative with my life. Something that would stand out romantically and prove that good could triumph over evil. I thought I knew who and where the evil was, but I’d felt alone in identifying the good. Now, maybe, I’d found some allies for doing the good. Allies who would, no doubt, be conspicuous amidst the contrasting culture of the Deep South. It would be an audacious move, and sitting on the ground in the park, I found myself warming up to the idea.

“This is starting to turn me on. How ’bout you?”

Anita’s smile told me that we’d be in line for the next leg of the Caravan.

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(Photo: unknown)

Sorting 101

I’d had my first taste of “sorting it out,” a face-to-face social practice never taught to me growing up. Somehow I’d managed to avoid such frank encounters with others, even with trusted friends. Among those in my closest circle, disagreements were shrugged off. “Fuck it.” And as to those outside the circle, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

Stephen taught that truth must be arrived at between people; dishonesty in relationships had no place. Souls must be bared. Part of me inside felt rubbed raw and I stared out the bus windows, silent, for the rest of the ride.

The Caravan paraded along the beachfront of San Francisco, finally parking in a large paved lot in front of the arcade that identified itself as Playland. Our arrival had been expected and there were scores of people waiting to greet old friends and relatives who’d been away for three months.

The Shades of Blue family – such as it was – was breaking up. Everyone except for Donald, Anita, her kids and me had another place to go. I figured they must have been glad to be escaping the confines of bus life. There was no ceremony but for hugs and pats on the back. We sat there for a while, took a walk on the beach – I took the opportunity to put my hands in the Pacific Ocean for the first time – and then it was time to find a place to park. Donald suggested the Panhandle, an area adjoining the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, just beyond Golden Gate Park.

We were far from the only bus parked there, and many of our fellow bus families were not of the Caravan; bus living served the needs of the nomadic hippies who spent part of their time in the city and part in the open spaces of the Bay Area. There was acoustic music happening well into the night, but we slept soundly after the long traveling day.

The next morning, after a stroll through the fabled Haight Ashbury neighborhood, we talked about next steps. Donald suggested we cross the bridge to the East Bay to stock up on organic groceries at Erewhon, then drive back and cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin where he knew a place we could hang for a while and figure things out.

I continued to be enchanted by the panoramas, this time of San Francisco Bay. I thought, “This is a place I could fall in love with.” I’d encountered some counterculture living around D.C., but the Bay Area seemed to have been taken over by it. It felt like another country where I was the tourist, my hair and beard still too short to qualify for native hippie respectability.

At Erewhon we loaded up on beans, flour, honey, brown rice, fresh veggies, oatmeal, incense and rolling papers, then headed for Donald’s secret encampment. After an impressive drive across the Golden Gate bridge, the road took us into the hills of Marin, over the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais, where we stopped to sit and watch fingers of fog come creeping up the ravines from the ocean, providing yet another magical visual experience. Then, brakepads smoking,  we descended back to sea level, navigating the big bus along a treacherous winding mountain rbluebuspalomarin1oad, through Stinson Beach, around a lagoon teeming with birds, and then along a desolate unpaved road to a bluff overlooking the ocean.

“I figure we can stay out here until Monday, then we’ll go back into the city for class,” Donald said, referring to the resumption of Stephen’s weekly meetings. After hiking along the trails in the late afternoon and witnessing my first spectacular Pacific sunset, I barely slept a wink that night. I knew the next day would bring a reckoning.

It was time, as Donald put it, for us to “get straight with each other,”  and the next morning, after a hot cereal breakfast and a few tokes in preparation, we entrusted Janine to Kristina’s supervision outside the bus and began to sort out where we were at with one another.

It occurred to me that I’d never “gotten straight” in this way with anyone. Not even with my trusted friends, family members or previous girlfriends.  And even on those occasions, it had always been a matter of getting it over with as quickly as possible. Whenever any of these relationships had gotten “sticky” or created discomfort, I’d looked for the quickest and most convenient way out of the situation. I began to realize that, in fact, nothing had ever been “heavy” in my life, at least not in terms of a personal relationship. anitadonaldpalomarinI’d always regarded myself more as just a young guy out in the crazy world, dodging responsibility.

Meanwhile, Donald was using what I assumed to be skills taught by Stephen for running a meeting. He was setting up this our 3-person encounter as if it was a major turning point in our lives and relationships. I realized that I had nowhere to go; I was on the edge of the continent, on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean.

We passed the joint around again and I felt like a cornered – but stoned – rat. I looked at Anita and she looked back, directly into my eyes. We held that 2- way gaze – the Caravaners called it “eye-vibing” – for what seemed like an eternity, until I broke it off to look out at the huge ocean.

“There’s a place,” began Donald, “where you’ve got to cop to the energy when you’re sorting it out with people, and you ought to let that energy pass between you. If you can’t keep eye-vibing with ’em, you’re not really being honest. If it’s gonna get heavy, you gotta come on behind it and let people see into your soul.”

Now Donald and I were eye-to-eye and, after that admonishment, I couldn’t pull my gaze away. I started to break out in a nervous sweat, then felt a lump rise in my throat. So this was “heavy.” Donald breathed deep, then let it out in a long exhale, as if he was blowing out a huge candle. “See?”

“Yeah, right on.” I was wrecked. I looked back at Anita and we eye-vibed for the longest time. Waves of emotion rose  up inside, telling me that yes, I did care for this woman, this lady. She’d been my close friend and lover for months. She’d brought a new level of adventure and risk into my secure but too-cautious life. She’d introduced me to a wildness of dreaming that my other friends had seemed to avoid. I really did hope to stay with her, beyond just needing a place to crash in a strange place. Where that would lead, I had no idea and didn’t really care, we were so in that moment.

After a long silence, save for the whispers of the wind and surf and the occasional playful voices of the girls, Donald spoke.

“You know, this has been a really high experience traveling with Anita and helping her manifest this bus. I gotta say, I’ve gotten real close with your old lady, Clifford. I could do a thing with her. But I know that before I got on Shades of Blue, you were her old man and I don’t want to split you guys up. I see how the girls like you. I know how much she wanted you to come out here.”

I felt some relief, knowing that Donald had certainly filled the role of manifestor – a term that I’d picked up since I’d arrived. The manifestor is the person who keeps a scene together materially. Donald had maintained the bus, driven most of the miles, and served as the father figure for the bus family. He had a few years on me and even more on most of the rest of the passengers. He had skills I knew nothing about, from mechanics to leading this meeting. He’d helped Anita and I wasn’t sure just how close they’d gotten before I arrived, but I could feel that there had been something closer than friendship.

Anita’s attention had been alternating from me to Donald and back again. I wasn’t sure where she was at, so I broached the question through the lump in my throat.

“So, do you want me to stay on the bus? I don’t have to, you know. I can find another place out here.” I didn’t believe it. “I still want to be with you. That’s why I came out.” I did want to be with her.

She didn’t respond, but kept eye contact with me. I was trying to interpret what was coming through, on…what? On the astral plane? Some other plane besides the verbal one?

Finally words broke through. “I think I know that I want you to stay with us, Clifford. I’d hate for Donald to leave, though. Can’t we all just stay on the bus together?”

Donald instantly nixed the idea. “No, that’s not what I’d want. The energy would be all wrong. You guys got a connection. You got karma you gotta work out.  Maybe sometime later, it’ll feel cool for me to be with you, but I don’t feel straight staying here in this energy. So once we get back to the city, I’m gonna find another place.”

Anita’s uncertainty was all he needed to make up his mind, and the deal was done. Suddenly, my feelings fell from relief to bearing the weight of the world. I wouldn’t have to find a place to live in unfamiliar territory, but now I was faced with building a relationship in a new situation, a heavy situation with no other relationships to lean on when to got tough. And I’d have to assume the mantle of manifestor for Anita, her kids and the Shades of Blue.

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(Photos: Cliff Figallo)

Curdling the vibes

The road snaked along the sharply carved coastline. Six of us sat arrayed like a choir behind Donald, the day’s driver, keeping vigil through the windshield.

Coast Highway heading north I was getting into it. We’d dropped gelcaps of freeze-dried peyote just after pulling out, and 40 minutes later it had come on strong. The view ahead had become our movie.

“Hey! Look-look-look!”

“Oh, Man! Far. Fucking. Out!”

“That is so stoned!”

On our movie screen, draped limply against a boulder at the outside apex of a curve, a longhaired hitchhiker was laughing giddily and waving to us like he’d been beaten into silly submission. We laughed and waved back. We must have been the thirtieth busload of euphoric hippies to pass him in five minutes.

We took turns describing the thoughts going through his head. How many more could there possibly be? What’s the Universe trying to tell me? Has there been a revolution and nobody told me? This has gotta be a movie getting filmed. Where’s the camera?

“Yeah, man, it IS a movie! This is our movie and you’re in it!”

And it went on like that. Every motorist passed us with eyes bugging out- incredulous, alarmed or both. On that narrow and precipitous road, they risked their lives gaping at the hippie parade and some swerved recklessly as we passed.

Being an East Coast flatlander, this began to bug me. I could picture cars slipping over the edge, bouncing down the cliffs, bursting in to flames. “Pay attention, people!” I said mostly to myself. ” Fuckin’ idiots better be careful.”

The bus family went dead silent, like a speaker plug had been pulled. The engine got suddenly louder.

Oh, shit. What happened? I’d had a bad thought: we were a danger on the road. I said something, and then…

“Clifford, you really curdled the vibes talking shit like that.”

Molly, her red hair an explosion of frizz framing a gaunt face, was glaring at me with little hint at friendliness.

I looked back, contrite. I felt busted open by the accusation. Well, they were idiots, sort of. I mean, the danger and all.

“So, can you cop to that, Clifford? I was picking up some pissed-off in there.”

I found myself speechless. I’d blurted out something completely in character with who I was in my old life, and someone in my new life had called me on it.

“Ya know, now I think you’re just being into the juice.”

This time it was the elfish one, Henry, with his little goatee. I knew what “cop” meant, but this “juice” thing had me confused.

“What juice are we talkin’ about?” I asked.

“The energy, Clifford. You copped our attention by ripping it off.”

I felt myself taking an angry defensive posture, but the peyote seemed to keep me from arguing. It was telling me, “It’s OK, Cliff. Take it all in. Anger takes you nowhere. Just cool it.”

“OK, sorry,” I told Molly. “I didn’t mean to mess up your juice.”

I was not digging having all this attention on me.

“Where are you at, Clifford? You look way back up in there.”

Molly wasn’t gonna let me off that easy. Like, wasn’t I allowed to feel shitty about it?

“I’m OK. Just, you know, tired.”

“Well you’re manifesting some negative energy and we’re trying to get you straight.” She had a touch of a smile on her face.

“Well, yeah. I’m cool. Just not into the windshield thing right now.” Hell if I knew what she’d just said.

“What do you mean, ‘the windshield thing’? We’re putting good vibes out to the people.”

“Aw, cut loose, Molly. He told you he’s tired. He just got on the bus. Let’im crash.” It was Donald to the rescue. “Don’t be such an astral conservative.”

“Donald, if you’ve got subconscious with me…”

“I don’t. Now please don’t rip me off while I’m driving.” He seemed so calm.

There were some muttered agreements about the importance of protecting the driver’s energy and how we could sort it out later. I slunk back to the bottom bunk, drained. Janine sat there playing with a doll.

“Are you gonna sleep?”

“Yeah, Nini. I need a nap.” She covered my arm with her doll’s blanket. I closed my eyes and the eyelid movies of the intermittent sunlight hitting my face combined with the swerving motion of the bus to add nausea to my condition. Now I’d probably start puking, to add to the curse of my presence. Hoo, boy, this was getting rough. Talk about your stranger in a strange land.

I remembered being in a similar place the summer of ’67 when four friends and I had spent the summer hitching and train-hopping through Europe. Our language skills were rudimentary and we were almost fatally naive, but we had each other to trip with when everything around us was crazy. In the last weeks we had split up with the rest going hither and yon and me going to Paris alone to retrieve the luggage we’d sent ahead. I was solo on the train in Germany and for a short while, I desperately missed having a friendly companion.

Laying there in the bus, I realized that I’d begun to wonder if the one person I’d been relying on to be my friend and guide amongst strangers had committed to another man. Anita and…Donald?

Maybe the earth had shifted and I’d missed the clues. I probably had a load of that thing Molly’d called “subconscious.” Stephen had talked about it in his book, but I hadn’t picked up on its negative connotation. If you were bumming about anything, you must be carrying this dark stuff, and it bothers the hell out of people even if they don’t know it!

But in thinking of Europe, I thought of Lew, one of my most beloved friends and the source of redemptive laughter during so many of my awful times with family, politics, women, school, and life in general. Lew could instantly launch into a maniacal rail against God, fate and the foibles of humanity, purging the uptight from the situation. Somehow there was joy in his anger, even when it was topped off by a heartfelt “Goddamn Son-of-a BITCH!”

Lew showed me that things might really “SUCK the BIG ONE,” but the fact that you knew how bad they sucked gave you power over them. Comforted by the spirit of Lew, I found myself smiling and reached over to stroke Janine’s blond locks.

“I feel better now, Nini.”

I returned quietly to join the bus family up front. Everyone seemed to have cut loose of the issue and we talked about what people were going to do once we arrived in San Francisco. Finally, hours later, the bus stopped swaying with the curves and we were rolling up a much straighter, flatter highway with sand dunes between us and the shoreline.

“Where are we?”

“We just left Monterey. We’re headed for Santa Cruz.” It was Anita, handing me a bowl of beans and brown rice with chopsticks.

“We gotta talk,” I told her.

“I know,” she said. “After we get to San Francisco and most of the people leave the bus.”

In this momentous time, I was consumed by a feeling of dread.

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(Photo: Cliff Figallo)

The teacher

Three straight nights in Trailways bus seats had me yearning for a night in any kind of a bed. Shades of Blue afforded me that accommodation, but with conditions. I shared the bottom forward bunk with Anita and the two girls. I was buzzed, trying to absorb the changes, trying to relax my brain after two hours of intense concentration, and irresistibly wondering about the nature of my relationship was with Anita, with this new culture, and with Stephen, who’d led this rolling community of nomads around the country.

I lay on my back with the rhythmic sound of the distant surf providing a background theme to the snoring accents provided by my bus mates. I dozed off in snatches, each time waking to realize that I really was in a converted school bus near the Pacific Ocean.

I wondered what my friends would think of this or how I would describe it. We’d been known in high school for our acerbic sense of humor, our dark cynicism about the world and our joyous celebration of the bullshit nature of life on Earth. So far, I’d found no room for irony or sarcasm on the bus. Someone had explained to me that “Stephen says sarcasm is anger and we ain’t into that. Anger is violence on the Subtle Plane.” There were different planes where levels of our consciousness dwelled. I’d have to learn them to understand how Stephen’s students communicated.

My friends would have had a field day with that. Yet, as they’d mostly admitted in frustration, they hadn’t a clue what they wanted to do with their lives. Or more to the point, what they’d be able to tolerate doing with their lives. They hadn’t ridiculed me when I told them I was off to join a nomadic tribe of longhairs. Much as they didn’t want me to leave, they couldn’t suggest a better idea for me or for themselves.

I wondered if I’d be able to find such good friends among this new group, or anywhere here in California. Would I be able to change to be like these transformed people? Would I be able to restrain my skepticism, keep a lid on my sarcasm, and still enjoy life in this far out culture? And more immediately, what would happen after tomorrow, when the adventure known as the Caravan would come to an end on its return to San Francisco?

***

With the first light of day I heard the strange sound of metallic pounding followed by hollering. It repeated over and over, getting louder until I could understand the words.

“G’morning! Drivers’ meeting in a half hour.”

BONG…BONG…BONG! The vibrations shot through our bus and a tall shape moved past the window. “Good morning!” came the loud baritone.

I watched as the wiry figure stepped to the bus next to us and pounded a mallet on its bumper. “Good morning! Driver’s meeting, then stow and go!”

Donald had leapt out of bed and was pulling on his jeans.

“Wanna come to the meeting?”

“Yeah, sure!” I gently disentangled myself from the arms and legs of my bunk mates.

Donald was heating water for tea on the stove. The rest of the bus family was stretching, yawning, greeting one another. The bus creaked on its springs as people moved about in the cramped interior.

“Mu or mint?” Donald asked. I chose mint.

We sat on the front platform and sipped.

“So, what are your plans now that you’re out here?” he asked, looking me in the eyes.

“Well, I guess I really don’t know. I just thought this was what I had to do. Come out here, I mean. I don’t know what happens next. What about you?”

“We’ll see. Life’s a trip.” He smiled over his cup. “Let’s go to the meeting.”

The ocean air was chilly in the parking lot. Just beyond the pavement the ground fell away. A hundred feet below was a rocky beach, surf crashing invisibly beyond the receding fog line. The bus drivers, I assumed, were flocking to a small group in the midst of which stood the tall slim figure who’d been wielding the mallet. So this was Stephen.

Seeing him in person, the first characters that came to mind were Don Quixote and Confucius. He stood silently, watching attentively as each person approached. His eyes locked with mine and he gave a nod of acknowledgment. I gave mine back.

We were about 40 or 50, standing in a bunch, hanging on the first words about to emanate from Stephen’s mouth. He took a deep breath, held it briefly and let it out through pursed lips.

“Good morning. I ain’t gonna say much this morning, it being our last day on the road. We’ve just about made the circuit, just about made it home. We’re gonna pull out in a half hour. That’ll give us time, when we get to the city, to figure out where we’re gonna go, where we’re gonna park. It’s been a trip, don’tcha think?” He laughed, full and hearty. I could imagine, yes, it had been quite a trip if even yesterday’s afternoon ride was a sample.

“So if any of ya need gas money, see Peter. Drive careful on this windy coast road. Keep together and we’ll see you at Ocean Beach.”

That was it. Someone yelled, “Stow and go!” and a flurry of activity began. I considered introducing myself, but there seemed to be some urgency to getting ourselves back to the buses. Donald led me back through the maze of vehicles to Shades of Blue. By the time we got on board, the bus family was almost done with the traveling preparations. This, for them, had become routine. Engines cranked up. Some hoods were thrown open then slammed shut after making adjustments on aging engines. Donald turned over the straight six and it roared to life. We waited, idling, to take our place in line.

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Lane markers in the fog

In late afternoon we joined the coastal highway – Highway One – and began following it north. I rested my head against the window and stared in amazement at the spectacular scenery revealed around bend after bend of steep hills and cliffs and rocky shoreline. Compared to the flat and sandy beaches of the east coast, this was mythic topography.

Joints had been passed around, and I’d taken more hits than I’d probably taken cumulatively before, which only made the west-facing panorama more mindblowing after 3 days of imprisonment in the Trailways cruiser. I couldn’t take my eyes from the coastal scenery until darkness made it invisible.

An hour or so into that darkness, Donald called to me from the driver’s seat.

“Hey, Clifford. You can drive this thing, right? How about taking over for a while?”

First of all, no one had called me “Clifford” since the last time I remembered my mother scolding me as a child. I’d been “Cliff” to most people, and “Fig” to my closest friends. Being addressed by my full given name touched a nerve. But, as they’d explained, part of their way of regarding one another in Stephen’s way was to dispose of diminutive or cute nicknames, and return to the actual non-ego-enhanced names that we’d been given at birth. Part of the impetus for this policy, I gathered, was the proliferation of new age pseudonyms that hippies had taken to celebrate their rebirth into a new lifestyle. No one on the bus was going by the name “Rainbow” or “Earthdancer,” thank God. But what could be wrong with “Cliff?”

My second unspoken reaction to Donald’s request was, “Oh, shit! Sure, I drove this hulk on three occasions but I hated every second of the experience. Why should I believe I can drive it now, full of innocent passengers, in the dark, in the – what is that? Fog? …on a narrow and winding, unfamiliar road skirting sheer drops of hundreds of feet into rocks and ocean?”

For whatever reason, I answered back, “Uh, sure, that’s cool, Donald.”

“Far out. I could use a rest.”

We pulled over and I slipped into the seat behind the huge steering wheel and 3-foot long shift lever. I double-clutched and clanked the lever into first gear. Ever-so-slowly, I merged back onto the road, accelerating slowly to avoid catastrophe as impatient drivers swerved around us. Finally, attaining a modest cruising speed I found my palms sweating as I realized just how thick the fog was and how limited was the range of our headlights.

All I could see ahead were about 50 feet worth of lane reflectors. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction were almost upon us by the time I detected the glow of their lights cutting through. It was terrifying, but at the same time exciting because, looking into the inside mirror, I could see that every passenger was gathered close behind me, staring intently into that same foggy wall, willing us to stay in the lane, on the road and out of trouble. A strangely confident feeling of being guided by a collective consciousness infused me, and my concentration felt all-powerful. Time stopped, and our collective attention combined with the few visible lane reflectors to lead our way through the fog into a glowing circle of light.

Eventually a peripheral reflection beyond the road caught someone’s eye. “There! Pull over!” I released the accelerator and coasted as our lights caught the fog-muffled colors of more buses in a roadside parking area. Forcing a noisy downshift, I trundled the bus off the highway and lit up the resting herd of the Caravan. We were, Donald said, somewhere near San Luis Obispo, and the tension of the road was suddenly released. I would spend my first night as a communal vagabond, across the continent from what had been my home.

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The Shades of Blue

I got big hugs in the doorway from Anita, Krissy and Janine and was pulled up the steps into an interior that looked very different from the one I’d built in Virginia. Set aside the fact that Anita’s sister was no longer aboard – she’d decided soon after joining the Caravan that communal bus living was not for her. Indeed, the apparent arrangement on the Caravan was that, unless you were a family with kids, you filled up all available space in your vehicle with whoever wanted to join the community but didn’t have their own vehicle. So Anita’s bus – which, after painting, had been christened Shades of Blue – was now the mobile home for 10 people plus the newcomer, me.

Instead of the single bed platform I’d built in the back, there were now two double-decker queen-sized sleeping platforms, with another low platform butted up to the back of the driver’s seat. Thick foam pads covered the platforms. The ceiling was partially covered with rectangular, ill-matching carpet samples, glommed for free from stores found along the route. A small gas stove crimped the aisle-way, with a short plywood counter and sink making up the kitchen. A straight length of black plastic tubing directed drain water through the floor to the ground.

Tall Erik needed to bow his head to move through the bus. I plopped down on the platform behind the driver – a blond, lion-maned fellow named Donald – and was introduced to the rest of my traveling companions. The names entered and vacated my mind in an instant as the bus was put in gear and began to make its way out of downtown LA.

Janine and Krissy were happy to see another familiar face from their past, and they snuggled up to me where I leaned against the cool metal wall of the bus. The smell was a mixture of incense, pot, sesame oil and the musky aroma of unwashed laundry and human bodies. And while one of the “ladies” (as they called grown females) began to prepare food at the counter, most of the rest arrayed themselves on the platform around me and stared forward through the windshield.

We talked about my ride across the country and about their escapades in the southern traverse, including a run-in with some hippie-hating cowboys in Colorado. My companions were all single, none of them California natives. It was disconcerting to me that the expression “far out” was uttered so frequently. It seemed to serve as an all-purpose response to any statement, covering the full range of meanings from just barely OK to absolutely miraculous. It was the comma, colon, period and exclamation mark in our conversation.

Most of the far-out-espousing folks had joined the Caravan after encountering it in towns or campuses where Stephen had been invited to speak. The Caravan had not been planned, but had formed spontaneously when people who’d considered themselves students of Stephen decided to accompany him and his family’s bus on the journey. Together, they provided a supportive real life example of the peaceful collaboration at the root of Stephen’s presentations.

As I’d learned from his book, Stephen was married to a wife and also to another couple. Like the people I’d met on the New Hampshire bus, he lived in a four-marriage. And yes, the Shades of Blue passengers told me, there were many – maybe a dozen – of these configurations on the Caravan, each formed in a flash of loving inspiration that was beyond rational explanation.

I’d traveled as a naive teenager through Europe, even through the week-long Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, and through the exotic Arab culture of Tunisia, but I had a feeling that I might have just dropped into an even stranger rabbit hole.

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The last hamburger

The trip to LA took 3 nights and most of 3 days. Somewhere in the California desert I consumed what would be the last animal flesh that would pass my lips for as long as I would spend with Stephen and his followers. I wolfed down a hamburger without ceremony.

Sixty hours on the bus, even with adjoining seats to myself most of the way, had numbed me out in mind and body. I had less and less idea of what I was heading for, though I didn’t yet miss where I’d been. There was no fear, but neither was there excitement or anticipation. I’d flung myself into the unknown and was ready to accept whatever awaited me.

Anita and her bus would be there to pick me up, but whether I’d have a girlfriend on that bus or not, I had no idea. Fact was: she’d left me and I’d refused to leave with her. The affair had, in my mind, been over. Only Stephen’s book and its creative approach to explaining life – not Anita’s phone call – had convinced me to change my mind. Or so I made myself believe.

But was I really like these people? I’d only met four of them. I’d never heard nor laid eyes on Stephen, the driving force behind it all, the teacher, the idea guy. And in moving to California I was going counter to an old, though silly prejudice I’d held against the Golden State for years. All that surfer girl bullshit and Hollywood glitz just went against my grain. The Summer of Love? I’d been in Europe then, and had decided that being there must have been the superior planetary experience.

So, after the interminable traverse of the LA suburbs, I deboarded and found my way to a bench in the lobby. I sat alone amidst the other bus passengers and the oddball vagrants in the Trailways terminal  – my duffle bags snugged up to my feet for security. The best I could hope was that this adventure would all work out for the best. Suburban Maryland, my good old friends and family, they were all behind me and 3,000 miles away. And in their place? I had no idea.

I stared at the floor, wondering how long I’d have to wait.

“Clifford?”

Two large feet in canvas tennies had stepped into my view, next to my duffles. I panned up the long body to a frazzled beard and dreamy eyes.

“Uh yeah, that’s me.”

“Hi. I’m Erik. We’re outside waiting for you.”

And with that, he reached down, snatched up my bags and strode toward the door. I followed him out into the sunlight. The yellow bus I’d watched disappear in Virginia was now wrapped in three broad horizontal stripes of blue – dark on the bottom, medium in the middle and light blue along window level. The roof was pure white. And standing in the doorway was Anita with the two girls.

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