Tea time in a parking lot

Over Thanksgiving in 1970 Ronnie Black, a friend home on college break, told me of a band of hippies that had stopped by his school in Ann Arbor the week before. A happy, friendly bunch, they’d impressed him in recounting the birth of a baby in one of the school buses that served as their traveling homes. They’d described the birthing as an experience on the order of a psychedelic trip.

Ronnie , being an extreme math wiz, was not, to my knowledge, prone to being impressed by the magical nor by the birth of babies. So when I noticed a feature story in the Washington Post a few weeks later, describing the arrival of a caravan of hippie-laden buses in the nation’s capital, I just had to check it out. Actually, it was my girlfriend Anita who made the first contact as I worked the swing shift at the National Airport post office. The following day, we drove in together and she introduced me to the family she’d met, parked with about 3 dozen creatively converted vintage buses in the parking lot behind a downtown church.

Their bus had sweeping fenders with separate headlight pods that dated its construction in the Thirties. The rear third of its roof had been cut away and a wooden loft with windows had been appended to fit the space, rising 3 feet above the stock roof. It was not the only bus so modified, but each bus and van was unique in its age, color and customization. They packed the parking lot behind the church, surrounded by other red brick buildings in the neighborhood, about a mile north of the White House, just off of 16th Street.

Long-haired men and women wandered and socialized amidst the mobile encampment. There were no police that I could see. The women all wore granny dresses, the men wore worn denim, patched with bright corduroy and fancy embroidery. These were hippies out of some catalogue of genuine goods, not like most of the east coast variety  I was familiar with, with their Edwardian fashions.

We knocked on the bus door – crafted of rough wood, replacing the original – and were invited in. The interior was set up efficiently like the cabin of my father’s sail boat, with a booth for an eating area, a small apartment-sized gas stove, a miniature wood-fueled heating stove, two double beds stacked under the loft, and two child-sized beds. A couple, smiling broadly, introduced themselves to me: Allan and Maylee. At their invitation, we sat down at the table across from them.

“Would you like some peyote tea? We’re using up our stash before we head into the deep South.”

I’d heard of peyote, but had never tried it. The previous summer had included some experimental forays, and I remained open-minded and curious. “Sure, why not?.”

I sipped about half a teaspoon full through pursed lips, my intent being to swallow, but the moment the liquid hit the back of my tongue the gag reflex took over. Our hosts smiled appreciatively as my tongue tried to reposition the liquid where tastebuds would miss it. An acrid aroma filled my sinuses.

“Take in a deep slooow breath,” said Maylee. “Relax your throat. Now exhale slowly and let it slip down the back of your tongue.”

Never had I imagined that anything so bitter could enter a human mouth, but following Maylee’s advice it did go down, and sip by sip I made some progress. The concentration alone seemed to be changing my perception.

Meanwhile, I was learning with some amazement that Allan and Maylee were half of what they called a “four-marriage” with another couple, Daniel and Fanny. And that Allan was actually the husband of Fanny, with Daniel being the legal husband of Maylee. And that their mission, as part of this traveling group, was to bring a message of non-violence to the young and angry generation of idealists around the country. So this wasn’t a lark, meant to shock the square American public. It had a noble purpose.

The Caravan, as they called the convoy of vehicles, was following a spiritual teacher – which they took care to distinguish from a guru, as the Beatles had referred to Maharishi – whose name was, simply, Stephen. They handed us a book of his words as transcribed from talks he’d given in San Francisco, origin place of the Caravan.

“Here. It’s yours. Keep it. Read it.”

On departing after our short visit, my head was zooming and floating from the combined effects of strong peyote, challenging information and the spirit-lifting presence of the New Hampshire Bus family. I was thinking what an appealing and fantastic caper it seemed to be, while a super-rational internal voice protested that the idea lacked any sense of practicality, and therefore must be both stupid and naive.

I asked Anita,  “How can they pull this thing off? How can hippies – HIPPIES – fix up and maintain all these old buses while trippin’ on peyote and smokin’ grass? Who’s paying for all this? Where’s this all leading?”

In response Anita announced simply, “I dunno, but I’m gonna join ’em.”

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2 Comments

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