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.



  1. March 23, 2009 at 2:18 am

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  2. March 23, 2009 at 2:25 am

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