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.



  1. Judith said,

    April 25, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    hi again.just piping up since I have sort of a genetic relationship with what Stephen has recently referred to as the “infamous” Cadillac Camper; t was owned and driven by my aunt, who was one of the older people to make the Caravan. (Elizabeth was 49 years old in 1971, with two grown sons older than most of the Caravanners.)

    Elizabeth has been dead nearly 7 years now; by our more “audacious” vehicles shall we be remembered.

    more later. I’m really enjoying this new Serial and “cereal” tale as it unfolds.

    speaking of which, next week I will report back on the Farmola recipes as promised.

  2. Don James said,

    April 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Hey Judith,

    I met Elizabeth in Santa Cruz in 1978, but then I didn’t talk to her again until around a couple of years before she died by email after I moved to NC. I lived in Santa Cruz about 20 years and used to listen to her radio station every week on my commute into the bay area. She sent me her book about the Haight. I used to like this one song she’d play that I only heard on her radio show “all God’s children got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher”.

  3. April 29, 2008 at 3:37 am

    Elizabeth Gips was my door into California, Monday Night Class, the Caravan, the Farm, and the rest of my life…I went to what i think was the last MNC at SF State, then some classes at Glide Church before heading back to college in Vermont in the Spring of 1969….I decided that I wanted to return to California and do an “independent study” on the communal/spiritual lifestyle that was unfolding, and wrote Stephen a letter asking if he could hook me up with some folks…he gave my letter to Elizabeth (whom i think he considered one of his problem students–she was involved in a small group that met at his house, which i think was on Fell St.. She had land and a candle factory up in the hills above Nevada City, the house had just burned down, and she was looking for folks to help rebuild. I had some rudimentary carpentry skills.

    To make a long story short, I got my mind blown up there in the mountains, going down to SF for Sunday Services and MNC. The rest of the world just seemed so tawdry and shallow by comparison. It hasn’t always been an easy path to follow, but I have no regrets about walking through the door Elizabeth opened for me. I need to tell my own story so will cut it short, but thanks for the memories….

  4. cfigallo said,

    April 29, 2008 at 5:33 am

    And thank you all for adding to the story.

  5. Judith said,

    April 29, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    cool thanks all…thanks for the memories. and the thoughts. Elizabeth died in 2001…this next Friday, may 5, would be her 86th birthday.

    the song, A”ll God;s Critters git a place in the Choir” is also the theme song for Ding Out! with larry Kelp, which follows Dead to the WOrld on KPFA on Wednesday nights at 10 PM. still one of my relaxation frebies every week…I rad the Chronicle food section for veggie recipes etc, and unwind to Davod gans doing the Dead and then Larry Kelp and All God’s Chillun if I’m awake and not dealing with some neighborhood or family crisis.

  6. Judith said,

    April 29, 2008 at 8:55 pm


    “Sing Out!” not “Ding Out!”

    what a subconscious typo…

    the Dinger herself, Judith

  7. Judith said,

    April 29, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    PS especially to martin.

    yep, Elizabeth WAS one of Srephen’s problem students. it kind of runs in the family… *grin*

  8. Judith said,

    April 30, 2008 at 3:10 am

    Martin,as long as we’re on the topic…

    you know who-all else from the House of the Seventh Angel in Nevada City wound up on the Farm?

    Dawn and Rowland for sure, and you…do you have an idea of some other names? maybe Sylvia Anderson?(I know she also did Wheeler’s and/or Morningstar, as did Beatrice…)

    Elizabeth went by the name Betty Wallace then – she was married to Dean Wallace, an art and music critic for the SF Chronicle and the Call-Bulletin before that. Dean is still living in North Dakota, as far as I know. Dean did some MNC in the early days, hard to say how much of it he “got.”

    PS all-thatshould be “Sing Out”asLarry Kelp’s good folk showon KPFA, , not “Ding Out” – dinging out is what I do,heh.

  9. Don James said,

    April 30, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    The last time I talked to Elizabeth was in 2001, she must have been sick then because she seemed pretty grumpy for her and I didn’t understand until I found out she had died. I called her “dude” in one of my emails, like
    in “hey dude, what’s up?” and she shot back to me that she was almost eighty years old and not a “dude”. It just seemed pretty incongruous but I just went thru several years of health issues (emphysema and epilepsy) and have a lot more compassion now for people who get sick and how grumpy it can make you. (although I have that problem when I’m healthy, haha).

  10. Judith said,

    April 30, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Elizabeth died in May 2001, a few weeks after her 79th birthday, so you got her as she was definitely looking into the last sunset…and ELizabeth loved a party, especially if she was “Queen of the May” and didn;t want to say goodbye at all though her body wasfading into that horizon…

    as a close relative whom she eventurally considered her “spiritual heir” whatever the hell that means; can testify that grumpiness was part of E’s character all along! and remember I;ve known her since I was born and she was my Aunt Betty, having an ongoing feud with my mother who was also named Betty. Elizabeth could be sunny and warm, trremendously funny, and really supportive, and she could at the same time do what her close friend Lorraine referred to as “just about ripping you a new asshole” if she didn’t like something you said. Patience and forbearance were never her forte, and she was very honest about that.

    sorry to hear that you too are dealing with the ephysema thing as well as seizures. I’ve learned a lot about both of these, ,mercifully second hand. hope you find a road to health…Judith

  11. May 4, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Im sorry to hear that about Elizabeth

  12. March 23, 2009 at 2:25 am

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