Summertime jungle

We were kinda freaked to have Anita disappearing in this unfamiliar place. Yet, the woods beyond the barbed wire strands were not the deep, dark kind. They looked like second- or third-growth trees with few over 20 feet tall, mostly a variety of oak with some hickory mixed in. It looked much like the forest I’d roamed often near my home in Maryland.

We sat on the bus and talked about the situation with the girls and they seemed OK with the idea that she was upset and had gone out for a walk. We figured she’d be back shortly, and was not trekking into the next little town to catch the Greyhound.

Meanwhile, someone had supplied us with a couple of chain saws to help clear a way into the property. We were amazed to see two of the local farmers manning the saws, taking out saplings and routing the new passageway around the larger trees. We joined the others in chucking the small trees to the sides and within a few hours Stephen was in the lead again, moving into the forest at a careful snail’s pace.

Guessing that we were more likely to find Anita in the woodmartinfarmmeadow3s than out on the highway, we took our place in line and trundled Shades of Blue along the uneven path – now defined by the tracks of 30 preceding buses – until we emerged into a beautiful creek-side meadow, half filled by the white-roofed buses of the Caravan. We were directed to park as close as possible to the bus ahead of us, so as to take up as little space as possible.

We immediately left the bus to search for Anita and noticed that railroad tracks followed along the other side of the creek  The polished rails told us that it was an active railway. We thrilled the girls with our prediction that a loud train would be chugging by, probably sometime soon. Maybe even in the middle of the night!

Just up the creek, in the shade of a huge beech tree, sat a ramshackle farm house, its siding greyed by the weather, leaning slightly toward an eventual collapse. We were situated in a bowl of creek bottom land, surrounded by scrubby woods. If this was the only cleared acreage on the 600-acre property, we’d be needing it for gardens, to grow the food that we’d become so eager to plant.

Through my teens, I’d worked every growing season in my father’s large organic garden. I enjoyed being in the dirt, rototilling, planting the seeds and seedlings, irrigating, watching them grow and finally scarfing the product of  my labor. My dad had been an early subscriber to Rodale’s oddball “Organic Gardening” magazine. Once I’d discovered Doctor Bronner’s soap in the late Sixties, its labels crammed with new age philosophy, I wondered if he and Rodale had been tripping buddies.

After a walking circuit of the meadow, Lester, Joanna and I agreed that we had to talk to Stephen about the crumbling of our four-marriage, or four-engagement. Maybe it had just been a four-date. We’d run out of clues for solving the predicament we were in, and the energy of arriving at this new place was too high to allow us to wallow in a bummer relationship.

This was certainly not the first thing Stephen would want to hear after such a long, hard day. Just facing off with the sheriff and neighbors out on the road must have been the heaviest meeting he’d been in for long time. He’d gone face-to-face with that wiry little guy, Homer, who’d threatened to get his shotgun to run us off. And from that place he’d negotiated peace – actually, more than peace – he’d persuaded those neighbors to lend us a hand in settling here in their back yards.

Now here we were, wrapping up Stephen’s day by bringing him a dysfunctional relationship to fix – presenting him with clear evidence that we hadn’t followed his teachings somewhere along the line.

In Stephen’s bus Lester began to recount the story of the past week, with me and Joanna adding details up to the point of Anita’s disappearance. Stephen was unconcerned about her whereabouts. He figured she knew what she was doing. She’d spent years in the Army, had borne two kids, had gotten her bachelors degree and driven a bus most of the way across the country. She would show up. “But you guys don’t know shit about what you’re doing, trying to do a four-marriage when you ain’t even got your two-marriages together. You gotta get back to your original relationships and work it out some. See where your agreements are at.”

Simple and to the point. We nodded, mostly in relief, and headed back to Shades of Blue, discussing how we’d manage the dissolution since we’d stuffed all our collective stuff into one bus. Lester gracefully volunteered, “We’ll score some plastic sheeting and set up a shelter ’til we can build ourselves a better place.”

I told him I appreciated his taking Anita and her kids off the hook. It was the logical solution, but I didn’t envy him living on the forest floor, especially after someone had loudly announced an encounter with  a rattlesnake in the meadow.martinfarmmeadow11

On arriving at the bus there was Anita, sitting happily with the girls. Her expression became wary as we told her of Stephen’s advice. She tried not to put it on us too hard, that she’d had the same thought.

By nightfall, Lester had made arrangements and he and Joanna moved to temporarily crash  with another bus family. Just after nightfall it began to rain. And just before dawn, the train came by, waking me with the lonesome, distant wail of its air horn as it passed through an intersection down the tracks. I listened, enthralled, as the rumble of its diesel engines rose to fill the meadow air, its many cars dragged past us on a long upgrade. The two little heads of the girls protruded, enthralled, in the bus window, watching the dark moving shapes until the caboose rolled by.


At a group meeting the next morning it was announced that we were moving the vehicles up the hill and into the woods. We’d need to cut some more trees, but there was an old logging road we could use as our “main street” once we abandoned the meadow. The plan was to immediately  get ourselves a tractor and start gardening, It was May and we couldn’t waste the growing season if we were going to see a harvest.

Moving the buses proved to be a massive operation, with the soil so wet from the rains that the uphill tracks soon turned to a quagmire. The call for “Monkeys!!” went out repeatedly and gangs of us pushed bus after bus through the slop. At the end of the day – our clothes and bodies coated in red Tennessee muck – we headed for the creek to rinse off, thereby creating one of our first communal social hangouts.

It was Day 2 on the “Martin farm” as we called it, honoring the owning family that had granted us a free and indefinite lease. We were thoroughly appreciating having our “own” place, even if it wasn’t really ours. At least we were away from gawking tourists taking the measure of us at their convenience. We could sense the first hints of the freedom we hoped to realize when we bought our own land. We were beginning now from scratch. Whatever we made of this opportunity, it would be our collective work, built from the ground up. We shared a future of infinite possibilities, and most of us were just getting to know one another.

Up in the woods, we backed Shades of Blue into a space between several young hickory trees. We were not far from the meadow. Stephen had pulled his bus into a natural clearing that he shared with several of the four-marriages. Without saying as much, everyone understood that the clearing would become “command central,” the source of decisions on how we would develop our new rural home and how we would spend whatever money we were throwing into the collective pot. We were to be a collective, but there was no question that we were following Stephen’s vision. Whomever he chose to manage our money, it must have been a wise choice.

Then there were the living essentials to be dealt with: food, clothing and shelter. But even more important were water and sanitation. We no longer had roadside service stations for disposing of our shit. Outhouses were in order, and hand-digging was our only option.

And being off the road meant that we’d have to bring the food from the outside in to us. One bus became the store bus, making weekly forays in to town to bring wholesale product to the community. No money needed to exchange hands anymore. If you were there, you got your ration of food.

We all had the clothes we’d brought with us. There were a few foot-powered treadle sewing machines among us, and when clothes wore out, they were patched and resewed together.  As to shelter, if you weren’t still in a bus and didn’t have a real tent, you would, like Lester and Joanna, string plastic sheeting from the trees to make a primitive shelter.

Our remaining cash was turned over to the first appointed community banker, Peter. Once the money was collected into one account, he had the responsibility of deciding on how it would be disbursed. Besides food and plastic sheeting, there were needs for tools and medical supplies.

The damage were were doing to the soft skin of our citified hands combined with the constantly high humidity to breed staph infections the likes of which none of us had ever seen. The hippie remedy called Golden Seal didn’t stand a chance against it. So it happened that one of the first hippie lifestyle elements to be chucked was herbal medicine. With the help of a local doctor, we went on high dosage antibiotics, testing the deep-held beliefs of more than a few of us.

For lack of any other manual skills, I become one of the first members of the Shitter Crew, and thus one of the first serious blister victims. In spite of my previous gardening experience, this was the first time in my life that I was digging holes big enough to bury myself in it.

Picking and shoveling down through the loamy topsoil, through the rooty subsoil, into the layers of orange and red chert that mixed rocks and clay, for hours I’d work and sweat with the distinctive smell of chert saturating the still air around me. We worked in teams of two, spelling one another every half hour or so. I hadn’t been inspired to put my BA in social psych to work, and now I was doing some of the most basic and ancient work tool-using creatures had ever done.

Once the holes were dug, we’d hand-cut small trees into sections to lay across the opening, then fashion a seat from one of the surplus 55- gallon drums scammed by our local scavenging team from sources in the region. Once enough shitters had been built, I joined up with a fellow named Paul to fashion a running water system for the community.

At the same time, our newly-formed Farming Crew brought home a vintage green tractor – an Oliver, -and implements for breaking and cultivating soil. to reach the chert road, Drakes Lane, we’d cleared the old logging road and at that intersection we erected a wooden gate. This was our interface with the rest of the world and the only point of access, beyond which only approved visitors would be permitted to pass.  Stephen – who’d for a time manned the gate at Camp Pendelton during his U.S. Marine days – appointed a fellow ex-Marine named Leslie to be our head “Gateman,” and from then on, the Gate would determine who came and went. Being unarmed pacifists, we had only our wits for enforcement.

In a clearing not far from the Gate we established another military-inspired institution: the Motor Pool. One of its first projects was to transform a full-sized bus into a giant pickup truck, aptly named The Big Pickup. Some smaller Caravan vehicles were commandeered for use in running errands into town and moving materials around.

Next to the main village road, a rustic outdoor kitchen was assembled to cook lunches for the working crews that were now fully employed all day, every day except Sunday, our spiritual day. Under tarps strung between trees, primitive counters and tables were fabricated out of sapling trunks.

Martin, an avid Stephen student in his later teens, was entrusted with the role of “Zen Scout Master,” riding herd over the dozen or so kids aged 5 and up. One of the Zen Scout duties was waking the adults on Sunday mornings at around 4:30 am for the walk through the darkness to pres-down meditation and lecture. On a sloping field beyond the garden, we’d sit in Zen-style meditation until the sun broke through the trees on the ridgeline across the creek where, most of those mornings, the train would pass by.

Stephen was constantly engaged in public relations with local officials and influential citizens of Lewis County, where we lived, and the adjacent counties of Lawrence and Maury By some grace, we were not being harrassed or run out of the area by reactionary natives. We were sequestered in the woods, having little or no exposure to the people who, frankly determined our being here. I didn’t make my first contact with neighbors until I began working on the water system, when Paul and I arranged to use one of the town cars to buy plumbing fixtures at the closest local hardware store.

We pulled into the town square of Columbia and I was struck by its vintage appearance. We could have been visiting a small town in the 1930s, and the illusion was made even stronger when we entered the quaint hardware store. Old farmers in bibtops regarded us with cool curiosity, arrayed as we were in our long hair and hippified work clothes. Obviously, we’d need to emulate these guys and get ourselves our own bibtops and ball caps real soon.

The oldtimers gave us plenty of clearance and I had to remind myself that in the last month in the woods I’d lost some awareness of personal hygiene. After so many days of physical labor and profuse sweating, with no running water, I was probably stinking up the place. Yet, once we began asking the clerk questions about pipes and fittings, the vibes took a relaxing turn, and by the time we left, we were on a friendly first-name basis with at least 3 of the local fellas. Paul had such an innocent and engaging manner, his friendliness was pretty irresistable.

He and I and another Paul discovered a pretty strong spring on the Martin property and we began spending our days digging it out it and building a captation box to hold the water once it emerged from the ground. We bought an electric pump, but we needed to run electricity through the woods to power it. For general usage, we had the local power company to provide us with a construction drop outside the Gate along Drakes Lane. From there we ran the 3-conductor lines through the woods, hanging it from trees using Coke bottles as insulators.

For water storage and to provide pressure in the lines, we needed to build or otherwise secure an elevated reservoir or tank. It so happened that one of our land-hunting scouts had come across an abandoned boys’ summer camp with two water towers they were willing to part with if we’d just come pick them up.  A team was picked and the Big Pickup was sent on a mission to bring home one of the towers with its 5000-gallon tank. One member of the team had an engineering degree. He would figure out how to safelylower the 50-foot tower into the bed of the 30-foot truck.

Things were moving along well with our amateuwater system project when the epidemic struck. It would have taken me a long time to figure out what was bothering an increasing number of people. The malady began like a cold or flu, then rapidly progressed into them feeling completelyweak and wasted. But when the unmistakeable symptoms of hep showed up – pee like dark tea, grey shit, and yellow eyes and skin.

The story went around that we’d harvested water cress from a local creek downstream from a leaking outhouse. I caught it early in the epidemic but Anita somehow managed to avoid infection. For almost two weeks I lay in our damp bed trying to summon up the strength to make it across the road to the outhouse I’d built. Over the course of my most wasted days, I managed to read all of Tolkein’s Ring Trilogy and The Hobbit.

After two weeks, when I was well enough to get up, I was still unable to perform physical labor so I volunteered for Gate, duty. It was the one place where we regularly interacted with people who weren’t us. As a major focus of local curiosity, we owed it to the people of southern middle Tennessee to at least attempt to answer their questions about us. Better to get it straight from us than from a rumor.

This was a major piece in Stephen’s brilliant public relations strategy. For many reasons, we couldn’t offer to take outsiders on tours; they’d have to take our word for what we were doing inside the Gate. But we were truthful in telling visitors that we were too industrious and busy to provide entertainment, and that it was not our land to permit others to visit.

As Leslie – Stephen’s hand-picked leader of the Gate crew – would advise me, we should lead the conversation, turing the questions around to learn as much about them as they were learning about us. For them it might be satisfying curiosity. For us, it was gathering vital knowledge and building trust.

In Stephen’s exploratory visits to the county seat – a small burg called Hohenwald – he’d found that what most concerned the locals wasn’t our now notorious use of hallucinogens; it was the prospect of us introducing the morals of free love to their kids. So one Sunday morning in early June after meditation, Stephen announced  that he he had declared himself to be a minister, with us being his congregation. With the ministerial powers thereby vested in him, he would begin presiding over marriages. We were going to become legally monogamous to allay those local anxieties. Stephen then took it a step further by stipulating that  standards more morality would include the stipulation that those among us who were balling should thenceforth consider themselves engaged. Those who intentionally or unintentionally found themselves pregnant, would be expected to get married. His offer to begin marrying couples took affect the next Sunday.

It was around this time that Anita let me know that – based on her experience bearing two daughters – she knew she was pregnant. She’d had Ina May confirm her suspicions and we were immediately qualified for the new marriage mandate. Though we’d considered ourselves to be sort of enganged, this  definitely raised the commitment question. If we were going to stay with the community, we’d need to get married. But we needed to engage in no soul searching. We’d signed on spiritually for the community. In fact, there was some feeling of celebration around an event that seemed destined for us.

We dropped by Stephen’s bus and signed up on the marrying schedule. We’d have to wait until the end of July. We were far from the only ones discovering that marriage was in the near future. It seemed that once the Caravan parked for more than a night or two, we’d become a very amorous bunch.

We sent invitations to our parents, siblings and closest friends. Only my parents, brother and one friend were able to come, and the car ride from Maryland to Tennessee would be the longest trip I’d ever known my folks to take. They’d be there with us on the hillside at 6 A.M., and I knew it was going to put them through immense changes. They’d been shocked enough when I first got together with Anita – a single mom with two kids – even before we joined up with three hundred hippies and parked in the woods of the Deep South. Now I had to admire their spunk for agreeing to attend a ceremony they’d have a hard time describing to their friends.

The day before our wedding, Mom and Dad were escorted to our bus in the steaming  jungle by one of the Gate guys. It had been raining every night for weeks. The leaves dripped all morning and the days were a sweat bath. My parents worked hard to take it all in. Had it just been my family camping in a park, I knew they’d have been able to relate; for several summers in my elementary school days, we’d hack our campsite out of the woods and erect our canvas Sears Robuck tent on the shores of the Potomac River above Little Falls. Mom would beat to death any snake that dared slither onto our turf, using whatever implement was at hand. So it wasn’t just living in the woods that knocked them off kilter. It was “the rest of them” sharing the woods with us.

This was not simply a forest tribe hacking an existence out of a  jungle; it was, to them,  the beginning of a cult of personality surrounding “this Stephen guy.” And so, to numb that reality, they came equipped with a thermos of pre-mixed Manhattans, their favorite post-work-day beverage. They sat on the forward bunk in the bus, sipping their drinks. We refrained from lighting up doobies. I was still a bit jaundiced, so smoking had a tendency to wipe me out, but mostly I was trying to ease their culture shock. On the whole we were having a fine time, considering. They left well before dark to return to their motel in Mount Pleasant. We went to bed hoping we’d be seeing them at the crack of dawn. But then, the rain returned, right on schedule.

No Zen Scouts roused us that morning. Instead, following the thunder and lightning of the night, there was steady rain that persisted past dawn. We had to play it by ear; there was no way to contact the folks. When the rain finally ceased some hours into the day, I huddled with the other couple who was getting married alongside us. There had been one triple wedding; ours was the third double. We checked with Stephen and decided that we’d be wed in the Community Kitchen at around noon. At least we’d have a tarp over our heads. Maybe a few witnesses would show up, though it wouldn’t be anything near as cool as doing it in front of a couple hundred of our fellow settlers. In being present for others’ weddings, we’d seen that having the whole community present added a sense of family and shared commitment to the ceremony.

Mom and Dad showed up a couple hours after the rain stopped. I met them at the gate and led them between puddles down the road. They had their thermos in their bag and – in preparation for the nuptials – they toasted us until they got a little buzz on. We walked together with them and the girls to the clearing where Stephen met us. Rather than hold a 40-minute meditation, we stood quietly in a circle for a few minutes. The other groom, Anthony, lit up a couple of joints and passed them around. With only 10 people in the circle, including Mom and Dad, the doobies seemed to go ’round and ’round. Each time my mom passed one along, she looked a bit more aghast. I was hoping that maybe this would be good for her. I should have known better.

Stephen used pretty traditional marital vows. “I Clifford, take thee Anita, to be my wife…” But rather than say “til death do us part,” he used the phrase, “for as long as we both shall live.” Good, we thought, to keep the “D” word out of the “M” vows. Once both of our couples were married and we did a big group hug, it was time for the folks to finish off their Manhattans, hang out a bit in the bus for our “reception,” and then take off for home. It was all a bit surreal, but we sincerely appreciated them being present for our vows. Now they would know, for better or for worse, more about our scene.


Once I began to get my strength back, I rejoined Paul on the water crew and we drove into Columbia for more pipe fittings. We were getting downright chummy with a couple of the store clerks. We were building good karma with the locals. On the drive back, we talked about how stoned it was that the local folks were not only tolerating us, but treating us pretty fuckin’ well. Maybe we’d be able to stick around after all.

We turned onto Drakes Lane and drove the long, straight stretch to the Gate. We saw flashing red and blue lights in the distance and were instantly worried. When we arrived at the Gate, we pulled in behind a sheriff’s car and two unmarked cop cars. Mark, Leslie’s assistant at the Gate, saw us sitting there, our faces expressing concern and puzzlement. He strolled up to the driver’s side window, his calm belying the scene before us. We almost didn’t have to ask.

“We’re in the midst of getting busted.” He raised eyebrows. Yes, it was so.


(Photo: Cliff Figallo)