Learning to be us

5farmbusWe’d been in Tennessee for about four months, three of them on the Martin property. We were living primitively and tentatively – many of us in frail shelters that would not stand up to cold weather, and all of us living on land that was on loan from people we barely knew. We were living in what could easily become hostile territory, surrounded by deeply-rooted families and clans that had probably heard only the worst rumors about hippies and their ways. Our neighbors for many miles in every direction were evangelical Christians, gun users and predominantly nostalgic for the good old days of the Confederacy and all that it stood for.

If any kind of shit were to hit the fan, we barely had a leg to stand on, even with the hundreds of legs we were walking on. And yet, we had not been run out of the county and the state. We had sequestered ourselves in the woods – where, of course, we assumed our neighbors felt comfortable roaming freely – and we’d closed the gate to visitors and people wanting to join us. We had our hands full and we knew it. But it was still more like a tough and rustic summer camp than the founding of Jamestown to us. Maybe it was the fact that we still had many running buses and there was a recognized escape clause cached in the backs of our minds. Anita and I had surrendered our ace in the hole by allowing the vehicle mechanics (working in a clearing in the woods called “the motor pool” due, no doubt, to Stephen’s military experience) to scavenge essential engine and drivetrain parts from Shades of Blue to repair a similar bus that was going through a Frankenstein-like reincarnation as a giant pickup truck. The Shades, which I’m sure was one of the best-running buses on the Caravan, had been put out to pasture. We no longer lived in a bus; we lived in a trailer.

During the days we’d be off in some part of the woods or another, out of touch with the rest of what was going on. Almost all of the men and women had community-based jobs. There were about a dozen school-aged kids in the community and a growing population of babies. Ina May, who’d lost her own baby on the way to Tennessee, had emerged as a force in the community, taking charge of our overall health standards. She was serious about making midwifery and home birthing safe. She knew it was sane, and as each baby was delivered, the vibe circulating in the community was one of confidence in the whole idea of home birth. We were a pregnant couple and we embraced the knowledge that our child would be born in our home, not in a hospital. But Ina May was not content for us to learn only by trial and unthinkable error; she had made contact with a local country doctor. The kind of doctor you can only imagine these days – kind, honest, modest, experienced, competent, friendly, respected – the rock of a small town. Dr. Williams had delivered many babies at home, including some at the nearby Amish settlement. He appreciated Ina May’s sincerity and what we were all about. He became our insurance policy — a gateway into the establishment health care system.


Sunday morning services had become magical events for me, like the church services I’d always longed for but never found as I was brought up Catholic. The closest I’d come had been the rare times when I was in elementary school and my Italian grandmother would take me to a local Franciscan monastery for high mass. It was a throwback experience to the middle ages – dark, dense frankincense smoke, echoing with the voices of chanting monks, and driven by the mysterious Latin declarations of the mass. Somehow, those ceremonies had moved me, but they had no relationship to how I lived. The mass was a communal ceremony, but there was no commune to go with it. Now I had the commune, and I understood why they called them “services.”

Awakened in the dark by the whispered greetings of a Zen scout, we’d pull our clothes on, grab a blanket and a couple of pillows and walk down the muddy road in a loose procession, greeting one another quietly, as if we were already in church. Some had flashlights; some relied on starlight. We passed our gardens – the most inspiring symbol of our unity – and ascended a short grade to a cleared hillside overlooking the narrow valley where both the creek and the railroad tracks ran. At the top of that grassy hillside, we’d all spread our blankets and sit on our pillows facing the ridge line across the valley. It would be full night time – still but with a pulsating background of crickets, frogs, owls and other bird calls we didn’t yet recognize.

In Zen meditation, you don’t close your eyes. You watch, but you don’t get caught up in watching. More accurately, you observe, but not as a scientist, “looking for something.” You don’t engage in analysis of what you’re observing or thinking, but you put out as little effort as possible avoiding that analysis. I’d usually find myself getting preoccupied with my not being preoccupied. Yet none of that detracted from the uplifting experience of simply being there with all of those people, together in such a remarkable situation, observing silently as a group while shooting stars spanned our collective vision and waves of frog chirping rose to crescendos and then subsided. The Universe seemed to be putting on a presentation about scale and communication for our benefit. And in that human silence, we communed loudly. The collective realization that we were together on a wild and audacious adventure was palpable.

I’ve mentioned the train, and there was always a scheduled pre-dawn L&N freight chugging up the watershed grade headed toward Lawrenceburg and the Alabama line, dragging a long line of cars keeping a noisy rhythm as the crossed the rail seams. And each time the train made its approach from a distance, I made a little room in my consciousness for Ray Bradbury’s classic time scrambling story, “The Train” where the source of the fire, steam and rumble was assumed – by two noble knights in the early second millennium – to be a dragon. Were we from another time, a time of magic? Was this dragon challenging us and our noble intentions? Whatever it meant, the train would pass and disappear, its air horn a faint call in the distance as it approached Route 20, some miles away.

Eventually the sky would begin to brighten, almost imperceptibly at first as dim shapes took stronger form, then accelerating to reveal colors and extinguish stars. The critters noticed and we were reminded of how many species lived there with us. Conversations would begin among mourning doves, crows and finally the wondrous whippoorwills with their pulsing call-and-respond. There were brilliantly clear mornings when the sun – revealing itself at first as intense spangles of light penetrating the forested ridgeline before us – emerged so brightly that I had to shut my eyes tight as we began the Om.

Stephen had cut loose of blowing the ram’s horn to lead the chant. It was all voice now, and he was good at starting with a note we all could carry. Deep breath, then exhaling through as steady a note as you could follow, getting the most volume for the longest duration, paying full attention to your larynx to slide your note smoothly from a full “Ah” sound at the beginning into a full “Oh” then a full “Oo” and ending with a resonant “Mmmmmm.” Ah-Oh-Oo-Mm. Over and over as the hillside choir transitioned organically in to a round of overlapping Ahs, Ohs, Oos and Mms – a slowly pulsating vocal wave that seemed to fill each of us with the voices of all the others. And after a timeless period of chanting, probably lasting less than 5 minutes, the wave would tail off, first to only fifty voices, then to 30, to 10, to 5 and then last wavering individual’s finish.

You’ve probably had the experience of sitting quietly with over 100 other people, rushing en masse immediately after witnessing some entertainment act or occurrence, or as the afterglow of hearing an amazing speaker. That would be there in spades, but add to it the social commitment we were making, even in our tenuous situation, to accomplishing something meaningful together.

Rising in the dark, meditating on a hillside with only the train to remind us of civilization, trying hard to put into our meditation all that Stephen was teaching us about his teacher’s practice, absorbing the presence of the life force around us – the dense biology of Tennessee in full monsoon, the elemental effects of oming in such a large bunch – that post-chant silence was so rich with the sense of community that you could hardly stand it. It was a relief when Stephen would rise and turn to us, the sun behind him, and call the couples forward who were to be married. It was a simple ceremony of the betrothed repeating vows to one another after being led by Stephen. A big hug, a big smooch, a wave of joy and unspoken “mazel tovs” and the couple (or couples – there usually being more than one) would take their seats and Stephen would scan his gaze across our crescent-shaped assemblage. He’d take his signature deep breath, exhaled through pursed lips.

At that point he would begin to voice what was in our heads. He would talk about the remarkable opportunity we were making for ourselves. He would talk about how important it was that we were there, in that place at that time, working toward doing something real that would serve the world. He would acknowledge our mistakes, the weaknesses that were being revealed, the challenges that we faced, but without sounding phoney or too gung ho, he’d provide us with the purpose we were taking this leap – and it had nothing to do with us as individuals; it was about us, “tilling the square inch field” so that the square foot would be served.

He would talk for 40 minutes or so, ending with something like, “I love you, God bless you, and have a spiritual day.” In spite of all the work there was to do, Sundays for all except those on Gate duty would be devoted to taking walks, visiting neighbors, reading spiritual books (a huge collection of which was always in circulation among us) and family activities. Anita and I were adjusting to the fact that we were no longer loosely associated; we were married for life, with children and another on the way. We would be having that child probably in Shades of Blue.

We were all “characters,” as my mother used to describe people she didn’t quite understand. How could we not be, having chosen to take such an outrageous path? We enjoyed getting to know these characters, with so many different backgrounds. Clearly, we had all arrived at this point due to different influences. My highly typical upbringing as a smart middle class kid was not common to many of the neighbors.

But we were going through experiences that would stamp us with shared history for life. We were developing a language that would bond us for the time being. We tried to help one another avoid getting “holes in our buckets.” We strove to keep our “chi” on and to act from our “higher selves.” We followed the Mahayana path of Buddhism – the “big boat” path that said that no ultimate enlightenment can come until all sentient beings are enlightened. We followed the Sermon on the Mount path of Christianity – taking the word of Jesus more to heart than the interpretations of disciples and scribes who came after. We took it seriously that “life is a free will trip,” and that only our lack of will prevents us from being the people we knew we should be. But we took it just as seriously that we could fail and fall, with the constant possibility of redemption and recovery.

During my weeks of working in the dirt, mud and dead leaves, I was constantly in school to learn about building relationships that mattered. It wasn’t always comfortable. It wasn’t always uplifting. But it felt like what I should be doing.


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)

Quest for land

We spent the next two days sprinting east, the accelerator pedal mashed to the floorboard. On April 6th, we reached the outskirts of Nashville as snowflakes were falling. Snow in April in the south?

I followed the parade onto the exit ramp but when I took my foot off the gas and pressed the clutch to slow for the stop light, the engine kept revving.

“What the fuck! I can’t slow the engine down!” I stabbed repeatedly at the gas pedal, thinking the linkage must have been stuck. Meanwhile, the buses ahead pulled away, headed I knew not where.

“Choke it,” Rudolph yelled. “Pull the choke just enough to cut the revs.”

I pulled out the choke knob and sure enough the engine did just that – it choked to a halt.

“Not so much. Just feather it a little.”

I restarted the enginet, then pulling gently on the choke knob, it found a slow but sputtering idle. As I let out the clutch, I pushed the gas pedal and carefully pushed in the choke. We pulled out across the intersection and soon caught up with the bus ahead of us. All the way across town, I manipulated the three controls as the early spring snow began accumulating on the street.

“This is fuckin’ crazy,” I mumbled with every challenging intersection or slowdown. Finally, we emerged from the urban streets and headed out a country road where it was just us climbing a gradual hill, arriving at a campground where each vehicle or two could fit into a parking slot with its own picnic table. This was Old Hickory Lake campground, our temporary encampment. With great relief I shut down the engine.

The campground was not the end of the line; it was our beachhead in Tennessee from which we would send out scouts to find some land to buy. We had a lot of self-education to do about where we wanted to be and what kinds of sellers would actually entertain an offer from a group like us. Surely, even if we found an interested seller, there would be other issues to deal with, from the attitudes of neighbors and local government to the proximity of the land to population centers and resources like water.

I figured, rightly, that the land scouts would be chosen from those closest and most familiar to Stephen. And besides, I had a bus to fix. Rudolph and Kristin decided to move in with other bus families composed of singles like themselves. Before leaving, Rudolph and I diagnosed the problem and narrowed it down to the carburetor, which apparently had a frozen throttle linkage, most likely do to our forcing it to its limits hour after hour, day after day.

I borrowed some tools, and armed only with my common sense, set about removing and rebuilding the carburetor. Going into town for parts would be a great inconvenience, though the group did need to do town runs for food and sundries.

I pulled the carb and soon had it and all of its guts laid out on the picnic table. The bent member from the linkage was easy to identify and, with pliers and a ball peen hammer, I reshaped to what I figured must have been its original condition. The next day I reinstalled it and the engine was fixed. My first ever mechanical job – success!

Word had spread across Nashville about the hundreds of hippies that had arrived from California to buy land for a commune. On our second morning in the campground, a Sunday, we looked out from our hilltop perch at a line of traffic stretching solid for as far as we could see down the road. The curious Nashvillians moved slowly through the campground, at the pace of a funeral procession, ogling us with our hair, our bell bottoms, our granny dresses and our colorful mobile homes. We were like the gypsies come to town – an unimaginable circus of unlikely transplants squatting  just over yonder from the Grand Ol’ Opry.

The easy access to our living situation must have worried the local authorities;  we were, after all, sitting ducks for any locals yahoos inclined to run us out of the state by any means possible.  So after several days at Old Hickory, we were moved to a more secluded, limited access campground on the shores of Percy Priest Lake.  Our parking spaces there were surrounded by trees and brush, and park rangers controlled the amount of traffic allowed entry.

Some of the four marriage buses set out to explore potential land deals in Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. The rest of us took the opportunity to hang out and get more familiar.

For the first time since I’d joined the group, Anita and I decided it was time to introduce ourselves to Stephen, together. He knew Anita a little bit, but had never really met me. Being the de-facto preacher of the group, it made sense to ask for his blessing.

We knocked on his bus door one morning and Michael let us in. The interior of the bus was rich with color and light, its walls decorated with glued-on oriental carpeting, its bed platforms covered by paisley prints from India. I had the feeling I’d entered something between a Bedouin chief’s tent and a majaraja’s throne room. Stephen and Ina May sat together on one platform, Margaret was standing at the stove, Michael sat in the driver’s seat as we took our own seats on a small bench near the front.

I told them my background of having read his book, caught up with the Caravan and deciding to stay with both Anita and the community. He asked me some questions that seemed relatively trivial, though not what I’d call small talk. I noticed that they also had two young girls on their bus – Dana and Martha – both sitting in the upper bunk in the loft at the rear of the bus.

As heavy as it was – I was totally cognizant that their family had lost a newborn only the week before – I was feeling pretty good that I was passing some kind of  test, that I was an OK fit. But then Stephen gave me my first personal teaching.

“Well, you may be wearing the pretty purple pants, but Anita’s the one really manifesting the bus. You ain’t done shit yet, but you got hope. I think you got it in you to be the manifestor no matter what you’re wearing.”

I looked down and sure enough, I was wearing the gaudy purple bells I’d bought the previous year as part of my getting outfitted as a proper hippie. Part of leaving my rebel political persona behind was dumping the military surplus garb and heading toward the extremes of Summer of Love couture. I was thinking, “This is the last time I wear these pants.” But then I tried to understand what Stephen was really telling me. I didn’t have a chance to do much more than nod in respectful acceptance as he dismissed us with a sincere and compassionate smile.

“Thanks for coming by. We got some other stuff happenin’. We’ll see you around.”

I had learning to do. Anita thought it had gone exceptionally well with Stephen and seemed deliberately to not rub it in. It was not like she was supposed to back off; I was supposed to step up.

Soon after that we met of a couple of Haight Ashbury veterans I’ll call Lester and Joanna. We almost instantly became friends with them, the first regular couple we’d had a chance to spend extended time with. Lester was a very knowledgeable student of Stephen, seeming to have internalized not only the teachings, but also the language that we recognized from the book. Lester was glib, funny and engaging. Joanna was more quiet, but clearly very intelligent. They were both good with the girls and we spent time walking with them around the campground, chattering away.

One afternoon Lester told us, “I can get us some peyote. You into drinking tea with us tonight?” I had pretty good memories of my first experience with the sacred cactus, but not so good memories of the second. I checked with Anita. She was into it, so “Yeah, let’s do it.”


That night, by the light of our kerosene lantern we each downed a good half a cup of tea and waited for it to come on. It was my first nighttime experience with it and the visuals steadily became more intense until our individual boundaries began to melt away.

We’d been friends for only a couple of days, but it felt much deeper than that. We had become, in that previous hour, parts of the same family. We were the same individuals, but I was one with the other three and they all with me.

Lester’s voice seem to penetrate my brain, my heart, my gut as he described our psychedelic unity in terms of a spiritual bond, a joining of souls….a marriage. It was incontestable. We had, indeed, gone beyond the bounds of individuality and reached the place that Stephen had described in Monday Night Class – the place where he and Margaret had to cop to Michael and Ina May that something had occured that caused them to agree to join and remain together to commemorate it.

To say that my mind exploded would be an understatement. And to describe that night with any more analysis would betray the irrational magic that clearly took place. The night was long, but without a sense of time passing. The next morning, without having slept, but charged with energy, we took a stroll around the campground in what appeared to be an entirely new world. It seemed fitting to drop in on our original Caravan acquaintances in the New Hampshire bus.

Daniel and Allan had their heads under the hood of the old bus, which had been refusing to start since the day before, when they’d attempted to drive into town for supplies. All the previous afternoon they’d tinkered with it – both of them were electrical engineers, with good understanding of how the material plane worked. The ladies invited us to come inside and immediately caught the vibe that something had happened among us.

“Noooo…. you didn’t! Did you?” Fanny’s mouth dropped open. Allan stepped into the bus and sat in the driver’s seat to try cranking the engine again.

“Allan,” Fanny said, “These guys got married last night.”

“No shit!” He turned the key. The engine instantly roared to life. Maylee looked as if she’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Damn, you guys are packin’ some juice!”

That convinced even more that we’d progressed to a new level of consciousness. So that’s why the four marriages led the Caravan. There must have been something to it, some new power gained by taking the leap. That morning, it was not ours to question, but to fulfill this new cosmic promise. I thought – though just for an instant – How will I ever explain this to my folks?

The next day, Lester and Joanna gave up their bus – a nice 7-window – to another couple and moved their few possessions in with us. The next day, the Caravan was back on the road. We had two prospects for land to check out – one in Kentucky and one in Arkansas. And what better way to assess them – and have them assess us – than with the entire population.

It was a one-day drive to the Kentucky land, where we were allowed to park for the night and take unstructured tours. I tagged along with a group that roamed through meadows and woodlots for hours. It looked nice enough, beautiful in fact; I was hardly qualified to judge its suitability for farming or its capacity to fit all of us, since we numbered nearly 300 and I expected we’d be growing once the late arrivals caught up.

On returning to the bus I noticed my big duffle bag sitting on the bed, only half full of the clothes I’d brought from back east.

“Anybody know what happened to my stuff?”

“I buried all your leather.” It was Lester, speaking matter-of-factly.

“You what???”

“You know we ain’t into animal products. It’s animal skin. We don’t wear it, so I buried it for you. The boots, the fancy fringe vest, the belts. If you’re living with us, you ain’t gonna wear that shit.”

“But you can’t just take my stuff and bury without getting straight with me first.”

“I didn’t want to hassle with you about it. We all agreed the best thing to do was to get it over with and put it where it belongs – where you’d put any dead animal – in the ground.”

I looked at Joanna and Anita. They could barely look back, but didn’t contest what Lester had said.

“Great. Well, I guess I’m pissed and that’s not straight. And I’m sure no one’s gonna stick up for me here. So I’m going out for a walk.”

It took me a good hour to come to terms with it. I sort of had plans to mail it all back to my brother, but where was the karma at for that? If I’m not into animal products, I shouldn’t be into empowering other people to use them or eat them either. It was a hard reckoning, but Lester was right. Either I was into the agreements or I wasn’t.

I was wearing my Chucks and those were the only non-leather shoes I had. I wasn’t going to wear leather, and I wasn’t thinking of leaving, so the decision was made. I went back to Shades of Blue and made my peace with the family.

The next day at the drivers’ meeting, Stephen explained that our showing up as interested buyers had brought the owner’s family out of the woodwork and ignited a major feud about the ownership rights of the land and who could legitimately sell it to people like us. The uptight would have tainted any deal we could make, so we promised to leave the next day. off to the middle of Arkansas where another parcel was waiting for our appraisal.

On the ride down, we started seeing the first signs that the euphoria of our four-way communion was fading The power differential between Lester and I was starting to get under my skin. He had plenty of self-confidence, but tended to be one of those astral conservative types. Anita was definitely not liking my displays of affection toward Joanna. And she was having a hard time feeling or showing affection for Lester. I tried to rationalize it, thinking that we were simply dealing with our individual flaws in being open to others, which demonstrated why the commitment was really the best thing for us, as far as being spiritual students and all. Our problems stemmed from the ego we knew we must overcome. We just had to work harder on suppressing those ugly, selfish thoughts.

By the time we parked on the Arkansas land, we were ready for the loony bin. Something had snapped. Anita had withdrawn into a shell. Joanna and I were the only twosome able to converse, but all we could talk about were the problems of the other two. We insisted that we all four visit one of the established four-marriages to get advice and counseling. Surely, this – like marital problems experienced by regular two-marriages – was a typical stage of getting used to the new configuration.

We expected one of the original San Francisco four-marriages to chuckle appreciatively and assure us, “Oh, THAT one. We all go through that. You’ll grow out of it.” But that’s not what they told us. In fact, it seemed more like the symptoms we brought to them only served to raise the grain on their own problems. In their attempts to analyze our situation, they were confronting their own inabilities to resolve the four-marriage conundrum. There was nothing simple about it, no roadmap, no manual nor even lessons learned.

It was hot, humid and infested by mosquitoes in that place. We were mentally miserable and grateful to hear that we’d summarily rejected that piece of land. But getting back on the road toward Nashville with our heads so screwed up was like a journey into Hell. Time seemed to stand still and the word had gone around that we were headed for yet another possible land deal, or at least a piece of land where we might be able to stay a while – a more private scene than the public parks around Nashville’s major recreation areas.

The vibes were indeed curdled. Obviously this wasn’t working out, but it was impossible to change the living arrangement with the Caravan on the road. The hours and miles crept by. Anita wouldn’t talk to anyone. Kristina and Janine were wondering what had happened to their mom, and I’d lost all of her trust by acting at times as if she was the main problem. But we were supposed to by psychic yogis, weren’t we? Wasn’t this the kind of work the spiritual path demanded of us? To overcome petty emotions like jealousy and open ourselves up completely to one another? Or could all of this be bullshit?

After an interminable drive, the Caravan headed down the long straight of an unpaved road between open farm fields. The buses pulled over and parked next to a long wooded stretch on our right. Apparently, this was the place. Lester and I got off the bus and joined a large group of our men surrounding a local sheriff and what looked like some of the neighboring farmers, including a wiry old guy who looked none to happy to see us there.

Stephen was doing the talking, and one of his lieutenants was relating to us how a member of the family that owned this 600-acre property had met one of us in Nashville and invited us to stay temporarily on the land while we looked for a place to buy. The problem was, there were no roads through the property and we’d have to cut our own through the woods.

I walked back the bus. Joanna was nowhere in sight, but Anita was in the driver’s seat.

“I’m leaving. I’m taking the girls back to Maryland.”

“What? Why would you want to do that? We haven’t even tried to work this shit out yet.”

“It isn’t gonna work out. I’m leaving.”

“Well you can’t just take off with all our stuff in the bus.”

“Then I’m leaving the bus.” And she bolted out the door, walked through the high weeds, climbed over a barbed wire fence and disappeared into the woods.

We’d arrived at the Martin Farm. As it would turn out, the Caravan was over.


The sad long day

There’s nothing subtle about a procession of 60 buses and vans full of longhairs, and as much as we reveled in the attention of other motorists, we understood the attention paid to us by the state fuzz as we moved across borders and traversed their domains. We were watched by the troopers, by county cops and by sheriff departments making sure we were up to no monkey business. After the seizure of our stash in Panther Flat I assumed the word was passed on from one jurisdiction to the next that we were clean – or at least had been cleaned out.

And so, as we left Wyoming and entered Nebraska we were met by several troopers who led us along US 80 to a large rest stop. This had become the accustomed treatment during the first circuit of the Caravan, where one state’s authorities would call ahead to the next state’s authorities, advising them of the approach of a bunch of hippies needing a place to park a bunch of of buses for a night or two. At times whole rest areas would be reserved in advance to guard against the specter of a wandering Caravan suddenly landing in a shopping center parking lot, sending waves of uncertainty and panic through the local populace.

At the next morning’s driver’s meeting I was, for the first time, recognized and addressed personally,  in honor of my having cleaned up the Shades of Blue’s paint job. William (of the John and William four marriage) laughingly congratulated me for having eliminated the “spray paint astral” I’d inflicted on our bus and, by extension, on the entire Caravan. I appreciated the friendly attention.

It was common knowledge that Ina May – one of Stephen’s two wives – was expecting a baby. The due date was sometime after our anticipated arrival in Tennessee and people were curious to see who would deliver since Ina May had been the midwife for the babies born on the Caravan. But on our second day driving across Nebraska, we pulled off the road surprisingly early in North Platte, parking in a large lot in the early afternoon. This was not the kind of place the state troopers would have arranged for us. Word went around that Ina May had gone into premature labor. Anita was worried; it was way too early.

The next morning there was no routine drivers’ meeting. Instead, someone knocked on the door of our bus and somberly informed us that Ina May’s baby had been stillborn and would be buried there in North Platte after all the legal paperwork had been taken care of. The Caravan would stay put until after that, then would beeline south into Kansas.

We were stunned. Somehow, the good karma of Stephen’s family and the Caravan seemed to have failed. I understood little to nothing about the magic held by the group – I’d naively believed there was such magic and that it would protect us from this kind of tragedy. The death of a newborn was so far beyond my experience and comprehension that I half expected the Caravan to disband or at least regroup under a new mission. But as we gathered with others who’d been with Stephen since the early days of the Class, we found more grounded perspectives.

This was simply the way life was. Death was a certainty for all of us. It came way early for Ina May’s child, but it wasn’t an issue of fairness or deserving or bad magic. It just was. Grief was an inescapable part of life and we would move on. If anyone would understand this, it would be Stephen’s family. We couldn’t allow ourselves slip too far out into sadness for the loss of one infant because there was so much life still left in the rest of us. Our lesson should be to love and support one another even more, especially the few children who were traveling with us.

We hugged Kristina and Janine, did the small chores required to maintain our rolling home and waited for the return of our lead bus.

Hours later, the white bus returned and passed by the lot, honking its horn to alert us that it was time to stow and go. We were headed east again.

In the repair work done to Stephen’s bus in Rawlins, his old differential had been replaced with a two-speed overdrive unit, providing  it with another higher speed gear. So where Shades of Blue had, up to that point, had an easy time keeping up, we found ourselves having to literally “put the pedal to the metal” hour after hour just to keep pace with a faster Caravan on the flat highways of the Great Plains. Through the day’s run, Rudolph, Anita and I found our legs cramping from applying such steady pressure on the accelerator.

And a long day’s run it turned out to be.

We crossed the state line and found not two or three cop cars, but a herd of them that, with roof lights flashing, took the lead and following positions immediately. Were we supposed to feel honored? Was this the equivalent of a fireboats blasting high pressure fountains into the air when a famous ship entered the harbor? Or had they heard about our tragedy and decided to grant us a special escort to our next rest stop?

The first indication that this was something other than a positive reception came as we noticed patrol cars blocking the exit ramps from the freeway as we passed them. Not that we intended to pull off the interstate, but we weren’t even being given the option. Something was fishy.

With Anita at the wheel, I fished my duffel bag out from under the bed platform and pulled out the transistor radio I’d brought with me from Maryland. I hadn’t used since I’d arrived in California – the agreement on the Caravan was that we weren’t into listening to contemporary music. – something about it having become too commercial, corrupted and sold out. But something was going on and I wanted to know what.

I clicked it on, hoping the batteries were still good, then tuned around the AM dial scanning for news. We heard a traffic report mentioning “a convoy of buses” being “escorted” across the state by thePolice light police. No details were available, said the reporter. This would not have been surprising were it not for the fact that it had never happened to the Caravan before.

As we neared Wichita – the only big city on our Kansas passage – a car with radio station call letters on its door pulled alongside us in the high speed lane. A man in the passenger seat rolled down his window and gestured to us, indicating that he wanted to talk. I was sitting behind the driver in what we called the “shakti seat,” and slid down the window. The reporter and I began talking at one another simultaneously.

Me: “Can you tell us why we’re getting this escort?”

Him: “Who are you people?”

I told him – yelling above the wind – “We’re headed for Tennessee to buy some land and settle down.”

He yelled back, “We don’t know for sure, but there’s some suspicion that you’re headed for the big march in Washington. That you might be trouble.”

“We’re pacifists. We’re not political, man.”

Having taken part in some of the biggest marches in D.C., I knew there were plans for the biggest mobilization yet, coming up in April.

I asked him, “Tell ’em we’re not the people they think we are?”

He replied, “We can’t get through to the governor. They’re not talking.”

I figured that was that. I slammed the window shut.

Rudolph added his perspective. “This is the Universe telling us to ride it on out after Ina May losing her baby. We need to keep rolling and get to Tennessee.”

We nodded in agreement. This is the way it was. Don’t resist.

At dusk we crossed the state line into Oklahoma where the police hand-off took place. We stopped briefly and suspected that Stephen was making it clear that we were not who the Kansas governor thought we were. Soon after, with a less demonstrative escort, we parked in a pulloff along the interstate in open country.

Kristin emerged from the back of the bus with a paper bag in her hand, and headed out the door.

“I’m donating some stoned vegetation to this barren land,” she yelled over her shoulder. We were down to stems and seeds, and she didn’t want those seeds to go to waste. It was a small but sufficient excuse to celebrate after a heavy day.


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.


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.


(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.


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.


(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.


(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.


(Photo: Cliff Figallo)

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