Here we very well are

Melvyn had called himself Mordecai in San Francisco. He had to leave that nom de Haight behind and paint the roof of his van white to stay with the Caravan and live on the Farm. On Sunday mornings in the pre-dawn darkness he would walk down the main road and blow his conch shell, signaling that it was time to get up and walk to the meditation field.

Not long after we had settled the land, Stephen invented what would become our communal call. Just as the whippoorwills and crows had their own distinctive calls, we needed one to announce our presence across the ridges and between households scattered through the woods. The “yark” was delivered loudly, with an inflection somewhere between a yodel and a distress holler.

YeeeeAaaaaaaaark! As he did with the Om after mediation, Stephen at first initiated it, and then it was picked up responded to by everyone within earshot. It was an eerie sound, coursing across the meadows and through the trees, finally fading into the last few voices out there, somewhere. Like coyotes or wolves but sillier. If you weren’t one of us and somehow got close enough to hear the generation of a yark, it would probably make your hair stand on end.

“We are here,” said the yark. We are all fuckin’ here.

* * * * *

There was one phone at first, up at the House. Soon, a few more were installed for special purposes, again only at the House. If you wanted to make a call, you’d have to clear it with the Bank Lady and whoever was in charge of the phones. Sometimes the guys doing the Gate became couriers, driving or running down the roads to deliver messages. And when urgent news needed to be delivered, individuals would go on foot, door-to-door to alert everyone.

It was one cold morning when I remember Melvyn coming to our bus door to tell us that one of our members had died the previous night. She had come to the Farm at the invitation of her brother, a long time Monday Night Classer. She had some psychological problems, but we believed ourselves to be compassionate enough to accommodate and even heal people with her manic-depressive condition. She was a resident of one of the buses and – on a night when it was too cold to spend much time outdoors – she’d gone way into her manic phase and the efforts of one of her busmates to quiet her down somehow caused here to go into a seizure and die.

This was a hard dose of reality. We’d lost someone already; it seemed like we’d just arrived there. The sheriff was called in. Then the coroner. There was an investigation. The news got out. There were no charges pressed; it was judged to have been an accident. But as a community, we needed a solid spiritual intermediary like never before. Stephen provided just the right perspective. There was no blame. We looked again at the true meaning of karma – that it’s not about deserving. Dying was part of the deal. We’re all born; we all die.

This lady, Judith, was known to everyone because it was her nature to be conspicuous and usually friendly or even hilarious. We all knew her downside, too. But she – like many other challenged individuals who were to follow her as Farm residents – was embraced by the Farm and welcomed as part of our idealistic and inclusive approach to building a new and inclusive lifestyle.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, as we’d lost one of us for the first time, we began producing new ones of us at a fast-accelerating pace. Just after the new year, Anita announced that our baby would be born that day. This would be her third labor and she was sure of the signals.

I ran to ask one neighbor to go and  alert Ina May and to ask another household to care for the girls. Then, as I helped make a comfortable nest on the bed in the back of our bus, a pickup truck pulled up with three women. Ina May had arrived with two of her trainees.

She’d been checking on Anita – and the now dozens of pregnant women – for months and everything looked normal. She looked around the interior of the bus and noticed a stock portrait of Jesus hanging on the side of the bunk bed facing us.

“This has gotta go,” she said, peeling it off the two-by-four framing. “I want you looking at us, here with you, not this phony picture of Jesus.”

Frankly, I was relieved. It was that sappy, puppy-eyed depiction of the white Anglo Saxon Jesus. You’ve no doubt seen it somewhere.

Ina May left, promising to be back for the birthing, but we had one, two or three trainees and helpers there at all times prepare the scene and to keep an eye on Anita.

Part of the Farm midwives’ approach to home birth was to loosen up the mother to allow for the easiest possible passage of the baby. This meant, in part, changing the perception of the process from one of dreading the pain to one of accepting that a natural forces were at work.

Rather than call them “contractions,” we called them “rushes” – like you got when coming on to a psychedelic. You had to ride them out, not resist them. The other important technique for loosening up the mother was to get her turned on. The father was strongly encouraged to put the make on his wife during the rushes as a way of relaxing those bottom chakras.

I’d heard about this, but there had been no training classes for expectant fathers. Once the rushes began in ernest, Ina May returned and I became fascinated by the way she – backed up by her assistants – steered the energy. I was so fascinated, in fact, that I became a spectator rather than an active participant.

“Clifford, we could use a lot more involvement by you if you want to stay in here.”

And with that, I made myself an instrument of her midwifery technique. Late that evening, I was privileged to witness the true miracle of birth, where a living creature that was not here with us one moment, was here with us the next – conscious, breathing, crying, feeling the air in the bus along with the rest of us. It became a joyous party, but with meticulous inspection of our new arrival going on in the narrow aisle of the Shades of Blue.

We had no name waiting for this boy baby. We had a warm spot between us under the layers of quilts. And once the midwife crew left, we moved a kerosene lamp close to the bed and gazed at the little critter we’d made. It was bitter cold outside, the stillness broken only by the pitiful little squawks of a newborn child.


Settling the Swan

The Martin Farm had been practice, a dry run for the real thing. We’d had to treat it as such because we had no choice. For all we’d known, we could have been there for over a year. Sanitation and shelter couldn’t be put off, and even as it was we’d experienced epidemics of hep and staph. Nasty wake up calls indeed. But now began a whole new era where the land would be our own. We’d talked enough about the prospect over the summer to crystalize the agreement that this would be a lifelong commitment. We had big plans, deep, long and noble plans.

Buses that hadn’t been cranked over for almost 5 months got lowered from the blocks that had held them level with tires off the ground; their engines were jump started by the motor pool guys and they trundled up the road and out the front gate. Being one of the disabled buses, Shades of Blue sat there forlornly waiting for the next round of migration, to be towed by one of the stronger trucks to a new parking place on the new land. Finally our turn came. The chains wrapped around our frame and we lurched along down the rutted road, out onto Drakes Lane and through the hollow, past our trailer-dwelling neighbors, to the new front gate.

Most of the arrived buses and vans plus all of our people still living in makeshift plastic and canvas shelters had headed down the crude, overgrown logging roads to what then seemed like idyllic sequestered spots in the forest. Because we were being towed, our choices were more limited. We were dragged down to the far end of the cleared land. We stopped and looked around. Across the field we noticed an oak tree that stood taller and fuller than any of the spindly second-growth trees around it.

“How ’bout over there?”

Jose, our tow truck driver shrugged his shoulders. “Looks good to me.”

The chains were unhooked and we found ourselves in a shady spot with a nice view of the meadows that – we envisioned – would eventually be transformed into fields of grains or vegetables. There were enough low-lying saplings and shrubs screening us from the roads to provide some privacy. We stepped out of the bus and surveyed our surroundings. There was a slight depression leading down to a seasonal creek bed that had gone dry through the end of summer. Halfway down the slope, the Raised Roof Bus had parked with its contingent of single folks. About 30 yards away was the Santa Rosa Bus, with the four-marriage of William and Joseph and their two kids.

“This is your yard, girls,” Anita told Kristina and Janine. We reminded them to watch for the poison ivy and to keep an eye out for snakes. At the Martin Farm a few timber rattlers had been encountered and the locals had assured us that the woods and creeks were home to copperheads and water moccasins, too.


Within the first few weeks we decided to call our place for what it was: the thehouseFarm. We christened the end of the open field where we’d parked our bus the Head of the Roads for it was from that point that the logging roads radiated like spokes from a hub: First Road, Second Road, Third Road and our new address, Fourth Road. At the entry gate to the property, adjacent to the house – which was labeled The House – a small sentry booth was built out of rough-cut lumber. This would be our Gate House. You could fit four people into it, sitting in a circle on its built-in bench, but barely.

Over the first few days as we all wandered around and explored the property, we discovered that if you followed First and Second Roads through the woods, they eventually dropped into beautiful meadows just above the main creek on the property, Cox Branch. The Second Road Meadow was chosen as our Meditation Field where, every Sunday, we would gather before sunrise – just as we had on the Martin Farm. But here, there would be no train running through our meditation. And from the spot at the top edge of the meadow, where we would sit, we would be looking across the canyon of Cox Branch at the thickly forested ridges of our own land.

As we’d done on the Martin Farm, we adopted the creek as our bathing facility. Skinny dipping was the way, and for those first innocent weeks it felt natural to socialize with our friends in the raw. We were opening up to one another at every level.

First priority – again – we set about digging shitters. We were much more spread out on the new land and more latrines were necessary. At the same time, we began planning the new water system and putting together a simple factory for building pre-fabricated houses following a design we called a “Dutch frame,” which was based on trusses shaped like the profile of a Dutch barn. They were as economical a use of two-by-fours and four-by-eight sheets of plywood as you could devise. We all had hopes of having our own simple houses before winter.

The very elegant sorghum mill was being completed on a hillside below the main road. The not so elegant motor pool was being located not far from it. And the barn that had come with the property became the home to two Belgian Percheron draft horses we’d bought from the Amish down the road. Twice every day, those massive horses pulled a wagon through the community – in the morning to pick up our empty 5-gallon water jugs, in the afternoon to deliver the filled jugs.

As we’d begun to do on the Martin Farm, we sent laundry runs in to the Summertown coin-op several days a week. A rotating crew of “laundry ladies” loaded into a box-back truck for the short ride along with sacks and buckets of soiled and smelly clothes. The neighbors in town were no doubt a little put out by our taking over their small laundromat, but they soon adjusted their schedules to avoid us while we set a priority on building our own clothes-washing facility. And as more of our ladies got pregnant and babies started popping, the urgency around clothes and diaper washing would become even more intense.

The weather cooled and the leaves began to fall. The woods were spectacular with color, especially as we’d gaze at them bush-tired every sunset and on Sundays at sunrise after meditation. We were working harder than most of us had ever worked, under primitive conditions, but we were in our glory. In these days we were all the most optimistic true believers. Compared to the cynicism and despair I’d felt a year earlier, I harbored no doubts about my path in life. I’d found a common mission with almost 300 others.

We were establishing a sanctuary. Sometimes we’d think of it as a “family monastery.” Stephen had negotiated a treaty with the local sheriff, T.C. Carroll, where T.C. agreed to not enter our property as long as we kept order within our borders an didn’t export any disorder into his turf. We reached out to our immediate neighbors in the most helpful ways possible, and to a remarkable extent we were accepted into the extended community of Lewis, Maury and Lawrence Counties. At least we were tolerated by even the most begrudging natives.

As the weather cooled we created the role of Farm Scammer – our intrepid shopper for essential hardware items for the community, notably wood-burning stoves. There proved to be plenty of them out of use and available in old barns and backyards in the country all around us. Some had been built for burning coal, some were classic pot-bellies, others were true log-burners. The Scammer brought home sections of stove pipe and flanges for mounting the pipes through our bus and tent roofs. We were all such naifs and amateurs, but we were forced to learn the rough skills of tinsmithery, firewood sawing and splitting, the building and tending of heating fires.

We got ourselves a miniature pot-bellied stove, and in the mild chill of late autumn it had no trouble heating the inside of our bus beyond the comfort level to where we had to crack open the windows.

Anita, like about a dozen other ladies, was definitely showing her pregnancy. Ina May had begun to select other women to train in the skills of midwifery. She’d found a friend and mentor in Dr. Williams, the local country doctor from Mt. Pleasant, who had decades of experience delivering babies at home. All of the pregnant women were checked often by the midwives in training, following the Doc’s guidance.

By the time December rolled around, we were having some truly cold and raw weather, with hard frost in the mornings. We slept under layers of blankets and sleeping bags. The little wood stove could still warm the place, but it held too little wood to burn for long after we’d gone to bed. Mornings would be bitter , with ice crystals on the inside metal roof above us. I’d jump out of bed to load my prepared stack of tinder and kindling in the stove front, light a match to it and jump immediately back into bed, panting, lips quivering, toes frozen, hoping the fire would roar to life. Another frantic scamper would have me carefully inserting the next stage of kindling that would eventually result in enough heat to ignite a big enough chunk of wood we could burrow under the covers for the 20 minutes required to raise the interior temperature.

The Farm was still buying its food wholesale from local dealers, and having put so much money down on the property, the food rationing for that winter was pretty strict. You got a certain amount of flour, a certain amount of oil, margarine, beans, pasta, carob, salt, pepper, oatmeal, and our own Old Beatnik Sorghum Molasses – from the batches that weren’t good enough to sell. We learned to roll tortillas and make bean burritos. Some of us knew a little about edible plants and we’d bring dandelion greens and sorrel when we could find them.

We had plans to put all of our cleared land under cultivation and maybe even to grow on some local rented land. A busload of us returned from an apple picking gig in Michigan with bushels of fruit, but we could only eat so much of it. We had no operations for canning or freezing or dehydrating fruit at that point.

And as the winter came on, the rains came with it. What had been dry dusty roads turned to deep muddy bogs. We hunkered down in the cold. And on one especially frigid night in early January, our son Timothy arrived to this world in the Shades of Blue.


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)

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)

Lane markers in the fog

In late afternoon we joined the coastal highway – Highway One – and began following it north. I rested my head against the window and stared in amazement at the spectacular scenery revealed around bend after bend of steep hills and cliffs and rocky shoreline. Compared to the flat and sandy beaches of the east coast, this was mythic topography.

Joints had been passed around, and I’d taken more hits than I’d probably taken cumulatively before, which only made the west-facing panorama more mindblowing after 3 days of imprisonment in the Trailways cruiser. I couldn’t take my eyes from the coastal scenery until darkness made it invisible.

An hour or so into that darkness, Donald called to me from the driver’s seat.

“Hey, Clifford. You can drive this thing, right? How about taking over for a while?”

First of all, no one had called me “Clifford” since the last time I remembered my mother scolding me as a child. I’d been “Cliff” to most people, and “Fig” to my closest friends. Being addressed by my full given name touched a nerve. But, as they’d explained, part of their way of regarding one another in Stephen’s way was to dispose of diminutive or cute nicknames, and return to the actual non-ego-enhanced names that we’d been given at birth. Part of the impetus for this policy, I gathered, was the proliferation of new age pseudonyms that hippies had taken to celebrate their rebirth into a new lifestyle. No one on the bus was going by the name “Rainbow” or “Earthdancer,” thank God. But what could be wrong with “Cliff?”

My second unspoken reaction to Donald’s request was, “Oh, shit! Sure, I drove this hulk on three occasions but I hated every second of the experience. Why should I believe I can drive it now, full of innocent passengers, in the dark, in the – what is that? Fog? …on a narrow and winding, unfamiliar road skirting sheer drops of hundreds of feet into rocks and ocean?”

For whatever reason, I answered back, “Uh, sure, that’s cool, Donald.”

“Far out. I could use a rest.”

We pulled over and I slipped into the seat behind the huge steering wheel and 3-foot long shift lever. I double-clutched and clanked the lever into first gear. Ever-so-slowly, I merged back onto the road, accelerating slowly to avoid catastrophe as impatient drivers swerved around us. Finally, attaining a modest cruising speed I found my palms sweating as I realized just how thick the fog was and how limited was the range of our headlights.

All I could see ahead were about 50 feet worth of lane reflectors. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction were almost upon us by the time I detected the glow of their lights cutting through. It was terrifying, but at the same time exciting because, looking into the inside mirror, I could see that every passenger was gathered close behind me, staring intently into that same foggy wall, willing us to stay in the lane, on the road and out of trouble. A strangely confident feeling of being guided by a collective consciousness infused me, and my concentration felt all-powerful. Time stopped, and our collective attention combined with the few visible lane reflectors to lead our way through the fog into a glowing circle of light.

Eventually a peripheral reflection beyond the road caught someone’s eye. “There! Pull over!” I released the accelerator and coasted as our lights caught the fog-muffled colors of more buses in a roadside parking area. Forcing a noisy downshift, I trundled the bus off the highway and lit up the resting herd of the Caravan. We were, Donald said, somewhere near San Luis Obispo, and the tension of the road was suddenly released. I would spend my first night as a communal vagabond, across the continent from what had been my home.