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.

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(Photo: Gerald Wheeler)

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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.

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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.

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(Photo: Cliff Figallo)

The teacher

Three straight nights in Trailways bus seats had me yearning for a night in any kind of a bed. Shades of Blue afforded me that accommodation, but with conditions. I shared the bottom forward bunk with Anita and the two girls. I was buzzed, trying to absorb the changes, trying to relax my brain after two hours of intense concentration, and irresistibly wondering about the nature of my relationship was with Anita, with this new culture, and with Stephen, who’d led this rolling community of nomads around the country.

I lay on my back with the rhythmic sound of the distant surf providing a background theme to the snoring accents provided by my bus mates. I dozed off in snatches, each time waking to realize that I really was in a converted school bus near the Pacific Ocean.

I wondered what my friends would think of this or how I would describe it. We’d been known in high school for our acerbic sense of humor, our dark cynicism about the world and our joyous celebration of the bullshit nature of life on Earth. So far, I’d found no room for irony or sarcasm on the bus. Someone had explained to me that “Stephen says sarcasm is anger and we ain’t into that. Anger is violence on the Subtle Plane.” There were different planes where levels of our consciousness dwelled. I’d have to learn them to understand how Stephen’s students communicated.

My friends would have had a field day with that. Yet, as they’d mostly admitted in frustration, they hadn’t a clue what they wanted to do with their lives. Or more to the point, what they’d be able to tolerate doing with their lives. They hadn’t ridiculed me when I told them I was off to join a nomadic tribe of longhairs. Much as they didn’t want me to leave, they couldn’t suggest a better idea for me or for themselves.

I wondered if I’d be able to find such good friends among this new group, or anywhere here in California. Would I be able to change to be like these transformed people? Would I be able to restrain my skepticism, keep a lid on my sarcasm, and still enjoy life in this far out culture? And more immediately, what would happen after tomorrow, when the adventure known as the Caravan would come to an end on its return to San Francisco?

***

With the first light of day I heard the strange sound of metallic pounding followed by hollering. It repeated over and over, getting louder until I could understand the words.

“G’morning! Drivers’ meeting in a half hour.”

BONG…BONG…BONG! The vibrations shot through our bus and a tall shape moved past the window. “Good morning!” came the loud baritone.

I watched as the wiry figure stepped to the bus next to us and pounded a mallet on its bumper. “Good morning! Driver’s meeting, then stow and go!”

Donald had leapt out of bed and was pulling on his jeans.

“Wanna come to the meeting?”

“Yeah, sure!” I gently disentangled myself from the arms and legs of my bunk mates.

Donald was heating water for tea on the stove. The rest of the bus family was stretching, yawning, greeting one another. The bus creaked on its springs as people moved about in the cramped interior.

“Mu or mint?” Donald asked. I chose mint.

We sat on the front platform and sipped.

“So, what are your plans now that you’re out here?” he asked, looking me in the eyes.

“Well, I guess I really don’t know. I just thought this was what I had to do. Come out here, I mean. I don’t know what happens next. What about you?”

“We’ll see. Life’s a trip.” He smiled over his cup. “Let’s go to the meeting.”

The ocean air was chilly in the parking lot. Just beyond the pavement the ground fell away. A hundred feet below was a rocky beach, surf crashing invisibly beyond the receding fog line. The bus drivers, I assumed, were flocking to a small group in the midst of which stood the tall slim figure who’d been wielding the mallet. So this was Stephen.

Seeing him in person, the first characters that came to mind were Don Quixote and Confucius. He stood silently, watching attentively as each person approached. His eyes locked with mine and he gave a nod of acknowledgment. I gave mine back.

We were about 40 or 50, standing in a bunch, hanging on the first words about to emanate from Stephen’s mouth. He took a deep breath, held it briefly and let it out through pursed lips.

“Good morning. I ain’t gonna say much this morning, it being our last day on the road. We’ve just about made the circuit, just about made it home. We’re gonna pull out in a half hour. That’ll give us time, when we get to the city, to figure out where we’re gonna go, where we’re gonna park. It’s been a trip, don’tcha think?” He laughed, full and hearty. I could imagine, yes, it had been quite a trip if even yesterday’s afternoon ride was a sample.

“So if any of ya need gas money, see Peter. Drive careful on this windy coast road. Keep together and we’ll see you at Ocean Beach.”

That was it. Someone yelled, “Stow and go!” and a flurry of activity began. I considered introducing myself, but there seemed to be some urgency to getting ourselves back to the buses. Donald led me back through the maze of vehicles to Shades of Blue. By the time we got on board, the bus family was almost done with the traveling preparations. This, for them, had become routine. Engines cranked up. Some hoods were thrown open then slammed shut after making adjustments on aging engines. Donald turned over the straight six and it roared to life. We waited, idling, to take our place in line.

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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.

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The Shades of Blue

I got big hugs in the doorway from Anita, Krissy and Janine and was pulled up the steps into an interior that looked very different from the one I’d built in Virginia. Set aside the fact that Anita’s sister was no longer aboard – she’d decided soon after joining the Caravan that communal bus living was not for her. Indeed, the apparent arrangement on the Caravan was that, unless you were a family with kids, you filled up all available space in your vehicle with whoever wanted to join the community but didn’t have their own vehicle. So Anita’s bus – which, after painting, had been christened Shades of Blue – was now the mobile home for 10 people plus the newcomer, me.

Instead of the single bed platform I’d built in the back, there were now two double-decker queen-sized sleeping platforms, with another low platform butted up to the back of the driver’s seat. Thick foam pads covered the platforms. The ceiling was partially covered with rectangular, ill-matching carpet samples, glommed for free from stores found along the route. A small gas stove crimped the aisle-way, with a short plywood counter and sink making up the kitchen. A straight length of black plastic tubing directed drain water through the floor to the ground.

Tall Erik needed to bow his head to move through the bus. I plopped down on the platform behind the driver – a blond, lion-maned fellow named Donald – and was introduced to the rest of my traveling companions. The names entered and vacated my mind in an instant as the bus was put in gear and began to make its way out of downtown LA.

Janine and Krissy were happy to see another familiar face from their past, and they snuggled up to me where I leaned against the cool metal wall of the bus. The smell was a mixture of incense, pot, sesame oil and the musky aroma of unwashed laundry and human bodies. And while one of the “ladies” (as they called grown females) began to prepare food at the counter, most of the rest arrayed themselves on the platform around me and stared forward through the windshield.

We talked about my ride across the country and about their escapades in the southern traverse, including a run-in with some hippie-hating cowboys in Colorado. My companions were all single, none of them California natives. It was disconcerting to me that the expression “far out” was uttered so frequently. It seemed to serve as an all-purpose response to any statement, covering the full range of meanings from just barely OK to absolutely miraculous. It was the comma, colon, period and exclamation mark in our conversation.

Most of the far-out-espousing folks had joined the Caravan after encountering it in towns or campuses where Stephen had been invited to speak. The Caravan had not been planned, but had formed spontaneously when people who’d considered themselves students of Stephen decided to accompany him and his family’s bus on the journey. Together, they provided a supportive real life example of the peaceful collaboration at the root of Stephen’s presentations.

As I’d learned from his book, Stephen was married to a wife and also to another couple. Like the people I’d met on the New Hampshire bus, he lived in a four-marriage. And yes, the Shades of Blue passengers told me, there were many – maybe a dozen – of these configurations on the Caravan, each formed in a flash of loving inspiration that was beyond rational explanation.

I’d traveled as a naive teenager through Europe, even through the week-long Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, and through the exotic Arab culture of Tunisia, but I had a feeling that I might have just dropped into an even stranger rabbit hole.

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