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.