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.

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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.

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(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.

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