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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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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