Respite in the cottonwoods

Though several of the buses needed to stay behind in Rawlins, the rest of us were free to find our own spots to wait out the repairs to Stephen’s bus. Given that all of the disabled buses were 15 to 30 years old, finding replacement gearboxes and differentials would take some time.

We drove a few miles beyond Rawlins, surrendering some elevation to gain warmer weather, and found a nice deserted park near the North Platte River, close enough to the highway that we’d be sure to notice when the Caravan drove by. I’d bought a roll of masking tape to lay out a straight edge along the fuzzy trim job that I’d painted. With nothing else to do for a while, we spent time entertaining the girls, and laundering and airing out the blankets, sleeping bags and sheets while learning more about one another.

Over the several weeks of this leg of the Caravan we’d gotten to know a few other four marriages, all identified by the names of the male members. Besides Peter and Gerald there was John and William, Peter and Thomas, David and Richard, Phillip and Warren, Richard and Michael and others. We’d also become familiar with most of the named buses, some of them called by the town where the bus had been bought and some by a feature of the bus itself. There was the Stockton Bus, the Santa Rosa Bus and the Manteca Bus. Then there were the Screen Door Bus, the Pear Bus, the Loft Bus and the Raised Roof Bus. Mixed in with the full sized buses were a few shorty buses, bread trucks, delivery vans, VW microbuses and one creative rolling object called the Cadillac Camper, which fused a cab-over camper meant to sit in the bed of a pickup truck with the front end of a late-50s Caddy.

Shades of Blue was a relatively new and well maintained vehicle with a strong engine that allowed it to pull uphill grades faster than most of the others. It was fast enough that it almost got me in trouble once as I pulled into the passing lane on a long climb and began advancing beyond the magic place in line beyond which only Stephen and the four marriage buses were supposed to be. Rudolph calmly called that fact to my attention and I pulled my foot off the gas until I could pull back into line at a proper place.

If you were heavy enough to be in a four marriage, you were demonstrating what Rudolph referred to as “thunder yogi” commitment. It was one thing to suppress your own ego. It was a higher commitment to marry someone and give over to that person. But to make a marital commitment between two couples represented a level of surrender that earned you at least a position near the front of the Caravan. I suspected that it also gained you a certain level of trust with Stephen since you were following his example, not just his teachings. Rudolph had been around Stephen longer than the rest of us, but he couldn’t explain the phenomenon of four marriage.

Not understanding that mystery was fine with me. At least we could talk about the principles that Stephen taught and how they applied to real life, because that’s what it was all about. In essence, what I’d joined was a community that believed in telepathy, or at least a community that assumed that it shared some telepathic connections. And by that, I understood that Stephen taught a blend of spiritual stuff and advanced physics, which together defined individual humans as electrical beings generating fields that intermingled. When we referred to vibrations, which we did quite frequently, we were talking about our sensitivity to those electrical fields. Bad vibes, good vibes, happiness and grief – you didn’t have to say anything or be looking into each other’s eyes to communicate them. You could feel them and react to them, sometimes without knowing their origin.

But words, too, carried more than their literal meaning. Truth – absolute truth – was supposed to be the minimum standard for our verbal exchange. Untruths became all too visible in Caravan conversation. All those little white lies that I’d assumed were OK because, well, everyone else relied on them, too – they didn’t pass the test on the Caravan. This old habit could make me uncomfortable s when talking with Rudolph or visiting veteran students on other buses. I had to recalibrate “my zero” to be meticulously honest about my feelings, my history, my attitudes. It wasn’t so nerve wracking on Shades of Blue where Kristin was pretty loose about things and Rudolph was naturally gentle about telling me that I was taking liberties “on the subtle plane.” But some folks – especially, I noticed, some of the single males from the bus families – would call me on stuff I wasn’t even aware was happening.

On my first day on the Caravan I was busted for sarcasm. My attempts to bring humor and levity to conversations often stirred remarks about “subtle plane anger” or uptight or “clenching up the vibes.” And my becoming more self conscious wouldn’t make things any better, bringing accusations of “looking in my rear view mirror” or being “self-other.”

With experience, I became more familiar with the players and which ones were considered to be the “astral conservatives” of the community – the ones who most carefully watched behaviors for violations of Stephen’s teachings. I gravitated toward the “astral liberals” who – it was said – tended also to be more conservative or meticulous on the “material plane.” Were people actually neater if they allowed others to get away with sloppy spiritual practice? I couldn’t tell. Caravan life was not for neatniks.

There was a lot to figure out in those rare minutes when we’d get to hang out with people during our overnights in the rest areas. Our extended stay alone in the cottonwoods by the river allowed me to tap into Rudolph’s experience about the social dynamics of Stephen’s flock. It had been less than a year since I’d earned my bachelor’s in psychology, but I could not, for the life of me, map Stephen’s social system using the tools, theories and practices I’d learned.

“You’ve got to get into Buddhism,” Rudolph suggested. “Stephen’s into Suzuki Roshi, who founded the Zen Center in San Francisco. He cops to him as his teacher and a lot of what he talks about comes out of that, along with psychedelics. You gotta dump your ego to understand it. If you do, you won’t care so much what people tell you and you probably won’t be so self-conscious about what you say.”

I’d never felt like I had that much of an ego. My friends and I were all about self-effacement – making light of the flaws in our own personalities and presumptions. Was I supposed to think even less of myself? Was I supposed to not have a viewpoint?

“Suzuki says you should just sit. That’s the Zen way. You’re probably thinking too much about it. I’d just cut loose and read your mail.”

Read my mail?

“Yeah. Pay attention to what other people and the Universe are telling you. That’s your mail.”

One morning – we’d lost track of what day it was – Krissy called out, “The Caravan! There goes the Caravan!” Through the trees we glimpsed the signature white shape of Stephen’s bus rushing by with its trail of colored blurs. We packed swiftly, then pulled onto the pavement with the accelerator mashed to the floor. The governor didn’t allow us go exceed 55 mph, but we kept the speedometer pegged there for over an hour before we caught up with the slowest bus in line.

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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)