Friday, January 23, 2015

The Back-to-the-Land Hippies and The Lost Generation

A long, long time ago, in 1974, I was a graduate-school dropout from The University of California at Santa Babara and an "official" member of the Hippie movement. Admittedly, I was in it mostly for the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but there were a lot of people I knew who were really into it, who really talked up the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the casting aside of the old ways of belief and thinking. (For those of you who want to explore the whole Hippie phenomenon further, there is, naturally, a website called Welcome to Hippyland devoted to that.

We were Hippies. We drove -- and lived in -- our vans VW , we wore our hair long, we wore our clothes weird, and we wore our smells patchouli (in the mistaken belief that the overpowering scent of patchouli would cover up the odor of the marijuana smoke in our cars when we got pulled over by The Man), and we grabbed up so many copies of the Whole Earth Catalog that, ironically, the printing of which laid waste to entire forests. The book was great, and even Steve Jobs eventually characterized The Whole Earth Catalog the Google of the 60s.

One dream that everybody had was to go "Back to the Land". Everyone was lulled into a patently false sense of "we can do this, we can really do this!" by publications like the Mother Earth News magazine ("Five Acres and Independence!"), the Foxfire magazine and book series ("Make Your Own Bacon!"), and a thick yellowish-pulp-paper national catalog of land for sale at ridiculously low prices, the name of which escapes me now (and for which an Internet search turns up so many false positives that it would be like finding a straw in a haystack to identify it -- maybe one of my literally dozens of readers can help here...).

So it was decided we would some buy some plot of ground out of this catalog, then all move onto the property, start a commune, raise our own food (vegetables, chickens, pigs) and, in the words of Lenny in the 1939 film of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, "Live off the fat a the lan'!" There was even some vague talk to house the whole commune in a built-by-hand "sweat equity" geodesic dome, based on the "plans" in Steve Baer's Dome Cookbook, or move into in a amateurly clobbered-together house constructed on the concepts in Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher's Art by Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro.

As most of you know, I grew up on a farm, so I knew how much work running that rural paradise was really going to be. It was at that point that I more or less delicately excused myself from the deliberations. I knew that these slacker layabouts would likely starve to death the first winter, since none of them wanted to get up before noon, they couldn't slaughter a pig if their life depended on it (which it would), and the only "crop" they were interested in harvesting off that five acres of independence was marijuana.

One of my favorite writers, T.C. Boyle captured this whole idea masterfully in his novel, Drop City, which was kinda-sorta based on the very real commune of Drop City in Colorado, and springboarded off of the idea that somebody back then had had that all free-thinking, free-spirited hippie-types ought to move to ... Alaska(!). Because Alaska had such a small citizenry population that it was theoretically possible to get enough of the "right kind of people" to move there and register to vote so that a true "Hippie Haven" could come into existence. Legal pot! Yay!


A lot of that catalog land, it turned out, was for sale so cheap because it was in such remote locations that it would require a week of backpacking just to get to it. But there were a few places that were not so remote -- the more civilized parts of Montana and Idaho featured prominently in these dreams, despite the fact that, like Alaska, pretty much none of these "new homesteaders" had actually ever been there.

Finally they settled on Ferry County, Washington. It had it all -- remoteness, cheap land, a leave-'em-alone attitude from the local authorities, and a county seat, Republic*, that had fewer than 1,000 residents.

There were some reasons for that. In winter Ferry County gets socked in deep by ice and snow, and in summer the heat is enough to melt the bumper off a Buick.

About that time I had had enough of the Californian neo-bohemian Hippie lifestyle, and hightailed it back to Washington State, where I eventually got a job working for The Man (i.e, the state), and settled into a nice lower-middle-class existence. But there was always a part of me that kind of wondered what I had missed by bailing out.

So. Fast forward a couple of dozen years, and I found myself in Republic, Washington, for my job (for a while I was in the state administration of Americorps), where I thought I recognized someone from those days. I was reluctant at first to approach her -- wary of the whole "So you're working for The Man now, huh?" thing, I guess.

But approach her I did and asked her if she had lived in Isla Vista, California, in 1974. Turns out it was her, but she didn't really seem to remember me clearly -- she seemed as spaced out then as she was back in the day.

She was the only one of that group who had made good on the plan to move to Ferry County and get back to the land (by getting in with some other people, who actually knew what they were doing), but here she was 25 years later, still living in poverty, still acting distracted and spacey, still smelling of patchouli and pot, even still wearing the same clothes! And living on a commune nestled between two anti-government bunker-building gun-toting food-hoarding deer-poaching survivalists.

I asked if all the neighbors got along with each other. "Better than you'd think," she said. "We don't trust the state, they hate the state, and we all just leave each other alone."

Good advice, that last part. But that whole situation vis-à-vis the hippies and their survivalist neighbors didn't really surprise me. Both groups shared many common goals and ideas and ways of looking at the world. But one is fully armed and the other isn't... If a fight starts, who do you think is going to win it?

So that's pretty much how the whole Hippie experience played out. Most people finally grew up, decided that society wasn't so fucked up after all, ended up getting jobs and mortgages and living in the real world, i.e. "selling out". But some didn't, and while I'd like to believe that everyone made the choice that was right, for them, I know that for every Ferry County Suzy Starburst happily settled into a bucolic Hippie paradise there are ten homeless street drifters living in cardboard boxes, chugging 40s and spare-changing at shopping-mall-entrance curb-cuts The ones who aren't dead from Agent Orange, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, exposure or just plain poverty.

Sadly, in many ways, they really did turn out to be, like their forebears, the young people in the 1920s, a "lost generation".

 Republic WA, by the way, is famous for something else: The Stonerose Interpretive Center, which is a sure-'nuff fossil bed that is, amazingly, open to the public. That means that you can drive there and pick away at an Eocene Epic fossil site. And it doesn't take long at all to actually find a real fifty-million-year-old fossil! That you can keep and take home with you! And this, as far as I know, is the only site of this kind anywhere in the world. I think the only reason it hasn't been picked away completely by now is that it is so remote -- it takes a whole day to drive there just from Seattle. Plus it is so easy to find a fossil that most people chip away only a foot or so of the strata before they find their fossil and get tired.
But it is a real thrill to chip away carefully at a flat piece of sandstone until you get it split and reveal the perferctly formed ghost leaf from fifty-million-years ago. There's nothing else like it.

1 Comment:

One Fly said...

You dirty hippy you. Just up the road from Drop City just outside Gardner were two communes that still exist to some extent to this day. A few never left and some have returned and they have a "Hippy Days" celebration every year. A lady who came and lived in Libre one of the communes wrote this book.

In the county seat of Walsenburg where I also reside there is still talk of those damn hippys.

Good post!