FREE-FALL CHRONICLES by Peter Coyote
Approaching Terminal Velocity
Pochteca - Nahuatl word referring to a mysterious band of
pilgrims who wandered the Mexican Empire in search for the land of the sun.
Travel was so necessary to unify and support far-flung communities, that the idea of a
Caravan evolved among us organically out of our normal life. We were about to be evicted
from Olema by new lessees, so for our group preparations for a family trip seemed timely.
The initial plan was to celebrate the Summer Solstice in Colorado at the Libré commune. I
don't remember who conceived that, but due to the panicked responses to queries we
received from Libré, I am quite certain that it was not them.
Prior to our estimated date of departure, I took a road trip North to Black Bear as a
shake-down cruise for my truck. Re-reading a journal sharpens my memories of how
serendipitous, comical, and turbulent life on the road could be, and after so many years
when I thought it had been lost, its discovery is like opening a sealed time capsule. I'll
share some extended quotes. Contemporary edits are in brackets.
Sun in Gemini - 1971
After months of labor Dr. Knucklefunky is reincarnated as The Meat and Bone Wagon - 49
Chevy one-ton, new brakes, rebuilt steering, suspension, engine, wiring. Everything
touched, looked at rebuilt or replaced. Wooden sides added to the bed, metal strapping
made into bows supporting a canvas cover; welding tanks chained to the running board.
Phyllis, Natural Suzanne and her twins, Taj and Mahal, head out with Josephine and I on
Saturday, 22nd May to Lost River, Salmon Creek, Trinidad and Black Bear to gather wild
herbs and medicines to carry to Colorado for Summer Solstice celebration at Libré. Truck
loaded with bulk honey, raisins, milk, flour, cheese for the family at Trinidad.
At Little Robert's, we see maps of the Siskyou lumber cuts threatening Black Bear and
learn what the Indians are planning to do about it. Stopped at Forest Knolls [The Red
House] and worked on the exhaust, re-routing it to save the lives of Suzanne and the
children riding in back.
North of Ukiah, on 101 run into JP, Bergs [Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft], Albion and Chris
convoying South from Black Bear. JP [Pickens] has a new 1948 Chevy 2 1/2 ton we nickname
The Circus Wagon. Stop and picnic. Pull out and repair JP's gas tank. Berg planning to
winter in the East. Reach Lost River around midnight, miss the turn to David and
Jane's,[Simpson and Lapiner -ex Mime Troupers] camp in a meadow.
David has finished a new wing on his house, all reclaimed wood. Goats, chickens,
horses, machinery, new corral. We walk through the mutilated forest: crushed trunks, trees
lying around like discarded condoms. A chain saw buzzes up the hill somewhere. The reason
freaks are allowed to live on this land is precisely because it has been ruined. We are
the second crop.
...David shows me his plans for a shower/sauna bath- truck. It's amazing. Hot water
heaters mounted over a fireplace of old tire rims. Laugh at the notion of the huge thing
lumbering through strange towns, filled with naked people. What a brilliant idea: to
appear at backwoods homes with hot showers.
...Pick sacks of Chamomile and Lemon Balm, leave for Salmon Creek. Stop at Forest of
Arden and pick wondrous Mint. At Salmon Creek, Gristle and Carol [Gypsy Truckers] are
there. Gristle still looking like Crazed Dr. Sylvana from the Captain Marvel Comics, kinky
hair, wild eyes. He's torched the roof off his 49 Ford School bus and wedged a Chevy V-8
into the engine compartment. It barks like a wolf when it starts. I weld some linkage for
him and cut some needed access holes with my torches.
Natural Suzanne is down in the dumps, self conscious about being dependent because of
her twins. Her body is probably complaining from all the work, and perhaps my sense of
urgency is pressing her.
Drive on to Trinidad house, modern tract home in the middle of a subdivision. You can
tell which place is ours from a mile away, looks like a red ant heap. The Free fishing
boat is finally in the water.
Up at 5 am to fish, me, Owl [Pickens], and Freeman. Take a rotten aluminum dory out to
the 13 foot wood skiff, which looks lovely, restored and repainted. Few fumbling minutes
attaching the umbilical cord from the engine into the fuel tank and we're off, to sea in a
row boat! We pass the Head, into open water. Gray sky. A dolphin, the curve of his back
like a fall of hair. Birds appear out of the swell and thrum like sine waves across the
mind of the sky. High and holy out there. Seals look us over. Out by Flat Iron rock, I
hook something heavy that runs all my line out, and then rips the hook loose. Rebait and
hook something even heavier that snaps 60 pound test line like a strand of spit. We all
look at each other. Good God, it's the OCEAN! There are things down there bigger than men!
Capn' Freeman notices that the fog has come in. Hard not to notice because we can't see
beyond the prow of the boat. He starts the motor and we improvise a direction home arguing
among ourselves about exactly where the edge of the continent is. We pass a rock almost
obscured by Sea- lions and their harem. They trumpet at us, and I trumpet back
exuberantly. The rock appears to explode, as the sea- lions scream and throw themselves
and their ladies off the rocks. We grip the gunwales of the boat, terrified that they are
intending to capsize us.
The fog lifts a moment and reveals that we are dead on course for China. Owl, prudent
11 year old, fastens a life preserver...
...The kids make dinner while the adults rap about problems. Everyone wants to fish, no
one wants to tend to the house. Freeman admits that the boat brings in no money or food
yet, so it is "fun" and everyone wants a share of that, regardless of the fact
that some people are seriously studying fishing. He reminds everyone of the necessity of
good-gathering as a focus. Plans are made to gather Mussels tomorrow and fix a dome for
the children [to sleep and play in] to relieve the strain on the house.
Quiet night. My loveliest sisters here: Natural Suzanne, Phyllis (who I lean against,
writing.) Nichole is singing, "My Cherokee" a capella, sweet and soft.
Something has changed in the atmosphere of the house and everyone wakes happy as clams.
Dave (who escaped from San Quentin and lived with us almost a year before getting drunk
one night and returning to his home town to brag about being the only living escapee)
builds five bunk beds today. The children had cleaned the house for us before we woke.
Windows are being washed, floors scrubbed, the house being made love to, turned into a
home. I've seen this cycle before. Beginning with houses too small for the size of our
group needs, people live in them unconsciously, minds elsewhere, thinking of moving out.
The space becomes cluttered and unloved, problematical, ugly. Then the inevitable flash
occurs: This is it! This is not a rehearsal for life and people assume responsibility for
the place, banish the filth and make it a home....
I feel outside the main flow of things, so work with the kids today. I like their
natural inclination to deal openly with real work: shooting out ideas and suggestions, -
using what works and dropping the rest. They imitate faithfully as mirrors. Makes me
reflect seriously what am I actually teaching them- explicitly and more important,
...Natural Suzanne feeling better today. Things a bit awkward between the three of us.
None of us are lovers this trip, some other relationship is being developed but we don't
know precisely what yet.. Phyllis - holy, magical, beautiful woman who sometimes forgets
to view herself through the same charitable lens she uses for the rest of Creation.
Nichole here, body and spirit apparently dedicated to random sexual encounters, moves in
my life like a warm, summer rainstorm, satisfying and nourishing. Natch'l Suzanne getting
it together for the road. The trip has shaken her out of her set a bit. Truck travel is
hard for everyone, but for a real Princess, with twins, it's grueling. She bounces back
dark, foxy and mischievous. My good fortune at knowing these women overwhelms me. The fact
that they love me is a constant challenge to deserve them.
Sheriff comes. Someone pissed outside again and a neighbor, who just happened to be
watching called the heat. One-eyed Orville drops in. He is the patriarch of the community,
fisherman, crafty, mean, politic old man. Warns us to respect our neighbors. The sheriff
even tried to tell us that the babies shouldn't be naked, but couldn't pull it off with
the requisite seriousness.
John, Dave, and Charlie return with 2 fish. A better day than yesterday. Charlie caught
both of them so there was a long discussion about making him captain when he turns 12.
Discussed an idea called Planetedge, a non-profit corporate form we could learn to
handle as a tool without necessarily identifying with. Could be the family's economic base
- an office and depot in Arcata, clearing house for the Caravan and a central information
Friday. Sun in Gemini. Moon in Cancer.
Early morning plans stretch out to noon departure for Black Bear. San Quentin Dave's
final words, to me personally, "Don't hurt anybody." They puzzle me for hours.
We take Nichole and Vicky to 101 so they can hitch South then drive down 299 over the
Coast range, fogs and firs, snakespine hill road, to Willow Creek. Two outlaw bikers putt
past, MISFITS from Eureka, dark, wild looking men. They regard us coldly as they pass and
I get a premonition of how dark and pitiless the road can really be.
After Wetchipec and Forks of Salmon, we're stopped on the road by a twinkling old man
in a Green Pickup. Indian named Les Bennet. Clear skin, bright eyes, copper bracelets on
each wrist. He laughs softly, talks easily, scoping us out. It occurs to me that he is
guardian of the road. Spots the Elk tooth necklace I am wearing and asks ingenuously,
"Don't it make you sleepy?"
We drive on, engine continually overheating, convinced we're on the wrong road, until
we crest the summit and begin rolling down into Black Bear. Everyone's on the knoll. The
ki-yi-yi's and ululations start as soon as they recognize Josephine, dancing on her back
legs. Everyone looks illuminated and happy. We set up camp for Suzanne who is exhausted
and I cross the creek to see Richard and Elsa, [Marley] where we celebrate our annual
Yellow (Nembutols) shoot, surrounded by the sound of the rushing creek and the rustling
Leveled ground with John Cedar and Richard, set up tent in the woods at the far end of
the meadow. The whole five acre meadow is being terraced by hand, about. Looks like China:
rushing water, green shoots of plants, the turned earth, berry brown bodies, naked, bent,
working rough handled shovels and hoes. Fir trees, high hills, everything flexing like the
Michael Tierra lays out herbs he's collected for the Caravan: Omole (soap-root, a great
shampoo and fish poison);Wormwood, Verbana, Vervain, Wild Onion, Sweet Cessaly.
Bonfire meeting that night to discuss the Caravan. I try to interest people in my
notion of Planet-edge, but they're "edgy" enough about anything that would
engage us with the bureaucracy at all.[A non-profit entity would have to be registered
legally.] This precipitates a long discussion about revolution. I am cranky with them,
insist that armed revolution is a mental pet, not reflected in the daily strategies of
people there. It is a mythic superstructure used to lend an edge of danger and importance
to what they're actually doing, which is good enough.
In the middle of this discussion I learn of Lew Welch's suicide. It grieves me deeply.
I Remember how he considered himself as a failure and yet, how much he gave me [and so
many others] when I really needed it. Puts all our bullshit into perspective. We have many
good words and prayers for him.
Sunday, 2nd Week.
Elsa shows me a large black book covered with the hide of the Bear Ephraim shot. It
will be loaded with recipes, herb cures, and information about the 5 years at Black Bear.
Hopefully it will educate and inspire others. The entire ranch has participated in it, and
I am very moved and proud of the effort that these already overburdened people have made
to participate with this trip.[The Caravan] They have given me the charge to be their eyes
Natural Suzanne tells me she wants to leave. She's unhappy and wants to go home She
tells me I've been a bummer; no help to her, and full of bad vibes..
Go for a long walk with Smilin' Mike and Tierra to collect herbs and roots. Have a long
talk about the difficulty of maintaining intimacies with many different people; with the
comings and goings, closures and intimacies either evaporate or have to be perennially
redefined. I say that it makes me feel good to know that everyone else is.....(pause,
searching for the word) and Tierra laughs and says, "suffering".
The cow is dead. Danny and I turn it into ribs, steaks, chops, hamburger for a meadow
lunch. Whole kitchen buzzing. Everyone singing my song, "The power of sweet, sweet
music. Finger popping and taking care of business. Zoe is half naked, dancing a beautiful
ballet to [Michael] Tierra's Bela Lugosi wake-up piano. Wonderful dark Italian passions in
his music, the piano straining to express his anger, confusion, funky shuffle, delight,
running together, inter-penetrating, breaking into and out of each other like the rivulets
and streams alongside the house. I get a very clear image of fucking Zoe on top of the
huge mound of raw, red, cow-meat piled high in front of me. Taste and delicacy prevail...
Wednesday 2nd week.
Suzanne announces that she's having a great time and in no hurry to leave. Our
departure has been put off three times now and is becoming something of a joke. Each day
we tarry adds something to our swelling larder which now includes over 200 pounds of
acorns, small tomato plants, more roots and herbs, and several new passengers.
Owl and I work all day welding a rack to hold my tool chest on the running board. I
teach him how to use the cutting torch and he works beside me all day like a grown man.
He's 11. At one point, he disappears and just as I'm beginning to grumble to myself about
kids, he returns with two hamburgers. I promote him on the spot from Punkus Minimus to
Punkus Maximus, and he's proud of his new nickname.
...The Black Bear Book begins to look like the Torah, swelling daily as people expend
enormous energy adding information to it daily. Elsa's drawings are wonderful. Each time
one is completed and passed around the room, you can mark its route through the crowd by
the smile lighting up the face of the person holding it.
...Stay up most of the night with Gaba. Met her last year and didn't get time to know
her. Large woman who would have driven Rubens berserk - big breasts, hips, high cheekboned
face, flat honest eyes. Quiet. True. Her questions search after my heart. She is deft,
lifts the corner of word-curtains and peers underneath. I am nervous, like a deer. I tell
her many secret feelings, shadows, doubts about myself, this family and its future which
are hidden behind my public face. Liberated women will save us all.
Sunday. Third Week.
Departure is a bungle. Smilin' Mike and his son Timmy want to come with us. My truck is
loaded down so heavily the springs are bowed. He is no help, can see that but does not
defer and, passive-aggressive, lays the weight of a decision on me. Sensing the tension,
Phyllis offers to hitchhike, and it is so obvious that he should be hitchhiking that it
angers me. I offer to take his son to Trinidad if that will help. He muddles around.
Something about him doesn't feel right. He smiles too much. [I mention these feelings
here, because they are resolved in an interesting way, months later, in Colorado]
In Orleans we spot [Karok Indian]Willis Bennett and his friend Darvin, short, stocky,
1950's pompadour, massive build. Darvin is drunk, but a high intelligence flashes through
the smokescreen of the whiskey. They insist we stay and go Eel fishing with them. Willis
says it might be a year before we see each other again. I check with the girls and they
...later, drinking and making music. All the kids playing volley ball. Willis likes my
buckskin vest with the leather handprint of my daughter seen on it. He wants to trade for
a fringed, shiny black, 3/4 length vest his daughter made. I try to squirm out gracefully,
but he is insistent. "What, it's not good enough for you?," He demands. When I
refuse, he sulks off and drinks alone. Willis passes out and his young son Moose runs into
the corner of my truck and splits his head open. I drive him and his mother to the Hoopa
hospital over forty miles of dirt road. Nice people there. Doctor teaches me how to stitch
and Moose, 10 or 11 at most, never flinches or complains once. I'm struck by the
thoughtfulness of the staff. Different than the city.
Stop at Trinidad house. Everyone happy. Been pulling in 60 -100 pounds of fish a day,
small smokehouses up all over the yard. Neighbor relations still difficult. One-Eyed
Orville comes around, malicious, insinuating, dropping veiled allusions about our being
burned out. San Quentin Dave watches him blankly. I watch Dave. Orville has no idea that
Dave was sentenced for murder.
Ivory,[ Freeman's wife at the time] is weaving a blanket from the men's hair. Freeman
talks about a Solstice Ceremony at Trinidad Head to reinvoke the spirit of Surai, the old
Yurok fishing village that used to be there.
Stop at Salmon Creek. Libré has sent a letter reneging on the invitation, telling us
that they are helpless and lame, working on their own problems. Everyone at the house
enthused about the Caravan. More and more people planning to go. I send Peter Rabbit and
Libré a 15 cent get-well card.
Last minute before leaving. David Simpson takes me aside. I've confessed my ambiguities
about the trip to him and that the idea of continuing some of the craziest aspects of our
life, on the road, leaves me cold. I feel like being alone. He tells me, " A man is
no better than his time. To try and be better, means being worse."
David pleases me by saying that after Olema, I now travel as I would have liked to have
moved through my place. He laughs commiseratingly at the burden I've taken on, and I leave
him feeling better.
Driving South, we pick up an old man named Elmer hitchhiking, a white gospel singer
from Oneida, Tennessee, 69 years old, but "sexually, just like a young boy," he
says often, darting his tongue about like a monkey and eyeing Phyllis. He's got emphysema
and black lung from coal mining. Tells us all about it while he eats Wonder bread and
drinks Dr. Pepper. He sings gospel songs in a strong nasal voice.
We drop him off and pick up a stringy Okie named Walt, coming from Oregon where he got
rolled and robbed. All he's got is his coat and a bottle of wine. His hobby is jokes, he
says and he tells jokes without a repeat for seven hours. Good jokes. I laugh till I cry.
He sings like Hank Williams, yodels and plays harmonica. He used to be a warm up comic for
the Grand Ol' Opry, but "couldn't take the pills" and left.
Back in the city, Berg is at Treat Street. Tells me everyone is going to Colorado.
Our departure date kept being postponed. The Summer Solstice was celebrated on Mount
Tamalpais [in Marin County, California]. Sam and I had broken up again when frictions
between us became incendiary and she had been away in Colorado. She appeared again with my
pixie-daughter Ariel, looking beautiful, long blonde hair cropped short, and her eyes
clear, as if she'd been staring off into the desert spaces. Ariel had lost her infant
look, and was taller, very quiet and demure. I was excited to see her after a long time,
and lifted her up to plant a kiss on her infant butt. She startled me by smiling shyly and
saying, "Don't do that, Poppa." I set her down, thrilled. Sam was not certain of
what her plans were, and I waited, to give her space to decide whether or not to travel
A long procession trekked up the mountain carrying drums, trombones, and wine, winding
through a rustling, hissing expanse of waving, knee-high grass, cresting the hill where
the ocean extended before us, glittering and vast under a dense awning of clouds. We blew
horns, shouted encouragement at the departing Sun; expressing neither neo-primitivism, nor
anthropomorphism, but improvised ceremony. The gaily dressed children moving as randomly
as milkweed spores blew horns and whistles and sang continuously, accompanying the sun on
its long trek into darkness.
The Red House population was reaching critical mass as family members from different
bases crowded the grounds preparing their vehicles. A sign in a woman's hand appeared on
the front door asking people to consider why they were there and what they were doing to
help. Numbers had swelled to near 40 people and the neighbors were incensed.
"Why's" were swarming like hornets:
"Why should I have to wait to pass on a public street?"
"Why are there children playing in the road?"
"Why isn't that septic tank fixed yet, it's disgusting?"
"Why don't you go to fucking China?"
"Whatever happened to our sweet suburban community?"
Cops visited daily, tagging vehicles for parking on the street. The night after the
sign appeared on the door a group meeting went unaccountably well. People bared doubts,
grudges, and misgivings, but the group mind kept it light and tight so that no one became
a victim. Each person was called upon to declare why they wanted to caravan and what they
thought they could do for the group. Crazy Kevin, declared that he is pursuing the wisdom
of madness. No one disagreed there. Each person addressed the group and conversation
focused on their issues until everyone's reservations had been aired, clarified and
dispersed. People felt fine.
The next day, I was up early, soliciting contributions of welfare money, gasoline
credit cards and food stamps as final provisions for the trip. I was overready to leave,
but JP Pickens gets into a fistfight with a friend's ex-landlord who, for some reason, had
called the police on JP's friend. The guy was threading his car between our vehicles and
JP began screaming at him, calling him a "scum-sucking pig", and shouting
"you stink like a dead dog." As the man's vehicle was forced to a crawl between
several of ours, JP spit in his face. This was too much, and the guy got out to fight,
even with 30 of JP's friends standing by. JP's behavior was so bizarre, and the reasons
for it unknown to the rest of us, so we stood back to see what would happen.
JP was ready for the guy. His only problem was that the Methedrine residues in his
system mis-fired some critical synapse, because he missed connecting with his first punch,
and the guy flattened JP with one good punch. JP rose from the ground, one eye split and
bleeding, copiously. He giggled zanily. "Showed him," was all he said. Work
resumed after some discussion.
Finally, all was ready, and on a Friday morning, with the Sun in Cancer and the Moon in
Gemini, according to my journals, the first wave prepared to leave.
Word from Libré had come yet again, that we were not welcome. They were totally
panicked. They felt that we were not "together"; too ready to teach and not
ready enough to learn from them. There was some truth in that assertion, but much of their
information was old, and probably related to my failed ambassadorial visit and acrid
argument with Red Rock Mary the year before. The group decided that Paul Shippee and I
would go ahead, since two people is hardly an invasion, and see if we could dissipate
their paranoia. By the time we left however, the initial scouting party (also charged with
reporting back about good routes and campsites), had swollen to include: Peter Berg and
Judy Goldhaft, children Aaron and, Ocean Rush, and their truck, The Albigencian Ambulance
Service. Traveling with them was a slender boyish woman named Suki, conscripted to operate
the video camera that Peter had scammed from a producer of some kind who wanted a safe way
to participate with the Diggers. His payoff had been being invited to a Red House party
where his glorious wife, got so loose and carried away by the raunchy festivities that he
became paranoid and jealous and demanded that they leave immediately. (The Camera stayed).
Paul Shippee and and Mai-Ting, a Chinese woman doctor we nicknamed, The Dragon Lady,
for her no-nonsense, straight-forward approach to things and her exotic beauty, would ride
in Paul's green Chevy panel truck. Sam, Ariel and I would travel in the Meat and Bone
After a fine birthday breakfast for Judy and Ocean Berg, we piled into the trucks to
finally depart, but were halted yet again for a serenade by The Valley Liberation Band who
wanted to dignify our send-off. This band was the raunchiest, syphilitic group of
rotten-royal losers imaginable and did nothing to allay my queasy feelings about the
impression we might make on our visits. JP, one eye swollen shut and bandaged, played
Banjo, Digger, in a filthy LA BIKERS CLUB T-shirt, played tin-can; Marsha Thelin's
temporary lover, Willem, clad in shredded coveralls, played guitar, Smilin' Mike played
something as a drum, Vinnie, naked to the waist except for copious amounts of body hair,
played trombone, and a crazy woman who appeared from Mexico with a parrot on her head, did
a loose double-boogie in the middle of the street. We drove all of about seven miles into
San Rafael where we raided good radishes, lettuce, tomatoes and squash from a garbage bin
behind the Safeway supermarket.
Our first stop was to be Gary Snyder's place up near Nevada City, and first night we
camped at the Yuba River under stars dense as small tufts of popcorn in the blackness of
We arrived at Gary's place carrying Bay and Yerba Buena leaves we'd stopped to pick as
gifts. Gary was walking around in a loincloth, cutting Madrone yokes to hang pots over his
outdoor fire pit. He didn't stop working when we arrived and his greeting was, "You
again". I hadn't seen him in several years.
Later in the day, he thawed a bit and took us to a clean and shaded Pine grove near his
place announcing, "Let this be a family camp." We explained our visions of the
trade route and caravan; how we hoped to stitch together various regional economies into a
larger network. We expressed hope that he and his friends would participate.
The next morning, Gary wakes me and Berg early and brings us to his house, for coffee
and talk. He tells us that the people in their area are committing themselves to
articulating a sense of place and understanding its species diversity. They plan to be
there for the long haul; to function as guardians and have reservations about travelers.
Furthermore, he adds, they don't need much.
We had anticipated a response like this, and look forward to a meeting where we can
express ourselves directly to the community and hopefully put their reservations to rest.
When we return to our camp site, Crazy Kevin has tendered us a gift by digging out a
latrine, using a hatchet, to carve perfectly true rectangular walls in the granitic soils.
It is an act of monumental dedication.
We reclaim a muddy spring at the site by removing clay, water, quartz, and old pine
needles. We build a spring-box from heavy Cedar boards two inches thick and fashion
careful dove-tailed corners and drill drain holes. The box is placed on four inches of
white gravel hauled from the nearby Malakoff Diggings. We pack the outside of the box with
more gravel, and stand back. The water rises in it vigorously, the silt settles, and we
are rewarded with a deep clear pool of water to leave for those who follow us. We feel
good about our work, and hope that it will say more about our intentions than words.
That night, members of the San Juan Ridge community visit our camp. Gary and his
family, Zack Reisner, Joel the Potter, Doc Dachtler, local schoolteacher, craftsman and
singer, and his pregnant wife Shelly. They wind their way through the trees, hallooing as
Our camp is beautiful: lanterns are strung through the trees and around the grounds. A
meeting place has been marked out with blankets. Greetings are exchanged warmly, but there
is an undercurrent of reserve. They address us formally, expressing fear that welcoming us
would place their still fragile community in the path of a hippie migration. They are
making a serious effort to live tribally; maintaining separate households, village style,
but meeting often for group work and policy discussion. They are pursuing systematic,
organized research to combat gold- mining, irresponsible logging and exploitative
real-estate practices. They are re-learning life-in-place, as people have lived here for
thousand of years, and worry that nomads will not be sensitive to local practices and
spirits. I like them for their gentleness and concern, admire their unity and discipline.
We trade songs, and the night is good, but a gulf remains between us. I am not sure
whether it is a difference of intentions or personal development. They are more settled
than we are and, in many ways, more accomplished. It makes me lonesome. They are the Earth
and we are the Wind.
The next day, Doc and I trade songs. He asks to learn my Rainbow Woman Song, and
teaches me a Corn Song I'd admired. Bearing his song as a gift, we say goodbye and push
on, over the Sierras, down the Eastern slope into the picturesque town of Sierraville,
homing into the magnetic signals of Pyramid Lake.
The next day, we entered the Lake's force-field through the North end. It shimmered
before us in the rusty, dusty, earth, a perfect turquoise oases. In the town of Sutcliff,
Berg remembered some people we had helped during the Indian invasion of Alcatraz. He
proposed asking them for recognition as pilgrims and not tourists, to clarify our posture
towards the Lake. In the General Store at Nixon, a man steered us to a campsite on Native
land, in Dead-Ox Canyon.
In Nixon we meet Dora Garcia, Secretary of the local Tribal Council who seemed disposed
towards us and invited us home. Berg and Suki fascinate her family by showing videotapes
of their children over their own TV. Dora expresses curiosity about the utility of this (
then relatively new ) instrument, for preserving tribal customs. She agreed to put our
petition to the Tribal Council the following night and visit our camp to inform us of
It was technically illegal to camp on Indian land, but we were buried way out of sight
in the chaparral of a sandy canyon flanking the Truckee River, and didn't care. Pyramid
Lake is one of the continent's magical and holy spots, and we considered our being there
We made trot lines, fishing lines with multiple baited hooks, and ran them across the
river. Spent most of the day making fish gigs out of old iron rod I found in the desert;
heating it with my torches, beating it flat and filing barbs and a blade on it. Shippee
fashioned an exquisite Zen spear while mine looked as if it had been made in kindergarten
by physically disadvantaged students. We spent the day spearing the fat, bony introduced
by Europeans, splitting them open and drying them on the rocks to store the meat for the
road. They glittered in the desert air like the wings of gigantic iridescent moths resting
on the rocks.
Berg returned at sundown, elated with the discovery of abundant cat-tail shoots.
Steamed in the sheath, they are delicious and reminiscent of asparagus. The air was tangy
with Sage. The children plashed contentedly in the river and when we weren't lazing away
the time discussing alternate economies and self-sufficient communities, or how to re-
configure cities to be biologically continuous with their larger environments (as opposed
to the present condition of obliterating and poisoning them), we cleaned the camp-site for
hundreds of yards in every direction, gathering the discarded beer cans, cardboard boxes,
disposable diapers, tangles of abandoned fishing line and bottle-caps, that thoughtless
campers had jettisoned, as our ritual of respect to the place.
Sam was cranky and piqued that she was not doing what she wanted . When I inquired what
that might be, she said, "hunting", so I prepared the lever action .22 rifle I'd
had since I was a boy, and sent her off to hunt jack-rabbits with it, while I spent the
day fooling around with my daughter. Dora came by and told us that the Tribal Council had
refused our request. We decided to wait and see what the next move would be.
At dusk that same day, Judy Goldhaft was cooking Navajo fry bread over the coals, when
a police car pulled in. A short, squat, reservation policeman with a buzz cut and a tough
face squeezed his pistoled, belted, and black-sticked thick body out of the vehicle and
sauntered over. We acknowledged him casually, but said little. The first move was his. We
observed him eyeballing our camp, and were confident that it was tidy and nice. He noticed
Judy's fry bread and inquired after it; took a proffered piece and seemed to enjoy it;
offering that his mother used to make it too. We chatted awhile. He told us that he'd
received some complaints about our being there, but could see that we were camped nicely.
He mentioned the large amount of garbage we'd gathered and sacked preparatory to hauling
it off, and said he couldn't understand what kind of trouble we might be. He charged us
for one camping permit instead of three and let us be.
We explained that we didn't want to go over to the official camp-ground and set up next
to the tourists with their mobile condos, and tv's set up on the pre-fab picnic tables.
That was the culture we were fleeing from. We suggested that in lieu of site fees, which
we could not afford, our cleaning and care of the area might be considered payment enough.
None of this seemed to strike Phoenix (his name, actually) as out of the question, but he
explained that he did not possess the authority to make policy. A bit sheepishly, he
confessed, said that he was under orders to bring us in to the Tribal Council Office and
discuss our occupancy.
After he left, Suki, Kevin and I, Ariel and Aaron walked over to visit Stone Mother, a
large, dome-shaped rock formation at the edge of the lake. At the top of the rock there
are man-sized holes that made me wonder if they might have been used as meditation
chambers. From inside, the horizon-to-horizon arc of the suns' passage during a day is
visible. Ancient Pelicans glided imperturbably around us and, as we left, a formation of 5
Crows flew close overhead. Kevin raised a stick into which he had stuck a Crow feather. He
whistled and one of the birds broke away from the pack and soared directly over him. I
tipped my hat and saluted them, and another rolled out and did the same to me. They
followed us most of the way back to camp. I didn't care what the Tribal Council had to say
because we had been made welcome by the Spirits of the place.
The next day we followed Phoenix into town, a slow and dusty place, with streets too
hot to walk on barefoot. An old fashioned, sweating, Coke cooler dominated the porch of
the General Store, floating its heavy glass bottles in icy water.
We met with Teddy James, Chairman of the Tribal Council, a pompous sort of bureaucrat
in a crisp polyester plaid shirt and spanking new cowboy hat whose attitude informed us
that he did not suffer "hippies" at all. He talked only about money and jobs and
could not or would not find a place for us in his imagination. When we proposed our trade
of groundskeeping for fees he became irritable. "Are you saying that Indians don't
keep their lands clean?" he demanded, as if we had insulted him.
I wanted to show him the 50 gallon sacks of trash we'd hauled in with us, but knew it
was a lost cause. We should have known better than to use the word "Pilgrims"
with a man who was still bitter about the landing at Plymouth Rock. He told us to pay up
like everyone else or get out.
As we walked back to our trucks, Phoenix, silent during the Chairman's harangue, caught
up with us. He didn't look at us directly, but addressed the landscape and said, "
That guy never leaves the office. You people are welcome here as long as I'm the
cop." It was a comforting reassurance to know that someone outside our community
could so clearly recognize our intentions.
Outside of Austin, after crossing a 7,000 foot summit and a flat alkali valley, we stop
at a Texaco station called Middle Gate where a rugged, gentle looking man named Vance
makes us feel very much at home. Five or six Indian men were sitting around, looking over
the flats. I spoke with a Shoshone man named Irwin who knew Rolling Thunder. Irwin
volunteered that he disagreed with his use of Peyote, but seemed to like us and shared
directions to a favorite little camp site called Cottonwood Creek.
Such casual generosity occurred so often on our travels that I am surprised that I
never took it for granted. Life 'on the road' must touch archaic memories for many
Americans, so many of whom were either the kin of migratory pioneers or personally able to
remember their own travels during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression times. Let one
example suffice for many:
During an earlier trip a small caravan had driven South to play music for the inmates
at the Atascadero State Hospital for the Criminally insane. We were at the edge of medium
sized highway town: clusters of gas-stations, car- washes, and industrial restaurants; the
kind of place where locals are surfeited with strangers from nowhere, going nowhere, and
acting as if they couldn't care less. Our kids were cold, tired and hungry from a hard
day, when we pulled into a House of Pancakes, one of those plasticene road- houses with
Formica counters, twinned dispensers whirling industrially colored liquids masquerading as
"punch' and "lemonade" and pies and confections which appear to be made
from hair gel resting agelessly in the chrome-edged glass cases like the plastic display
dishes in a sushi restaurant.
Our group had filled the counter space and the adults were conferring, pooling our
small amounts of loose change to determine what we could afford. The kids' heads were
swiveling, ogling the oleaginous pies and steaming plates of burgers and fries passing
tantalizingly close to them, en route to flusher customers.
Our counter waitress was one of those hard-bitten, apparently humorless women who've
served the public in demanding and difficult jobs for too long. Her face was set in a
permanent scowl and her "don't give me any shit" attitude was as clear as a
warning flag. The thought crossed my mind that she might be an easy mark for some inspired
teasing to entertain us and distract the kids from their meager snacks, which, at the
moment, were glasses of hot water their mothers mixed with ketchup to make almost-tomato
Our discussion concerning what we could afford must have gone on longer than I thought,
for suddenly plate after plate after plate of pancakes and eggs and sausages appeared and
were placed in front of each and every place, accompanied by frothy glasses of orange
juice, steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolates peaked with whipped-cream for the
children. Some ghastly error had occurred; some child must have spoken out of turn or
something, because I knew that we did not have money to pay for such bounty. I envisioned
a confrontation and police when the bill was presented.
I hastened to inquire about the mistake and practice some evasive diplomacy, but the
waitress read my intention from six feet away and held up a hand, to stop me.
"It's on me," she said. "I got a kid out there somewhere too." Then
she smiled; a tired, ironic, commiserating, wrinkle of lip; refused the little money we
did have and shuffled off to take care of some paying customers. I was left with a sour
taste of shame in my mouth and relief, considering by what a minuscule margin of chance I
had missed targeting her as the butt of a cheap joke, and how abruptly she had up-ended my
facile assumptions of spiritual superiority. It requires only one or two such experiences
before one realizes that, on the road, assumptions are a debilitating handicap, best left
in the rest-stops with the trash. Dylan said it best when he sang, "To live outside
the law you must be honest."
We continued across Nevada. A lovely couple from nearby McGill, named Chuck and Beverly
Hansen, dropped by our camp in Cave Lake. They'd heard my singing the night before and
liked it. They offered us two Brown and three Rainbow Trout for our breakfast. Sam spent
the morning tanning a Badger skin I'd taken from a road kill the day before.
Later in the day, the campsite swelled with weekend campers, expanding like popcorn in
a closed pan, and we were seized with a desire to leave. Occupants of Winnebago City
watched in amazement as our sprawling amalgam of tents and laundry, kitchen hearths, cook
pots, kids, and dogs, dissolved into three trucks leaving only a pristine beach.
As I collapsed my tent, I caught a small brown snake who had been resting beneath it. I
told him, aloud that I'd let him go, but as in the fairy stores, he must first tell me
something I need to know. I talk to him calmly until he stops struggling to escape, and I
test our bargain by opening my hand and holding the palm flat and parallel to the ground.
He remains coiled on my palm, flicking his tongue and scanning left and right across my
body. If he is gauging my intention towards him learns that it is good, but deliberate. I
had asked a respectful question, and expect an answer.
He turns away and then back, regarding me fixedly. My thoughts stop and a clear image
forms in my mind: red letters wriggling against a black background forming three distinct
words: "Anger is panic." They are so appropriate to domestic difficulties I am
going through with Sam, difficulties, which according to her, relate to my insistent and
inadequately suppressed anger. I say, "Thank you," gratefully, release the snake
gently, and dedicate the rest of the day to considering exactly what that sentence might
mean to me.
We camp across Utah, following Highway 180 towards Provo, and then 40 East through
Heber. Torrential creeks thrash beside the road. The Uintas Mountains are spurs of the
Rockies attempting to reach Idaho. It is rich, green, country bristling with Quaking
Aspen, Pine and Fir. The Mountains appear to have stubbed their noses against something at
high speed, because the strata suddenly flex into 90 degree sit-ups relative to the
At the edge of a fine, grassy valley, sheltered by Aspens, near Strawberry Lake, I call
my mother from a phone booth and hear that my father is ill. This has been such a common
experience in my life that normally I pay no mind to it. My father loved to escape the
anxieties and stresses of his work by checking into the hospital with an armload of books,
the way some people check into health spas. While we were supposed to make excuses for him
at family functions where he did not appear, my uncles just winked and said,
"bullshit" to my stories about his "not being well." However,
something about my mother's anxiety this time leaves a residue on my good spirits.
Sam and I stay up late trying to work out our domestic problems. She tells me she feels
the course of her work in the world is learning plants and healing people. She's never
broached this subject before and I'm suspicious and short with her, distracted by news
about my father. I tell her about my father's illness and she confides a dream of the
previous night in which my father is offered the choice of dying or living damaged and
chooses to live.
The next morning I awoke just as Cheryl Lynn Pickens' face drove by. The others have
arrived from the Red House, rolling up the road in a long line of gaily painted vehicles;
canvases flapping, buckets tinkling, motors roaring, and people saluting and cheering our
Bob Santiago and Nichole appear a day later and Sam's bile rose with her appearance.
Nichole was an occasional sun-shiney, ebullient, lover, but Sam's competitive instincts
were prophetic, because eventually Nichole replaced her as my live-in. These events occur
later in the narrative and must wait their proper place.
My behavior did not encourage either Sams' mood or her sense of personal security very
much. The next afternoon, Nichole and I snuck off to go swimming together. After an
invigorating splash, a catch-up visit and a romp of bare-assed bouncing about in the
desert, we returned to the water's edge to retrieve our clothes and discovered them gone.
Nichole and I were stranded, in the middle of the desert, our only option was walking back
to our camp very publicly buck-naked. So much for my attempts at discretion. When we
returned, with what I considered a great deal of aplomb, considering the circumstances,
Sam's expression of hostile triumph, made it clear that her laser-like antennae, had not
only intuited that we had gone together, but where we had gone, and she had stolen our
clothes in retribution.
Her ability to detect my dalliances with other women was uncanny. It would appear that
no haymow was secluded enough, no grove, streamside, tent or hill-top aerie, exempt from
her sudden appearances. One night, later in this caravan summer, in the Mountains above
Boulder, Nichole and I tip-toed into the forest long after everyone was asleep. This was,
after all the pre-AIDS 60's, and the abiding mores of our community decreed dictated, that
if two consenting adults wanted to pair off for sexual research and development there was
little reason why they should not. Feelings of anger and jealousy were the legacy of a
decadent bourgeois heritage, and not to be acknowledged. Unless of course, they were one's
own feelings, in which case their status was immediately elevated to critical importance.
My personal sexual behavior must have been inspired by our country's scorched earth
strategies in Vietnam. "No survivors" pretty aptly describes my intention to
have sex with everyone I was attracted to. While post-AIDS realities have rendered such
experimentation terminally dangerous, at that time, the stakes seemed minor and my
recollection is that both sexes garnered fun, random tenderness and thrills from such
encounters. This is not analogous to suggesting that there were never any karmic
On this particular night, Nichole and I snuck prepared a bed far from camp, in a gently
breezy glade of firs. We were smack in the gaspy near-crescendo of love making, when Sam
appeared, in a diaphanous, ghostly ,white night-gown and wind-whipped hair; trembling,
like Lady Macbeth, crazed with jealousy. Somehow, her antennae, even in sleep, had locked
on to my infidelity once again, with unerring geographical accuracy. Her presence made
continuing difficult, tasteless certainly, if not dangerous, because Sam was not a woman
to turn your back to when she was angry.
Nichole put her arms around Sam, and the three of us sat there in the suddenly chilly
mountain night, trying to pick our way through the emotional rubble of conflicting
loyalties and desires. Finally, after an hour or two of tortured explorations,
confessions, and recriminations, everything appeared suddenly stupid, and we began
laughing together at the improbable slapstick bizarre-ness of the incident.
The next day or so, the Caravan pulled into the Speedmasters motorcycle shop on Pearl
Street, in Boulder, Colorado, where Julie Boone's lover, Carl, was working. We were to
rendezvous with friends there and hobbled in, fatigued and cramped from long hours of
driving. Julie was standing by the far wall to greet us: lovely Julie, Phyllis' childhood
friend; lusty, voluptuous, Motorcycle Julie who aroused the ardor of Hell's Angel Hairy
Henry who lovingly re-built a beautiful old Harley Davidson motorcycle for her personal
use. She looked at me and tipped her head quizzically,
"Oh Peter," she said casually, as if she'd just remembered something.
I looked at her, blankly. I felt nothing. Such a thing was beyond comprehension. How
could a man of such vitality and power pass through the veil without creating some
celestial disturbance, some ripple? She must be mistaken. There would have to be a rent in
the sky, a rush of wind; at least a tattered sheet flapping beside the road as a sign I
might later recollect and think, "Ah, that was it."
I turned away and lit a cigarette. I saw her telling others. Berg came over and threw
his arms around me. I felt nothing. I was in a motorcycle shop in a strange city, and a
beautiful girl had just told me my father had died and I felt nothing except stupefaction.
I found a phone and called my mother. She was distraught. Morris had already been
buried. The police had been searching the country for me for days. No one could find me.
She hadn't even know what State I was in. "How could no one find you?", she
demanded, as if that were important. "Yes", she was allright. "Yes",
relatives were with her. She was okay. I told her that of course I would come home. Did
she need me immediately? I would have to drive. I told her I had some affairs to settle
up. I didn't know what I had to do. My loyalties were divided. I knew I should be there,
but Morris was already gone, my mother was in good hands, and I wanted to finish what I
had traveled all this distance to do. I was spinning in place. I had no father. The ground
had eaten him. I was 50% closer than I had been a moment ago to being an orphan.
I hung up the phone and just breathed in and out. For a long time afterwards my life
was like that, detached and out of touch. Perhaps it was the drugs, perhaps it was the
defenses I'd erected as a boy; perhaps the impossibility of feeling loved by him. Some
chamber where such feelings would live and flourish within me had been sealed tight as a
bank vault. The combination to spring those buttressed doors was not going to be produced
by anything as commonplace as a death.
It has been my experience that the more particularly and specifically one relates
personal experiences, the more universally they are appreciated. There are so many ways in
which individual events are hardly personal property, but participate in something larger
and more profound which other human beings can share, understand, and empathize with.
Consequently, my own behavior, at the moment of learning about my father's death, while
apparently bizarre, has antecedents and root causes, that may be quite ordinary and not at
all surprising to others. Recurrent memories from childhood osmose into the present,
I am sitting at a desk puzzling over a series of incomprehensible high-school math
problems. A large, dangerous man, my father, is screaming, "You stupid, dumb,
son-of-a-bitch" at me. Or being twisted, pummeled, bent, twisted, suffocated, and
choked under the guise of instruction in self-defense.
Even though my body was the recipient of all that information and stimulus, I cannot
describe what it felt like. I can describe the chalky green blotter on my institutional
-gray desk; the patterns of pressed concentric squares where I directed my attention
during these homework diatribes, for instance. I can describe the gossamer curtains and my
cherry spool bed, patterns and textures of my father's clothing. I can recall the melange
of scents in the purple and beige patterned carpet my face was ground into - but I cannot
remember feeling anything other than numb, and a hot anger, banked like coals deep in my
The nightly drama of homework is indelibly imprinted and predictable as a dance, but
stripped of the emotional content. "Let's see what you're doing here," he'd
mutter casually, walking into my room to check on my progress. He would talk his way aloud
through the problem I was day- dreaming over. Since his calculations were impossibly fast,
[he had attended MIT at 15 and had an extraordinary facility with number and sequence] I
was an audience, reduced to muttering "unh-unh" and nodding like a drinky-bird
toy bowing over a cup of water. Inevitably he'd make a mistake, correct himself, then
challenge me, "Why didn't you see that? Are you paying attention, or what?"
Next, he'd offer some variant of," Okay, I've shown you one, you do the
next." I had no idea how to begin, or why, if Bus A headed North at 52 miles an hour
and bus B headed south at 47 miles an hour, anyone cared when they would meet or what the
name of the conductor might be. Inevitably, he became impatient with my strategic blunders
and then abusive. His fervently addressed unanswerable questions like, "How can you
be so fucking stupid? How can anyone be so fucking stupid?", paralyzed my ability to
respond, which in turn stimulated his fear that I might actually be stupid. Panic provoked
threats to -"snap your fucking thumbs" or "break your knees" or, most
chilling of all "send you to goddamned reform school"; which I misunderstood as
re-form school, imagining children somehow broken and reformed to their parent's pleasure.
The screaming invariably attracted my mother, who entered the fray on my behalf, moved
by maternal pity, and also convinced by assiduous study of Sigmund Freud, that childhood
traumas may produce lasting emotional damage. Grateful as I might have been for her aid,
from my point of view, there were now two of them, one on either side, screaming at one
another like harpies.
"Morrie, you're making him crazy!!!"
"Shut-up, Ruthie, you're using up the oxygen in the room."
My role was reduced to sitting there, looking out the window, studying the facades of
the other stately homes lining my street, wondering whether or not each one had its own
quotient of domestic horrors, or was my own unique?
Social critics in the Eighties and Nineties, ( especially well-paid ones like George
Will) have singled out the "Sixties" as a malevolent aberration in the Nation's
otherwise glimmering history, and have been alert to blame the Nation's current problems
and loss of wealth and status on the indulgences and misbehavior of spoiled and
disenchanted young people of my (also his) generation. Since such critics exempt, by never
mentioning, misanthropic public policy, self-serving economic decisions and the care and
feeding of greedy peers by a political oligarchy, I guess it had to be bunch of fucked up
hippies who turned America into the world's wealthiest Third World country, with infant
mortality figures higher than Cuba and Jamaica, and punitive social policies which would
make our European allies ashamed.
As I matured, I discovered that my childhood experiences were not so divergent from
those of many others. I offer absolutely no excuses for my personal faults and
shortcomings, by this observation, nor blame my parents who did their best with what they
inherited from their own parents. During the time-frame of these chronicles, I was older
than my mother was when she bore me, and consequently fully responsible. Fairness however,
demands that I point out that millions of people did not accidentally or spontaneously
generate a decade's of rage and disappointment like gas after a bad meal. My generation's
disillusion over social injustice and its fervent desire to make the world a more
compassionate place during our short time in it, must have had some antecedents. It does
not appear foolish to me to inquire for that evidence inside the Nation's homes where many
were being bent, stretched, folded, stapled and stressed by the economic system, social
and political costs of the Cold War, and ridiculously inflated promises of Midas- like
wealth. One way or another, such phenomena took their toll on the psyches of the family
and their young, and my household was no exception; and my own father, for all his
excesses and fulminations, was basically a good, decent, and honest man.
So, after a life-time of habitually closing myself down, it's not surprising that my
father's death did not immediately liberate a flood of discernible feelings. They appeared
later; about eight years later, the first time I could bring myself to visit his grave.
That occurred after I was forced to admit that I had failed to secure his beloved Turkey
Ridge Farm from the mountain of debt for which he'd mortgaged it. I'd failed too, in my
attempts to re-bury him there, his favorite place on earth. Accepting those failures was
the prelude, and one day, I drove to the cemetery in New Jersey where he was buried in a
sub-section of his brother- in-law's plot. What indignity, what affront to his fierce
autonomy and pride he would have experienced had he, the family patriarch, known that his
grave would be reduced a shoe-box sized granite plate in the lawn, shadowed by his
brother-in-law's far grander, raised tombstone. Death does play tricks like that on
When I finally located the site, I was stunned to find his grave bare of grass; nothing
but beige and lumpy earth. When I inquired, I was told that the grave had sunk several
days before and the groundskeepers had just stripped the sod and re-filled it to ground
level. The engraved lettering on his stone; his name, dates of birth and death, and the
title of his favorite poem by Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good
Night", were clotted and filled with dried clay from workman walking on the stone. I
dropped to my knees and began prying the dirt out of the letters with a small twig. It was
not until drops were muddying the granite beneath me that I realized I was crying and
I had not recognized my own voice, a high, keening, tiny, sound, strangled in my
throat. It was not the voice I was accustomed to. It was the voice of a frightened,
disappointed child, nakedly entreating my father, for affection and respect; telling him
how much I loved and admired him, and how much I needed him to love me the way I was, even
though I didn't enjoy hurting people and might not be as smart as he was. I cried and
talked and chipped clay like that for over an hour. I didn't think a body could harbor so
Memories flooded me, entrancing me with their vividness. I was engulfed by a profound
sense of loss and frailty, as if I were helpless witness to the fingers of a loved one
slipping irretrievably into quicksand.
After I was exhausted, I took an emotional inventory and realized all sense of my
father had disappeared. I sat awhile while my breath settled, until I felt the that the
grass was exhaling sorrow, and I could stay there no longer. I rose, apologized to him for
not having visited earlier, and left. I have never returned.
This failure to visit my father's grave should not be construed as lack of affection or
respect for him. The fact that so much of my childhood was wasted trying to make him
notice me does not blind me to the fact that in his own way, he treasured, and appreciated
me more than I realized at the time.
Occasionally and deliciously, at Turkey Ridge, when he was unencumbered by the
anxieties of his work, and the sky was lowing gray; as the afternoon summer rains swept
in, he would take me to one of our barns to nap with him. It was usually the bull-barn he
had designed and built of pungent rough milled beams he had sawn from native Black and
White Oaks on the farm's mill and covered with aluminum sheeting. We would climb into the
haymow together and he would wrap the two of us in an old horse blanket. He would drink
pear brandy, and I would rest against him, overjoyed to be tucked against his massive
body, protected and not assailed by the crook of his arm. He would sleep that way while I
tried to stay awake, relishing the plashing and pattering of the rain on the metal roof.
In those rare moments, I felt contented and proud, the way I imagined other boys felt when
I watched them, jealously, playing with their fathers. My world was momentarily delicious
and best of all, safe.
Now the cause of both my joys and terrors was gone; sucked him up with the same
pitiless neutrality that a tornado chews through a Kansas trailer-park. I remembered the
last time that we had been together:
It was mid-winter, my last in Olema, the one preceding the caravan. It had rained
relentlessly for days, and the clay road to the house was a quagmire. The house was
overcrowded with restless people in damp steaming clothes. Some Hells' Angels were
visiting. Ruth and Morrie appeared out of the storm, in a clay smeared rented car, lugging
a case of Scotch for the weekend, his pockets stuffed with Seconals. He was already drunk.
They dove into the turmoil of the farmhouse, and it could not have been easy for them.
People were stacked like cordwood. Joints were continuously rolled and passed around,
chased by jugs of red wine. There was a sullenness in the atmosphere from too many people
trapped in too small a space for too long by the rain.
Morris sat at the table, punching holes in his Seconals with a pocket knife, sharing
them with a couple of the Angels. "When I need 'em, I want 'em to work in a
hurry" he explained to a biker's query about why he punctured them. When people stood
too close to him, he would jerk his shoulders as if to shake them off or mutter about
"faggots" barely under his breath, when a Hell's Angel's swagger got on his
nerves. He was pushy and belligerent, and I was certain he would provoke a fight. I
considered that this might even be his preferred way of dying and was preternaturally
alert to this because I knew that if a fight broke out between him and the Angels, I would
have to go down with him.
At one point, Morris collared Gristle and said bluntly, "Get Peter for me."
"Get him yourself" Gristle replied blandly. He laughed, recounting to me how
Morris had then propped a hand on his shoulder, fixed his feral eyes on him and said,
"I like you, fella. You know why? Because you're not afraid to die!"
That night, Morris fell out of the loft bed that someone had abandoned for him and my
mother. Stoned on Seconals, he climbed out the wrong side, and fell about six feet and
cracked a toe. He was cranky about it, but otherwise resigned. Perhaps he was too stoned
to notice. Ruth, was acutely uncomfortable and uncharacteristically silent during most of
the weekend. God knows what she felt about the shabby environment and her adored
grandchild picking her way over stupefied freaks and bikers; the women dressed like girls
she had been taught to avoid. Olema was always raw, in your face and vulgar as hunger. My
mother was refined, spoke in a deep, cultured voice like Claire Trevor, and years earlier
had traded in her Eastern European-style jewish ghetto in the Bronx for the
"modern" world and a starring role in her own personal Fred Astaire film,
smoking elegantly and referring to people as "darling" as she soaked up all the
information and cultural stimulus she had hungered for as a girl. She obviously preferred
the dazzle and glamour of the 30's and 40's to the sepia and squalor of our 60's commune,
but she never, ever, missed what was under her nose.
On the Sunday that they were to leave, my dad and I were sitting together at the
kitchen table. The kerosene lamp cast a yellow pallor on his skin, and the sound of the
storm outside was a subdued howl. His eyes were hooded and his hair, only recently
streaked with gray, was combed straight back in his usual, severe manner. He was half in
his cups when he caught my attention by saying, "You know son....." and then
drifting off on a nod before he'd finished the thought.
There was a long pause while he appeared to be checking the insides of his eyelids for
the news, then he lifted his head abruptly, looking directly at me. His face was
completely serious. "I gotta tip my hat to you, Boy", he said roughly.
"You're a better man than I am." Thankfully he looked away, perhaps politely, so
that he would not have to witness my confusion. I didn't know how to respond.
He continued, as if addressing the wall, "If I was your age again, this"
(indicating the environs with a motion of his arm) "is what I would be doing."
I was stunned. I had never received such direct and unequivocal approbation before, and
certainly not for something for which I had many personal, ambivalent feelings. I mean the
idea of Olema, the idea of the Free Family, re-vitalizing and re-inventing the culture and
the economy, was compelling, and seemed the only worthy thing to be doing with my life.
The actuality was full of contradictions however: behaviors which did not measure up to
the mark of our stated intentions; embarrassments and confusions. I might excuse its
imperfections as a work in progress, but he must have perceived the reality naked of
ideology, and compared to his own standards of elegance, it must have appeared a pig-sty.
I could not imagine how he might have construed the swirling chaos around him in order to
justify what he had just said to me.
I told him how pleased I was and how moved, and then confessed my own lack of direction
and insight at the moment. Told him about my dearth of available wisdom and I asked him
for advice. His response, was in effect, his last words to me, and more than twenty years
later I remember the moment and the words vividly.
He hunkered down for another of his long silences and then, said the following:
Capitalism is dying, boy. It's dying of its own internal contradictions [He was, after
all, a Wall Street financier, drugs and alcohol notwithstanding, so I listened carefully.]
You think that the revolution's gonna take five years or something. It's gonna take fifty!
So keep your head down and hang in for the long haul, because I'll tell you something. The
sons-of-bitches running things now don't give a shit about their children or their
grandchildren and they certainly don't give a shit about you! They've paid their dues and
they want to get out with what they think is theirs! They're gonna sell off everything
that's not nailed down. It'll all be up for the highest bidder., Don't get crushed when it
topples down. Take care of yourself and your family. If you can make a difference, do it,
but there are huge forces at work here, and they have to play themselves out according to
their own design, not yours. Watch yourself.
As far as I'm concerned, nothing he prophesied has proven untrue.
Little of this was apparent to me that day in Boulder however. It would be almost
another two months before I actually reached my mother's house in the East, two months of
playing out the caravan, finishing the hand I had dealt myself.